Have We Given in to Defeatism?

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Mr. Moser is an assistant professor of history at Ashland University. He is author of TWISTING THE LION'S TAIL: AMERICAN ANGLOPHOBIA BETWEEN THE WORLD WARS (New York University Press, 1999) and PRESIDENTS FROM HOOVER THROUGH TRUMAN, 1929-1953 (Greenwood Press, 2001). His latest book, RIGHT TURN: JOHN T. FLYNN AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN LIBERALISM, will appear next year from New York University Press.

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The news from Iraq, as far as we can tell, is not good. The war to remove Saddam Hussein was quick and relatively bloodless, but the more ambitious goal of bringing democracy to the Fertile Crescent still seems a long way off. Recent events in Fallujah suggest that it could be many months—years perhaps—before the various Saddam loyalists and foreign terrorists arrayed against the U.S. and its Iraqi supporters are defeated once and for all.

As a result of this, criticism of the administration has been mounting. Much of this comes from predictable quarters. Those who opposed the Iraq war from the beginning have trotted out the now-familiar Vietnam analogy; but then again, they have been doing so repeatedly for over a year now. Paleoconservative Pat Buchanan has called Fallujah the “high tide of empire”; but he has been denouncing the course of U.S. foreign policy as “globaloney” ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Some of the critics, however, are new ones—individuals who supported the war, but are beginning to despair over the administration’s subsequent handling of Iraq. Over at National Review Online, Mackubin Owens fears that the failure to level Fallujah sends a signal to the enemy that the United States is weak. Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Washington Times says that while the situation might not yet merit the term “quagmire,” it might deserve to be called “quagmiry.” Andrew Sullivan believes that the White House “doesn’t have a clue” about what is occurring in Fallujah.

For those of us who have been carefully watching the news reports, desperately trying to figure out what is going on, these seem like dark days, indeed. But as bad as things seem now, they were worse in 1942. Much worse.

There were many Americans who earnestly believed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that World War II was practically over. Now that the massive economic power of the United States was being directed against the Axis, the war could be won in just a few months. The rest was, in Churchill’s later words, “merely the proper application of overwhelming force.”

But that “proper application” would end up taking quite some time to develop. In the first six months after Pearl Harbor the news from abroad was uniformly bad. The Germans had resumed the offensive in Russia, and although they had failed to take Moscow they seemed poised to seize the strategically vital oil fields east of the Black Sea. In North Africa Rommel’s Afrika Korps was menacing the Suez Canal. Closer to home, by June 1942 U-boats hovering off the East Coast—close enough that they were able to see the headlights of cars on shore—had sunk nearly 400 American ships.

As bad as all this seemed, developments in East Asia and the Pacific theater were even worse. By the middle of 1942 the Japanese had succeeded in conquering the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, and most of Burma and New Guinea. In addition to the staggering losses inflicted on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Japanese ships and aircraft wreaked havoc against American, Dutch, and British forces throughout the Pacific, even managing to sink the mighty British battleship Prince of Wales, one of the newest in the Royal Navy.

A spate of propaganda over the past ten years about the “greatest generation” has contributed to a widely-held belief that during World War II Americans accepted such developments stoically, without complaint, and that bad news only intensified their resolve to see the fight through to a successful finish. In fact, the reverse was true; Americans were stunned by these reversals, and were quick to look for someone to blame. For a while the British appeared to be a convenient target; one poll taken after the fall of the North African fortress of Tobruk elicited responses suggesting that there was “too much tea-drinking and not enough fighting.” The editors of the New Republic, meanwhile, complained that the British army was underperforming due to a “social rigidity which has kept the best British military ability from coming to the top.”

Nor was the administration immune to criticism, particularly for its commitment to defeating Germany first. Given that it had been the Japanese who had attacked Pearl Harbor, Americans found it difficult to understand why in the first months of the war more U.S. troops were being sent to the United Kingdom than to, say, the Philippines, where they might help Gen. Douglas MacArthur to stop the invading Japanese forces. A Gallup poll showed that a substantial majority of the population believed that Japan was the nation’s “chief enemy,” and therefore that most of the country’s resources should be committed to the Pacific. In fact, as late as mid-1943 a bipartisan group of senators—all of whom, it should be noted, had a history of opposition to the president’s policies—were accusing the administration of an almost criminal neglect of the war against Japan.

