The Surreal World of Iraq

Let us thank our soldiers on this Independence Day.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

That are we to make of the last four months? In 21 days at a cost of less than 200 fatalities, the United States military ended the 24-year reign of one of the most odious dictators in recent memory and freed their people. In response, here at home there were no mass victory parades in appreciation for our soldiers’ proven bravery or public braggadocio about their own singular prowess. Some of our fighters, who in a moment of martial zeal had raised the flag of their country above the toppling statue of a horrific tyrant, were more likely chastised as undisciplined chauvinists rather than praised as enthusiastic patriots.

Indeed, intense media scrutiny of Iraqi, not American suffering and discomfort, was the new gospel — despite the clear evidence that at some danger to our soldiers we had sought to avoid hurting civilians and their infrastructure. A soldier or terrorist who had shot at Americans, been wounded, and had tossed away either his uniform or weapons was more likely to be tallied by the world’s press as an unfortunate civilian casualty than as an injured combatant hurt in the hammer and tongs of battle. Under the new war, using enough force to beat soundly the enemy and convince him in the aftermath to accept defeat — or else — was seen as excessive, while the effort to mitigate the violence of fighting may have suggested to the Baathists that they had not really been beaten after all.

Not to be outdone, domestic critics of our military who had forecast “millions of refugees” and “thousands of casualties” — and in week one of the war during a sandstorm had continued on with a chorus of “Stalemate,” “Quagmire,” and “Vietnam” — now post facto paradoxically reversed course. They suddenly played down our own soldiers’ competency by concluding (in their infinite wisdom from the rear) that the Iraqi army was a paper tiger — hardly capable of waging modern war after all! In a blink of an eye their horrific quagmire became a bullying cakewalk.

In the first postbellum 100 days, the Americans lost about 60 additional lives in trying to pacify a Muslim and Arab country of some 26 million, wracked by factions, foreign agents, and plagued by thousands of former Baathist fascists who had transmogrified into drive-by shooters and assassins — all in a post 9/11 world where it has been often difficult to distinguish “moderates” in the Middle East from complacent onlookers who were not especially sad to see two towers full of 3,000 Americans disintegrate.

In such a climate, Marines and army units literally were asked to evolve from combatants to peacekeepers to reconstructionists in a matter of hours — as enemy soldiers who ran from battle, now on occasion shot at them for American felonies like directing traffic, seeking to restore electricity, and other unmentionables like treating the sick and organizing local councils. The protocol was for American soldiers in Kevlar and body armor to help 99 percent of the Iraqi population achieve a stable society while less than one percent sought to kill them — to more or less indifference from the beneficiaries who demanded the help (but not to the degree that they would quite yet thank or help protect the helper). “Smile while you shoot back” was perhaps the unspoken mandate for 20-year-olds from New Mexico or New Jersey.

After risking American lives during the war to preserve Iraqi assets, our soldiers were then blamed for not anticipating that the Iraqis — unlike any liberated or occupied populace in history — would then themselves as natives destroy what we as foreigners had sought to save. Indeed, stung by charges of “occupation” and “imperialism,” the American military erred for the first time, and for about 30 days sought an unrealistically low profile, worried that their presence would be deemed intrusive and thus aggravating to the sensitivities of the Iraqi public — only to be immediately condemned by the same citizenry as either naive or deliberately lax for not applying the iron hand to protect them from themselves.

Along the way, wild charges circulated that our generals had allowed 170,000 priceless artifacts to be looted in order to protect “corporate oil.” When such calumnies were subsequently refuted, unchecked demonstrations — impossible under any current Arab regime in the Middle East — were then adduced as proof that our military had nearly lost control of the country.

Here and there reporters interviewed a irate Iraqis screaming, “Americans, leave us to ourselves!” as cars in the background whizzed around a supposedly traumatized Baghdad. Here at home the poor television viewer’s only solace, I suppose, was his hunch that should we have indeed abandoned our responsibilities, that same reporter in a few months would interview that same irate Iraqi who would then rail on cue, “The cowards left us to ourselves.”

Anecdotal stories flooded our airways that a doctor here had refused to treat an Iraqi civilian, that a soldier there had mistakenly shot a fiery demonstrator — accounts of public councils, progress in restoring order and power, and private thanks from the aggrieved were relegated to sound bites or omitted altogether. Indeed, the world seemed far more worried that a populace that for the first time in three decades was not in fear of a knock on their door at night was without air conditioning in their homes — as their rank-and-file liberators slept outside in ad hoc miserable tents without most of the amenities that they were so damned for failing instantaneously to provide for others.

A few Iraqis in plush, walled estates seemed especially eager to complain of lawlessness to CNN reporters, now freed from paying bribe money to Baathist handlers, who ventured a few blocks from their hotels — secure that such ignorant sensationalists would never ask them, “What did you actually do under Saddam Hussein to deserve such plush digs?”

