Do We Really Need More Troops In Iraq?

by Victor Davis Hanson

(A later version of this essay appears in the current issue ofCommentary Magazine.)

How many American troops should be posted in Iraq, beyond the present spike of 135,000—a number that was itself raised from the informally agreed-upon level of 115,000?

Critical Consensus

This question of numbers came sharply to the fore in April in light of the sudden toll taken on American forces confronting the insurrections in Falluja and Najaf. But the ferocity of renewed battle was not the only impetus behind the controversy. There was, for instance, the announcement in March that the new government of Spain was withdrawing its contingent from Iraq; the ongoing controversy over Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s sweeping reforms of the U.S. military and their immediate ramifications for peacekeeping operations; and the charges and countercharges over our actions in Iraq that have swirled about this year’s American presidential campaign. All this confusion has helped to push the issue of troop numbers to the front of public consciousness and to tie it inextricably to a still larger issue: namely, the success or possible failure of the American mission itself.

In no time, it seems, a critical consensus seems to have formed on the matter of numbers, embracing Senate Democrats, media talking heads, editorial boards from the New York Times to USA Today, and even a number of well-known conservatives. The emerging party line goes roughly like this. The new American military—lighter, faster, more flexible—has proved that it can take out almost any rogue regime (the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq) with ease. But it lacks either the skill or the will, or both, to ensure that such rapid victories will not, in the ensuing postwar chaos, transmogrify into a Vietnam-like quagmire or a Lebanon-like debacle. Only much larger numbers on the ground (the argument continues) can prevent opportunistic criminal gangs, terrorists, and religious extremists from intimidating nascent democrats and causing us in the end to leave things as bad as when we first arrived. In Iraq, specifically, the one-time target number of 105,000-115,000  American occupation troops is simply too small to secure the safety or help bring about the democratization of an uneasy populace of some 26 million. Therefore, anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 more American soldiers should be sent as quickly as possible, to reach an optimum force roughly comparable to the number of ground forces that won the war in the first place.

A variety of broad concerns are adduced in support of this conclusion. Critics point to the presence in Iraq of about 15,000 armed “contractors,” or private security guards, as evidence that uniformed American troops are stretched too thin to provide basic protection. They cite the military’s need to postpone the scheduled returns of both regular and National Guard units, whose tours of duty have been extended repeatedly. They note the apparently dwindling contribution to overall force levels now being made by other members of the original coalition. And they remind us of the often questionable loyalty to the new government of the shaky 200,000-man Iraqi security force, many of whose “soldiers” fled the scene of battle at Falluja at the first opportunity.

The usual villain in the critics’ indictment is Rumsfeld. If, as a species, military planners are too often guilty of rehashing the last war, Rumsfeld is purportedly too eager to fight the next one, obsessed with the enemies we will be facing in 2050 rather than those who are killing us right now in 2004. At a time of soaring budget deficits, coupled with the need for expensive new weapons systems—from air-refueling tankers to missile defense—Rumsfeld, charge the critics, has been criminally reluctant to reconstitute two or three more old-fashioned, $3-billion-a-year Army divisions of the type now situated outside some of Iraq’s most populous cities, relying instead on small pockets of counterinsurgency troops aided when necessary by precision air power and some armor. TheWeekly Standard, no beacon of liberal hand-wringinghas taken particular umbrage at Rumsfeld’s stubbornness on this issue: “If [the] current Secretary of Defense cannot make the adjustments that are necessary,” the Standard editorialized a while ago, “the President should find one who will.”

Others look elsewhere for culprits. For them, the real blame attaches to the White House, and specifically to its cynical subordination of military considerations to partisan political ones. In this view, a Karl Rove or Karen Hughes lingers in the logistical shadows, issuing election-year warnings about “mission creep” and conjuring up nightmarish recollections of the soon-to-be-lame-duck Lyndon Johnson, whose steady incremental reinforcements in Vietnam finally reached the 500,000-plus mark and, even so, left Gen. William Westmoreland complaining he was short-handed. The Bush politicos are said to fear that any increase in troops will be seized upon by the liberal media as still further evidence that we have entered an Iraqi swamp, putting ever larger numbers of Americans in the line of fire from all sides with no end in sight. Rather illogically, some newspapers that demand additional manpower on their editorial pages have also run cartoons and opinion pieces warning that such demands are themselves proof that we are back to 1965.