Such attacks convinced Roosevelt that he had to give the American people a victory; if possible, before the midterm congressional elections in 1942. However, Operation Torch—the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa—had to be pushed back until after Election Day, and the result was a debacle for the Democratic Party. The Republicans picked up no less than 44 seats in the House of Representatives and nine in the Senate. Only in the so-called “Solid South” did Democrats manage to survive reelection challenges.

But even if Operation Torch had taken place before Election Day it is unlikely that the result would have been much different. American troops coming ashore in French-held North Africa soon encountered stiff resistance from French troops, who arguably fought harder in this campaign than they had against the invading Germans in 1940. The fighting only ceased when an agreement was negotiated with Admiral Jean Francois Darlan, the Vichy French commander. This, however, led to howls of protests from liberals—Darlan was a fascist, and to negotiate with him was a betrayal of what the war was supposed to be about. “A deal with the devil,” was how radio commentator Walter Winchell put it. In the words of historian Thomas Fleming, hostility to the Darlan deal reflected the struggle “between the New Dealers’ approach to the war and those who rated realism above moral purity.”

If these events have largely faded from public memory, it is no doubt because we know that ultimately what mattered was the outcome of the war—the Allies won, Nazism and fascism were crushed, and the former Axis Powers would become constitutional republics. The defeats of 1942, and the resulting criticism of the war effort, today appear to be of merely academic interest. However, it is important to remember them during these trying days. Modern communications have developed to the point that every bit of information coming in from Fallujah and elsewhere is eagerly pored over, and a host of reporters, columnists, radio personalities and Internet bloggers are under pressure to offer instant analysis, desperately trying to make sense of a complicated situation based on highly limited information. In such a situation, is it any wonder that the overall picture we receive tends to be one of imminent disaster?

None of this is to claim that the administration’s handling of Iraq is above criticism; still less to suggest that the Allied victory in World War II makes triumph in the Middle East somehow inevitable. It should, however, remind us that what strikes us as noteworthy in the here and now might well end up in the final analysis as insignificant details. The fortunes of war are ever-changing, and apparent short-term failure is frequently the price to be paid for long-term success. What in isolation might seem to be a bad policy or a devastating setback might well turn out to be very different when put into a larger context. In other words, those who are predicting disaster in Iraq based on mere tidbits of information coming in from Fallujah may find themselves looking foolish in the long run.



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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I can’t recall anyone on HNN "unfurling 'Mission failed' banners" and thus do not know to which “administration critics” Mr. Moser might be referring. I do hear a number of very credible voices in more authoritative forums, and from across the political spectrum, insisting that members of the Bush Administration begin to apologize for their past arrogance, acknowledge their many mistakes, and take more viable actions to redress them.

If Mr. Moser does not want to “suggest that the war in Iraq is the same as World War II”, why does he spend most of his article talking about World War II ?

If FDR had been appointed U.S. president after a very close election, by a Supreme Court partly chosen by his father, prior president Calvin Coolidge Walker Roosevelt, had ignored warnings thus allowing 19 Trotskyite saboteurs to blow up the Empire State building, and in response claimed that the German Kaiser (left in power after World War I) was an imminent threat linked to those communist terrorists, and then sent a grossly understaffed American army to try to unilaterally pursue regime change in Berlin, in defiance of public opinion, bi-partisan warnings, and common sense, there might be a broad parallel from the 1940s useful to an understanding of the current predicament into which the blundering George W. Bush has thrust our country. See also my earlier comment http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=34763#34763)

The repeated attempt to draw analogies between the Iraq War and World War II on this pretend history website is entirely consistent with the repeated desperate spindoctoring of Bush Administration officials attempting to sugarcoat their incompetence and bungling. Evidently, some of them really believe their own spin. For example, Donald Rumsfeld, who never served in any military capacity, has apparently been seeking inspiration (or feeding his denial) by reading about Ulysses Grant lately ! (McNamara might have been a more relevant choice.)

