What History Says About the Iraq War

by Victor Davis Hanson

The American Enterprise Magazine

Why did the successful war in Iraq to replace Saddam Hussein with a democracy lose the majority support of the American public? Despite steady U.S. military progress against jihadists, and the bold endorsement of peaceful self-rule by 11 million Iraqis, public approval was slowly eroded by an accumulation of hits: The initial looting in Baghdad, over-the-top reporting on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the incessant suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, the two sieges of Fallujah, more than 2,000 American fatalities, and a re-energized and media-savvy anti-war movement.

Affluent and leisured Western democracies have always had great difficulty maintaining popular support for costly counterinsurgency wars, especially when many citizens have been convinced that their own safety is no longer directly put at risk by the easier course of withdrawal. Perhaps most of all, public ambivalence about the Iraq war is due to generalized ignorance of military history. Without guidance from the past, too many people are shepherded through the experience of war by nothing deeper than the rollercoaster emotions whipped up by 24-hour news coverage of explosions and suicide bombings.

Inversely, as news coverage expands and saturates our days, the reading and understanding of history — which alone could put such information into context — withers and wanes. Had Americans been more familiar with prior wars, then little in today’s Iraq conflict would have surprised us. Indeed much would reassure us that the United States has so far done extremely well in a difficult fight.


Wars are always messy

Start with the fact that intelligence failures are part of every war. This should not excuse the miserable recent record of our CIA and other agencies. But history tells us clearly that accurate intelligence gathering on enemy intentions has always been a difficult practice.

The ancient Athenians invaded Sicily in 415 B.C. believing the false report that plenty of silver to pay for the expedition and ready allies to help with the fighting awaited their arrival. Josef Stalin was utterly convinced by his intelligence agencies that Hitler would never invade the Soviet Union. The surprise at Pearl Harbor was no aberration in American history. Just a few years later, General MacArthur assured President Truman that the Chinese would never cross the Yalu River. They invaded in the hundreds of thousands. Nor did Sovietologists in the CIA or elsewhere have any notion that our 50-year Cold War would end abruptly with the precipitous fall of the Berlin Wall.

And wars rarely follow the script laid out before hostilities commence. Sparta said it was battling Athens to free the Greek city-states from imperialism. Yet during the Peloponnesian War the Spartans gradually built themselves a larger fleet of war ships than Athens, then used them to try to create their own hegemony at home and overseas.

On the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln convinced a divided public that the North would fight merely to “preserve the Union.” Only later when news from the battlefield swelled his public support did he offer the Emancipation Proclamation and redefine the moral purpose of the entire conflict.

The truth is, wars that adhere strictly to limited preset objectives — ejecting the Kaiser’s armies from France and Belgium in World War I without invading Germany, staying south of the DMZ after defeating Chinese and North Korean aggressors in 1951, not removing Saddam after the liberation of Kuwait — usually prove incomplete, and only lead to a bloodier Round Two for some future generation.

The American invasion of Iraq has been condemned for its embrace of so-called preemption and unilateralism — as if either strategy were new, necessarily wrong, or even accurate in describing current U.S. military policies. Preemption is simply an age-old tactic to decapitate a coiled enemy before it strikes first. Israel’s 1967 destruction of the Egyptian air force is just one prior example.

As for “unilateralism,” coalitions can be every bit as aggressive and culpable as single belligerents. The Nazis assembled a vast coalition that included Spanish, Italian, Baltic, and Eastern European troops to unleash a surprise attack on a solitary Soviet Union in 1941. The Ottoman fleet at Lepanto drew ships from almost every region of the Middle East and North Africa to engage a “Christian League” of just three allies — Spain, Venice, and the Papal states. The mere number of participants hardly defines a military venture as prudent or legitimate. And while the coalition of the willing that invaded Iraq was caricatured as a Potemkin alliance, the fact is it included more active members than did the Anglo-American association in World War II, or the U.N.-sanctioned force that fought North Korea.

The Patriot Act and reports that President Bush has ordered wiretaps on suspicious phone calls between suspected terrorists have prompted outrage among liberals. Such wartime measures pale, however, before Abraham Lincoln’s censorship of the press and suspension of habeas corpus. Franklin Roosevelt forced the relocation and internment of Japanese-American citizens, ordered executions of German saboteurs convicted in military tribunals, and censored news concerning wartime disasters like the German slaughter of hundreds of Americans training for the Normandy invasion. Usually such exigencies are tolerated during war, rescinded when hostilities cease, and then retroactively damned during the luxury of peace.


