Amid all the confusion of our new little war in Libya, one thing is clear: Notwithstanding the bravery and professionalism of our troops, in naming it Operation Odyssey Dawn, the Pentagon has invoked a haunting specter. The war's namesake -- Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey" -- is the tale of the hero, Odysseus, taking 10 years to get home from the Trojan War -- which itself took 10 years to fight.
In fairness to the Pentagon, when the Germans started their ill-fated campaign in Tripoli in February 1941 (that was to be lost due to a too-long and thin logistics line), they, too, had difficulty, calling it Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower). As the German historian Wolf Heckmann drolly noted of the Wehrmacht high command: "Unconsciously, someone had hit upon the perfect symbol: a huge and showy flower at the end of a long and rather fragile stem."
This whole business of christening wars with catchy names is curious. Ten years ago, our current war in Afghanistan was christened "Enduring Freedom" -- although the alleged beneficiaries of our military effort, the Afghan people, have not yet gained freedom from the Taliban enemy. In fact, we are getting ready to leave no later than 2014, rather than planning to "endure" until freedom is ensured.
Meanwhile, our war in Iraq, which the Bush Pentagon eight years ago triumphantly named operation "Iraqi Freedom," had its name changed last year by the Obama Pentagon to the more tentative sounding operation "New Dawn." Who knows what that "new dawn" of 2015 may bring: Freedom, Victory, Defeat, Civil War, Forgetfulness?
I admit to belaboring these words, but they are worth belaboring. Because the words of generals and statesmen at the beginning of wars need to be de-coded, as they are as likely to confuse as to clarify. And too often, the first victims of the confusion are the very statesmen and generals who utter them. These days, few publics are as ready to whistle cheerfully off to war as are their leaders.
When it is all over, it often turns out that the military intervention (in the words of the British comedy "Yes Minister") provided the people with "every assistance short of help."
So what are our government and others saying about this new war? President Obama, March 4: "Let me just be very unambiguous about this. Col. Gadhafi needs to step down from power and leave."
Adm. Mike Mullen chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, March 20: It "isn't about seeing him (Gadhafi) go." Mullen, asked whether it was possible that the mission's goals could be achieved while leaving Gadhafi in power, said, "That's certainly potentially one outcome."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, "It is not about regime change."
Then what is this war about? On Friday, Obama, in announcing our military intervention, cited as justifications that Gadhafi might kill "thousands," "the region could be destabilized" and "the democratic values that we stand for would be overrun." But he also wants to be "clear about what we will not be doing. The United States is not going to deploy ground troops. ... We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya."
Moreover, no sooner had Obama identified the importance of the Arab League support for the operation (as he understandably did not want to start a third war in a Muslim country without strong Muslim support) than did the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, criticize the international strikes on Libya, saying they caused civilian deaths and went "beyond what the Arab League backed."
And how does Obama's concern about democracy relate to support from the Arab League, which can't claim a membership blessed with the instinct for democracy, with the possible exception of Iraq -- which we currently militarily occupy. (Members: Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, Somalia, Libya, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, Kuwait, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Djibouti and Comoros.)
The president cited the danger that "the region could be destabilized." But both in his Cairo speech and in his policy last month in Egypt, he rejected regional stability as a justification for regime support or opposition. The president called for a policy that forcibly removes the Gadhafi regime because it threatens to kill its own people, but supports regimes that do the same thing (Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, etc.).
The president's policy goals, based on his public words, both contradict themselves and would seem not to be realizable with the self-imposed limitations on methods and length of commitment.
Of course, with our airmen, sailors and perhaps others in harm's way, I hope for the best, appreciate their courage, pray for their safety and look forward to the terrorist Gadhafi's early demise -- by the hands of a just God or otherwise.