A brief examination of the Ashland website with which Mr. Moser is affiliated suggests that his efforts here are about politics, not history. If he wants to proselytize on behalf of an incompetent U.S. president, that is of course his God-given inalienable right. If he wants to do so by means of highly selective use of American history designed to paint a misleading picture of the origins of contemporary problems, he can expect occasional criticism by historians and objective non-partisan journalists, who might from time to time happen to look at HNN.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Other than its being a war of choice, not self-defense, and one characterized by unusually steadfast mismanagement at the top leadership level, I agree that the Vietnam War is not a very good analogy to the Iraq War. Using World War II as a point of comparison makes even less sense, for all the reasons stated already and more, unless one's objective is to link the most popular war in American History with one of the most incompetent presidents in American History in order to try to obscure that incompetency.

The information suggesting the relevancy of such motives here comes, by the way, not from some internet fishing expedition, but as a result of following the suggestion of this prior comment on HNN:

http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=34045#34045

Read this. (#34045)
by John E. Moser on April 28, 2004 at 12:38 PM
http://www.ashbrook.org/publicat/oped/busch/04/song.html


A better historical comparison -than either World War II or the Vietnam War- for analyzing the current presidential Administration might be that given by the title of John W. Dean's new book: "Worse than Watergate". In any event, however, rejecting parallels between a very recent war and two older wars is hardly tantamount to arguing that the "historical record is useless as a guide to present and future action" or that "politics and history are separable".

PK Clarke


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"Paleoconservative" was Mr. Moser's term, which seems to be part of a tradition here at HNN to apply labels rather than engage in objective or historically persuasive analysis. I put it in parenthesis with a question mark because, other than this sleight-of-hand purpose, I am not convinced that such phrases have any particular value. FT, like Economist, is speaking the harsh cold truth, and attaching sophomoric labels will not discredit it in the eyes of informed and educated readers.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

This latest bit of political hackery from Ashland attempts to defend the indefensible. FDR was certainly no saint, but the pitiful and incessant attempt of HNN to compare G.W. Bush to FDR is ridiculous in the extreme. Only diehard Bush apologist ostriches have to "desperately try to figure out what is going on".


Here is what the("Paleoconservative" ?) Financial Times of the UK has to say today:

http://news.ft.com

Images that will not easily be erased
Published: May 12 2004

"The latest developments reinforce the need for a new strategy. It is now clearer than ever that the Iraq enterprise was misconceived. But nobody could have forecast the seamless catalogue of errors and misjudgments, of arrogance and ignorance, that has led to this pass...

The degrading images of US troops brutalising their prisoners will not easily be erased....Saddam Hussein's regime was guilty of worse. But those who make this defensive moral comparison miss the point entirely, unless they wish - as many Iraqis and Arabs are wrongly doing - to compare the world's leading democracy to one of the vilest tyrants of modern times. Osama bin Laden, whose fanatical jihad against the modern "Crusaders" has from the outset sought to trigger a clash of civilisations between Islam and the west, surely cannot believe his luck.

In Iraq itself, the occupation is in deep trouble - and sinking. After so much bluster and bungling, the situation could now be irretrievable....

US forces have failed to get a grip on the country. Unable to control an insurgency by a minority of the minority - the Sunni Muslims who have traditionally ruled Iraq - the Coalition Provisional Authority headed by Paul Bremer has gratuitously provoked the Shia Muslim majority, whose acquiescence is the only reason the occupation does not face a generalised revolt.

....the occupation authority, having failed to establish security and legitimacy at the national level, is turning to regional political, tribal and religious leaders in a desperate search for authority and some semblance of law and order. Clearly, the occupation has few other options left. Yet if this trend towards the de facto break-up of Iraq under local forces and militias continues, the country will slide into partition.

There are those in the west who consider partition - a loose confederation of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish entities - a reasonable way out. But this is naive. It assumes a benign process akin to the "velvet divorce" of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Iraqi facts are more likely to deliver something like the wars of the Yugoslav succession or the Lebanese civil war - with neighbours such as Turkey and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria sucked into the maelstrom.