The Case Against the Critics

The critics’ concerns, if not the conclusions drawn from them, are in many cases sound and legitimate. But one factor that makes it difficult to adjudicate today’s argument over the proper number of soldiers needed in Iraq is that often it is the generals and official military planners, not their critics in the media, who complain vocally to their civilian sounding-boards of too few troops. Historically, manpower levees are like taxes, and the government that says it requires more of either of them can always find a self-fulfilling reason for such an increased need. Today’s reversal of roles may be one reason why the debate, such as it is, has taken place only between those who think we need greater numbers and others who assure us that we can make do with what we have. Scarcely anyone has advanced a contrary but, as we shall see, arguably stronger claim: namely, that 180,000 soldiers—or why not 300,000?—might even be deleterious to our efforts.

One standard reply to the critics, sometimes invoked by defenders of the administration, begins by pointing to our responsibilities elsewhere. In theory, the United States is supposed to be able to fight two full-fledged conflicts simultaneously. This is not an idle concern: second wars, or second fronts in wider wars, are more likely to break out after a first war has begun—the Nazis declared themselves at war with us only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Soviets often felt freer to probe in Europe and the Middle East when they felt assured we were fully committed in Korea or Vietnam. Thus, an America tied down in the Middle East is by definition more vulnerable in East Asia, the Balkans, or Central America.

If, moreover, we were indeed to increase the number of ground troops in Iraq to 180,000, the reinforcements needed immediately would have to come out of the at-risk theaters of southern Europe, Japan, or Korea. Such redeployments, however justified by the need in Iraq, would impinge upon fundamental bilateral relationships with major allies, and could not be undertaken lightly. Interestingly, very few of those who now insist on more manpower in Iraq seem ready to take the next (and necessary) logical step and demand that the requisite numbers be removed summarily from Europe or Asia.

As for private civilian guards, we should not assume that their presence is necessarily a sign of too few troops—any more than the presence of millions of security guards in the United States proves that there are too few police. Private consortia make their own judgments about their security needs, and will always have requirements that cannot be addressed by soldiers alone. The exact aggregate number of American, foreign, and Iraqi civilian contractors is not known; but in some cases, the Pentagon itself has outsourced responsibilities to such private concerns, suggesting that many of these often very well-trained and retired military personnel could be considered part of the overall security apparatus of the coalition occupation.      

But these arguments, though cogent enough, do not go to the heart of the case against the critics. To put it in a nutshell, although numbers are important, the mere size of a military force is not always commensurate with its ability either to beat an enemy or to keep the peace.

Alexander the Great, who never led an army numbering more than 50,000 men, defeated hordes five times that size in battle, and consolidated his victories with forces that were likewise vastly outnumbered. Julius Caesar conquered and held much of Western Europe with legions that numbered fewer than 40,000. The British defeated both Cetchewayo and the Great Mahdi with a few thousand redcoats, and held Zululand and the Sudan under control in the aftermath of victory. The British army’s campaign to crush the 1920 Iraqi revolt, undertaken with just a few thousand troops, is now described in pessimistic terms by critics as having taken “three long months”; the true wonder was both its economy and brevity.

The story of occupation is much the same as the story of warfare. Rome administered an empire of some 50 million people stretching over a million square miles with rarely more than 250,000 legionaries. India’s many millions were occupied by many fewer than a million of the Queen’s soldiers. After World War II, Italy, Japan,  Germany, and their territories together represented nearly 200 million occupied peoples; by 1947, the Allied armies exercising control over them amounted to a few hundred thousand. At one time, vast tracts of Sinai, the Golan, and the West Bank were secured by a few thousand Israeli soldiers.

