Even among those who have never read Joseph Heller’s classic novel, most people know a catch-22 when they see it. But it is worth revisiting Captain Joseph Yossarian’s predicament because the details are instructive for understanding America’s current plight in Iraq.
Heller’s Yossarian is a bombardier in World War II suffering from a fit of conscience. When he goes to the squadron medical officer, demanding that he be relieved of duty on account of his looming insanity, the doctor tells Yossarian that his recognition that his conduct — risking his own life to drop bombs on innocent people — is insane reveals that he is sane. Any sane person would reasonably demand to be relieved of such duty, but only a truly insane person would be entitled to a discharge. The solution: get back in the plane, and drop more bombs. Eventually, Yossarian is told, you will fly enough missions to earn a ticket home—except for the fact that the Army keeps increasing the number of missions required to get home. Yossarian stays in Italy, dropping more bombs, as one by one his squadron mates are killed, “disappeared,” or lose their minds.
A catch-22 is a no-win situation. So long as one remains in the situation, one cannot win, no matter what one does. Such is the case in Iraq. On the one hand, the United States is responsible for ensuring the security of the Iraqi people, including the task of killing or capturing those who would prefer the country stay in a state of anarchy. On the other hand, whenever the United States tries to accomplish this task, the actions threaten or bring harm to some individuals who were not engaged in the insurgency. So the catch-22 is: America must harm Iraqis in order to liberate them.
There are some parallels to the American experience in Vietnam, when “winning the hearts and minds” was eventually boiled down to the absurd proposition that ” we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
But the problem of winning the hearts and minds is not unique to the U.S. military and its tactics. Every country that invades another country must contend with insurgencies, rebels and resistance. The noble intentions of the invader do not matter. When Napoleon sent forces into foreign lands, he declared that the French were coming to free the people from absolutist oppression, and that, as such, the natives should embrace the foreign fighters as liberators.
It didn’t work out that way. The Spaniards, who introduced the term “guerilla” warfare, and later the Russians, saw Napoleonic France as an invading empire, justifying territorial aggrandizement by wrapping its actions in the language of liberation. So they resisted, and eventually drove the French out of their countries, and Napoleon from power.
A sizable and growing majority of Iraqis want U.S. forces out of their country. According to an April poll, before the uprisings in Fallujah, the battles with Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia, and the revelations from Abu Ghraib, 57 percent of Iraqis wanted the occupation to end immediately, within a few months, and 67 percent believed that attacks against Coalition forces were justified at least some of the time.
Which brings us back to Yossarian. The one thing that he could not do — end the war — was the only thing that would have extracted him from his catch-22. U.S. policymakers, on the other hand, have always retained the ability to end the Iraq war. Although it becomes harder and harder by the day, it is still not too late to terminate military operations in Iraq on terms that, while painful in the short term, will make us far more capable of fighting Al Qaeda and other anti-American terrorists - a strategic victory in the long term.
The simplest and most effective way to undermine Osama bin Laden’s claim that he had “defeated” the United States by driving us out of Iraq would be to redirect those same resources — military, diplomatic and economic — on him. It is difficult to make videos for worldwide broadcast when bombs and cruise missiles are raining down around you. (Of course, it would help if we actually knew where he was.)
Political leaders in both parties understand the threat posed by terrorism to the United States. They know that the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is inflaming anti-American sentiment around the world. They recognize that this anger and resentment feed into bin Laden’s evil designs, facilitating his recruitment of terrorists. To know all of these things but to persist in pursuing a losing strategy … that is insane.