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First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card January 15, 2006

Iraq -- Quit or Stay?

I keep wondering why I'm getting flashbacks to the 1960s. I never took any hallucinogenic drugs. And yet I keep hearing people on TV saying we need to bring the troops home now.

Of course, back in the 60s, the people saying that were all wearing long hair and, if they were of the guy persuasion, beards; now it's people in suits.

So it occurred to me that maybe they're the ones having the flashbacks. They really think this war is Vietnam. Having romanticized the anti-war movement of the 1960s, they think they're wrapping themselves in the mantle of heroes.

I remember that peace movement. It's the one that disappeared when the draft was abolished.

But what is this peace movement about?

What Withdrawal Would Mean

Let's suppose we do what they're suggesting, and either pull the troops out immediately or announce a firm timetable for withdrawal of our troops. What will happen?

Here are some of the results (in order of probability, starting with dead certain):

1. Osama and his cronies in Iraq and elsewhere will not just seem but be completely vindicated. Osama always said that America has no spine. If you just kill enough Americans, we'll give up and go home. Everyone in the Muslim world will see that Osama was right, and people who doubted him were wrong.

2. Terrorists around the world will be encouraged. Terrorism works! The noble heroes who gave their lives in suicide bombings -- and the cleverer ones who simply left roadside explosive devices and detonated them remotely when Americans were passing -- will find many more recruits, for they are in a winning cause.

3. The Iraqi people will realize that despite how it appeared for the past couple of years, we're still the same Americans who abandoned them when they rebelled against Saddam after the Gulf War. You just can't believe anything Americans promise. And what the Iraqis learn firsthand, all other people who might have been tempted to trust us will learn vicariously. Who will believe an American promise now?

4. Our own military will be profoundly demoralized. What was all that sacrifice about? The years they gave up to service in Iraq, the lives of their friends and comrades who were killed or maimed, all of it meant nothing because their leaders didn't have even a fraction of the courage they had to show every day.

5. All that terrorist money and all those explosives that were flowing into Iraq ... where will they go now?

6. Without American troops in Iraq, the fledgling democracy there will be hard-pressed to survive. Their troops, not yet forged into a coherent army, will run a grave risk of fragmenting along partisan lines, with separate Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni armies. The result? Civil war.

7. If such a civil war happens, there is little chance that Turkey and Iran will keep their hands off. Turkey will try to suppress the Kurds, Iran to promote the Shiites. The only good thing: In such an effort, Iran and Syria will have radically different goals, as Syria supports the Sunnis. There is even risk of the war spreading to involve Turkey, a NATO member, directly.

8. Even in countries that now talk against the war and rail against American aggression, if we actually do what they claim to want, and bring our troops home right away, the governments will panic as the newly emboldened Islamists within their own borders give them far more to worry about. Soon they'll be cursing us for our cowardly withdrawal.

But when you lose a war, you lose a war, and you just have to live with the consequences.

Still, shouldn't we make sure we're actually losing before we withdraw?

How Are We Really Doing in the War?

First, let's put things in perspective. Technically speaking, there is no "Iraq War," only an Iraq campaign within the wider war on terrorism, which has many parts.

The Afghanistan campaign, which is about a year farther along than the one in Iraq, has made enormous progress under even more difficult social and military circumstances than we face in Iraq -- that is, the tribalism and multiple languages in Afghanistan create deeper divisions, there is far less history of unified government, and the terrain makes it almost impossible to track down insurgents without serious help from locals.

The diplomatic effort has been enormously helped by our relentless will. With the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq, dictatorships in the area became very alert and, except for Iran, talked a conciliatory line and some of them became genuinely cooperative in getting rid of terrorists within their own borders and cooperating with our international anti-terror efforts.

With the successful elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, the people of the Muslim world have been shown a completely different set of aspirations from the one being promised by Osama.

Most of them know, despite the propaganda pumped at them by various radical imams, that religious governments (like those of the ayatollahs in Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the vigilante squads that enforce Muslim law in Saudi Arabia) are repressive and the people under their domination are miserable.

By contrast, they see that when America invades and throws out the dictators, we really do provide an umbrella of security that allows the people of the countries we "conquer" to vote in elections and choose their own governments. We really do come as liberators. And they wonder, some of them at least, what they can do to get the Americans to invade them.

