Victory in war is tough to define. Hollywood's version of victory in World War II provides a finality that history lacks. Gen. MacArthur meets the Japanese emissary on the battleship Missouri, and the curtain falls. Except trouble brews in Korea, China's civil war continues, the Soviet Union imprisons Eastern Europe and the triumph of World War II -- dancing in Times Square on V-E Day -- slouches toward the Cold War and its thermonuclear brink.
A soldier and scholar like Gen. David Petraeus, commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq, knows history is never over, but judgments must be made. This week, I spoke with Petraeus in a half-hour interview that touched on numerous difficult subjects, including establishing the "Rule of Law" in Iraq and the Iraqi Army's "surge" in professional capabilities and numerical strength.
At one point, I suggested that the military-diplomatic "tandem" of Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker provides a model for improving "unified action." That's the dry, wonkish term for coordinating and employing every "tool of power" America possesses to achieve a strategic goal. Petraeus demurred on the compliment, but said: "I can just not imagine a better diplomatic wingman than Ambassador Ryan Crocker. ... We were determined to achieve unity of effort."
Petraeus said that began with their integrated campaign plan. In every governmental endeavor, but especially in an intricate, complex war, economic and political development programs must reinforce security and intelligence operations.
The question of achieving strategic goals in Iraq threaded the entire interview. At one point, I posed the question this way: In Iraq, are we at a moment of strategic change?
"We've been at moments of strategic change," Petraeus replied. "These are not light-switch moments ... what you have is more of a rheostat -- many, many rheostat moments -- where in small areas, local areas, districts and eventually provinces there is an ongoing transition and has been an ongoing transition for the Iraqi forces to step more into the lead and the coalition forces to step back and provide enablers."
Petraeus sketched a conditions-based approach to assessing a war of increments where victory only emerges over time. A "light switch" is Hollywood. Because it is complex, dynamic and multidimensional, "rheostat warfare" escapes television's appetite for soundbite analysis. Counter-terror, counterinsurgency and, for that matter, anti-crime campaigns are rheostat operations that take time to conduct and judge.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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