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The Question of Will


One element of Goldstein’s argument deserves some more attention. The focus on Will is common to conservative analysis of the Iraq War, and of war in general. Will, it is believed, is the key to victory. If we lack Will, as we (in the sense that the media, a certain percentage of the Democratic Party, and a certain percentage of the electorate consistute “we”) did in Vietnam, then we will suffer defeat. If we demonstrate that we have Will by attacking Iraq, or attacking Iran, or dropping some bombs on places where Iraqi civilians live, or torturing people, or disposing of international law, then our enemies will understand that we are not to be trifled with, and will slowly back away.

Why this focus on Will? I can think of three reasons. First, Will provides a simple, easy to understand, and utterly non-quantifiable explanation for outcomes. Lazy arguments will always be more popular than complex arguments. Second, the idea that Will is determinative of outcomes fits easily into a set of pop culture notions about success and victory. Finally, Will is compatible with a masculinist notions of conflict, combat, and victory that have roots in fascist thought.

It is common to hear the refrain, especially in wingnutty circles, that no war has ever been won by a country that lacked Will. Why did the French lose? Not because of insufficient doctrine or poor organization or poor intelligence, but because they lacked Will. Why did the Athenians lose? Because they lacked the Will to do what was necessary on Sicily. What must we do to win in Iraq? Demonstrate our Will. It’s fair to say that this is an explanation for victory and defeat that is wholly immune to any evidentiary evaluation. There is, simply put, no way to measure national Will. The explanation ends up being circular, as defeat demonstrates that a country lacks Will. It is simple, easy, unverifiable, and unfalsifiable. Contrary cases are rarely mobilized; could it be honestly argued that Japan and Germany in World War II had less Will than the Allies? Perhaps less than Russia, but the Western Allies? Moreover, the Will explanation leads to a clear policy prescription. We win by being tougher. This is an emotionally satisfying, if empirically uncompelling, argument.

The argument is echoed in popular culture. Recall this wonderful speech from The Usual Suspects:

One story the guys told me, the story I believe, was from his days in Turkey. There was a gang of Hungarians that wanted their own mob. They realized that to be in power, you didn’t need guns or money or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t. After a while, they come into power and then they come after Soze. He was small-time then, just running dope, they say. They come to his home in the afternoon, looking for his business. They find his wife and kids in the house and decide to wait for Soze. He comes home to find his wife raped and children screaming. The Hungarians knew Soze was tough, not to be trifled with, so they let him know they meant business.

They tell him they want his territory, all his business. Soze looks over the faces of his family. Then he showed these men of will what will really was.

Recall also Michael Corleone’s comment at the end of Godfather II, about how history has shown that anyone can be killed. In Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz demonstrates that only a Will to commit atrocity is necessary to defeat the Viet Cong. The Will explanation extends to athletics, as well. How often does a commentator explain a team’s victory through their commitment, courage, and Will rather than through the fact that it plays better and is more talented? As noted above, this explanation is attractive precisely because it is so lazy; the Yankees win games because they have talented players, not because they have Will. Nevertheless, pop culture evocations of the importance of Will are extremely common. Will plays better as a story than a sober analysis of things like capability, skill, or talent. Will is dramatic and surprising in a way that capability is not.

Finally, and I think that this is the most important element of the attractiveness of Will to warbloggers, the idea of Will is extremely appealing to a particular construction of masculinity. Toughness, understood as a male characteristic, is more important than skill, capability, technology, etc. The French lose because they are effeminate. The Democrats lose because they are effeminate (and shot through with feminists in any case). The individual warblogger may not have been trained for war, or have any particular physical talents, or have done much more to study war than read and re-read Victor Davis Hanson, but he knows that he is tough, and he knows that this toughness must matter in some way. As Goldstein displays so clearly, he is willing to think about difficult and awful things, like bombing Iraqi civilians, in a tough and manly way. He understands that horrible things must often be done in war because he is a Man, and knows that he cannot afford to have the illusions that women and children are allowed to have. He remembers Don Vito Corleone’s words,

Women and children can be careless. But not men.

and vows not to be the careless sort who would allow humanitarian considerations to get in the way of victory. The impulse is obviously a fascist one, familiar from the speeches of Mussolini and the films of Leni Riefenstahl, although it would not be fair to say that all those that entertain fascist impulses are, indeed, fascists. Nevertheless, the combination of virile masculinity, nationalism, war, the “decision”, Will, and disdain for weak-kneed intellectuals is a frightening one.

So, the reason for US difficulty in Iraq becomes a lack of Will. Had the United States the Will to ignore humanitarian considerations and just carpet-bomb Baghdad, we would have few difficulties. The Iranians, respecting our Will, would back down from their nuclear boasts. A contest of Will shall determine defeat or victory; nevermind that the Iraqi insurgents are willing to accept far higher casualties, a much longer struggle, and far greater physical insecurity than US forces would ever be willing to endure. This, indeed, is what makes the Will argument absurd in the context of Iraq; an insurgency, by its nature, ALWAYS displays more Will than an occupying power. This doesn’t mean that the insurgents always win, but it does mean that skill, capability, and technology have to be used in an effective and measured way, and that pointless invocations of Will are hardly constructive.

UPDATE: In comments, SteveG adds:

The notion of will is intended to eliminate all discussions of the cost of war, failures in the stretegy and execution of the war, the legality and legitimacy of the war,… The scope of consideration is limited as soon as will becomes an issue. When things are going poorly, the blame simply can be laid at the feet of those who lack the will — no mucking about with that pesky reality.

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