A substitute for victory

Posted: Jun 28, 2006 12:01 AM

When General Douglas MacArthur delivered his farewell address to Congress in April of 1951, after President Truman had fired the general during the Korean War, he gave advice that yet can be of value both to President Bush's Democratic Party war critics, and to President Bush and his generals: "[In war], there is no alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War's very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory."

At the time, MacArthur was criticizing Truman's decision not to seek victory in what was technically called a United Nations "police action" in Korea. While playing "what if" games with history is destined to be mere speculation, it is worth noting that if victory had been gained over North Korea in the early 1950s, we probably would not be facing a nuclear standoff with North Korea in 2006. Of course, we will never know what price we would have paid in blood and lost life for such a victory back then. And unless and until the nuclear day with North Korea (or the terrorists it sells its nukes to) comes, we will not know the price of not gaining victory in the 1950s. The river of historical consequence runs deep and long.

Today, we are faced with another so far inconclusive war effort, this time in Iraq. On Monday, President Bush continued to articulate the MacArthurian objective in the following language regarding troop levels: "That decision will be made by General Casey, as well as the sovereign government of Iraq, based upon conditions on the ground. And one of the things that General Casey assured me of is that, whatever recommendation he makes, it will be aimed toward achieving victory. And that's what we want."

But note that the president's statement was in response to press reports that General Casey is recommending up to two brigades being withdrawn within six months and perhaps 30,000 more by the end of next year. While all of these Pentagon plans for troop reductions are publicly conditioned on Iraqi forces being able to pick up the slack, nonetheless the generals are giving the strong impression to reporters and other Washington insiders that they have a strong urge to draw down troops. They don't manifest nearly as strong an urge to obtain that for which there is no substitute. (Note that our fighting troops very much do manifest a powerful will to gain victory -- even at the price of their own blood and lives -- God bless them.)

While many conservatives and military historians have long questioned President Truman's decision not to seek victory in Korea, Old Harry surely got one thing right: The buck stops in the Oval Office. It is the president -- not his generals -- who is ultimately and actually responsible for all war decisions.

President Bush's repeated assertion -- that he will make all troop-level decisions based on whatever his commanding generals say -- is a serious misreading of his responsibility. Notwithstanding the history of Lyndon Johnson micromanaging the Vietnam War by personally picking bombing targets, the real lesson of Vietnam was that President Johnson never sufficiently grilled his generals on how their plans would lead to victory.

Abraham Lincoln had to fire several generals before he found his fighting victory generals Grant and Sherman. (And FDR and General Marshall had to advance Colonel Eisenhower quickly to four stars to find their victory general in Europe.)

There is always an awful lot of politics in the upper levels of the military, and every general with three or four stars on the shoulder is not necessarily Grant, Sherman, Eisenhower or Patton. It is precisely the president's job to find and put in place the generals with the unquenchable will and capacity to win the war. (And with the courage to ask for more troops.)

President Bush should read and re-read MacArthur's first two sentences: "apply every available means to bring [war] to a swift end. War's very object is victory, not prolonged indecision."

If President Bush should read those first two sentences, his Democratic Party war critics should read the third sentence: "There is no substitute for victory."

With some honorable exceptions, most congressional Democrats are not seized with the will to victory. Rather, as I observed on television last weekend, the "timetable" Democrats sound like the bladder control advertisement on TV: "Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go." That is an urge, not a policy. And it is an ignoble urge at that. Even if it is sincerely held (and not merely a search for a partisan advantage), it is a disqualifying instinct for an American political party.

Whatever the shortcomings of the governing party in executing policy, a majority of American voters are unlikely to vote for a party with an instinct for retreat in the face of the enemy. Pray the American people never develop a taste for retreat and defeat. It would lie exceedingly bitter on the palate.