Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers


Removing Saddam from Baghdad.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Like Hitler, Saddam Hussein has shown flashes of strategic caginess — in summer 1990 gobbling up Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia before perplexed diplomats realized what he was really up to. And also like all such megalomaniacs, he ultimately displays the classic symptoms of imbecilic overreach.

As with Napoleon’s or Hitler’s insane invasions of Russia — or Japan’s attacks on England and America while bogged down in China and with a hostile Soviet Union nearby — so too Saddam’s arrogance predictably sealed his own fate. His armies did not merely pillage and then leave Kuwait in triumph — a gambit that would have blackmailed the Gulf kingdoms for a generation, jacked up the price of oil, guaranteed him by 1995 an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons, and avoided war with and defeat by the United States — but rather stupidly tried to annex it outright.

Yet along the way Saddam has shown amazing resilience and an occasional diabolic unpredictability that we should still keep carefully in mind. We thought him crazy to fight a conventional war against an American-led army in an open desert. Instead, he counted on our generosity of spirit in allowing him to live, and thus to boast that survival against such odds was, in fact, victory for a lone-beleaguered Arab nation fighting Westerners and Israel. And to a certain degree he was right, if the present-day pan-Arab tolerance for — and even private admiration of — such a cutthroat are any indication.

The first Bush administration — despite all the creative postbellum exegeses — failed to grasp that the purpose of war is always to achieve a strategic closure, in this case the removal of the reason we had to go to war in the first place: Saddam Hussein himself. He was what Thucydides called the aitia — the truest cause — of the war. Had Gettysburg been followed a year afterward by the election of McClellan and a tolerance of continued slavery, then all those thousands killed really would have fallen in vain. Like the allies at Versailles in 1919 who let the Germans surrender in France and Belgium, in the years after the first Gulf War we sought a tough armistice — inspections, no-fly zones, sanctions, and boycotts — without first ensuring that the enemy felt defeated. Generosity is preferable in peace, but only when adversaries have first been crushed in battle and disgraced afterward.

So in some sense, Saddam, the illiterate peasant — and not our degreed generals and nuanced diplomats — knew his history. He, not us, better understood that our devastating victory on the field of battle in 1991 was not synonymous with real resolution. Along the way, his tactic of using Western hostages as human shields, sending 39 Scuds into Israel, torching the oil fields of Kuwait, and murdering Shiites and Kurds within sight of victorious but impotent American troops revealed a ruthless audacity that for a time caught both Israel and us off-guard.

What, then, can we expect from such an erratic schemer this time? He has learned that a conventional battle with the United States amounts to a circus in which thousands of poor draftees surrender to either helicopters or Italian reporters. Therefore we should realize that Saddam accepts that on Day One of the next war, he will lose his entire air space. He concedes as well that, a few days later, what provincial conscripts do not surrender will, like the Taliban, be obliterated in the field. Some regional cities staffed by such units could fall within hours to coalition forces and popular uprisings.

In short, his only real alternative is to circle his wagons in Baghdad and accept the realization that his own people loathe rather than support him. We see that popular discontent as a given and to our great advantage; he accepts the former reality, but not altogether the latter.

Why? This time we are not necessarily at war with the Iraqi people — blood-drunk on Kuwaiti loot, fleeing from rapine on the highway of death, arrogant with dreams of conquered provinces in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and not yet suffering from sanctions and boycotts. Instead, we often ask, Are Iraqis belligerents to be defeated or victims to be liberated? Will they fight and join us to be freed — or watch on the sidelines as neutrals to gauge the ebb and flow?

And herein lies the problem: We are suddenly supposedly at war not with tens of thousands of veteran conscripts in the desert, but only with 50,000 or so tribal thugs who owe everything to Saddam, killers who have everything to lose with his defeat and nothing to gain with a humane government in his place. Ensconced in Baghdad — in private homes, mosques, hospitals, and tunnels — with access to biological weapons and perhaps a few Scuds — in theory they will be hard to evict and harder to hit amid women and children as they strike from afar. They are, in other words, analogous to the Taliban gangsters in Kabul or Kandahar — only more numerous, savvier, and perhaps with a few missiles and lots of germs.