Finally, what goes for soldiers applies for civilian personnel as well. The Coalition Provisional Authority currently has about 1,300 civilians working for it—too few, it is said, since MacArthur had four to five times that number in postwar Tokyo. Along similar lines, a recent Rand study suggests that 20 security personnel (presumably including Iraqis as well as others) are needed per 1,000 people to ensure residents the confidence to resume normal life—which works out to a figure of about 500,000 for the whole country. But that wooden formula does not take into account the fact that Kurdistan in the north is almost violence-free, while millions of other Iraqis outside the Sunni Triangle and Shiite strongholds in the south are mostly quiet. Moreover, unlike postwar Japan, Iraq is not in ruins; in a year’s time, it has seen its power, water, and oil production rise to prewar levels or above. [1]

Zero Tolerance

If numbers are not the only factors conducive either to military victory or to successful occupation, the question becomes one of how our present forces are being used. Here a general rule seems inescapable: defeating—even humiliating—an enemy decisively and then immediately establishing zero tolerance for the formation of militias and insurrectionists is a wiser strategy than stationing a vast, and often static occupation force over an opponent who does not believe he was defeated in the first place.

In this regard, we got off to an unfortunate start in the last days of the war. Worried about inflicting excessive damage on a tottering enemy in front of a worldwide television audience, we employed non-explosive GPS bombs, passed over retreating units of the Republican Guard, and avoided hitting infrastructure. Such magnanimity and caution, while admirable and understandable, may in hindsight have sent the wrong message first to looters, who made free with the infrastructure we spared, then to nascent private militias, and finally to entire cadres of resistance in Falluja and Najaf—the idea, that is, that U.S. forces would not put down those who in fact could be and should have been put down.

During the spring 2003 campaign, tens of thousands of Baathists tore off their Republican Guard uniforms in the face of artillery barrages, 2,000-pound bombs, and Abrams tank fire, and ran home. Shamed by this experience, subsequently unemployed because of the purification of Baathists, and exasperated by the derision heaped upon them on al-Jazeera television and elsewhere in the Arab world, many of these same runaways were elated to discover that it was one thing to shoot at Americans in broad daylight during war but quite another to implant by night an improvised explosive device on the route of a peacekeeping convoy. The former could earn you death or shame, the latter might well win honor without loss of limb.

From the American point of view, the lesson of this paradoxical moral calculus should have been that our restraint can earn us contempt rather than the gratitude we expect. Following the same line of thought, one might well have concluded in recent depressing circumstances that the more Americans withheld their overwhelming firepower to parley with insurrectionists, out of worry over greater uprisings or in fear of cultural or religious transgression, the more likely the enemy was to become emboldened—and thus the more likely it would be that we would indeed need far more troops to encircle far more Fallujas. To the critics, not having enough troops earned us one Falluja, to which they proposed more troops as the remedy; but the worse sin might have been our failure to use immediately and forcefully the powerfully equipped troops we already had on hand.

Thucydides did not believe the Athenian disaster at Syracuse was necessarily caused by the smallish armada sent over by imperial Athens—in all, 40,000 sailors and soldiers to conquer the entire island of Sicily and a city (Syracuse) larger than Athens itself. Rather, it was a result of Athenian indecision and inaction on arrival, which led to delay and confusion. The Athenians had established an unfortunate precedent: tens of thousands of their soldiers would not aggressively attack the enemy once they realized they had a real war on their hands rather than the walkover many had anticipated. That inaction convinced even more tens of thousands of uncommitted Sicilians that it was wiser to stay neutral, or perhaps join the Syracusans, than to throw in their lot with an Athenian expeditionary force that for nearly a year had not moved successfully on the city and might soon well abandon the effort.

One could multiply such examples. In this country, the Union dilemma through much of 1862-3 was not one of inferior numbers—quite the contrary—but of forces whose numerical advantage was nullified through passivity and ineptness. In stark contrast, by late 1864 William Tecumseh Sherman, with no more than 65,000 troops, had sliced through the middle of Georgia, its one million residents unwilling to oppose an audacious commander hell-bent on teaching them a lesson. A hundred years later, South Vietnam may well have been more stable in 1972—without the presence of 500,000 U.S. troops—than in 1967, precisely because by 1972 American bombing had at last begun to target strategically valuable assets in the North and was thus doing greater damage to the Communist hierarchy in Hanoi than all the costly and manpower-intensive search-and-destroy missions in the South.

