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Letter from the Editor: Summer 2009

Among the many lessons we have been advised to take away from six years in Iraq: war is hell, war is chaos, war is madness. I have never actually met anyone who believes otherwise, least of all senior officers in Iraq who, in the telling of many critics, believe they have been uniquely endowed with an ability to lift the fog of war.

From Sherman to Tolstoy to Catch-22 to Apocalypse Now, we get it. And if you really want to get it, in a way that will persuade you to forfeit anything in the world—including victory in Iraq or anywhere else—arrange to be around when the life of a young soldier evaporates. There was a time and place when this would happen daily, sometimes three or four times a day. When I asked how he coped with the everyday loss of his soldiers, the U.S. commander in this particular Iraqi town—an extraordinarily decent, compassionate man—replied that he viewed the battle in the way of a mathematical equation.

Where the layman saw chaos and carnage, whose viscera the commander not only saw but waded through day after day, he saw method and a path forward, operational schemes and tactical finesse. “It could be construed as a paradox of war that within its chaos there can be order,” the historian Clayton Newell writes. The military professional was right. He won the battle, pacified the town. As Ann Marlowe’s fascinating article in this issue makes clear, military science is no oxymoron.

None of which is to say that policymakers can free themselves from war’s ghastly logic. Whether it’s an infatuation with high-tech weaponry or low-tech counterinsurgency, one can take all of this too far—and, lately, a lot of people have. They prize operational considerations above moral and strategic ones, with war becoming the province of doctrine and technique. Tactical scoring, however, will never substitute for serious thinking about policy and purpose.

To assert, moreover, that the truly outstanding officer can mitigate the chaos of war is not to assert that he can mitigate its horror. In the above case, the hellishness of war increased in direct proportion to the clarity of its method, the human cost of victory exceeding nearly every gain of the Iraq War. As to the commander, I suspect he would trade the whole town for the life of one of his soldiers. That is the truest arithmetic of this war.

— Lawrence F. Kaplan

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