Washington and London have little option but to stick to the handover plan and hope that Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy, can piece together a plausible interim government until elections can safely be held next year. The occupation must in the meantime strain every nerve to atone for its incompetence. High-minded verbiage will no longer do: action is required.

Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, professes to take responsibility for the outrages at Abu Ghraib prison. But nobody will believe it until he and others at the top of the command chain are fired. Abu Ghraib, a scene of indescribable horror under Saddam, should be bulldozed forthwith, and all prison facilities in Iraq should have human rights officers accredited to them. The US should also release the vast majority of its 8,000 prisoners: the seizure of 43,000 Iraqis in a year, of whom only 600 have been referred to the courts, is indiscriminate and counterproductive.

After the handover next month, moreover, the US should seek the authority of the interim government before conducting any major military operation. This may not sit with the Bush administration's doctrine of unchallengable American power, but without it no Iraqi or other ally will be able to stand alongside the US.

Mr Bush probably has no hope anyway of securing additional help in Iraq. But if he cannot take the essential minimum of measures to restore his country's reputation, he does not deserve to stay in the White House.


John E. Moser - 5/14/2004

"Perhaps Mr. Moser meant it as a put-down, but it need not be taken as such."

You are correct; I was doing nothing more than using a term that Mr. Buchanan himself has used.

"The curious thing about Mr. Moser's article is that it treats long-standing critics of interventionism, such as Mr. Buchanan, as if they were irrelevant."

My argument is not so much that they are irrelevant, but that they are predictable. There is, of course, nothing wrong with predictability. It is just that when we hear folks who opposed the war from the start now insisting that the war is going disastrously, we ought to take it with a grain of salt--just as we ought to be skeptical of overly sunny predictions from those who always supported the mission in Iraq. After all, people are naturally interested in seeing their own views vindicated.

I fear that this debate has gotten out of hand, and that views are being attributed to me that I do not indeed hold. The purpose of my original article was not to defend any specific administration policy. While I did support the war, I have always held, and continue to hold doubts about the ability to bring democracy to Iraq. My point was only to suggest that it is too early to admit defeat in this regard. In fact, I have not decided which candidate will receive my vote in November, although I can see how my failure to call for the president's impeachment might cause me to be viewed as a rabid right-winger in some quarters.

This will be my last word on the subject.


Daniel B. Larison - 5/13/2004

Now that I look over the article again, I see that the only application of paleoconservative was to Pat Buchanan. If I have missed something, I would welcome the correction. That label is, to the best of my knowledge, basically accurate to describe Mr. Buchanan's conservative philosophy, and it is a term that Mr. Buchanan would not reject to describe his position. Perhaps Mr. Moser meant it as a put-down, but it need not be taken as such. Whether or not the term is sophomoric, I will leave for someone else to discuss. I suppose you could say that it is redundant, in the sense that most self-styled paleoconservatives would probably argue that there aren't any other conservatives around, but that is a whole new argument.

The curious thing about Mr. Moser's article is that it treats long-standing critics of interventionism, such as Mr. Buchanan, as if they were irrelevant. As if maintaining a consistent position for a decade were somehow a liability for that position. One might think that the incompetence of interventionists would seem to vindicate an approach that questions the need for and practicality of foreign intervention. Apparently, only recently disillusioned supporters of the war are the ones to be taken even slightly seriously by Mr. Moser.


Daniel B. Larison - 5/13/2004

My apologies. I should have put the question to Mr. Moser. I had missed his use of the term in the original article.

FT and The Economist do usually offer very solid reporting, and I rely on both for a good part of my information about foreign affairs. Just to be clear, it was not my purpose to attack the accuracy of FT's views, but to note that if that paper has turned against Mr. Bush then he is in a great deal of trouble with many former supporters, at least in Britain. It has only been grudgingly and recently that The Economist has seen fit to stop cheerleading for the administration in its leader columns.


Daniel B. Larison - 5/13/2004

This is not a particularly important question, but I am curious about what would lead Mr. Clarke to suggest that the Financial Times was possibly "paleoconservative" in orientation. Was there something in the editorial that seemed particularly "paleocon" in nature? Certainly, paleoconservatives in both Britain (if I can apply the term to some serious conservatives there) and America opposed the war, and find the administration to be fantastically incompetent and dishonest, but beyond these similarities I don't see any tell-tale signs of philosophical conservatism coming through in this editorial.