Wars grow out of weakness, not strength

Wars rarely start by accident, or through clumsy statesmanship. Most often they break out because a nation with something to lose lets its military credibility dissipate. That is an invitation to fighting. Athens had no mechanism of preventing the Spartan army from crossing its border in 431 — and so it did. The Roman Republic’s warnings to Hannibal that it would be suicidal to attack an allied Saguntum had the smell of empty threats. And so the Carthaginians crossed the Ebro River in Spain and headed for Italy.

More recently, the Palestinian intifada grew from the mistaken, but understandable, perception that there was little likelihood Israelis would fight back after the scare of Iraq’s 1991 Scud shower, Ehud Barak’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, and the generous Oslo concessions. Few Palestinian radicals imagined that the Israeli public would bring back from their past a no-nonsense Ariel Sharon to restore its lost power of deterrence.

From the passive American responses to the Iranian hostage taking of 1979, the murder of our Marines in Lebanon, various bombings of U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia, East Africa, and Lebanon, the first attempt to take down the World Trade Center, the suicide ramming of the USS Cole, and the hasty withdrawal of American forces from Somalia, Osama bin Laden understandably concluded that “the American soldier is just a paper tiger.” He failed to reckon that the United States would crush his Afghan base should he attack American centers of power inside the United States.

Once wars begin almost anything is possible, since fighting gradually takes on a logic of its own. When the Spartan army crossed the Attic border in 431, few imagined that a war of 27 years, which would wreck the Greek city-states, would follow. Hannibal’s brilliant two years of uninterrupted victories in Italy at Ticinius, Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae eventually led to the ruination of his army at Zama, not far from where he started out in Carthage. Who guessed that Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 would end with all of Eastern Europe under the rule of an equally murderous Josef Stalin, and a final cessation of hostilities in the radioactive cinders of Nagasaki?

Usually in wars there is a gradual escalation of violence as the need for national survival trumps any sense of restraint. What seems abhorrent at the beginning of war often proves mundane at its end. Surely no one in August 1914 imagined poison gas at Verdun, and hundreds of thousands killed within two years. President Roosevelt, who had preached to Europeans about the immorality of civilian bombing in 1939, presided five years later over U.S. firebombing that incinerated thousands in German and Japanese cities.

Even short wars can go awry. The brilliant American-led victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces in Kuwait in 1991 ended with the unanticipated butchery of thousands of Kurdish and Shiite civilians, while victorious coalition troops in the theater looked on passively. When the United States intervened in Somalia it was merely to ensure that disaster-relief efforts were not undermined by local warlords. There was little notion that al-Qaeda terrorists could kill 18 G.I.s, humiliate our nation, and prompt a hasty retreat that quickly emboldened further attacks against the United States. There is therefore nothing shocking in the unexpected twists of today’s Iraq war.


Victory is the only reliable cure for fighting

There are many misconceptions about how wars cease. Rarely do they end from arbitration. Instead, peace most often follows a clear acknowledgment of victory or defeat which changes the old order. The ruin of the Confederacy, the utter destruction of imperial Japanese, Italian, and Nazi power in World War II, the collapse of the Soviet Union — these led to lasting peace. Even rarer adjudicated peaces often grow out of massive defeat, such as the destruction of the Russian Baltic fleet at Tsushima in 1905, which brought the Russo-Japanese War to a close, or the encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army in 1973, which doomed their side in the Yom Kippur War.

Unless there is some sort of internal revolution that undermines a wartime government, combatants often employ “peace” merely to find advantage for the next war — as the two Peloponnesian Wars, three Punic Wars, and four wars in the Middle East attest. We saw the 1991 Gulf War as a tremendous victory; Saddam Hussein begged to differ. He defined his survival against a global coalition as proof of his prowess — necessitating additional years of no-fly-zones and sanctions, and ultimately another war.

Each of the nations in the “Axis of Evil” — theocratic Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, and communist North Korea — shared one thing in common: all had prior encounters with the United States that were never fully brought to a close. These incomplete wars increased their venom against, but not necessarily their fear of, America. A failure to impose clear defeat thus led to greater danger later.


Why war will never go away

Apart from these specific historical lessons, there are four bothersome facts about war that contemporary minds, full of utopian hopes, often fail to grasp.

First: There is often a savage utility to war. The great pathologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — slavery, Nazism, fascism, Japanese militarism, and communism — were ended only through force and military deterrence. More recently, brutal bullies like Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, and Mullah Omar were stopped from preying on others only by the barrel of a gun. The U.S. military did more in three weeks early in 2003 to save threatened Iraqis and begin humanitarian improvements than 12 years of no-fly zones and a fraudulent United Nations Oil-for Food program had accomplished.

