A Long War in a Nutshell: A Look Back

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Views on the war in Iraq now transcend reasonable discussion. The war rests in the realm of emotion, warped by the hysteria of partisan bickering. 

The result is that we have forgotten why we invaded Iraq in long-ago 2003. We cannot agree why we had problems after the stunning removal of Saddam Hussein. And we are not sure either whether we are winning — or why we even should.

Why We Invaded

After the victory of the 1991 Gulf War, a bipartisan consensus had emerged that Saddam Hussein had to be contained — by both arms and sanctions. Our government wanted to prevent him from using oil revenues to obtain more dangerous weapons, destroying more of his own people, and from attacking or invading yet a fifth nearby country. Few, if any, disagreed.

But after September 11, and the realization that state-sponsored terrorists from the Middle East had the desire to destroy the United States and the capability to do it great harm, the decade-long containment of Saddam Hussein, in light also of his serial violations of both armistice and U.N. accords, was considered inadequate. Few disagreed.

So both houses of Congress, backed by an overwhelming majority of the American people, authorized the use of military force to remove Saddam Hussein, at the vigorous request of the President. 

The WMD Debacle

Though the Congress in October 2002 formulated 23 different reasons why Saddam posed a threat to our security, the administration — in easy hindsight, quite wrongly — mostly privileged and exaggerated just one writ: Saddam’s arsenals of weapons of mass destruction might enhance Middle East terrorist operations enough to trump even what we had witnessed on 9/11. 

Supporters of a narrow war to remove WMDs relied on a past, though false consensus of such an existential threat; it was one, however, that had nevertheless prompted embargoes, sanctions, no-fly zones, and periodic bombing. Perhaps they were sure of such a WMD danger because it had been formulated at home in the 1990s and echoed abroad by both European and Middle Eastern agencies — and alone would galvanize the public in a way the other sanctioned casus belli might not.

Nevertheless, when such weapons were not found in Iraq, and the insurgency imperiled the brilliant three-week victory, the case for the war, in the eyes of many, collapsed. It did so on both moral and practical grounds. For some reason, no one cared that the other twenty-some Congressional causes were still as valid as when they had been first approved in October 2002.

The Victory over Saddam

We now argue over the requisite number of troops necessary in the aftermath of Iraq. Few, however, complain about the three-week victory of March and April 2003, in which U.S. military and coalition forces, at very little loss, destroyed the Baathist government and removed Saddam Hussein with about 250,000 troops. Someone did something right, though exactly who and what is now forgotten.

The War Over the War

The real controversy arose, however, over the subsequent four-year occupation and reconstruction, in which nearly 4,000 American lives were lost and over a half a billion dollars were spent to stabilize the fragile postwar democracy. 

The debate, since 2003, has hinged on our own culpability, and postfacto, on our reasons for going into Iraq in the first place. It has focused almost solely on American lapses, not recognition of either the capability, or zeal, or brutality of the enemy. Acrimony instead arose over our inability to stop the looting, the dissolution of the Iraqi army, the laxity in patrolling ammunition dumps and borders, the first pull-back from Fallujah, and our naiveté in allowing Shiite militias, particularly those under the control of Moqtada Sadr, to act as destructive surrogates for an ascendant Iran. 

The Taboo Considerations

Rarely did anyone remind the American people — nor would they have desired to hear — that in all of America’s major wars such tragic errors of commission and judgment were commonplace, or that our present lapses were not in that regard at all unique. The initial victory had raised expectations so high that such reflection would have been seen as little more than morbid fatalism.

Rarely also did we hear that our missteps were not only correctable (as for example the recapture of Fallujah or the reconstitution of the Iraqi army attest), but also did not imperil the ultimate goal of stabilizing the Iraqi government. And almost none suggested that in a televised war of the postmodern age, it is difficult for a liberal Western society to defeat and humiliate an enemy — at least to the degree necessary for it to accept a radical change of heart. 

