It’s not very often that I get to tell a so-called “think tank” that they have their basic facts wrong, but today is one of those days.
Today the Boston Globe published a piece from The Globalist discussing the war in Iraq in purely statistical terms. And as impressive as their piece might seem, I caught them comparing not apples and oranges, but apples and hand grenades.
They compare Iraq to prior wars — Viet Nam, World War II, World War I, and the Civil War — in terms of duration. It’s been four years since we invaded Iraq, so that seems like a good time to look back at matters.
They say that the US involvement in Viet Nam lasted about eight years, World War II a little under four years, World War I 9 months, and the Civil War lasted four years. All indisputable. But then they start their little rhetorical three-card monte game.
Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, and surrendered in May of 1945. Likewise, Japan declared war on the United States in December 1941 as well, and surrendered in August 1945.
But that was only the end of the formal war.
Both nations were occupied and rebuilt by the Allies before being granted full autonomy once more. Japan remained an occupied power until 1952, when it was formally recognized as a free, independent nation once more — for a period of seven years.
Germany, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. It remained an occupied nation until 1949, when it was formally partitioned into East and West Germany. West Germany was a free nation, while East Germany was kept as a client state of the Soviet Union for another 40 years. The dissolution of East Germany and reunification of the two Germanys in 1990 could be considered the true “end” of the occupation phase of World War II.
Further complicating matters is that both nations still host large American military forces, the successors to the forces that defeated and occupied them over 60 years ago.
In the case of World War I, the fighting ended in 1918. But the consequences of that war, and the “punishment” of Germany, continued long afterwards, leading directly to World War II and, in many ways, the rise of militant Islam.
And then there’s the Civil War. The war stretched from 1861 to 1865, with the reconstruction period officially lasting until 1877. But the legacy of the war lasted for about a century after the surrender at Appomattox, and it wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement finally ended the tyranny of white supremacy in the South.
The United States invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, striking hard against the armed forces of Saddam’s regime. President Bush declared an “end to major combat operations” on May 1. Since then, the fighting has been not a traditional “war,” but a resistance to occupation and an attempt to shape the successive government.
So, in terms of the occupation, it has lasted about as long as that of World War II Germany, but has a ways to go to equal that of Japan or the Confederacy. And it is likely not to be as disastrous as the “settlement” of World War I — the world learned a hard lesson that time, and is not likely to repeat those mistakes.
One of the problems of rebuilding Iraq, in contrast to that of Germany and Japan, is that we didn’t “break” Iraq as thoroughly as we did the Axis powers. Those nations were utterly destroyed in the process of defeating their leadership — millions killed, wholesale destruction and carnage rained down on the military and civilians alike, cities destroyed, the people reduced to abject despair. The sheer magnitude of the destruction made those nations far more malleable to being remade in our image.
That was not done by design, however, but by necessity. Due to the limitations of military technology and doctrine, we simply had no choice. That was the only way we had to defeat them.
Today, though, we had an alternative — and we used it. Instead of the chainsaw approach of prior wars, we used the scalpel technique. We focused exclusively on military and government targets, and went to great lengths to avoid civilians and non-military infrastructure. As a consequence, we excised Saddam’s regime without visiting wholesale destruction on the nation as a whole.
That could have been an error. By doing so, only Saddam and those closely and directly tied to his regime were forced to accept defeat and destruction — and even among them, there were plenty of bitter-enders. We then attempted not to build a new Iraq from the ashes, but graft the accoutrements of democracy on to the still largely intact body of Iraqi politics, culture, and history — many elements of which are antithetical to such notions.
Was it the right move? I don’t know. It was the humane decision at the time, and certainly the defeat of Saddam’s regime was considerably less bloody than it could have been — or would have been, in years past. (For a pretty good example, witness the years-long Iran-Iraq war, which lasted just under eight years, killed almost a million people, and in the end achieved nothing of lasting import.) But could that short-term mercy have been a long-term cruelty? Could sparing lives at the outset end up costing far more lives in the long term?
I think it’s too early to decide that, but it’s absolutely something to be studied as the occupation continues.
And it’s just out-and-out stupid to compare Iraq with prior wars with simple marks on a calendar.