The growing sense among many American conservatives (and not only the paleo kind) that the occupation is futile and wasteful, and should scrapped forthwith, stands in clear opposition to the FT's insistence on 'improving' the occupation and carrying out the meaningless "handover" in June. FT regards partition as unacceptable and something to be prevented; paleoconservatives would ask why it is America's responsibility to guarantee the unity of a state that has no significant historical or social reality.

As an American of the paleoconservative persuasion, I would say that FT is of a very different mould. It is the mouthpiece of the philosophically "centrist" or pragmatic British financial and economic establishment, which is rarely considered the natural ally of paleoconservatism, or indeed conservatism of any serious kind. This establishment is an ally of the Tories insofar as the Tories are more in hock to the City than Labour ever will be (though Blair has changed this to some extent), but this necessarily has a deliterious effect on real conservatism of a traditional British sort within the Conservative Party.

FT is equivalent to the Wall Street Journal here in America in its coverage, but it lacks the sheer unprincipled and ideological fanaticism of that paper's editors. It is internationalist, but I believe it is not quite so dogmatic about it. As I recall, FT supported the war along with the other center and center-right papers, minus the Mail, which plays up to the middle England audience that never wanted this war. It is one of these examples of the British chattering classes, especially on the Tory side, suddenly realising what a dreadful mistake they made, or at least trying to distance themselves from the uglier parts of the war.

It's not that important of a question, I suppose, but the use of these labels always intrigues me. Perhaps the political leanings of the paper's editors might clarify just what sort of people are taking such a negative view of Mr. Bush, and why it should be particularly troubling to Washington that an establishment paper in Britain is attacking the administration so directly.


John E. Moser - 5/13/2004

"I can’t recall anyone on HNN "unfurling 'Mission failed' banners" and thus do not know to which “administration critics” Mr. Moser might be referring."

What else is to be inferred from the many invocations of the Vietnam analogy? And how about this--from the very article you cited in your last post: "In Iraq itself, the occupation is in deep trouble - and sinking. After so much bluster and bungling, the situation could now be irretrievable...."

"If Mr. Moser does not want to “suggest that the war in Iraq is the same as World War II”, why does he spend most of his article talking about World War II ?"

For one thing, it is the subject that I know best. I also think it's instructive in the sense that World War II is generally seen as America's greatest 20th century success story. This has led Americans to forget that there were a number of occasions in which the outcome seemed very much in doubt.

"If FDR had been appointed U.S. president after a very close election, by a Supreme Court partly chosen by his father, prior president Calvin Coolidge Walker Roosevelt, had ignored warnings thus allowing 19 Trotskyite saboteurs to blow up the Empire State building, and in response claimed that the German Kaiser (left in power after World War I) was an imminent threat linked to those communist terrorists, and then sent a grossly understaffed American army to try to unilaterally pursue regime change in Berlin, in defiance of public opinion, bi-partisan warnings, and common sense, there might be a broad parallel from the 1940s useful to an understanding of the current predicament into which the blundering George W. Bush has thrust our country."

Clever, but not very helpful. I could, of course, spell out all the ways in which this war differs from Vietnam. What this amounts to, though, is an assertion that the historical record is useless as a guide to present and future action. And I would suggest that if this is the case, HNN has no reason for existing. If that is indeed your point, I encourage you to come out and say it.

"A brief examination of the Ashland website with which Mr. Moser is affiliated suggests that his efforts here are about politics, not history."

Your ability to enter my name in a search engine is admirable, but if you think that politics and history are separable you're even more naive than I thought. If being politically engaged is sufficient cause for dismissing one's interpretation of history, then HNN would quickly run out of contributors. Or does something only qualify as "politics" if it runs counter to your vision of the world?

"he can expect occasional criticism by historians and objective non-partisan journalists, who might from time to time happen to look at HNN."

And which of these might you be, Mr. Clarke (if that really is your name)? An internet search suggests that HNN is the only place you've ever written anything.