While our soldiers continued their work at policing and reconstruction, back home their achievement and sacrifice were almost immediately put into question by the same tired critics, now citing the temporary absence of stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and a supposed lack of manifest al Qaeda links. Stories linking al Qaedists to the Hussein regime or documents attesting to WMD were on the back pages; headlines in contrast blared “fraud” and “lies” about the preconditions for war. Somehow soldiers on the frontlines were supposed to ignore all this and remember that their sacrifice and toil were, after all, for both a noble cause and vital to the security of the United States. And in fact they did just that.

The earlier conundrum put to rest by the rapidity of our victory insidiously resurfaced as it became clear that it was not a cost-free task for 140,000 Americans to institute democracy among 26 million Iraqis tyrannized for three decades. Newspaper pundits, NPR commentators, and Democratic aspirants, knowing nothing of the challenges of postwar Okinawa, the dilemma of ex-Nazis in occupied Germany, or the mess in 1946 Korea, implied that 60 American dead meant failure and a Chechnya-style inferno. Our soldiers’ job, of course, was made no easier by the usual Arab mendacious fare broadcast freely into the country — Jews were now buying Iraqi land; Jewish troops were capitalizing on the occupation, Jews, Jews, Jews…Worse, still it was not only that our enemies wished us to fail, but our so-called friends in the region were equally apprehensive that the virus of democracy might well be contagious.

Meanwhile, the assassins of American soldiers in Iraq were lionized on the West Bank — itself nursing the fresh wound of losing the murder-subsidies from Saddam Hussein, whose mug at least still adorned the coffee houses of Gaza and Ramallah. We, the American public, were asked for forbearance — to ignore that some Palestinian militants were canonizing the murderers of American soldiers — as we went forward to save the same Palestinians from the righteous anger of Israel. “Stop the Apaches and the F-16s so we can cheer in peace those Saddamites who shot your soldiers,” they must think. What a weird group, who hate Israel so much that they are infuriated that the “Zionist entity” is walling itself off from the likes of them.

As the Americans patrolled the streets of Iraq, and sought to avoid RPG attacks, machine-gun sprays, and kidnapping murderers, the Left at home, the European parlors, and the Arab Street all seemed oblivious to (inadvertent) images on their television screens that belied the accompanying biased analysis: only in Iraq were Arabs demonstrating for any cause they wished; only in Iraq were local councils voting democratically; and only in Iraq were men in helmets and guns prohibited from brutalizing the population. American occupying soldiers were, in fact, more careful to respect the lives of a defeated enemy than were Arab constabularies with their own people elsewhere.

At this point, I must ask, how do our men in arms do what they do? We so often forget that their dilemma is not just age-old material challenges of time and space — Iraq, remember, is 7,000 miles away, hot, dry, and surrounded by overt enemies and canny neutrals — but the exasperating conditions of both postmodern warfare and fighting in the Middle East in general. Both combine to diminish, if not apologize for, the idea of victory, military prowess being defined not as proof of heroism, discipline, and elan, but almost a shameful admission of outdated bellicosity and abject imperialism or colonialism. Indeed, the restraint on the enormous firepower at our military’s disposal has almost earned contempt for hesitancy rather than ensured appreciation of magnanimity.

Various explanations come to mind for the unshakeable nature of our soldiers put into such impossible circumstances. Of course, there are the age old motivators in play: unit morale, group loyalty, ingrained training, chain of command, democratic idealism, patriotism, and simple self-survival all play their roles — and an understandable desire to return as quickly as possible to the United States. But there is also transcendence at work; such soldiers believe in their role of doing something good for millions in dire need. It seems just as true that the military has somehow distilled from the rest of us Americans an elite cohort with the most direct ties to the old breed of the sort who fought at Okinawa, rolled with Patton, and reconstituted Japan. Such soldiers somehow remain oblivious to unfounded criticism, confident in their own prowess, and convinced that their nation and its military are clear forces for good.

Because of such men and women, and despite so many other forces beyond their control, Iraq will not be lost to gangs and criminals, much less to Baathists, pan-Arabists, and Islamicists, who are not so much fueled by ideology as the desire for power and its accompanying material benefits for a tiny few.

We are reaching a great tipping point in Iraq, where the American soldier seeks to impose security and implant freedom faster than former Baathists try to erode it. The Iraqi Street we see so often on the sidelines is watching the struggle, unsure whether to re-hang their pictures of Saddam Hussein now ensconced beneath their sofas or to come forward and join the great experiment with freedom and consensual government.

And through it all the American soldier is asked to do what no others could do — and yet does so with grace under fire. On July 4th we should remember all this and the rare breed who, thank God, are on our side.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This