Postbellum Thoughts

Ideas from war’s aftermath.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The complexities of Panama, the Gulf War, Kosovo and Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Iraqi War involved not just military challenges, but postwar reconstruction and global opinion-making as well. In part, our problem arises from our very success and the intrinsic power of the American military. We can take out rogue regimes within a matter of days or weeks without inflicting the level of pain, injury, and humiliation on enemy forces that traditionally rids opponents of any lingering doubts about the end of the old order and the onset of the new. In short, we win so quickly that some of the losers inevitably do not quite concede that they were really defeated.

As was the case in Afghanistan, our victory in Iraq was achieved so quickly that most enemies were more likely to run or surrender than fight, thus allowing a number either to drift back within the civilian landscape or fool themselves into thinking we were far from being exacting victors. What a funny world for a soldier fighting Americans: One day in a trench can get you blown to smithereens by a GPS bomb; the next, after surrendering, you are ensured of impunity in a street rally to throw rocks at Americans before international cameras.

To meet such challenges, perhaps it is time to create a permanent division-strength body of peacekeepers, police, and civilian reconstructionists. Their duties would be to follow the military into captured enemy cities and — within a matter of days, if not hours, rather than the current months — hunt down government criminals in hiding, keep order and security, provide the populace with food and water, resurrect infrastructure and utilities, and begin near-immediate resumption of television, radio, and newspapers.

In theory, such a corps would include a variety of company-sized cohorts, from snipers and police to electricians and constitutional framers — and their tasks would be coordinated with the antebellum bombing-planning. They would be the true “shock and awe” corps, restoring order so quickly after the dissolution of enemy forces that enemy opportunists and agents would simply have no time to organize and manipulate the inevitable confusion, in the months of political instability that ensued.

We need legislation requiring journalists and reporters to publicly disclose the financial and political arrangements that they agree to in order to broadcast or write from belligerent regimes at a time of hostilities. Nothing in the recent war was more appalling or unethical than the censored reporting that emanated from the Palestine Hotel. Only after Baghdad fell did millions of listeners and readers discover that their purveyors of information had been semi-hostages, controlled by “minders” — and willing to pay daily bribe money for the privilege of divulging half-truths and releasing misleading accounts. Had their audiences known fully about all such concessions in advance, they might have been better equipped to assess the “truth.” At the least, we can ask that American citizens not pay extortion money to enemy governments in a time of war. It is disturbing enough that none of our journalists in Iraq questioned Baghdad Bob’s veracity in their nightly reports, but even more troubling to realize that their danegeld helped to subsidize his rantings.

The military needs to create a civilian cultural advisory board as a supplement to those committees concerned with technology and policy. Such scholars and intellectuals sympathetic to the military might develop policies and procedures to identify problems inevitable in the use of military force in a postmodern, therapeutic society. Scholars, for example, could have advised the military about the complexities that surrounded potential damage to cultural sites in Baghdad. Their duties could be both proactive — creating guidelines about protecting archaeological sites, dealing with cultural issues, and cultivating intellectuals, dissidents, and ministry officials — but also reactive, when tragedies like the destruction of priceless icons unfold.

Untold damage was done to our cause by the hysteria surrounding the looting of the Baghdad museum. Officers on the scene made the case well enough that men under fire can hardly be transmogrified into museum guards, and that enough vandalism was done to a variety of petroleum installations and refinery offices to give the lie to the canard that we “saved the oil and let the museum be looted.” But a board of scholars could also have explained to the public that it is rare for a liberated people to ransack their own treasuries: The worries historically have surrounded the occupying force, from the fall of Constantinople (1453) to Berlin (1945) to Kuwait City (1990).

They could have also gotten the word out that archaeologists are not de facto superior beings: Those who worked in the museums of Iraq were by nature precisely those who kept most quiet about Saddam’s own theft of antiquities and his use of national shrines for despicable contemporary propaganda purposes. Like the “thousands” dead in “Jeningrad” that soon were reduced to 52 fatalities in a firefight, the “178,000” destroyed priceless icons are slowly being downsized to a few hundred — and were mostly lost through the complicity of the Baathists themselves. And those rogues in the antiquities ministry who oversaw Saddam’s malicious and criminal “reconstruction” of Babylon — garish desecrations that made Arthur Evans’s misadventures at Knossos, or the Italian temple rebuilding in the occupied Greek islands during World War II, seem like child’s play — did far more damage to the cultural heritage of Iraq than the (mostly professional) thieves’ premeditated heists in Baghdad.

The military’s newfound mobility and flexibility are taking on more than merely tactical importance. The key in the 21st century will be the American armed forces’ ability to project military power quickly almost anywhere across the globe — without granting humiliating political concessions or paying bribery to purported hosts, allies, and international institutions.