John E. Moser - 5/13/2004

At the risk of being accused of more "political hackery," I feel compelled to say that at no point have I compared George W. Bush to FDR. My previous article merely claimed that John Kerry was in a position vis-a-vis his party that was analogous to that of Wendell Willkie--hardly the same thing.

In the case of the present article, Mr. Clarke ought to read more carefully--I explicitly said that my point was not to claim that the administration should be exempt from criticism, or to suggest that the war in Iraq is the same as World War II. It was a plea for some degree of humility on the part of those whom I see as being far too quick to predict disaster.

Mr. Clarke can quote me all the op-eds he wants. They are written, I am sure, by Very Smart People using Clear-Eyed Analysis, with no hint of partisanship whatsoever . My point is that one found plenty of similar op-eds in 1942, as well as in the year after the fall of Germany (perhaps I'll address that in a further article) by Very Smart People using Clear-Eyed Analysis. Today they are merely footnotes to history.

When, last May, the president gave that triumphal speech aboard the aircraft carrier, under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished," he was roundly criticized, and rightly so. All I am asking is that the administration's critics furl their "Mission Failed" banners, at least for the time being.


Daniel B. Larison - 5/12/2004

Thanks for your response. Actually, your question reminds me that I was not entirely correct in my statement about Iraq. I do not know what level of support there was for Wilson's Siberian adventure (since it ended immediately after his crowd was turned out of office, I suspect there wasn't much support), but this reminds me that opposition to involvement in WWI was actually much higher than opposition to this war. As I recall from a biography of Bob LaFollette, a substantial majority of Americans opposed entry into the war in 1917, but this did not stop Congress from voting almost unanimously for the war declaration.

I think my overall point about the unpopularity of this war stands, but the uniqueness of opposition to this war is not what I first claimed it to be. In addition, WWI is a very good comparative example of a highly 'idealistic' president wrapping a war effort in saccharine and pious phrases, only to leave Americans brutally disillusioned about the value of involvement in foreign affairs.


Ben H. Severance - 5/11/2004

I do not consider critics of the war supporters of terrorism. Moreover, I have in this instance blurred the war in Iraq with the greater war on terror. I only think it's important to constantly remind ourselves that the real fiends in this world are not U.S. soldiers or even President Bush and co., but terrorist groups such as Al-Quaeda.

As for the number of foreign operatives among the insurgency, I don't know how the U.S. comes to its 1 percent figure (and am amused that you readily accept this piece of U.S. military data, but reject U.S. military assertions that real progress is being made), but the war is a magnet for international terrorists. Frankly, I'd rather the American government kill them in Iraq than react to their actions elsewhere.

Regarding the Mahdi Army, I was intemperate in my characterization of it as an anti-American terrorist organization. Its rank-and-file are probably patriotic Iraqis who are motivated by a mixture of nationalism and Islam, and resist simply because America is an alien occupier. Nevertheless, the Mahdi Army is a destabilizing band of militants at odds with the Shiite majority. Al-Sistani appears to have figured the Americans out: patiently await the transfer of soveriegnty and then let Shiite numbers prevail at the ballot-box. And if U.S. soldiers kill his rival Al-Sadr in the process, all the better.

I should write a letter, but while I have misgivings about the war in Iraq, I wholeheartedly support a policy of global vigilance by the U.S., and Iraq has become one of the fronts in the greater war on terror. Anyway, neither political party is going to evacuate from Iraq any time soon, nor is either party going to suspend the war on terror. Bush and Kerry present different strategies and tactics, but their overall goal is the same--national security through military strength.


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/11/2004

"The Iraq war, incidentally, is unique in our history in terms of the level of opposition (on average four out of ten people) to the war prior to its outbreak."

Daniel, do you know how popular U.S. participation was in the War of Intervention (against the Soviets after WWI). (I don't so I'm asking.)

http://www.umich.edu/~bhl/bhl/topics/russia.htm

Good post, thanks for writing it.


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/11/2004

"You are right in rebuking critics of this war who inadvertently defend such groups as the Mahdi Army and Al-Quaeda backed insurgents."