In addition, it is no accident that Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas, and Hezbollah leaders have all felt at home in Baghdad, or that he sends subsidies to Hamas killers on the West Bank. We should expect, then, that Saddam has access to terrorists and can pass frightful weapons to them with which to strike from the outside while he is besieged. Our pundits dicker over whether there is “proof” he works with al Qaeda — heedless of the fact that every terrorist of the last two decades has sought money, sanctuary, and weaponry from Iraq.

Yet should an Iraqi Scud or terrorist agent spread anthrax in Israel or contaminate Oman, whom are we going to hit back? And if we don’t retaliate, will we establish a precedent that a Middle East psychopath can send germs against American troops with impunity? Last time, whispers of a tactical nuclear response against the Euphrates dams might have proved a deterrent to his use of poisons, but not now. Saddam is as much at war with his own people as we are, and sees their very hatred of him as an odd sort of lever with us. Why would America bomb or destroy a citizenry and infrastructure through which we hope to implant democratic government — especially one that is daily transmogrifying into desperate victims rather than supporters of fascism?

If Saddam can hold out for a month or two in Fortress Baghdad, use his own population of millions as veritable hostages whom he prays will be casualties to collateral bombing damage, snipe at Americans who venture Mogadishu-fashion into his redoubt, and like Chechens send out an occasional salvo or some terrorists to cause havoc — he believes he can create a war of attrition and wage it with a few thousand diehards hidden among the general population. Under such a scenario, merely his continued survival will be a rallying cry that not only might change Iraqi opinion, but could galvanize the Arab street should Americans or Jews start dying in real numbers.

Or so he thinks.

Fortunately, we neither need to blast through Baghdad to fight the Republican Guard house-to-house in a Grozny-like operation, nor in retaliation for a dirty Scud nuke his dams or cities. Fortress Baghdad need not be stormed as was Stalingrad, but only stewed — surrounded, cut off, and squeezed. As his control is carved away province by province, mass exoduses from a surrounded capital could begin. Milosevic and Noriega both dared the United States to enter their strongholds; instead we realized that the combination of a few precision bombs on key elites, stealthy raids, and American magnanimity would convince hirelings that their submission was the better part of national valor.

Conventional forces can quickly win the skies and occupy most of the country without terrible losses on either side. The key will be in sealing off Baghdad, carefully obliterating by precision bombing Saddam’s key installations — and key people, by any means necessary — and then only at the proper time inserting armored columns to occupy whole neighborhoods. Taking Baghdad will be tricky, but not at all impossible or even a necessarily protracted task — if we exercise patience and do not become too reckless.

The sight of the individual estates and headquarters of Baathist grandees going up in smoke will have a powerful effect. Not only will such GPS-guided destruction weaken the Hussein thugocracy, it will also send a visible message to Iraqi onlookers about who and what is and is not targeted — and why. In this new war, terrorists and abettors of terror are slowly learning that a smart missile can hunt out and vaporize their own lavish nests — a sort of Westernized mechanical intruder every bit as scary and deadly as their own al Qaeda suicide-bombers.

Finally, we should remember that we are not battling fanatical Germans in Berlin nor grim Russians in Stalingrad, but more a band of felons and murderers who, as of yet, have fought against Iranian conscripts and defenseless Shiite and Kurdish women and children — but not against American Rangers, Marines, Special Forces, and Air Force pilots, who in Saigon and Hue during the Tet Offensive, in Panama City, and in Belgrade showed their skill in expelling far more formidable urban enemies without themselves suffering large numbers of casualties.

Much now is written of the ferocity of the Republican Guard, but we should recall that they were hours away from obliteration in 1991 — and were saved then only by a magnanimity that will not be repeated by a post-9/11 America.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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