Learning from Iraq: In a war, think big – at least at first

I have one nit-picky request for all critics of American policy in Iraq: When discussing the military tactics, try to avoid saying we sent in "just enough troops to lose." I understand the reasoning behind that phrase, but what bothers me is the insinuation (unintentional, I hope) that our military personnel in Iraq are losers. Regardless of how the situation turns out, the troops are doing a tremendous job in conditions most of us here at home can barely imagine.

Did the Bush administration blunder by not sending in a larger force at the start? Proponents of this idea say it would have created security and stability as Iraq transitioned to a new government. During a discussion of the issue some time ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld offered a different scenario by suggesting that more troops in Iraq would have risked alienating the population and creating more potential targets for the bad guys.

There are plenty of facts on both sides to sustain fascinating theories and lively classroom debates. It's like arguing about whether the South would have won the Civil War if Stonewall Jackson had escaped death at Chancellorsville (the theory being that he would have been present at Gettysburg, turned the tide of battle in favor of the Confederates, and eventually the North would have given up the fight). But history is a done deal. Any discussion of alternative outcomes is just speculation, and the Middle East is a place where logical assumptions often turn out to be wrong.

One assumption I do feel confident in expressing is that nobody in Congress or the White House will seriously push the idea of sending in reinforcements. That window of opportunity was probably open for the first two years of the occupation. In fact, during that period Paul Bremer and other officials have said they tried to make a case for additional troops and got turned down.

Now the window is closed. After a certain point, Americans begin to ask themselves, and each other, "Why isn't this thing done yet? What's really happening over there?"

This fact annoys military analysts, but it's a reality of modern war. The best time to escalate is early. Waiting until late in the day undercuts all previous assurances that everything is under control. President Lyndon Johnson understood this when he turned down Gen. William Westmoreland's request for 200,000 more troops in Vietnam after the Tet offensive in 1968.

I'm sure someone close to President Bush suggested that a modest-size invasion force would be an easier case to make in the court of public opinion. Had I been present at that moment, I could have pointed out the public relations advantage of a massive force: If the campaign goes well, you can start pulling some troops out right away and keep public opinion on the positive side. Sending soldiers home is always good for homeland morale.

If you're waiting for a final word on what should be done in Iraq right now, I don't have one. Plenty of other voices are already debating "stay the course" versus "re-deployment." My focus here isn't on the current war. I'm already thinking ahead to the next one.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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