They said, “Let us win.”

John McCain in Friday night’s debate:

I’d like to tell you, two Fourths of July ago I was in Baghdad. General Petraeus invited Senator Lindsey Graham and me to attend a ceremony where 688 brave young Americans, whose enlistment had expired, were reenlisting to stay and fight for Iraqi freedom and American freedom.

I was honored to be there. I was honored to speak to those troops. And you know, afterwards, we spent a lot of time with them. And you know what they said to us? They said, let us win. They said, let us win. We don’t want our kids coming back here.

And this strategy, and this general, they are winning.

I’m kind of disturbed by McCain’s use of some troops’ desire to stay and continue to fight as an argument for having them stay and continue to fight. He appears to be holding them up here as the experts. After all, if the people on the ground doing the actual fighting think we can win, why would we not let them do it?

The crucial point I think he’s missing is that they’re experts at fighting wars, given that there’s a war to be fought. They’re not experts at deciding when a war should be continued or not. They’re not experts at deciding when a war should be started or not. The whole point of having civilian control of the military is to have the President and Congress–people who should ideally be able to take a larger strategic view–look at a situation and decide whether war is even the best option. If they decide it is, then the military people–the experts in implementation–are called on to apply their expertise in deciding how the war should be fought. But the decision about whether a war should be started or continued should not be up to them. The United States is not a country run by its military.

To be fair, I don’t know that McCain intended for this quoting of troops who want to stay in Iraq to constitute an argument. I should probably take it as just another attempt to paint himself as pro-military and Obama as anti-military. “He won’t let the troops stay and fight, even when they want to.” But the way he put it sure sounds like an argument: The troops want to stay. Therefore they should be allowed to stay. So if it is an argument, I just wanted to point out that I think it’s a very bad one.


  1. This is a good point. I found the following comment from McCain similarly disturbing:

    And I’ll tell you, I had a town hall meeting in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and a woman stood up and she said, “Senator McCain, I want you to do me the honor of wearing a bracelet with my son’s name on it.”

    He was 22 years old and he was killed in combat outside of Baghdad, Matthew Stanley, before Christmas last year. This was last August, a year ago. And I said, “I will — I will wear his bracelet with honor.”

    And this was August, a year ago. And then she said, “But, Senator McCain, I want you to do everything — promise me one thing, that you’ll do everything in your power to make sure that my son’s death was not in vain.”

    This sounds like a classic case of cognitive dissonance: we’ve already invested so intensely in this war that we can’t allow ourselves to cut our losses–we have to continue fighting as a way of reassuring ourselves that what was an obvious blunder was somehow worth it, “not in vain.” More people have to die in order to construct a meaningful narrative out of the deaths that have already occurred, as though we’re sending soldiers off to combat our own discomfort and inability to find meaning in the situation.

    Obama of course responded that he had a bracelet from another mother of another dead soldier on the other side of the fence, and parallel arguments to McCain’s above could also be made by invoking soldiers who have returned from Iraq to form pacifist organizations (“if even they think we should stop then we should stop”).

    McCain also uses terms like “dishonor” when talking about the war that I find troubling: if the concern about dishonor centers on the view of the rest of the world, as far as I can tell, it’s way too late–the war to save face has long since been irreparably lost. And if the concern about dishonor stems from our own view of our troops, surely there are ways we can honor individuals’ willingness to sacrifice for their country besides throwing resources at an absurd, exorbitant, and seemingly doomed enterprise.

  2. There is no “winning” that war. It was an immoral invasion to begin with, and there is no victory to be had.

    My brother served in Iraq, and I am an Army veteran, so I do not speak as a weirdo pacifist.

    But Iraq was a stupid distraction from the war on terror.

  3. Naismith,

    Pacifists are not weirdos. In fact, the pacifists were correct about the war in Iraq, and the pro-war folks were the weirdos. 😉

  4. McCain was in Baghdad in July 2007, here is an August 2007 New York Times op-ed piece
    with soldiers who oppose the war:

    To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day.

    In short, we operate in a bewildering context of determined enemies and questionable allies, one where the balance of forces on the ground remains entirely unclear.

    Promise me one thing, that you’ll do everything in your power to make sure that my son’s death was not in vain.

    911 which had nothing to do with Iraq, and of course weapons of mass destruction which did not exist were used to justify the Iraq invasion. Part of the underlying logic was; make sure our 911 deaths were not in vain. But this logic is faulty and always will be, more American’s have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan than we lost in 911. The faulty logic continues probably deliberately by appealing to our empathy for this woman’s loss as an argument to continue the war. War is big profitable business and the hawks who benefit and their prostitutes will do and say just about anything to start one and keep it going.

    The Lord is clear in his direction to us. D&C 98:16 Therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children. Renounce war and proclaim peace. Do your genealogy and go to the temple.

  5. Very interesting observations, Ziff. The question of whether a war is winnable and under what circumstances reminds me of this recent article about McCain’s Vietnam experiences and his views of Vietnam and Iraq.

