Doom, Doom and More Doom

Should we trust past facts or present hysterics?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

What can we expect from the possible invasion of Iraq? Everything in war is of course uncertain — an awful time when the lives of thousands of soldiers hang in the balance, and brutal, dirty events can spiral out of control the moment the shooting starts. Yet we should be careful in once more believing the pessimistic commentators in newspaper ads and on television who are now warning of several “hundred thousands” of dead, of chaos, of mass starvation, and of internecine killing.

“Hundreds” of dead go to “thousands” and onto “millions” in the blink of an eye — not unlike Robert McNamara’s fiery warnings to Congress a dozen years ago that “thousands and thousands and thousands” of Americans would surely die in the 1991 Gulf War.

It is not that such boilerplate pessimism is always wrong on the eve of war — who, after all, could have predicted the butcher’s bill that came after rosy predictions of quick resolutions on the eve of Bull Run or August 1914? But it is still easier to issue gloomy prognostications than to offer more optimistic appraisals: We humans are by nature afraid of the unknown, and the generic warning of slaughter in war seems to carry more moral weight than suggesting that there is on occasion even a utility or morality in the use of arms to stop evil.

Indeed, those who say Saddam Hussein can be removed without great loss of life are vulnerable to the charge of either naiveté or bloodlust in their belief that the horror of shooting and bombing now will still save far more lives later on. Yet unwarranted gloom in war is never proof of morality nor does optimism in national prowess reveal amorality.

So what does the past tell us? First, we should not listen to hysteria. Noam Chomsky spent an autumn warning of “millions” of dead to come in Afghanistan. Wrong. More respected and often reasonable commentators such as William Pfaff (“The utility of the bombing is hard to defend. It was believed able to bring down the Taliban government, but that is not happening.”) and R. W. Apple (“Afghanistan as Vietnam” / “Signs of progress are sparse”) assured us that after a few days of fighting in Afghanistan we were in a quagmire. Wrong again.

For much of the fall of 2001, I listened to and often debated a number of commentators who pontificated about the high peaks and the “Afghan winter,” Ramadan, the Russian and British empires, the Arab Street — about almost anything but the respective history and efficacy of the American and Taliban military forces. And rather than being contrite about their error in predicting American slaughter in Afghanistan, our critics have moved on to Iraq to find renewed opportunity to vent their almost religious cultural pessimism.

Recently Hans von Sponeck, the former U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, assured us that the U.S. ” will lose the war. This will be World War Three.” And after warning us that there is little chance of a swift and easy victory in Iraq, Immanuel Wallerstein of Yale predicts that the “most likely” scenario is “a long exhausting war.” But even that may be too optimistic, since “losing, incredible as it seems (but then it seemed so in Vietnam too) is a plausible outcome, one chance in three.”

Instead of listening to this dejection, we should examine the 30-year record of the Iraqi army in a series of wars against the Kurds in the 1960s and ’70s, the Yom Kippur fighting against Israel, the surprise attacks on Iran and Kuwait, and the first Gulf War, as well as several barbaric actions against the Shiites.

True, the Iraqi army has shown flashes of dash and organization — it seemed energetic during the first few weeks of its 1988 counterattack into Iran and the 1990 assault on Kuwait. Military analysts, perhaps too charitably, have asserted that the Republican Guard, which was nearly annihilated on February 26-7, 1991, at least held firm, even as many of its tanks were incinerated — reminiscent of the earlier armored brigades that kept charging even as they were obliterated by the outnumbered Israelis on the Golan Heights.

But despite displays of personal courage, the Iraqis as a rule have not fought well when confronted by opponents who were not weak or in disarray, as were the shocked Iranians and Kuwaitis. In earlier Kurdish wars, sporadic attacks against Israel, and the first Gulf War, Iraqi performance was generally dismal. And even the sudden infusion of French planes and the training in France of Iraqi aircrews did not mean air superiority over weak Iranian pilots.

In all these wars, command was uneven, morale low, flexibility and initiative of officers uninspiring, weapons often poorly maintained and not employed as they were designed to be used — the wages of a dictatorial society, where tribalism, not meritocracy, governs promotions, pay is low, enlisted military service earns little status, men fight out of fear rather than with a sense of freedom and initiative, and technology is imported rather than the natural dividend of a modern approach to research, development, and manufacturing.

That the whole Arab world translates fewer books each year from English than does Greece really does affect how well its armies use their purchased advanced weapons. Military parasitism works well enough with small rifles, terrorist bombs, and rockets; but with large assets such as planes, tanks, and ships their proper deployment, maintenance, and optimum tactical use all require a preexisting infrastructure that is not so easily bought or copied.

The geopolitical situation does not favor the Iraqi military either. There will be no Soviet or Chinese advisers fighting for Saddam Hussein; nor are nuclear-armed patrons threatening us with Armageddon should his armies collapse. For all the talk of jihad, even zealots have no desire to die for the Iraqi gulag. Privately, those in the “Arab Street” are mostly angry at us, the infidel, for preempting what they themselves would like to have done.