There's a lot of complaint about America in European intellectual circles, and with the relentless anti-Americanism of most European media, it's no surprise that we're unpopular in Europe. They even claim to believe that we're the source of all the problems of the world. But no one has ever successfully waged a war against stupidity, so there's nothing we can do about it. Besides, will withdrawal from Iraq suddenly make the Europeans love us?

But what does this poor opinion of us actually cost us? Most of the European governments, however they might posture about Iraq, know perfectly well that we are the most important part of any serious war against terrorism, and they are cooperating with us in many ways in the overall war against terrorism. Rhetoric aside, they are, in fact, our allies in the overall war.

What about Iraq Itself?

The fact that our soldiers are still there, still fighting, and some of them still dying does not mean, in itself, that we have either won or lost.

Our victory over the former Iraqi government was swift and complete, in part because most Iraqi people -- including large portions of the Iraqi military -- had no desire to sacrifice their lives to maintain a monster in power.

But, as Saddam warned us before the war, within his own Sunny region of Iraq, many of the soldiers who melted away from the battlefield have continued a guerrilla war, an insurgency, against Americans as an occupying force and against the new democratic government.

Their war is also against the hated Shiites and Kurds whom the Sunnis oppressed for so long.

But in spite of their best (or worst) efforts, elections went ahead on schedule, and the people voted overwhelmingly in favor of democracy. Even the Sunnis, seeing that the insurgents were not stopping the rest of the country from establishing a new government, voted in large numbers so that they would have a voice.

The insurgency, well-funded and well-supplied as it is from across borders that are even harder to seal off than the U.S.-Mexico border, continues to wage its war of attrition against our troops and against the Iraqi people.

Meanwhile, the American occupiers have managed, despite the insurgency, not to restore the country to the condition it was in before the war, but to vastly improve on it. Power sources are more reliable; water and sewage are more sanitary; public schools are actually providing a genuine education; there is plenty of food; unemployment is reduced and wages are higher. Outside the areas of insurgency, the common people are doing better -- and they know it.

The insurgent attacks make headlines, because there is a free press to report them; Saddam's regime killed far more Iraqis and terrorized them with fear of reprisals that could strike anyone, anywhere; compared to him, the insurgents are just not that frightening to most Iraqis.

American Losses

What about our own casualties? Of course any American casualties are more than we wish for, but when a nation goes to war, it has made the decision to expose its military to risk. Our all-volunteer army may consist of many soldiers who did not know they would be going to Iraq or staying so long -- including, of course, National Guardsmen, some of whom might have thought they would never have to go to war at all. But they have accepted the burden and are performing admirably.

What people overlook is the fact that we waged and continue to wage the least costly major war in history, in terms of human lives lost.

Start with civilian casualties: Our smart weapons weren't so perfect as to cause no collateral damage, but never has an invading army been so careful to avoid civilian casualties. We continue to fight that way, including the fact that we have taken no reprisals against whole communities in which insurgents take shelter.

Instead, we have allowed the people to make their own rational decisions. When Americans occupy part of their territory, there are no killings of civilians except accidentally during firefights; when the Americans pull out of an area and the insurgents take over again, the people live in terror and anyone who is suspected of disloyalty or noncooperation is murdered. Do you think they don't notice the difference?

When any portion of the Iraqi people in the insurgent areas starts wishing we would return and throw the insurgents out, we have already won in that area.

American casualties are shocking -- emotionally to us because any of our sons and daughters who die in war are mourned; but statistically shocking because they are so low.

It is true that the insurgents are getting more and more effective roadside weapons to blow up passing Americans. No matter how much armor we put on our vehicles, they are able to obtain explosives or design weapons that can pierce that armor. When we abandon the vehicles and go on foot patrol, we discover that the same explosives blow up individual soldiers just as effectively.

This is hard on the morale of our soldiers and of Americans back home, too. That's what the insurgents are counting on.

Naturally, we try to interdict as much of the enemy's supply as we can, and are constantly searching to uncover their caches of explosives before they can be used against us. But it would be simply impossible to stop all weapons from entering the country, or to find all weapons that are already there.

Victory will not consist of getting every last weapon or finding every last terrorist. That simply can't be done, though we must pursue and harass them as much as we can.

Victory will consist, and always must consist, of winning the allegiance of more and more of the people -- not to us, but to their own government.

What Does Victory Look Like?

The only way to defeat insurgents who hide among the people is to get the people to stop letting them hide.

That is happening, more and more. American troops get more and more advance warnings about ambushes and traps and explosives planted here and there. When we find arms caches, it's almost always because an Iraqi has told us where they are.