  6. By a raise of hands who thinks that we should continue the war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    Are you willing to back up your beliefs with action? Sell all you have, buy a gun and head over there.

    Oh, you meant the royal we. You want agents of the government to hold a gun to my head and extract resources to pay for these mercenaries?

    That’s why it unwise for military or civilians to decide when to start a war – because they will do it with other people’s lives and money.

    Let’s move congress (and their families) to Iraq (outside the green zone) and see how fast this immoral war comes to an end.

  7. Thank you, Ziff, for your very wise words. Like Eve, I am reminded of the very informative article in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly. I am not anti-military, but it is mainly because of McCain’s military background and ideology that I will NOT be voting for him. The phrase “win the war” (at least in the case of this war) is an oxymoron.

  8. Perhaps someone (who, me?) should mention that the only reason that it appears that the surge is “winning” (that doesn’t quite work in English, but you get the drift) is that Muqta al Sadr stood down the Madhi Army right about the same time the “surge” started up. That is, the guys in Iraq who were firing at us, they stopped firing at us because their boss asked them to. Plus the Iraquis all on their own got tired of the Saudis (al quaeda in Iraq) indiscriminately blowing up other Iraquis and took things into their own hands. With or rather myopic view, we may think the surge had something to do with it, but it didn’t.

  9. djinn, good question of whether the surge was the reason the central government decided to push its own troops into combat or not, though those successes and other things have made a difference.

    Whether or not the surge works doesn’t change the initial issues, though it does affect what we do now that we are in the mess.

  10. ed42,
    While the war is costly, unpopular, unnecessary, and altogether bad, spare us the tax-protestor/libertarian “taxes = gun to my head.” Besides being a bad argument, it isn’t even applicable: the government has funded the war through borrowing, not tax increases (and, in fact, has drastically and irresponsibly lowered taxes). That would seem to be the ideal way to fund a war for those who oppose taxation, no?

  11. The determination as to whether or not the death of a soldier in a war is “in vain” or not has nothing to do with a resulting victory or defeat. It’s entirely possible that a nation who goes to war purely as a defensive move could be overrun by the nation launching the offensive, and none of the lives lost on the defensive end will have been “in vain”. The whole determination for whether or not any given death is “in vain” is determined by the justice (or lack thereof) of the cause for the fighting.

    Were we really justified in pre-emptively attacking Iraq? If not, then (sorry to say) all of the lives lost on our side heretofore have been “in vain”. Whether we achive what some would call “victory” or not has nothing to do with it and won’t change that. Victory doesn’t serve as justification for anything.

    Victory is nice for the victors in that it allows them to write the history books and assume Winston Smith’s place in society. But it doesn’t mean they were necessarily right.

  12. Please forgive the rather inexcusable typos in my last post.

    That being said, I’d just like to answer Ed42, who conflates Iraq with Afghanistan. They are different wars. They are a long away from each other. They are being fought against different people. It is quite possible to be for our efforts in Afghanistan and vehemently against whatever it is that we’re doing in Iraq. Me, case in point. Further, one of the unforgivable side-effects of the “surge” was that we moved troops from where they actually made a difference (Afghanistan) to where they were nothing other than a hemisphere-away political theater.

    Afghanistan YES, Iraq No No No No No

  13. Dear Mr. Stephen M (Ethesis) Muqta Al Sadr is gunning for the history books. He also is an Iraqi nationalist who never left (for Iran) during the bad Hussein days that killed his father. which can’t be said of the current Iraqi prime minister. I was thrilled when I heard that he stood down the Mahdi army, (fewer American deaths, fewer Iraqi deaths) but please please please don’t confuse that with something that we did. Which was what? Show up after significant areas of Bagdad had already been ethnically cleansed (i.e. Sunnis panically rushing to Sunni enclaves, Shi’a’s the same), and declare victory? C’mon.

  14. djinnn, so, your conclusion is that the troop surge is unrelated to the Central Government’s actions. May be.

    I’m not calling it a victory either.

    Though Al Sadr did leave for Iran after things got hot for him following his murder of another Shia cleric, and as far as can be determined, is still in Iran.

    On the main point of the essay They’re not experts at deciding when a war should be continued or not. They’re not experts at deciding when a war should be started or not. the author makes a good point.

    Part of good troops is a desire to fight to win, so that once they are committed to a battle by their commanders, they will strive. That actually gets in the way of being able to make a good judgment on whether or not they should be fighting.

    Which leads to bad arguments, as noted.

    As a final note, to djinnn, my thought is that a number of groups have finally realized they can’t win militarily and that all they were accomplishing was getting killed (while killing others, but by no means killing enough of their enemies to justify the cost). American losses have been less than the incidental deaths in New York or Chicago.

    Except for the hideous moral and financial cost. I do consider, personally, the invasion of Iraq to be a tipping point that made the current financial crisis what it is, and that very well may cause even worse for the future. I hope not, but it appears to be happening.


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