It’s a paradox: Dominic Tierney’s political platitudes

One can almost picture Tierney offering platitudes to undergraduates at Swarthmore as he scribbles dates and quotes on the whiteboard, asking “Can America return to victory?” But by whose measure, and for what cause, should the United States return to victory?


Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 6.06.20 PMI can only hope Dominic Tierney’s book, The Right Way to Lose a War, is more persuasive and useful than his latest missive for The Atlantic. Published last week, Tierney’s 2,400 words, cribbing quotes from the usual political suspects, advanced a largely unenlightened and pulseless addition to current debates on America’s military machine.

His thesis, that America continues to lose wars because it is a “superpower in a more peaceful world,” offers little in the way of remarkable thinking. Not only because his assertions are staid, but also because they are not particularly original. Even the low-appetite consumer of political news will recognize the arguments below:

1) Modern warfare has shifted from interstate to intra-state conflicts.

2) Intra-state conflicts (i.e. civil wars, etc…) are messier, and waged in territories where Americans seed the “home-field advantage.”* 

3) Overlapping American security commitments ensure each individual contest is a “limited war” for America, while it is a “total war” for those fighting America.

4) Americans don’t have doggedness to see out campaigns where the “prize on offer is less valuable” and where the consequences are less threatening than previous “trials of national survival like the (U.S) Civil War and World War II.”

In addition, Tierney’s “essay” is gummed up with over-used political euphemism. Terms like “collateral damage” and “hearts and minds,” ought now be banished from any political writing which aspires to be intrepid. To use these line-items, so bled of meaning, betrays reality and makes cogent analysis impossible. Tierney deploys them both in the same sentence.

But this clumsy writing allows Tierney to glue together his battalion of straw men, as they wait to be mowed down by a series of banal circularities (“Once the United States was drawn into the quagmire, it couldn’t get out”) or overwrought assertions that gesture towards substance without isolating it (“Armed conflict is an expression of American identity and a trial of national vitality.”) These constructions might appear profound, but offer little to dwell upon. What I want to know is just why such quagmires present, whether there is sound justification for engaging in complex conflicts in the first place, and why —given the abysmal modern history Tierney sketches— armed conflict remains some measure of American “national vitality”? Maybe they are in his book. Maybe not.

One can almost picture him offering platitudes to undergraduates at Swarthmore as he scribbles dates and quotes on the whiteboard, asking “Can America return to victory?” But one yearns for the best-read, historically-sensitive and most-curious in his class to raise their hand. “By whose measure, and for what cause, should the United States return to victory?” they might ask.

America’s poor record in conflicts since WWII shouldn’t only prompt queries of American war-fighting mechanics (or strategy, for that matter), it should inspire meaningful debates about the principles —those bowling alley bumpers— that might guide reasons for war itself.

Where and when the United States decides to enter a conflict, there ought to be a considered and compelling justification. But that justification cannot and should not be pegged to whether America is likely to prevail. The question should be whether America (and the many other states of this world) can afford not to try.

As Tierney rightly points out, “[g]lobal warfare is mainly relegated to a few dozen failed or failing states that are breeding grounds for warlords, insurgents, and criminals.” But his globe appears to have only one superpower and a blank slate. Lost in the space between these sentences are these “few dozen” countries, home to a remarkable number of potential political “collateral damage.”  And if America is ill-equipped to wage these wars, should the political leadership abandon the project entirely? I’m not sure what Tierney thinks, but I do know what he wrote: “It’s time to reckon with the hard truths of conflict.”

I just wish he had tried.

*Given that the US has never been “home” to a major international war (save the attack on Pearl Harbor, which —at best— was an instigation and not permanent location of hostilities), there is no use speaking of “home-field advantage.” If Tierney is trying to suggest that this home-field advantage is gained by improving American service people’s knowledge of the “theatre of battle” then I would agree. But that isn’t an original contribution either.

The pain we will not see

War, especially today, is murky enough. But how we come to see it —to experience it— ought to be informed by actual events, made public and debated.

In August, The Atlantic published as piece titled: The War Photo No One Would Publish. The story looks at the fate of a single photograph taken by Kenneth Jarecke back in 1991. At the time, Jarecke was on assignment with TIME, corralled (as most journalists and photographers were) in the “pool” system, established by the Public Affairs Office of the US military. These protective outfits were designed to provide members of the media a “front-row seat” to Operation Desert Storm. In late February, as the Iraqi military signaled retreat, hightailing it across the Kuwaiti desert for the border, US air forces struck one of these Iraqi convoys leaving a mess of mechanical and human remains strewn across the wind-blown sands. This was the landscape Jarecke stumbled upon on February 28, 1991.

That afternoon, Jarecke did what any photographer would do: he worked the scene, documenting a discrete moment in time —archiving, visually, an event that owed its arrangement to war’s consequence. One photograph was particularly striking. Jarecke captured the charred upper body, arms and head of an Iraqi soldier, trapped inside a bombed out truck. While Jarecke filed his images soon after, American audiences wouldn’t see the photograph for nearly a month —a delay owed, among other things, to editorial disputes and myriad interpretations of decency or suitability.

While many of the sources interviewed in the piece believed censorship was a mistake, the article’s main meditation on civic education, media and our relationship to war draws out important debates on the public’s need for information, and the consequence of getting that equation wrong.

