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Memos and the Kobayashi Maru

By Jackson Murphy
web posted October 27, 2003

Let's get one thing straight. This is not a column about Star Trek, but if Quentin Tarantino can begin a film citing a certain old "Klingon proverb", then I can use some Star Trek philosophy too, right? So do you remember the story in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan about the Kobayashi Maru?

The Kobayashi Maru was the simulator used by Starfleet academy as a practical final exam. It tried to test officers on the ultimate "no-win scenario." Of course William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk never believed in the no-win scenario and was successfully able to reprogram the simulator so that he could rescue the fictional Kobayashi Maru ship. "I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking. I don't like to lose," said Kirk.

Donald RumsfeldOkay, fine, you're still wondering what the point is of all this Star Trek naval gazing? Well last week Sec. Donald Rumsfeld, the closest thing to "Kirk" in the current administration, was the talk of the town when one of his memos was leaked to the press. Time now asks, "Is Rumsfeld losing his Mojo?" and Reuters speculates over what degree the "Republicans fret over Rumsfeld's drag on his party."

Rumsfeld's memo has sent shock waves over the debate on Iraq and the war on terror with its honest and brutal assessment of where we are now and where we need to go. If the War on terror is the no-win scenario, it is Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz who are charged with conceiving ways in which they can change the conditions of the test and win.

To get a sense of what he is up against The New York Times editorial is required reading. "This page has long argued that the war on terrorism must consist of more than a series of triumphal military offensives, especially when some of these, like the war in Iraq, bear no clear relation to the terrorist threat. We have also challenged the wisdom of giving the Pentagon a leading role in matters it knows little about, like nation-building and setting foreign policy. It was Mr. Rumsfeld who aggressively seized much of that turf and who brushed aside doubts about rushing into a war of choice with Iraq when so much remained to be done on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Now he appears to be acknowledging some of the same concerns. Better late than never."

Try ignoring the ridiculous notion that the Pentagon and its well trained and highly educated troops don't know much about nation-building or foreign policy. Historically they've done a pretty decent job at both. At its worst this carping and revision is about as helpful and dangerous as suggesting that the United Nations is especially good at solving world problems.

But this is the modus operandi of those who were and those who remain opposed to the war in Iraq and even the larger war on terror. So when the Secretary of Defense asks a few questions on the mission status of the future of the war, the choir of those who thought this was all a terrible idea start coming out of the woodwork.

In the now famous memo Rumsfeld wrote, "The questions I posed to combatant commanders this week were: Are we winning or losing the Global War on Terror? Is DoD changing fast enough to deal with the new 21st century security environment? Can a big institution change fast enough? Is the USG changing fast enough?"

This isn't an admission of failure, or even of failure in itself. This is responsible management of a vast new war. Those who noticed Rumsfeld's admission of a "long hard slog" in the memo probably never understood the situation we were in after 9/11. How quickly we forget how long and hard this war will be, and how long and hard the Bush Administration told us it would be.

But still there are those who won't let go. "It reads," says Slate's Fred Kaplan, "eerily like some internal mid-'60s document from The Pentagon Papers that spelled out how badly things were going in Vietnam (just as President Lyndon B. Johnson and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, were publicly proclaiming tunnel light and victories)."

Frankly this memo has very little to do with Vietnam and more likely resembles some of the tough actions and evaluations during World War II. It sounds more like the memo preceding the victory at Midway in the Pacific by Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark, and Army Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall.

"Unless every possible effort is made, and every suitable available resource of weapons and shipping is devoted to the restoration of the safety of the Hawaiian Islands, the United States may suddenly face a major disaster through the loss of those Islands to Japan. Not only would this be a terrible political blow, but we would at once lose our power of taking an offensive against Japan, without which the war may at best become a stalemate."

Clear, concise, and honest. Just like the Rumsfeld Memo it reflects what needs to be done. If the Democrats had their way we would never have gone to Iraq and if they are elected next year look for the war on terror to become but a footnote in history and the danger to grow.

"It is also why it is critical that our country recognize that the war on terrorism will be long, difficult and dangerous," wrote Rumsfeld in Sunday's Washington Post. "And that as we deal with immediate terrorist threats, we also need to find ways to stop the next generation of terrorists from forming. For every terrorist whom coalition forces capture, kill, dissuade or deter, others are being trained. To win the war on terror, we must also win the war of ideas -- the battle for the minds of those who are being recruited by terrorist networks across the globe."

This brings us back to the no-win scenario of the Kobayashi Maru. If the war is going to be as long and hard as everyone suggests and as hopeless as some believe, then Rumsfeld and others are going to have to build better mousetraps ideally changing the conditions of the world. If that means taking the fight into the heartland of the Middle East, creating new organizations, reorganizing existing ones, snubbing the French, acting alone, or acting preemptively then that is what needs to be done. We shouldn't believe in the no-win scenario either.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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