A long line of American generals from Ulysses Grant to George S. Patton warned of the loss of morale and decay in battle-readiness that accrue from perennial garrisoning and holding off from attack. Outside Falluja in April, there were abundant signs of restlessness among our troops who wished nothing but to go after and defeat an enemy foolish enough to engage at last in an open firefight. Calls for more American troops during those depressing weeks may have suggested, however wrongly, that this was an occupier running scared, hoping to achieve by means of a show of superior materiel or manpower what he was unwilling—although ironically quite able— to achieve by fighting.

The dilemma is not only a question of military efficacy. The greater the number of troops deployed, the greater the expectations placed upon them and the more pressing the demands at home for immediate results. Contributing mightily to the Italian debacle in North Africa in 1941-2, when many units fled from British armored columns, was the fact that Mussolini had sent nearly a half-million troops who were unsure of their precise combat mission, but from whom great miracles were nevertheless expected. Their numerical superiority over the British—at one early point as high as ten to one—ensured that their defeat would be seen at home as especially disastrous.

The question of troop levels is also bound up with the issue of dependency, especially under conditions of occupation. The more U.S. troops pour into Iraq, the more the Iraqis would end up relying on the aegis of American power. No Iraqi general would be able to strut on television and tell the world’s reporters that his men had crushed the enemy—as many a Saudi officer did during Gulf War I—and, just as bad if not worse, none could be called to account for allowing a ragtag insurrectionist militia to rout a trained battalion. Robbed of any of the prestige of victory, the Iraqi military would also be excused from any blame attached to “our” setbacks.

Other damaging consequences can follow from too overwhelming a presence. In Vietnam between 1965-1969, a half-million support troops were finally necessary to ensure that about 50,000 ground combatants were in the field each day; jokes about the size of the American telephone directory in Saigon were legion. Even in today’s leaner and more professional army, each additional American soldier probably requires at least one or two additional support personnel. That means bigger base camps, which means more convoys, which means more large, well fed, and obtrusive Americans on the streets of Baghdad—ubiquitous Big Brothers in boots, Kevlar, and desert camouflage. Is this what we want: a higherprofile?

No Parlor Calculation      

None of us knows the number of troops that should now be stationed in Iraq. Should Iraqization fail, should insurrection increase, we might well end up needing more soldiers, in part because of our own past hesitancy to act promptly and forcefully against incipient insurrection. But lost in the present argument is the inescapable lesson of history: small armies, well-led and with established reputations for unpredictability and ferocity, can not only defeat numerically superior militaries but then impress quite large populations and occupy vast territories. Their relatively small size and finite presence can also help to convince interim governments that speed is of the essence in creating a highly visible, indigenous army and using it to put down insurrectionists—with obvious dividends for both public perceptions and the ease of transferring responsibility of governance to the occupied.

Our problem, in short, is not that Donald Rumsfeld is fighting wars with too few troops and then being too stingy in allotting occupation forces. Rather, our concern with restraining the use of the vast power of those already in the field has put us at risk of creating self-fulfilling prophecies. We have seen a Gulf War I and now a Gulf War II. Gulf War III is surely on the horizon if, failing to learn the lessons of the last two victories, we once more remove the stakes from the hearts of seemingly defeated and moribund killers.

Our goal in Iraq should be to restore overall security as soon as possible—and to do so as much as we can with a veneer of Iraqi help. If we use the present 130,000 American troops decisively, leave our record of victories as a legacy to the new government, and offer a stand-by constabulary reserve force of 30,000-40,000 troops backed by airpower unafraid to target bases and depots even beyond the Iraqi border, there is a good chance that the aggregate number of U.S. soldiers in the region need be no more than what it was before the first Gulf war and the rise of Saddam Hussein as a threat to regional peace and stability.

This is not a parlor calculation. The fate of hundreds of American soldiers in the next few months hinges not on how many we send, but on how they are used. There is a logic with clear historical precedents to whichever alternative we choose, and the choice is ours alone to make.

[1] Comparisons of Iraq with occupied Germany and Japan are fallacious for another reason: almost immediately, Allied troops had to worry about, and protect against, the possibility of foreign invasion from Communist Russia or China — a much greater threat than domestic unrest.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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