The insurgents themselves consist of a hard core of killers who can only be stopped by killing or capturing them. But surrounding them, and making their work possible, are a much larger number of people who are not as committed to the work of slaughter, people who can still change their minds and do less and less to help the insurgents -- or, more and more often, turn against them and help us and the Iraqi government defeat them.

Meanwhile, we are training the Iraqi army and trying to turn it into what it needs to be. Not just a highly skilled military, but an army that includes Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds loyally serving under a single command, in service of a nation that includes all three major groups. That is not easy, but it is happening.

Ditto with the Iraqi police. More and more of the burden (and risk) of national defense against the insurgency is being borne by citizens under arms.

Victory will not consist of killing the last terrorist and achieving total peace. Iraq will be surrounded by nations that want democracy to fail and would be delighted to see Iraq collapse in civil war as soon as American troops leave. Victory will consist of giving the Iraqi people the best possible chance to keep a democratic government and defend it against all comers.

To do that, we must gradually turn over the work of national security to the Iraqi forces, and withdraw only as it becomes clear they are effective at that task. But we have been making steady progress toward that goal.

Has This War Been Badly Run?

The charge that the Bush administration has been running the war badly, making horrible mistakes all the time, is one of the main reasons that public opinion in America is now running somewhat against the war.

So let's look at some of these much-vaunted mistakes that are being spoken of as if they were criminal.

First, let's get some perspective: Wars are filled with errors. In the American Revolution, George Washington made some doozies. He was careless about scouting out the lay of the land, and often the British knew more about the countryside Washington was defending than he did. He repeatedly committed forces to defend indefensible positions, or attack unassailable ones.

But Washington also did a brilliant job of holding the army together and getting it supplied, without exceeding the authority Congress granted him. Thus he established the tradition of civilian supremacy, while persuading the civilians to give him the wherewithal to wage a serious war.

We won that war, so Washington was a hero, and his mistakes overlooked. But he made those mistakes, and they cost lives. More lives, I might add, than we have lost in the whole of the war on terror.

What about the American Civil War? Like the American Revolution, I'm sure most of the critics of our current war would agree that that was a war we needed to fight. The union had to be preserved; the slaves had to be freed.

But that war was a long litany of truly stupid moves by a seemingly endless parade of northern generals whose incompetence was only revealed by the hideous body counts at Fredericksburg, at Chancellorsville, at Manassas -- twice. Lincoln gets credit for trying to get them to fight an aggressive war; but he did choose every one of those bad generals. To Lincoln's credit, at least they were bad in different ways. But many thousands of Americans died for no greater cause than to get their bad generals fired so that maybe the next one would have what it took to win the war.

What about World War II? Let's just look at the North Africa campaign. Largely fought for reasons of international politics -- Stalin needs us to get American troops on the ground right away, even if we aren't ready to invade the continent! -- North Africa was a sideshow that accomplished only two things: It made veterans out of the Americans who survived it. And it revealed the blithering stupidity of the American generals who led our troops to needless and humiliating defeats.

Those generals were fired. If we hadn't fought in North Africa, those generals might have been there at Normandy, and our chance of winning that crucial campaign would have been much lower.

Nevertheless, many thousands of soldiers -- more than we have lost in Iraq in all these years -- died in North Africa because they had bad generals.

Do we have bad generals in Iraq? As always, it's been a mixed bag. The qualities that allow an officer to rise to general rank in peacetime are rarely the same qualities as those we need in a military commander during wartime.

But there's a huge difference this time. The doctrine of the military has changed to one of a more distributed command. That is, local officers are given more discretion, at least under certain circumstances.

That means that the mistakes of egocentric incompetents at or near the top -- and there've been some of those in Iraq -- don't always translate into needless casualties at the local level.

War is full of mistakes. But it seems to me that this campaign has suffered far, far fewer errors than in any other war in American history.

Not Enough Boots on the Ground

We keep hearing that the Bush administration never committed enough troops, that with just thirty or sixty thousand more, we wouldn't be suffering so many casualties.

Maybe so, but probably not. What do you think those additional troops would do? All join hands and walk across Iraq, bagging terrorists as they go?

More troops would have meant more supply problems, more convoys, more targets for the insurgents.

It also would have meant more Americans in the faces of Iraqi civilians, more intrusion into their lives, more kicked-down doors. Larger numbers might have meant more recruits for the insurgency because of every greater resentment of the more intrusive American occupiers.

