The Ironies of War

What we have witnessed is unprecedented in military history.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The Marines just rolled by the battlefield of Cunaxa, where in 401 B.C. 10,000 Greek mercenaries suffered one wounded in their collision with the imperial troops of Artaxerxes. On the northern front Americans passed near Gaugamela where Alexander the Great’s shock troops destroyed the enormous army of Darius III at a loss of a hundred or so dead before descending on Babylon. Ours may be the richest and most educated generation in history, but some things never seem to change: The West still fights — and wins — in the East, in the same old places.

Indeed, it is hard not to acknowledge that war seems endemic to the human species. Such old-style collisions of thousands of soldiers were supposed to be part of an ancient age, not to be revisited in a post-Enlightenment, post-heroic age of learned men and women. But until the nature of man changes, war tragically will always be with us, and it is valuable to note the ironies of the present conflict, which are as old as the very idea of yet another 19th-century-style advance of invasion, liberation, and occupation.

Great marches often entail enormous risks because, as columns slam deeply into enemy country, supply lines thin and the enormous convoys that bring up food, water, and fuel from an increasingly distant rear sometimes in transit nearly devour the very supplies they carry. Napoleon, the Panzers of 1941, and even George S. Patton all were plagued by the very rapidity and extent of their own advances. They all eventually ran out of supplies, even as their armies gradually shrunk in order to garrison captured ground to the rear. Sherman escaped the paradox — but only by feeding his army from the countryside, convinced that for a landed society like the Confederacy it would be almost sacrilegious for plantation owners to scorch their own earth before the path of Union armies. Alexander the Great cached his supplies in advance, but even he often found himself nearly destitute, and eventually ruined his army not far away in the Gedrosian desert.

Thus it is nearly impossible to recall a similar advance that has traveled so far, so fast, with so few losses, without major shortages of fuel, ammunition, and food — and without being parasitic on the surrounding countryside. What happened the last three weeks is unprecedented in military history.

We have seen in action the age-old paradox that invading armies must show enough strength to awe local populations, but not so much that they descend into brutality, which can lead to counterinsurgency. Russians greeted Panzers in 1941, but quickly joined the partisans once they learned that the Nazis were both brutal and increasingly vulnerable. Alexander tried to don Persian robes and the fez, arrange mass marriages between Macedonians and Iranians, but even he was nearly overwhelmed by local guerillas in Afghanistan once they sensed his forces were dwindling as they moved east. In this context, it is again remarkable how the coalition has proven adept in blasting through with enough strength to intimidate would-be citizen militias but not appearing so savage as to incite civilian repugnance.

It has always been a trademark of Western armies to employ superior firepower, discipline, and shock to crush their enemies through open fighting. But the rub with the present conflict — now on show to the world through instantaneous global communications — is to use enough force to shatter resistance, but not too much to lose international political support though the sheer display of lethality. Thus the surreal scene of barbers on Day Three in Baghdad scoffing to their customers of “air” bombs and a weak air campaign even as Western reporters were likening the shock-and-awe campaign to Dresden and Hamburg. In truth, the decision to forego a long bombing campaign to save the infrastructure of Iraq and preempt the nihilism of Saddam was courageous and astute — and should be at last recognized as what it is: as daring as Eisenhower’s call to hit the stormy beaches of Normandy.

Saddam’s Iraqis slammed rockets into American installations, blew up two journalists, and the world was silent. In contrast, our troops on the ground fired back at shooters in a hotel where Baathist functionaries were embedded among reporters, tragically killed three journalists, and the globe was afire in indignation. American teenagers inside tanks (no doubt glued to CNN video consuls) who were targets were apparently supposed to die rather than dare to endanger a crowd of elite journalists at Ground Zero of a war, with full knowledge that they were being housed and used by fascists — as if Patton’s tankers would have not fired back at shooters in a hotel in Vichy France because Nazis had allowed a UPI or AP correspondent on the verandah. Baghdad Bob assured the inhabitants of the Arab world that there was not an American in sight; later that same night Larry King hosted a panel of silly journalists and ex-generals who discussed such competing discourses and alternative “truths” — and meanwhile the subjective construct of American tanks rolled through the city, oblivious to both Middle Eastern mythmaking and hackneyed postmodern analysis.

