Time and patience: ingredients for wartime success

Posted: Mar 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Say what you will about this conflict, it makes for riveting television. I spent pretty much all of the first day of the war glued to the tube. I suspect I'm hardly alone. But the imperatives of television and war are hardly the same. Television news needs a predictable schedule of new events and digestible stories to thrive. War may sometimes be fast-paced, but it hardly depends on new developments at the top of the hour the way cable news does.

The impatience of the news media -and the viewers -for the "shock and awe" part of the military campaign is a palpable example of how news consumers and producers want events to unfold on their timetables.

Since the war is changing so fast -and the arguments for or against it seem irrelevant now -perhaps we should turn away from the television and toward a book, and a big one at that, for some guidance.

One of my favorite novels is Tolstoy's "War and Peace." And one of my favorite characters is General Kutuzov. Charged with defeating Napoleon and expelling the French from Russian soil, Kutuzov has a perspective completely at odds with all of the advisers, courtiers, intellectuals, journalists, nobles and even the czar. He sees his battles as victories when all others, including his own generals, see abject failures. He ridicules advisers who would have him rush into battle when doing nothing was the better course of action.

"The strongest of all warriors," Kutuzov declares, "are these two: Time and Patience."

Dismissing a rival general's accomplishments, Kutuzov rails: "Kamenski would have been

lost if he had not died. He stormed fortresses with thirty thousand men. It is not difficult to capture a fortress but it is difficult to win a campaign. For that, not storming and attacking but patience and time are wanted."

Kutuzov's strategy was based on the expectation that Napoleon's army would overextend itself, venturing too deep and too late into the oncoming winter. "Everything comes in time to him who knows how to wait," he explains to Prince Andrew. Russians would gain potency and advantages, while Napoleon's strength bled out in the Russian snow. When Prince Andrew's impatience gets the better of him, he demands of his general, "Well, what do you want us to do?"

"I'll tell you what to do, and what I do," Kutuzov responds. "Dans le doute, mon cher, abstiens-toi."

Translation: When in doubt, my dear fellow, do nothing.

Now, of course, you might object to this comparison. It's the Iraqis who are being invaded here and Bush is in the role of Napoleon. But keep in mind, in the modern era, long winters aren't what sap the strength and power of our military. Only the cooling of popular support for the war effort can undermine our strength.

In every major war America has won, we've owed our victories to the patience of the American people. Every war we've lost or tied (e.g., Vietnam and Korea) was not lost on the battlefield. These wars were lost because the governing elites in this country (i.e., the press and the politicians) squandered the patience of the American people by resorting to half-measures and by pursuing political, as opposed to military, objectives.

The famed Tet Offensive, which was described at the time as a military disaster for America, was in fact a military disaster for the enemy. But it was a propaganda windfall because it convinced the already anti-war U.S. media that Vietnam was "unwinnable." Maybe Vietnam was unwinnable, but that's only because the American people turned their backs on the effort.

There is nothing beyond this country's abilities if it's willing to summon the willpower and patience necessary.

In our last war, in Afghanistan, Americans didn't lose their patience but the media did after only a few weeks. For instance, Nicholas Von Hoffman, writing in the New York Observer, famously declared, "The war in Afghanistan, the one (Bush) should never have declared, has run into trouble. Just a few weeks into it and it's obvious that the United States is fighting blind. The enemy is unknown, and the enemy's country is terra incognita. We have virtually no one we can trust who can speak the languages of the people involved. With all our firepower and our technical assets and our spy satellites, it looks like we don't know if we're coming or going."

Due to the lag time in printing, Hoffman's denunciation appeared after the Taliban was already in full retreat. In contrast, the National Review railed against what it called the "limits to patience."

In retrospect, the lesson of America, Afghanistan and "War and Peace" is that with patience there are no "limits" to what we can accomplish.