In contrast, the genocide in the Balkans during the early 1990s, the Rwandan mass-murdering, and the capricious killing in the Darfur region of Sudan might all have been stopped through the early use of military force. But so far the United Nations has only sanctioned two wars: Korea and East Timor — and has stopped none.

A second looming historical fact is that war is very common. During the more abnormal state of peace, therefore, democracies in particular should make reasonable sacrifices in order to establish military deterrence, rather than waiting for the inevitable tyrannical aggression. The stories of fifth-century Athens, sixteenth-century Venice, nineteenth-century Britain, or America since World War II are ones of almost constant warring, hot or cold, interrupted by brief parentheses of quiet. Since World War II alone, American soldiers have killed and/or been killed by Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Palestinians, Grenadians, Panamanians, Somalis, Serbians, Afghans, Iraqis, and others — people who share in common the fact that they live under autocratic governments. War, whether we like it or not, never sleeps, so learning to discourage it through self-defense is a moral imperative.

Third: Democracies curb the frequency of war. Rarely do they invade each other (the 415 B.C. Athenian attack on Syracuse is an exception), so spreading democracy will prove a far better mechanism for promoting peace than empowering international organizations peopled by dictatorships, theocracies, and totalitarian states. Consensual governments rarely arise spontaneously, though; normally it takes a war or revolution to bring them into being. Consider democratic Athens, and the birth of the democracies in the U.S., Western Europe, Japan, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Not only an initial military defeat of an autocracy, but also a heavy postwar investment in defense, is critical to the rise of most free governments. When we abandoned Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet Union, precipitously withdrew our troops from Lebanon and Mogadishu, and allowed a defeated Saddam to retain power, we only opened the door to more anarchy which eventually drew the United States back in.

A fourth looming historical fact: Much more than politics affects war; it is military action that determines political options. The Spartans asked for peace talks in the Peloponnesian War only after their elite hoplites had been captured on the island of Sphacteria and their navy humiliated at Arginusae. And they returned to their warfighting with renewed vigor when Athens was weakened by a disastrous plague, the destruction of their fleet in Sicily, and the defeat at Aegospotami.

Likewise, the infamous “Christmas bombing” of 1972, derided by peaceniks as a crime against humanity, actually forced the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table and set the stage for the peace agreements of 1973. And the November 2004 retaking of Fallujah made possible the successful Iraqi elections of three months later, just as the prior April pullback from Fallujah had prompted talk of postponing the vote.


Will Iraq be a successful or failed war?

Seen in the history of past wars, the American effort to remove Saddam and seed democracy in the Middle East seems little short of miraculous. A successful military action has been carried out 7,000 miles from home. This has been done at far less human and material cost than almost any prior comparable U.S. war. A powerful, multi-pronged effort to eliminate the nexus of Arab autocracy and Islamism (the conditions that germinated bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror) now continues to gain ground.

Why so little appreciation for what has been achieved so far? For one thing, many Westerners underestimate the threats that have been nullified in the process. Elites in particular often fail to grasp that most societies on the planet do not operate by the same rational selfinterest (much less the Golden Rule of the New Testament) that governs our own societies. To confess that education and material progress have not quashed the instinctual human desire to take by force what is not properly yours seems too depressing for modern, educated Western man to accept.

But there has been no Darwinian evolution of human nature in the very short span of civilization. The old threats of passion remain constant and predictable. Nor has the use of sophisticated technology and computers altered either the chemistry or hard-wiring of our brains. Rather than denying the human propensity for violence, it is far wiser to accept it and then defend the rules of civilization that alone can contain and ameliorate it.

Modern life in Western countries has also become so privileged and protected that it is hard to convince affluent suburbanites that shooting and bombing your way to power remains a norm in much of the world. Wealthy moderns too often imagine that issues of governance, religion, and tribal affiliation are solved through talk shows, lawsuits, or “60 Minutes” reports. Mostly, though, these conflicts abroad continue to be settled through violence.

It is hard to keep Americans focused on necessary sacrifices amidst the glare of contemporary leisure distractions and pleasures. It is difficult to ask taxpayers to forego some of their social entitlements to increase national investment in defense. It is painful to lose Western youth in awful landscapes such as Mogadishu or the Sunni Triangle for the abstraction of “freedom.”

Our enemies — who cling to history far more tightly than most Americans — know this. And because Osama bin Laden, Dr. Zawahiri, Mr. Zarqawi, and other warrior fanatics understand our recent past, and their own distant one, better than we do, they will continue to fight in places, and with methods, that challenge our often unhistorical sense of the civilized self.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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