The Rhetoric of Failure

Obama’s Afghanistan speech last night would have been adequate for a department store manager, informing the staff that extra help would be hired for the big Going Out of Business sale next year. It wasn’t very inspiring as a war speech. Inspiration is very important in warfare. As a modern liberal with an academic background, Obama sees military operations as unpleasant administrative chores, to be resolved rather than won… but Afghanistan is more than a distraction from the fun industry-nationalizing, trillion-dollar aspects of the President’s job, and resolution is never as inspiring as victory.

All military engagements boil down to questions of morale. Superior forces and technology are useful when they help to break the enemy’s morale. Wars are not won by killing every single member of the opposing army… especially when that “army” consists of raiding parties scattered through the civilian population, or terrorist sharks lurking in the calm waters of the American homeland. Even killing the enemy’s leadership does not bring automatic victory, because a motivated enemy who isn’t ready to surrender can always find new leadership.

Superior weapons only bring victory when you have the morale to pick them up and use them. When morale collapses, a nation becomes like Prince Humperdinck in “The Princess Bride,” dropping his sword even though he’s ninety percent certain the guy who just called him a vomitous mass can barely stand. Our military answers to civilian control, as is just and proper in a peaceful republic. Civilian morale is naturally less sturdy than the military. It follows that peaceful republics will always be vulnerable to failures of civilian will.

Direct attacks against American civilian populations have not broken morale… quite the opposite, in fact. I believe our faith and reverence for the skill and dedication for our military forces is one of the reasons why. When we were attacked on 9/11, we didn’t cower and beg for mercy, because we believed our military could do the job of protecting us and avenging the dead.

American civilian morale is most likely to deteriorate when citizens believe a military operation is no longer righteous. They tend to lose faith in prolonged operations because they think a righteous battle should be over quickly. The longer things drag on, the more mediaspace fills with stories about fallen soldiers, and the horrors suffered by enemy populations. In fact, since we have largely accepted a moral judgment that “enemy” populations don’t really exist – they’re all captives of their wretched leadership – it doesn’t take long for “baby milk factories” on enemy soil to begin manufacturing guilt and remorse.

President Obama has given no sense that he views the campaigns in Afghanistan or Iraq as righteous battles against dangerous enemies. It would be difficult for him to do so, since he spends so much time whining about inheriting the mess from his predecessor. It would have been hard for Harry Truman to have maintained American morale through victory in World War II, if he’d treated the war as a rotten mess dropped in his lap by an inconsiderate Franklin Roosevelt. An American president should take extraordinary efforts to reinforce the morale of civilians wearied by a “long” conflict the enemy is still eager to fight. Treating the War on Terror like a lousy headcold Obama caught because Bush forgot to disinfect the Oval Office telephones is a deadly mistake.

The entire Obama enterprise is suffused with a gloomy aura of despair, contrasting strongly with the “hope and change” rhetoric of the campaign. The primary theme of his presidency is government’s lack of faith in its citizens. Free people cannot be trusted to handle anything important without tight government controls. This attitude of condescension is coupled with a simply staggering degree of incompetence, as billions of dollars are stolen and wasted, to little effect. Anyone still trying to tune in the signal from this administration is hearing the most depressing funereal dirge: your lives are futile without the command and control of a government that cannot even handle the guest list of a White House state dinner. No wonder anyone taking those signals seriously is feeling enervated, and at least a little bit crazy.

Domestic morale has a considerable effect on the economy. Wrapped around the rocky core of commodities pricing and industrial capacity is a turbulent atmosphere of public opinion. When the emotional temperature of this atmosphere drops, the results are comparable to the failure of morale in wartime. The most powerful engine of capitalism does little good for a population too frightened and cynical to turn it on, just as potent weapons are useless to people afraid to draw them.

Every moment of the “historic” Obama presidency has been wrapped in the rhetoric of failure and decline. A nation slipping into endless debt, to buy off the social concerns of the moment, cannot help but feel helpless and doomed… because it wouldn’t be so quick to mortgage a future it believed in. To accept the leadership of Barack Obama, either in Afghanistan or at home, is to accept that triumph is a fantasy, and achievement is a relic of the past, so the only rational course is carefully managed decline.

I doubt the cadets suffering through Obama’s speech at West Point will have their spirits broken by the experience, but their parents – and the enemies of America – heard no talk of victory, and in wartime the only alternative to victory is defeat. Both at home and abroad, the argument that people should do their best, even though they can’t possibly win, will never be compelling or inspirational. A nation that still has fire coursing through its veins is hungry for inspiration, and will have to starve a little longer.