The military itself suffers from another inescapable paradox. Its very success allows the engine of freedom and capitalism to create an enormously affluent and sometimes smug class that forgets how and why its comfort is maintained in the present and ensured for the future. I think Messrs. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz, when this is all over, will have done a great favor to millions of Iraqis and provided Americans increased security, but I don’t expect that they will win any popularity contests for all their efforts. Don’t expect that Walter Cronkite, Arthur Schlesinger, David Halberstam, Susan Sontag, and a host of others who predicted a nightmarish “hornet’s nest” and American diplomatic catastrophe in Iraq to admit their error. More likely, such critics will commit a trifecta of hubris and misjudgment by predicting further endless terror to complement their past gloomy prognostications about the Taliban and Saddamites.

In addition, diplomats and apostles of peace are now likely to come to the fore and be praised when memory of smoke and iron fades; their talk will so reassure us that we will forget the grimmer men who allowed us such luxury. So, for example, the shameless Dominique de Villepin hogged the world’s news before the war, did nothing during it, and now he’s back again — when he sniffs the danger is past and money is to be made, it is once more time for slick talk and the waving of arms. That American and British women fought live enemies courageously while some Frenchmen attacked the graves of dead friends seems to have escaped him.

Imagine a pontificating U.N. functionary, fresh from the Balkan holocaust, in postbellum Iraq, trying to investigate Baathist murderers and torturers: “One could argue that the level of evidence necessary to indict such a Baathist suspect does not meet the criteria of the International Criminal Court — and one might argue that he may not necessarily be as responsible for the carnage inflicted by, say, an F-16 pilot.” Do we really want a year of that dreamlike nonsense or the U.N.’s undemocratic countries and their apparatchiks obstructing the creation of democracy in a new Iraq?

In this regard, Arab intellectuals — did you see their angst at scenes of Iraqi jubilation? — carry a terrible burden. For years they have admirably called for indigenous democratic reform. But no Arab masses have recently risen up like the generation of 1776 to insist on popular constitutional government. In response, they blame cynical American Cold War era support of Arab strongmen in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, or Jordan. But even if we forget that the worst Arab tyrants, such as Nasser, Qaddafi, and Saddam, were homegrown, the United States is at last removing an ogre with the blood of a million Muslims on his hands and is determined to implant democracy upon his demise. So a dilemma faces the Arab elite — if the price of liberation is the intrusion of U.S. arms, would they prefer that Iraqi Muslims instead remain enslaved? Perhaps we should resurrect Saddam’s statues or suggest that throngs in Baghdad suffer from delusions of grandeur?

Finally, obvious contrasts arise with Gulf Wars I and II. Ostensibly Saddam’s earlier army was more formidable and thus made the first conflict more challenging. But in retrospect, the present ordeal by any fair measure is the far more ambitious and audacious campaign. Eradicating fascism is not the same as expelling an army from Kuwait. Targeting a quarter-million killers from a population of 26 million — while trying to avoid damage to innocents and enemy sanctuaries in mosques, schools, hotels, and hospitals — sounds nearly impossible. Twelve years ago we had the patina of U.N. support, plentiful allies, more troops, and a limited mission; now we are trying to take an entire country with half the old forces and alone with the British and Australians.

Moreover, much has transpired since 1991. Then the Soviet Union was not entirely gone, and our allies still worried about breaking ranks from our nuclear shield. Now, with the fear of an invasion of Europe a distant memory, this present war has offered the perfect occasion for many of our NATO allies to showcase longstanding resentments and jealousies. In response, we shrugged and reached Baghdad in half the time, so far with half the American total casualties it took to get to Kuwait.

We have no idea of the nature of eventual peace settlements, but already the roll into Baghdad as an act of liberation and a military masterpiece will rank along with Epaminondas’s trek to free the helots, Sherman’s March, and Patton’s long race to the German border. Meanwhile, everyone seems either to have criticized or belatedly praised “the plan”; but so far no one seems to quite know how 250,000 brave American, British, and Australian young men and women in the field are actually pulling it off.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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