Are you actually saying that if an American opposes the present Iraq War, s/he is implicitly supporting Al Qaeda and/or the Mahdi Army?

"The critics would do well to keep in mind that fundamentalist terrorists would slit their throats as readily as a U.S. combat soldier."

It's not clear to me that the Mahdi Army is "terrorist" except by expansive definition. And it's not clear that Al Qaeda is in Iraq to much of any degree. U.S. military have recently admitted that "foreign fighters" are probably 1% of those in Iraq fighting Coalition occupation. And the Shias' that the Mahdi Army is composed of tended to look tolerantly on our troops right after we toppled Saddam's government. They (the Mahdis) are probably not as inherently anti-American as you think they are.

"And will seek to do so regardless of whether America pulls out of Iraq or not."

We can make it tougher on them by evacuating our troops back to the U.S.

"I am no fan of this war".

Hopefully it will be over soon. If you are politically conservative, a letter from you to your representatives and president opposing this war might be more effective than one from someone left of center.


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/11/2004

"Mr. Moser has written a very good article. I cannot recall an American war or conflict that a sizeable minority or even a majority opposed or had serious misgivings about including the War of Independence."

I guess you don't remember the Vietnam War, then?

"Nevertheless, I find that doubts about war, and this war in particular, frequently translate into almost sympathy with an enemy that not only hold beliefs counter to our own but to humanity in general."

Uh, frequently?


Daniel B. Larison - 5/10/2004

There is no question, in my mind, of sympathising with the insurgents. These are people who have killed, or would kill, our soldiers, and it is not they for whom I feel much sympathy. I feel sympathy for the soldiers stuck in a pointless war and the civilians who are getting ground up by that war.

Whether or not the resistance, or elements of it, 'represent' a majority or not in some sense, the relevant questions Americans should ask is why we should keep getting our troops killed when a clear majority does not want us to remain and has said as much in already-released polls. According to a report of a forthcoming poll commissioned by the CPA itself, Sadr is apparently the second most-respected man in Iraq, and Iraqis favour the likes of him to our continued presence. If this does not show that his resistance taps into some considerable popular resentment, then I'm not sure what it would take to be more convincing.

Whether or not Sadr and his army desire what most Iraqis desire is not that important, politically speaking, because he has apparently become something of a symbol for a considerable number of them. He always represented more of the Shi'as than the government wanted to admit, and his base of sympathisers has broadened in the past month. If we have lost enough Iraqis to such political symbolism, then there is no point in persisting in the military approach. We have no equally potent symbol or rallying cry with which to draw them away from Sadr. Even the once-hawkish CSIS has said that there is no military solution to the problem. The insurgents are not the issue; it is the Iraqis' response to the insurgents and, more importantly, our response to that insurgency that leaves us in our current predicament.

The alienation of Iraqis from the occupation has come in part because there is an awareness that the "return to sovereignty" is so much window dressing. There had been some popular expectation of an end to occupation, and now it is becoming clear that there will no such end. This is tiresome for them, and it is tiresome for us.

The Iraq war, incidentally, is unique in our history in terms of the level of opposition (on average four out of ten people) to the war prior to its outbreak. Vietnam retained considerable majority support for years, but the public has always been much more cool towards the endeavour. That initial skepticism and reluctance to start this war means that it will take much smaller reverses to discourage the public, because many of the worries of the pre-war critics are now coming to pass and confirming in the minds of a less-than-enthusiastic public that this war was a mistake. Indeed, roughly half the country believes that the war was a mistake and has not been worth the cost. With such weak support, the people will not long allow this mission to carry on aimlessly. By all indications from this administration, and from the erstwhile challenger, the political leadership has no clue what to do. This is not entirely their fault: there may be no good options and little chance of political success.


Ben H. Severance - 5/10/2004

Excellent points, Mr. Larison. My Civil War comments above also fall under the category of the nation not really having a choice but to fight. Given my postings elsewhere, if I'm not careful, I may soon find myself agreeing with the pro-war and anti-war positions. Perhaps I should run for president.

Anyway, I appreciate your comments about the French, too. I think the Germans lost 20-30,000 KIA in conquering France in 1940 (I may be wrong, but it was a heavy price in blood in any event). And does no one remember Petain's "They Shall Not Pass" defense at Verdun?


