In Washington, they read. Foreign policy decisions made by men and women in suits, understandably too busy to embark on a fact-finding mission to every war zone, disaster area or human rights debacle, often depend on the labor of reporters (who report) and experts (who filter raw eyewitness accounts into something historically and politically resonant, primed for the partisan echo chambers). In October, in the thick of the Beltway debate over the best course of action in Afghanistan, the Wall Street Journal observed that White House and Pentagon policy-makers were studying two histories that draw divergent lessons from the Vietnam War. (The article did not challenge the plausibility of the Afghanistan-Vietnam analogy itself.) One, Lessons in Disaster, by Gordon M. Goldstein, warns about the dangers of accepting military advice as gospel; the other cautions against bowing to popular dissent and discontent when a counterinsurgency fight is still winnable. According to the Journal, the latter book, A Better War, by former Army lieutenant colonel and CIA official Lewis Sorley, had already “shaped the debate over the 2007 troop surge in Iraq: Military commanders and top Pentagon civilians pushed the book ardently on surge skeptics, winning important converts.” Of the two books, A Better War was not the one positioned on President Obama’s nightstand.
A study like Sorley’s, although culled from oral interviews and tape recordings of combatants, still gets written at some remove from actual combat. Those who extrapolate policy from the author’s conclusions are heading straight for its revisionist lessons without firsthand experience of the mistakes. The pain of combat is immediate, but the consequences of war can take decades to suss out–otherwise, Vietnam wouldn’t be today’s hot topic on Capitol Hill. The big question, for all the election-year calls to “support the troops” and “think of the soldiers,” is whether the cognitive (and, of course, physical) distance between the volunteer forces who fight Uncle Sam’s wars and the elected officials who declare war can ever be narrowed. Exploring that chasm is what gives the recent world-historically depressing British comedy In the Loop, which portrays the run-up to the Iraq War as a series of petty ego clashes between cynical spin doctors, its bitter kick.
Nations and their leaders have no more existentially fraught responsibility than their power to declare war. And in Washington, and everywhere else that isn’t on the field of battle, we read, ideally, in hopes of discovering what war is like, though any soldier will tell you we can know nothing about what it is. Because to be sent to war is to be ordered to commit acts of justified murder.