On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and four days later, Congress declared war on the Axis powers. In Europe, war had already been raging for nearly three years, and in Asia it was nearly a decade old, but the U.S. had been deftly avoiding the conflict and was still unprepared at the time of the attack.
American offensive action was slow in coming and feeble in execution. In February 1942, the USS Enterprise struck the Japanese on Wake Island but was driven off, and a month later there was a largely ineffective raid on New Guinea. In June, we launched the air attack on Japan by Jimmy Doolittle, but there were only 16 planes involved, and the largely symbolic attack caused little damage.
A genuine American counterattack did not occur until we landed in North Africa in November 1942. But only two and a half years later, the Second World War was over.
The contrast with our effort in Iraq compared to World War II is startling: This month marks the end of five years of fighting there. To be sure, this is a different kind of war in most respects, but the difference says a great deal about the U.S.'s strategic objectives and its ability to achieve them.
Much has been said and written about the administration’s justification for the invasion of Iraq, and since this is an election year, you can expect a lot more on this subject. Five years later, more is known now that was not publicly understood at the time.
Hindsight is 20/20
Despite the administration’s assertions in 2003, Iraq did not have nuclear weapons and was not actively trying to develop them or to secure the raw materials for their manufacture. In fact, Saddam Hussein was quite surprised that we attacked Iraq, especially given that he was our strategic ally against a more dangerous common enemy, Iran.
It is now accepted by most observers that the invasion of Iraq was based on simple, but flawed, strategic thinking by people who understood neither the region nor the strengths and limitations of national power.
Fearing large-scale growth of fundamentalism and its threat to both the U.S. and Muslim countries, the administration assumed that democracy was the cure for the spread of Islamic revolution and terrorism. On many occasions, President Bush stated that every person loves democracy, and as an assumption in the U.S., a country with a 200-year history of it, this is difficult to refute. But the U.S. isn’t Southwest Asia, and while all people may love democracy, they don’t necessarily have the visceral, emotional attachment to it that we do, nor may they be willing to fight for it.
Attempting to restore democracy As with all logical arguments, once you accept the assumptions, you are doomed to accept the conclusions. If democracy is the enemy of fundamentalism and terrorism, and if everyone loves democracy, then the mere replacement of a despotic regime with a democratic one ought to be enough. By getting rid of Saddam and replacing the Ba’athists with a democratically elected government, you quickly inoculate the region with democracy, and demands for free elections will spread. Except that it doesn’t work like that in the real world, especially in a region where groups loathe each other.
Furthermore, the administration had a naïve understanding of how military operations are conducted. With good evidence, there are some who argue that the White House and the Pentagon had no idea what they were doing.
Despite the clear-headed prognosis of the Army Chief of Staff at the time, Eric Shinseki, that it would take more then several hundred thousand troops to secure Iraq, the Secretary of Defense and the majority of his Joint Chiefs succumbed to the tantalizing prospect that technology alone would substitute for inadequate numbers and would reduce the number of American casualties.
It took four years of misguided strategy, which begat foolish tactics, before the mission acquired some adult supervision, but it may be too late even for the enlightened David Petraeus to affect the outcome of the mess in Iraq. Petraeus and Secretary Gates can be credited for some of the success we see in Iraq, but they have been ably assisted by a timely cease-fire agreement between the Iraqi government and Moqtada al-Sadr. The agreement will lapse soon, and a resumption of aggression by al-Sadr’s militia may erase the security gains of the past year.
Price of war will affect us for years
We have paid an awful price for our generals’ passively agreeing to employ an inadequate force for the period after the initial combat phase; for our leaders’ refusal or inability to distinguish between conventional and unconventional war; for their simple-minded assumption that the military instrument of power can be used alone; for Paul Bremer’s astonishingly idiotic policies of dissolving the Iraqi army and permitting the militias to keep their weapons; and for the puerile world view that was the genesis of the whole adventure.
And the unpleasant legacies of poor judgment in Iraq are many as well. They include the loss of an enormous amount of money and equipment; the cavalier and intemperate weakening of our military machine; the diversion of forces from the important campaign in Afghanistan; and a world, including Iran, that is convinced that America is a paper tiger.
The American electorate is ambivalent in the extreme, rocking uncomfortably between hope and fear. We hope that the exit from Iraq will be painless but fear it will not be, hope that our misadventure hasn’t set the stage for a dangerous regional war but fear it has. And we admire the selflessness of the young Americans who answered the call to defend the Republic, but we mourn their heroic loss.
In an absolute sense, any loss is a disaster. But one of the mistakes made by the Pentagon was the assumption that losses are to be avoided at all costs. When casualty avoidance is more important that accomplishing the mission, one often gets the worst of both worlds: failure of the mission and plenty of casualties anyway. Muddling around in Iraq has produced far fewer American deaths than in World War II, about 4,000 versus more than 400,000, but we knew what we were doing in World War II.
And we won.
Jack Jacobs is a military analyst and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.