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December 2, 2004

The Season Isn't Over Yet

I've never been a huge fan of sports. Oh, I enjoy playing them, and I think their organization is an important aspect of the world that we create for children. It's the viewing — the fandom — that never appealed to me. One reason for my athletics apathy is that I tend to be a then-do-it type of guy; whether the "it" is music, Web design, or pole vaulting, enjoying somebody else's performance merely spurs me to my own. The flip side of that urge is a hesitance to critize when I lack the ability or aggregate information to do something or to make a relevant judgment.

Although I don't recall a specific instance, a general sense of folks without that hesitance has been with me since I was a boy. The image is of the bleachers-sitting fathers of Little Leaguers complaining about the coaching of their childrens' team — not so much citing observed shortcomings and offering considered remedies as cycling through a litany of general-theory can'ts and oughts (as well as bragging).

Apart from the dubious wisdom of their collected expertise, there's an element of case-specific ignorance that permeates such idle declarations. Has one of the fielders suffered an embarrassing injury that only his parents and coach know to take into account? Are there indications that playing the best and second-best players non-stop will cause the fifth through tenth–best players to quit? Is there some guiding principle that can't be revealed for practical reasons?

As is probably evident, this meandering post is not really about sports. Indeed, one of the reasons I think organized athletics are important for children is the degree to which they teach important lessons without being so self-defeatingly blunt as to spell them out. The particular lesson at hand applies to just about any aspect of society, but the area in which it has seemed most egregious, of late, is war.

Even granting some allowance for pundits' need to make it seem as if they know what they're talking about, a post by Andrew Sullivan leaves me shaking my head:

News flash: we need more troops in Iraq. Duh. The truth is: we needed far more from the very beginning - and this incremental increase, which reflects the enemy's tenacity as much as ours, is exactly the kind of mission creep we should always have avoided. I'm still dumbfounded by the political branch's refusal to acknowledge this before now, and the lame excuse that the only justification for more troops would be if the commanders demanded them. The level of troops - like the war in general - is far too important to be left to the military. Such decisions require political and strategic judgments that can only be made by the commander in chief.

To consolidate my response in a question: Why can't maintaining just the troop level that commanders request be a political and strategic judgment in itself? In its approach to exerting its military force around the world (nation building and all that), especially in Iraq, the U.S. is attempting to walk a line between two undesirable impressions, with the possibility of abandoning the cause altogether on one side and the possibility of absorbing other countries in an American empire on the other.

America's enemies have learned to leverage its fleeting political will to fight in distant lands, and people in the Middle East are famously sensitive to rhetoric about a Modern Crusade. It seems to my far-from-expert eye that one way to accomplish the necessary political balance between these two realities is to keep troop levels reasonably close to articulable need and not to hesitate to send them when the need is articulated. The Washington Post piece to which Sullivan links begins thus:

Senior U.S. military commanders in Iraq say it is increasingly likely they will need a further increase in combat forces to put down remaining areas of resistance in the country.

Now that a major enemy stronghold has been taken, broader forces are becoming necessary. Discerning a CYA subtext, here, doesn't strike me as required. I don't ask this with an implied answer, but what would additional troops have done in the meantime? Among whatever tasks they could have accomplished, they would certainly have served as additional targets for insurgents who still had a place of retreat. They also would have enhanced the power of anti-imperialist rhetoric. One thing they wouldn't have been doing is contributing to the impression — mostly important to the President's global strategy — that we are not currently overextended. Another thing they wouldn't have been doing is spending time with family — or at least resting in the execution of lighter duty.

I guess I just don't understand how it can be called "mission creep" to send American men and women into the battle zone only when they are needed for a specific purpose. Mission creep occurs when a group starts undertaking tasks that aren't obviously related to its objective, and the circumstances that foster it often involve idle hands.

That the coach is not adhering to the game plan of any given bystander is not evidence that he doesn't have one. Giving commanders only as many boots on the ground as they know what to do with is not, as Sullivan insists, "passivity." (Even less passive is the implied preference for keeping levels to a minimum.)

Phrases, spoken with puzzling authority, such as Sullivan's that troop level "is far too important to be left to the military" may sound shrewd to those hanging over the chain-linked fence by third base. But it's curious that so many on the sidelines don't seem to understand that Sullivan's next sentence applies to them, as well: "Such decisions require political and strategic judgments that can only be made by the commander in chief."

Posted by Justin Katz at December 2, 2004 12:17 PM
International Affairs

Sullivan needs to learn a little concept used very effectively by well run businesses throughout the world - just-in-time inventory. Rather than having loads of widgets sitting around, collecting dust, and waiting to become obsolete (or destroyed in an unforeseen flood), you only stock enough to meet the current sales plus lead-time to replenish. No more, no less. Aren't "conservatives" always harping on the gov't should act more like business? And when they do, he criticizes. go figure.

Posted by: c matt at December 3, 2004 12:11 PM

Hold on a minute. Slow down. Just stop it! You are writing way too many blogs that are just too Blogworthy to pass up. As if I don't have too many choices to make already. :-)

Posted by: ELC at December 3, 2004 3:00 PM

Well, ELC, of all the problems I thought I had just now, writing too much didn't seem like one of them. Thanks, though.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 3, 2004 4:04 PM