With violence flaring throughout Iraq, the triumph Americans felt a year ago is dissipating. Predictably, comparisons with Vietnam are emerging. Because Vietnam is so emotionally charged, it is a troubling historical precedent. Yet, even if there are differences between Iraq and Vietnam, there are similarities as well, and both need to be understood.
As with Iraq, the United States had overwhelming military superiority in Vietnam and, consequently, many Americans were not prepared for the steadily deepening involvement and growing casualties. The Tet offensive in 1968 was a special shock. How could our adversaries have the strength to launch such a massive attack after years of warfare?
To be sure, U.S. and allied forces turned back the Tet offensive. But even that defeat for our adversaries did not bring the end of the war any nearer. And when it was revealed that military commanders were asking for still more troops, Americans began to wonder what it would take to win.
What is the point of victory in battle if, in the end, you are no closer to winning the war?
It is frequently argued that the United States could have won the Vietnam war if we had fought it differently. It is, however, impossible to know what might have happened; all we can know is what did happen. We could defeat soldiers on the battlefield, but we could not defeat a society that was intent on resisting.
And we could not bring ourselves to attack that society directly, the way we had bombed German and Japanese cities during World War II. For a variety of reasons, what was acceptable in the 1940s was not acceptable by the 1960s.
That restraint, most people would agree, is a tremendous advance in human civilization, but it also poses a challenge to the concept of military superiority. Military power is the power to destroy, but the power to destroy does not translate automatically into political influence. Consequently, if the objective is to use military power to obtain political influence and not simply inflict destruction, the militarily stronger power may confront a troubling choice if the weaker party does not submit.
Does the stronger power escalate, with all the moral consequences accompanying the certain outcome of an ever-growing number of innocent victims? Or does it stop, thereby giving the appearance of weakness and even risking defeat?
That was the dilemma the British faced after their forces occupied Iraq in the First World War. With their ground forces overstretched, they relied on airpower to enforce their rule. It worked, in large part because the Iraqis were so intimidated by airpower, a technology then new and especially forbidding to them. Initially, therefore, Britain’s military superiority carried with it political influence. But as the Iraqis became more accustomed to airplanes, the British increasingly had to make use of their weapon. “The power deployed was authoritative but ultimately despotic,” concludes British historian Toby Dodge. And the despotism also affected Britain, because “the damage to the population of Samawah had to be hidden from the British public.”
That history should be kept in mind as we confront the current situation in Iraq. Already, there are calls for us to enforce our will through the crushing use of our power. “Iraqis will fall into line with our plans not from idealism but from conviction that we are the stronger force,” writes Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal. “If he’s serious about our mission, [President] Bush should seize the opportunity to show with finality that the U.S. military intends to remain the arbiter in Iraq.”
Such advice is a long way from the prediction advanced by the proponents of the war a year ago that we would be welcomed as liberators. As a consequence, several troubling issues now present themselves.
First, how do we defeat the urban resistance? Do we have enough troops to engage in house-to-house fighting? Are we willing to accept the casualty totals?
Or do we follow the British example and use our superior firepower? Will Americans tolerate a mounting toll of civilian casualties? Will our allies?
Second, how does such a policy affect our ultimate goal of using Iraq as a model to spread democracy throughout the Middle East? Even if we win in Iraq militarily, if we undermine our image through the use of brutal force, will we lose our political credibility as the bearers of freedom?
We lose politically if we lose militarily; but do we also lose politically even if we win militarily?
The president and his supporters vow to “stay the course.” But staying the course is not enough. The American people — and especially the troops and their families — need to be told how we win.