Also forgotten was any appreciation of the magnitude of the undertaking — going 7,000 miles into the ancient caliphate to foster constitutional government where it had never taken root, among outright enemies like Iran and Syria, and duplicitous allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In that regard, to suggest the tragic loss of lives and money in Iraq were, by standards of our past major wars, a reflection of American competence and concern was paramount to blasphemy.

The Continuance

Yet for all the acrimony and dramatic loss of both political and public support, the United States continued its efforts to secure the fragile democracy and unite the warring factions. Apparently enough, Americans assumed that even the costs and heartbreak of this persistence paled in consideration of the dangers to both the security of the region, and our own security, incurred by a sudden flight and American defeat in the face of victorious Islamic insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists. 

So we stayed, and we learned, and we persevered. Classical arguments for victory prevailed, despite being caricatured and deemed simplistic: whatever transient emotional, financial, and moral advantages were to be had by fleeing Iraq, they would all be overshadowed by the eventual human and financial costs of our utter defeat. 

Against the War

There was little opposition to the war when it began, at least if public polls and congressional authorizations were fair indicators. But by 2004, as more American lives were lost to insurrection, and Iraqis began to suffer sectarian violence, the war insidiously lost support among the American people. The new prevailing sentiment is best collectively summed up as “My brilliant three-week war was ruined by your insanely stupid occupation”. 

Politicians who had adamantly railed about the dangers of weapons of mass destruction and the need not only to remove Saddam, but to stay and help the Iraqis, now either denied they had done so, or suggested they had been misled by cooked intelligence. Or, in rarer cases, they admitted that their good idea of removing Saddam was now more than nullified by the incompetence or nefariousness of the Bush administration. 

It was more common here at home to hear defamation of our allied Iraqi democrats, than of the enemy al-Qaeda terrorists and insurrectionists who tried to murder them. While there was no doubt that exaggerated claims of WMD and connections to al Qaeda in Iraq had contributed to the anti-war surge, it is also a fact such opposition was fueled largely by the impression of ongoing American stasis or defeat in Iraq.

Four national American elections heightened the acrimony. Each witnessed a gradual evolution from public support to disavowal. The 2002 voting during the lead up to the war saw affirmation for the notion of removing Saddam. 2004 witnessed a nation split over the costs versus benefits of staying in Iraq. 2006 reflected a radical shift against the war. The verdict is out on 2008, though it appears the surge has prompted many critics to once again adjust positions.

The level of vituperation was only matched in the American Civil War and during the Vietnam War. At various times our troops were denigrated by U.S. Senators and Congressmen as terrorists, cold-blooded killers, ethnic cleansers, and analogous to the soldiers of Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam, or Stalin. Novels, documentaries, movies, ads, and celebrity interviews charged our generals with treason, our elected officials with Nazi-like characteristics, and urged defeat, impeachment, and trials as correctives.

The Turnaround

There is no longer serious doubt that by any fair measure the situation in Iraq has radically improved by the end of 2007. All markers point to some degree of improvement — fewer civilian and military lives lost, violence lessened, essential services improving. It is difficult to know exactly why and how this change came about, as it is so often hard in military history to chart exactly when and why such frequent turnabouts occur. 
Tens of thousands of now mostly unknown American soldiers took a frightful toll on insurgents and terrorists between 2003-2007, to such an extent that many enemy groups were increasingly incapable of continuing. 

Gen. David Petraeus and his staff were able to convince the administration to surge 30,000 additional troops to tip the strategic balance, so that the American military might have the necessary force to ensure everyday Iraqis better security. 

Petraeus was also able to change our military strategy from one of counterterrorism to a broader counterinsurgency plan that was far more successful in enlisting Iraqis to fight the common enemy. 

The enormous surge in oil prices, which peaked at $98 a barrel, ensured revenue for infrastructure and services, and of equal importance, a promise of a better future on the horizon. 