Time and technology play a role, of course. Towards the end of piece, the author discusses how the gatekeepers of yesteryear are not as capable of keeping an image (jarring or not) from the wider public. But the question of censorship —from the battlefield to the photo desk— should not be shirked too quickly. Today, censorship has a younger but worrying sibling —content overload. Because of the wealth of visual content, images that ought to matter might be missed entirely if not highlighted by major outlets. This suggests, at its core, the so called “mainstream media” retains responsibility to prioritize in service of truth, to inform in proportion to importance, and —in the case of war photography— to render the full color and cost of conflict.

Our current media landscape (that sleepless circle of revolving “information”) creates space for pundits to fire away with half truths and misconceptions. “Analysis”, broadly defined, has become so varied as to render meaningful debate nearly impossible. But this is where photographs, and the intrinsic value of what I’ll call “the moment presented”, can break the cycle.

This doesn’t mean that photographs cannot be wielded in service of specific interests —even the photographer, in selecting one of endless scenes around him/her, has edited the world of experience. But photographs provide the basic foundation upon which debate (and engaged conversation) might occur.¹

War, especially today, is murky enough. But how we come to see it —to experience it— ought to be informed by actual events, made public and debated. Jarecke knows this better than most. In The Atlantic piece, his 1991 interview with American Photo provides the final quote: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”



¹For example: Bag News Notes, run by Michael Shaw, tackles the “visual politics” of photographs, providing both a critical reading of context, which frames discussion of the image’s content.

Our Lesser Evil

Reviled by some for supporting the Iraq War, Michael Ignatieff (who now teaches at the University of Toronto) wrote an often overlooked book during the mid-oughts, called The Lesser Evil. Tackling an ambitious question –how can a state address the threat of terrorism– the book outlines the weakness of democratic institutions in the face of asymmetric (and illegal) wars.

Ignatieff argues that democracies are liable to tear themselves apart by destroying their own systems of justice, curtailing their prized liberties, eroding their support for transparency, and morphing questions of criminality into forever wars against ideology –all in an effort to fight the ghostly others. Long story short, in responding to terrorists eager to harm their country, democratic leaders begin to do the terrorist’s work themselves.

This week, The Atlantic published the latest “recap” on some of the liberties the United States has lost in the fight against Al Qaeda (or other enemies unknown). While few will be shocked by the claims made, or the nefarious future that appears ever-closer, Ignatieff’s initial book is notable for its prescience, even if the man wasn’t with respect to Iraq. Today, The Lesser Evil might be worth a second (or first) look.

Resisting Resistance: Why Syria isn’t Rwanda…. Or Iraq.

Either way, the distinction in approach should prod a reader towards the ultimate question: On what grounds should the international community (or even The United States) risk the lives of their own for others?

In an op-ed penned last week, Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter took square aim at President Obama regarding his administration’s reaction (or lack thereof) to new evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against it’s own people.

Invoking memories of Former President Clinton’s ill-handled response to reports of genocide in Rwanda, Slaughter is quick to warn readers about the cost of inaction:

The reason the Obama administration does not want to recognize that chemical weapons are being used in Syria is because Obama warned the Syrian regime clearly and sharply in August against using such weapons. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”

But while I would like to (and often do) agree that action is not only necessary, but also required in situations of human suffering, the 10-year anniversary of George Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech —and a reflection written by James Wright, yesterday— suggests that the situation presents something more akin to a ‘do and die’ situation

Unabashedly, Wright is quick to note that when a country chooses to fight in war, that country must also accept that they will die in that war. Wright’s suggestion, then, is that the true cost of conflict is not only greater that anticipated, but it is also exacerbated when the mission or outcome (these “goalposts” as Wright calls them) morph over time:

President Bush is correct that it will take time for history to judge the consequences for Iraq of the American military involvement. It is not too soon to acknowledge the costs of that involvement. Nor is it premature to recognize that wars with shifting objectives, wars that pursue values rather than tangible targets, are far harder to reconcile against the costs.

But that is why dualities (to intervene or not) posed by Slaughter should strike the reader as too simplified, too… hell… Hawkish.

In a country like Syria, we’re only just beginning to understand the ways the impact of conflict has deformed our measures of right and wrong, how long-term hostilities, and the people who suffer them, only complicate our understanding of enemy and ally, and how instability that threatens one actor is liable to compel responses from another (i.e. Iran).

To avoid repeated (error-ridden) forays internationally, Wright calls for cooler heads, rational and tested analysis, and clear objectives when intervention is necessary. In this light, it is difficult to adopt (blindly) the clarion call of Slaughter.

In fact, in Slaughter’s own words, intervention should take place regardless of challenges that could create even further complexity and suffering in the long term:

The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East.

Opting to challenge Obama’s administration on the basis of populism:

The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.

With there respective pedigrees, both academics surely understand the immense cost and consequence of the issues they tackle. But behind their arguments, are two radically different assumptions; assumptions that —if correct, and by this I mean in-keeping with the personal philosophies of each academic— follow logically from their worldviews.

For Wright, acts of war or intervention must be informed, or perhaps even derived from, accounting of costs and benefits: providing force for the purpose of principle may well jeopardize any positive “end game.”

For Slaughter, the act of intervention appears as American duty, owed to others given the values espoused by the United States. While Slaughter is not agnostic about the cost of intervention, “the decision to do nothing” violates a far more essential moral code.  [It may also have to do with Slaughter’s privileging of US “soft power,” but that is a story for another post].

Thus, the challenge is overcoming a “level of analysis” problem: the granularities of why war is ‘bad’ are tough to reconcile with an ideological argument that asserts  wars of justice, or on principle, as necessary for their own sake.  Either way, the distinction in approach should prod a reader towards the ultimate question: On what grounds should the international community (or even The United States) risk the lives of their own for others?

If the answer to that question is limited, our expectations for success should be too.