In contrast, the United States during the last two decades — in the first Gulf War, Panama, Serbia, and Afghanistan — has shown itself adept in almost every aspect of difficult and challenging operations: excellent morale, flexibility in command, and superb use and maintenance of sophisticated, and always evolving, weapons. And when it has had problems — tactical confusion in Grenada and placing unarmored troops into urban ambushes like Mogadishu — American troops nevertheless fought superbly.

Add to the equation the recent history of American-Iraqi fighting in 1991, when hundreds of thousands of Iraqi conscripts surrendered without firing a shot. American soldiers without much battle experience did more damage to the Iraqi military in 100 hours than Iran did in eight years. Such memories are still deeply branded into the Iraqi military. Since 1991, Anglo-American aircrews have owned over two-thirds of Iraqi airspace — and know more about it than do Saddam’s pilots themselves. This time the war is not over a dictator’s withdrawal from Kuwait, but the transformation of an autocracy into consensual government that will promise that its country is no longer a haven for frightening weapons and terrorists.

In 1990 Saddam believed that he could fight a conventional war, wrongly surmising that the terror and attrition that worked once in Iran would frighten a U.S. wary after Vietnam. This time he knows that a “mother of all battles” is impossible, but instead worries about what he saw in Serbia and Afghanistan. He takes some confidence only in the American surprise and shock in Mogadishu and on September 11, and wobbliness in Europe, but is still not so unhinged to believe that an Iraqi military victory is possible.

In sum, in a strict military sense, if the Iraqi army — there is no real navy or air force — fights, it will do so as poorly as it has in the past against any good force that it cannot surprise. But we should also remember that in fighting a series of wars, Saddam Hussein has shown a preference for the unconventional and even nightmarish: taking human hostages during the prelude to the 1991 war; putting women and children into the bunkers of the military elite; launching scuds into Israel, Teheran, and Saudi Arabia; torching the Kuwaiti oilfields; sending gas shells and high-voltage electrical currents against the Iranians; and suddenly slaughtering Shiites and Kurds once American officials allowed Iraqis to fly armed aircraft immediately following the armistice.

We should anticipate, then, that a few scuds (which are not supposed to exist) will be sent into Israel as well as launched into Kuwait. Chemical and biological weapons (which, again, are not supposed to exist) may be attached to missiles or shot out of some artillery shells at initial marching columns. Like the scud that hit American troops in Saudi Arabia, some Americans could fall.

And Saddam Hussein may well resort to torching or sabotaging his own oil fields, mining the streets of Baghdad, and even executing many of his own people, as in 1991. If there are no foreigners to serve as human shields, his own citizens may do well enough to deflect shrapnel from his generals — to be broadcast back immediately by the epigones of Peter Arnett. The al Qaeda-Iraqi liaisons (which are not supposed to exist) might have made predetermined arrangements for hitting Americans at home with gas or germs. Saddam Hussein, environmentalists now forget, created the worst oil slick in history — a 200,000-barrel-a-day, 240-square-mile mess — to foul the coast of Saudi Arabia. And he may try again. These are all frightening scenarios, but they will still not alter the military realities that will ensure Saddam Hussein’s quick demise without great loss of life.

If we ponder the recent past, I would think that all of Iraq outside Baghdad will be overrun in a matter of days — to the cheers of most of his citizenry. The capitol will fall later, but the timing of its liberation will be calibrated on mostly humanitarian rather than military considerations — American caution over walking into a possibly booby-trapped city and the need to avoid killing captives of Saddam Hussein. So if it comes to war, we will win and most likely win quickly. We will be safer — and Iraq immediately a better place — for our efforts. And we can at least say that we did not leave a madman with frightening weapons in an age of mass murder for our children to deal with.

Culture — not race, not nationality, not numbers, not chance — more often determines the long-term efficacy of a military. That being said, in the here-and-now morale and élan play a great role in every particular campaign and hinge on the nature of the cause and the mission. In the present war, our military fights better than Saddam Hussein’s, but we also seek liberation rather than conquest, and wish to cleanse a country of dangerous weapons, terrorists, and a bloodthirsty dictator.

Yet no one would believe these lessons of the past if they watched the current television commercials or listened to Nelson Mandela or the doomsday warnings of our actors, novelists, professors, and political activists — all of whom assure us that we are immoral or promise that we will fail miserably should we invade Iraq.

Yet remember, this is also an age of untruth and boutique piety. “Internationalism” and “multilateralism” can mean that Libya, which butchered the people of Chad, adjudicates human rights; that Syria, which practiced genocide, sits on the “Security” Council, and that the two gassers, Iran and Iraq, discuss protocols of illegal weaponry — even as the Nobel Peace prize goes to the terrorist Yasser Arafat, to a Korean statesman who bribed a mass murderer for the chance at a summit, and to an ex-president who was praised by his benefactors precisely for criticizing his own government at a time of crisis and war.

Strange and depressing times.

So let us trust in reason and history, rather in hysteria and self-righteous bluster.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This