Al Qaeda upped the ante by sending its operatives into Iraq, gradually alienated the population by its atrocities, and thereby pushed Sunni tribesmen into a de facto alliance with the U.S. military. The fear of Iran, and the Shiite-dominated government convinced the Sunni tribes that they would only lose more influence should they continue their resistance.

The result is not just that Iraq is quieter and has a good chance to stabilize, but also that the violent alternatives to such a resolution have mostly been attempted and failed. We are witnessing, then, a sort of catharsis of worn-out citizenry who attest by experience that armed force will not result in victory, while political participation and petroleum wealth may get them some of the prestige, power, and money that they had previously sought unsuccessfully through arms. 

The Verdict?

The final verdict on Iraq will hinge on its outcome — whether the elected government ensures stability, safety, and prosperity to the majority of Iraqis without resort to either theocracy or dictatorship. Even in the event of a positive outcome (an American victory), however, critics will still insist that such results were not worth the commensurate cost in American lives and money. They will also argue that whatever good comes of Iraq is largely nullified by the prewar exaggerated claims for al Qaeda and WMD in Iraq.

Supporters, in turn, will counter that the worst and most dangerous state in the Middle East now has the possibility of becoming the best. Islamic radicalism in its abhorrent manifestations suffered a terrible defeat in Iraq, its frontline fighters killed en masse, its agendas rejected freely by Arab peoples, and its overall prestige lowered in the Islamic world — with beneficial repercussions from Libya to Lebanon.

The question of oil and the war is largely forgotten. Critics once chanted “no blood for oil,” but they quieted when the price shot up and the Iraqis themselves profited enormously from it. Supporters of the war did not wish to prove that cheap, accessible oil was not the main reason to go to war by the painful reminder that its price is now disastrously high and imperils the economy of the United States.

Lessons from Iraq — the More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same

Prior to 2003, and in the wake of Panama, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, there was a strange orthodoxy that the future of American arms rested almost exclusively in precision weapons and smaller, specialized forces. 

Iraq taught us the opposite: conventional infantry forces in number, and equipped and led in innovative fashion, still remained indispensable. Force protection — from MRAP vehicles to the use of drones — will be as increasingly emphasized as its enormous costs are debated. A $100,000 wheeled robot used to destroy a $10 IED is emblematic of the dilemma.

Our military is too small for our assumed current geopolitical responsibilities. Either increase the former or cut back on the latter — or, better yet, do both.

It is not just lives lost that govern popular support, but also the length of hostilities. Had the American military lost 4,000 soldiers in a dramatic shoot-out around Baghdad in April 2003, followed by a peaceful occupation, public support would have remained high. 

But for an impatient American public, it was the duration, and sense of war without end or victory that provoked the opposition. War in our present century will have to be conducted far more quickly — even as we learn that is often impossible, given that human nature is unchanged and thus comes to wisdom very slowly.

For all our sophisticated media and nuanced politics, simply winning or losing still shapes views on war. There have been three radical positions on Iraq: a general support when it looked won; a general opposition when it looked lost; and a slow return to grudging reappraisal when it looks re-won. Politicians, academics, and pundits are hardly immune from, or embarrassed by, their own contorted reactions to these primordial emotions, as we now witness as columnists and politicians scramble to stake out new third positions sort of, kind of supporting the war.

The felony of untruth and distortion against a war counts far less than any misdemeanor in support of one. Photoshopped pictures, fraudulent documentaries, printed lies about flushed Korans, or bogus published stories about atrocities turn off the public less than a single untruth or hedge by a military officer or government official.

While the success of a war hinges on the military’s destruction of the enemy and our ability to win the hearts and minds of the population, critical time and support for those efforts are won only by non-stop explication, not periodic assertion. 

In an age of glitzy graphics, e-mail, instantaneous blogs, and minute-by-minute news updates, there is still no substitute for wartime oratory and brutal candor. We should assume in any future war, those in the media, the universities, and the arts will ipso facto oppose the use of force, which in turn can only be supported by arguments that are as moral and ethical as they are logically, honestly, and elegantly presented.

©2007 Victor Davis Hanson

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