There's a point where an occupying force starts getting diminishing returns and greater danger from having larger numbers.

Besides, most of the complaints about "not enough boots" have come from generals who hate the new doctrine of distributed command. They are judging the present operation from the position of people whose ideas were rejected. The kind of war they were trained to wage would have required more soldiers. So it's hardly a surprise that you hear them complaining about all these supposed mistakes.

I'm sure there were officers in World War II who deplored the way that the new generals were ignoring horse-mounted cavalry, too.

One general was asked by Paul Bremer whether a certain number of additional troops would have made a difference. The general answered that if he had had them, he could have made Baghdad more secure.

Of course. More secure in the short run ... but we're not going to win this struggle in the short run. More immediate security might well have translated into more hatred of Americans, more recruits for the insurgency, less willingness to take part in democracy, etc.

In other words, we don't know what all the consequences would have been.

Besides, where would those additional troops have come from? If we had pulled them out of Germany or Korea, or called up more National Guard, the very same critics would be screaming about how we have too many troops in Iraq, and now we have no strategic reserve and our security is endangered all over the world -- and in that case, they would have been right.

The Bush administration made a judgment call. And no one, not a single soul, knows what would actually have happened had they called it a different way.

In other words, it wasn't a mistake, it was a choice, and military historians will squabble over the might-have-beens for generations to come.

But on the ground, the new doctrine has been reaping benefits.

What the Iraqi people needed to see was not just a show of American might, not just a lot of boots and guns. They needed to see the fundamental decency of American soldiers. (That wasn't helped by the prison scandal, but in perspective, whatever wacko things that a few guards did there were nothing compared to the murders and torture that the Ba'athists conducted.)

They have seen it. It doesn't get reported by journalists holed up in safe places in the city, but incidents like this one really happen: Some American soldiers on the street of an Iraqi city are near some Iraqi schoolgirls when a truck carrying insurgents pulls up to block the intersection: An ambush!

The Americans immediately and instinctively grab the girls and put them behind them, so that the Americans are shielding the girls with their own bodies.

This is not what the anti-American propaganda says Americans will do. And the insurgents, for reasons known only to them, get back in their truck and drive on.

Instead of vast arrays of storm troopers, they see young Americans behaving decently and bravely and kindly. It's part of our strategy. It works.


There are those who say it was a horrible mistake to completely disband the Iraqi Army and start from scratch -- if we had only kept some of the trained Iraqi military, they could have been bearing the burden of defense and therefore saving American lives.

Not only that, but it was a terrible mistake to throw all the government bureaucrats out of office by banning Baath Party members from working for the government in any way.

Here's the truth.

1. We didn't dissolve the Iraqi Army. They dissolved themselves. I know of at least one case where a local American commander tried to get the Iraqi soldiers to stay in their unit; it was their own officers who sent them away.

2. The Iraqi Army was not what people seem to think it was. The part of it that were highly trained were deeply permeated with Baathist ideology and were guilty of the atrocities committed against Shiites and Kurds. If we had left any of those army units intact, it would have destroyed our credibility with the vast majority of the Iraqi people.

And the parts of the Iraqi Army that were not Republican Guard were poorly trained draftees with terrible morale and little hope of being an effective fighting force against the insurgents, any more than they were effective against us.

3. Everybody in the Iraqi government had to be a Baath Party member to get promotions. There were upwards of two million Baathists. We only banned about the top 20,000 of those Baathists from government service. (They can hold other jobs; we haven't been vindictive.) But if we had left those top guys in power, it would have, once again, destroyed any credibility we might have had. We would have been perceived -- correctly -- as being in bed with the old regime.


The charges that the Bush administration has lied are clearly false. Every lie they point to is, in fact, an honest mistake or a judgment call or a secret that needed to be kept for national security reasons. There has been no pattern of deception by this administration. They must be thinking of another presidency where words had floating definitions and documents were constantly being lost.

Domestic Spying

The more you know about the facts of what our government was doing, the more you realize that they have not been spying on ordinary citizens innocently going about their business. If there has been some edging toward the boundaries of civil liberties, it does not compare to what Lincoln or Wilson or FDR did.

Furthermore, the very exposure of the program has made it less effective; now that our enemies know that we have been monitoring their electronics, they will find alternate means of communication. So those who are getting all hot and bothered about the "danger" of our government's actions have made us all just a little less safe from the very real danger of terrorist conspiracies.

During wartime, some whistles should not be blown.