Large bases such as those in Germany, Turkey, and South Korea should be broken up, relocated, removed, or scattered into smaller, less intrusive arms caches and depots with less-noticeable footprints. Aerial tankers, transport planes, and helicopters must be designated highest-priority to ensure that assets can be deployed and maintained autonomously for extended periods.

A new criterion for basing should be as much political as geostrategic, inasmuch as the two are now inseparable. A Diego Garcia may be less ideally located than are bases in Turkey, Greece, or Saudi Arabia, but in the long run it entails fewer actual costs. In the Cold War, carriers were deprecated by submarine advocates as “sitting ducks”; today they are properly seen as priceless acres of sovereign American territory that can be shifted to any theater on the globe. In short, a critical question should be demanded of any new technology, strategy, or organization: To what degree does it enhance the ability of the United States to resort to military power without dependence on foreign governments (allied or otherwise) or multinational institutions?

As long as U.N. action is predicated on the majority votes of illiberal regimes, or the single veto of undemocratic states like China, or the obstructions of envious, fourth-rate powers like France, it will remain either a debating society or a manipulative mechanism to thwart anything the United States does. It was about as effective in monitoring Saddam Hussein as the International Olympic Committee was in stopping the routine torture of the Iraqi Olympic team. While we should seek drastic reform — admitting India, Japan, and Brazil to the Security Council, promoting statesmen reputed for their defiance of authoritarian governments as candidates for the secretary-generalship, insisting on democratic government as a requisite for full voting membership in the General Assembly, and distributing France’s Security Council veto across the entire European Union — we will probably have no alternative but to seek more permanent relationships with a coalition of the willing.

Eventually, some astute diplomat is going to make the obvious observations that English-speaking nations like the United States, Australia, Britain, (Western) Canada, and India have defied popular wisdom and retained common cultural and historical affinities that only become more apparent in times of conflict — and could form the basis for a more permanent and formal alliance.

On a personal note, this column marks the end of my year-long tenure as Shifrin professor of military history at the U.S. Naval Academy, and a return to a rather isolated farm in Selma, California. My first memory upon arrival in Annapolis on August 8, 2002 — a time of Washington doom and gloom — was picking up a copy of Foreign Policy and reading the cover story, “The Incredible Shrinking Eagle. The End of Pax America,” in which readers were assured by Immanuel Wallerstein that “Saddam Hussein’s army is not that of the Taliban, and his internal military control is far more coherent. A U.S. invasion would necessarily involve a serious land force, one that would have to fight its way to Baghdad and would likely suffer significant casualties.”

As an outsider, the most notable impressions I have had since arriving are the surprising degree of self-criticism of the U.S. military and its willingness to welcome both internal and outside audit — and thus its abject contrast with two equally formidable institutions, the media and the universities, which really are shrinking and have indeed suffered “significant casualties” to their reputations. Again, it is far easier to be a liberal in the supposedly authoritarian military than to be a moderate or conservative on a college campus; students are more likely to be segregated by race in the lounges and cafeterias of “progressive” universities than they are in the mess halls of aircraft carriers.

In the past year I have met midshipmen, Air Force cadets, colonels at the Army War College, officers in the Pentagon, air and naval crews at sea, reserve and retired officers, and a variety of civilian defense analysts. Very few were triumphalists about their singular victories in Afghanistan and Iraq; instead, they were eager to dissect past plans, identify lapses, and encourage candid criticism — both operational and ethical.

Rather different from all that are the New York and Washington press corps and the culture of most universities. Many elites in these two latter institutions have throughout this crisis revealed lapses in both ethics and common sense. There is a general lack of contrition (much less apology) by prominent columnists and talking heads about being so wrong so often in editorializing about the war. Partnerships with fascist regimes were embraced by major American networks — and at home, elite critics got into bed with pretty awful antiwar organizations whose true agenda went well beyond Iraq to involve subverting the very values of the United States.

The media needs to ask itself some tough questions about its own rules of engagement abroad, the use of bribe money, and the ethical and voluntary responsibility of its pundits and writers to account to their readers, when they have for so long consistently fed them nonsense and error. Universities, in turn, must ask themselves fundamental questions about tenure and teaching loads: Why does tuition consistently rise faster than inflation; why is free speech so often curbed and regulated; and why did so many prominent professors, during the past two years, in a time of war, say so many dreadful things about their own military — from general untruths about “millions” of starving, refugees, and dead to come, to the occasional provocateur applauding the destruction of the Pentagon and wishing for more Mogadishus?

Compared to all that, I prefer trees and vines.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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