What soldiers have in common with lawyers

Hi folks. I’ve been off-line a bit fighting with my landlord and trying to get my new apartment straightened out. I’ve moved as of the first of December. My new Internet connection is up and running, but my workstation hasn’t been able to talk to my monitor since the move. I have to bring it in to work to get it fixed, and until then, I have limited ‘Net access. There’s a post coming one of these days on the joys of IKEA when you’re an expat.

A lot’s been going on while I’ve been offline. Chirac and Raffarin have started acting like idiots over how kids dress at school. The EU constitution looks like a casualty of rapid expansion. Jean Chrétien calls it quits – the last of the Pearson-era Liberals still in the Liberal party – and turns the reins of power over to borderline conservative Liberal Paul Martin. And, Saddam Hussein is now in American hands, which will make excuses for failing to find WMD or links to Al Qaeda just that much thinner.

Speaking of Iraq, I wanted to draw your attention to yesterday’s New York Review of Books. Especially to a piece entitled Delusions in Baghdad. If Marshall McLuhan were alive today, he could stand fully vindicated before his critics.

Very young men in tan camouflage fatigues, armed, red-faced, flustered; facing them, the men and women of the world press, Baghdad division, assembled in their hundreds in less than a quarter of an hour […] as Lieutenant Colonel George Krivo put it bitterly, to “make the story. Here, media is the total message: I now have an understanding of McLuhan you wouldn’t believe. Kill twenty people here? In front of that lens it’s killing twenty thousand.”

When the US Army starts appreciating someone like McLuhan, you know the world has changed.

Vietnamesque rhetoric about this war is popping up all over the place. The article continues in a vein that recalls American weariness in the early 70’s of a distant war whose end never seemed to get closer:

If victory in war is defined as accomplishing the political goals for which military means were originally brought to bear, then eight months after it invaded Iraq, the United States remains far from victory. If the political goal of the war in Iraq was to remove Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime and establish in their place a stable, democratic government—then that goal, during the weeks I spent in Iraq in late October and early November, seemed to be growing ever more distant.

This week’s War Nerd column in the Moscow Exile also highlights the déjà vu a lot of folks must be getting from this war:

[…] I just can’t enjoy my holiday this year. The news from Iraq has been getting me down. It’s not what you’re probably thinking—the US casualties. […] The casualties that worry me are the ones we’re supposedly dishing out, not the ones we’re taking. Because I think we’re already starting to lie about them the same dumb way we did in Nam, by passing out inflated body counts.

Body counts are a real bad sign. What they signal is that we’re operating in a strategic vacuum, and the only claim we can make is dropping bad guys. When Westmoreland started counting dead Cong in Nam, it was because he didn’t have a strategic plan. So the body counts went up and up, and the situation got worse and worse. Commanders under pressure to produce high counts started multiply the real number by two or three or ten. So even when we did kill a lot of Cong in the Tet offensive, nobody Stateside even wanted to know. They’d heard that tune too many times before.

Well, last week there was this so-called “firefight” in Samarra, and for the first time since Nam, we came out of it bragging about a body count. That’s bad sign #1.

And then the locals started saying we made the count up. Bad sign #2.

There’s more, and it highlights the highly mediated nature of modern warfare, as well as the apparent success of the insurgents in asymetric combat. Despite controlling press access far more today than in Vietnam, the effect of media is quite possibly even greater. As far as I know, the Viet Cong rarely sought out the cameras. The Iraqi insurgents, however, know that this war is being fought on TV:

In the rhetoric of security, all of these attacks [by Iraqi guerillas] failed dismally. “From what our indications are,” Brigadier General Mark Hertling told Fox News that afternoon, “none of those bombers got close to the target.” In the rhetoric of politics, however, the attacks were a brilliant coup de th??tre. In less than an hour, four men, by killing forty people, including one American soldier and twenty Iraqi police, had succeeded in dominating news coverage around the world, sending television crews rushing about Baghdad in pursuit of the latest plume of smoke and broadcasting the message, via television screens in a hundred countries, first and foremost the United States, that Baghdad, US official pronouncements notwithstanding, remained a war zone.

Within a week, as members of the Red Cross left Iraq and many of the few remaining international organizations followed close behind, the attackers had set in motion, at the “highest levels” of the Bush administration, a “reevaluation” of American policy. Within two weeks, even as President Bush went on vowing publicly that the United States “would not be intimidated,” he abruptly recalled L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator in Iraq, who rushed back to Washington so hurriedly he left the prime minister of Poland, one of America’s few major allies in Iraq, waiting forlornly for an appointment that never came.

After two days of intensive consultations, administration officials unveiled a new policy. […] The administration put in its place a hastily improvised rush to “return power to the Iraqis.” In practice, this meant that in seven months the United States would hand over sovereignty to unelected Iraqis (presumably those on the American-appointed Governing Council, many of them former exiles, who had been pressing for such a rapid granting of power since before the war). Elections and a constitution would come later.

But, the genuinely revealing bit comes a bit further down:

The United States fields by far the most powerful military in the world, spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined, and as I write a relative handful of lightly armed insurgents, numbering in the tens of thousands or perhaps less, using the classic techniques of guerrilla warfare and suicide terrorism, are well on the way toward defeating it.

That is what soldiers have in common with lawyers. Companies that can afford the very best lawyers do tend to win their cases. Unfortunately, as many American companies have discovered, having the best and most expensive lawyers money can buy often means you can’t afford to fight nuisance lawsuits. It costs too much to deploy the forces you’ve paid for.

This article suggests that there is a good analogy between the best lawyers and the best army. The war in Iraq is costing the US somewhere in the ballpark of $100 billion when you count interest on the natonal debt created by it. This amounts to roughly $1000 per US household. (See Cost of the War in Iraq for an explanation of this back-of-the-envelope figure. Then divide by approximately 100 million US households.) When what is placed against this is some ever more distant, poorly defined goal, like the liberalisation of the Middle East or the end of terrorism, it starts to look cheaper and cheaper to settle.

3 thoughts on “What soldiers have in common with lawyers

  1. Interesting that Mcluhan is resurfacing. We have a very selective memory here. He is the giant on whose shoulders we can stand to understand what the real impact of the net might be. I am planning material for January on this.

    But meantime, and on the matter in hand: I think there is a serious problem looming. At least for anyone with sense of trying to preserve what is ‘good’ inside all of us.

    In the probable eventuality that he is tried and sentenced to death: what will happen on the day of the execution. Will we have the entire western world ensconced in front of the telly, complete with six packs and takeaway pizzas like it was the final of the world cup?

    What will that do to all of us? And what will be the impact of the Muslim world?

    Why didn’t he suffer the same fate as his sons?

  2. Comparing Saddam’s probable execution to the final of a sporting event is quite appropriate:

    For all the excitment and emotion of each, neither is particularly significant in the larger scheme of things.

    Saddam wasn’t shot up because turning his sons into swiss cheese didn’t turn out to be the crowd-pleaser that the D.C. overseers thought it might be. They get more mileage out of him alive and “cooperating in spite of himself” than they do out of his carcass.

    His death will change little in the Arab war because he has already been discarded.

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