Many have said that trying to establish democracy in Iraq is like planting wheat on stone. There are no institutions to support democracy. There is no democratic tradition to draw upon.

First, that is not, strictly speaking, true. The institutions may not look like the ones we had before we got democracy, but there are nongovernment power centers that are cooperating in the democratic experiment. And besides, we had city machines and party bosses for a lot of years, not to mention dictatorial southern sheriffs, proving that many places in America were ill prepared for democracy as recently as fifty years ago; yet our more-or-less democratic government survived and has been more-or-less responsive to the will of the people.

Second, it has been vital, not just for Iraq, but for the overall war against terrorism, to offer an alternate ideology.

Osama is playing upon the people's loyalty to their religion, and their resentment of Islam's diminished role in the world. If all we offered to answer him was brute force to crush any government that supported him and other terrorists, every victory in the field would win him more recruits.

But instead we offer, in addition to the stick that we used against Saddam and against the Taliban, the carrot of democracy. We will shelter you and protect you while you create an effective government and military of your own. Muslims can, without sacrificing their faith, have the benefits of free elections and a relatively fair and free economy. You can be safe in your homes and make choices in your own life without anybody telling you whether you can own a television or shave or vote for a particular candidate.

That's a dream that will appeal to a lot of Muslims. That's why the terrorists hate our experiment in democracy. That's why the people are embracing it. Far from being a mistake, the introduction of democracy into occupied countries is the linchpin of our strategy.

Besides, humans are humans. They all want to be free -- and they all deserve to be. There is no country on earth whose citizens want to be enslaved or terrorized by their government. It is idiotic to claim that some countries "don't want" democracy. They may not want a politic system that exactly mirrors ours, but freedom? Oh, yes, they want it.

The Stupidest Decision in American History

There's a lot of competition for the title of "Stupidest Decision in American History." But if we withdraw from Iraq now, or even announce a unilateral timetable for withdrawal, I think that we will have our all-time winner.

The consequences of such a withdrawal would be immediate and hideous.

And the reasons for withdrawing are specious or false. We are not caught in a quagmire; we are conducting the overall war on terror rather brilliantly, and it's working. We are indeed suffering ongoing losses, but it's at a low level, militarily speaking, and what we are winning with those lives tragically lost is a sturdy victory that will have positive ramifications throughout the Muslim world.

If we stay. If we see it through.

What Do They Think They're Doing?

Since we are not losing, it is hard to see what the people calling for American withdrawal think they are accomplishing.

Every speech by an American leader calling for immediate or early withdrawal leads quite directly to the deaths of more American soldiers. Because our success depends on proving Osama wrong, discrediting him and the other terrorist leaders, and weakening the loyalty of those on the periphery of the terrorist movement.

But every one of those speeches undoes the work of a thousand soldiers. It encourages borderline participants in the terrorist movement to stay involved, because it seems to prove that Osama is right and that makes it look like God is with him and he will prevail in the end.

That's why the terrorists trumpet every one of these speeches to each other as if they were a victory on the battlefield. Because each one of those speeches by an American leader is a victory for the terrorists on the most important battlefield they fight on -- the hearts and minds of the Muslim people.

Even if this war were being badly run, even if the Bush administration was full of liars and incompetents, even if we were losing the war, it would still be shameful for Americans to openly make statements that directly aid our terrorist enemies.

If during the Revolutionary War, members of Congress had made the kind of defeatist public statements that we're regularly hearing from some today, there is little chance that the war could have continued.

A Wartime President

Fortunately, we have a President today who understands what winning this war requires. As long as the American people don't lose sight of the goals of this war and continue to give him a Congress that will support the war, then we will continue to make progress toward victory.

The problem is there is little chance that we will break the back of international Islamist terrorism before the end of 2008. That means that there is a very good chance that, without a pro-war incumbent, we will find ourselves with a new president who won't have Bush's spine.

Or President Bush's vision. Because for all that the Left has loved to call him dumb, the only people I hear saying truly stupid things these days are those that the Left considers smart -- or at least smarter-than-Bush.

Well, dumb-guy Bush and his team have been leading us in the best-run war in American history -- not a flawless war, but one with far fewer and less costly mistakes than the norm. (Dear Furious Letter Writers: Don't even bother arguing this point with me until you've studied the mistakes made in all our other wars so you have some kind of perspective.)

Sadly, I don't see either party advancing candidates for the presidency who show any sign of being as smart as Bush about what our national security requires.

Copyright © 2006 by Orson Scott Card.

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