Ben H. Severance - 5/10/2004

You are right in rebuking critics of this war who inadvertently defend such groups as the Mahdi Army and Al-Quaeda backed insurgents. By comparison, U.S. troops are humanitarians. The critics would do well to keep in mind that fundamentalist terrorists would slit their throats as readily as a U.S. combat soldier. And will seek to do so regardless of whether America pulls out of Iraq or not.

I am no fan of this war, and am not sure how the U.S. extricates itself without leaving civil strife in its wake, but as you suggest, the Bush Administration could do a better job of making clear its efforts to concentrate on selected Iraqi subversives, as opposed to misperceptions that the whole country is in the throes of insurrection, and also advertize the atrocities of Al-Sadr and company, who use violence against so-called collaborators in order to keep them from pursuing political stability. Instead, Bush lamely resorts to calling the insurgents "thugs," while the entire U.S. military is unfairly indicted for the horrible Abu Ghraib incident.


Daniel B. Larison - 5/10/2004

Even in an age of instant communications and constant commentary, Americans are perfectly capable of enduring difficult setbacks and trying periods in a war. The trouble comes when our government fights wars that make no sense, or aim at no worthwhile or achievable goals. One does not have to be convinced that Iraq has become a general disaster to see that it is not worth the cost, never having had much importance for our national security in the first place. Yes, Americans could probably 'slog' on and accept the rising casualties from Iraq for years, even decades, but what would be the point? Fewer and fewer people have any confidence that the government knows, or ever knew, what it is doing there.

It is not just the manifest failures of this administration that cause this lack of confidence. I doubt that any modern politician could make a successful go of such a ludicrously ambitious project with such limited resources and crackpot notions about human society. This is what really saps national confidence in the effort: the perception that, no matter who is president, there is no end to this conflict that achieves any of the original goals of the war. The government, however, remains blindly committed to the project, because Iraq is to be its strategic base in the region.

The WWII analogies, as usual, fail to convince, because that war was not a war of choice. Say what I might about FDR's provocations, the Axis powers declared war on the United States. If critics of this war keep coming back to Vietnam, it is because it is one of the only reasonably comparable situations in our history: a war of choice with vague and undefined goals in a country most Americans know next to nothing about.

Many Americans can see that the government is confused, befuddled and generally out of touch with reality, and so even slight reversals, such as Fallujah, are magnified by the public's knowledge of the government's ineptitude. The prison scandal, appalling as it is, would only be an ugly sideshow of the war under normal circumstances, but for the fact that it reveals the same incompetence that the people are finding so tiresome in the political track. Above all, there is the knowledge that Iraq never did anything to our country, and that all these deaths, ours and theirs, have not been worthwhile.

Finally, I appreciate that Mr. Moser found time in this article to insult the French. One finds such pathetic anti-French sentiments in commentary so rarely these days, especially among the fine scholars of HNN. Nevermind that the French lost 108,000 dead and another 200,000 casualties in their defense of France in 1940, far more than America expended in Vietnam, and almost as many total casualties as America suffered in WWI. The weeks of the French fighting a superior, highly mobile enemy do not constitute a defense of their country, of course.


Lynn Bryan Schwartz - 5/10/2004

Mr. Moser has written a very good article. I cannot recall an American war or conflict that a sizeable minority or even a majority opposed or had serious misgivings about including the War of Independence. As much as I disagree with that opposition and am often infuriated by it, I also find it to be a refreshing example of a long-held American world-view. Nevertheless, I find that doubts about war, and this war in particular, frequently translate into almost sympathy with an enemy that not only hold beliefs counter to our own but to humanity in general. It is perhaps a consequence, as westerners, of the post-colonial experience. When we see somewhat effective resistance to American occupation, some Americans conflate that resistance as the will of the majority of the Iraqi people. Yet, what needs to be kept in mind, and what the Bush administration needs to do a better job projecting, is that groups like al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Army do not desire the will of the majority of the Iraqi people. These groups have intentially killed more Iraqis that American soldiers. The renewed resistence in the past month or so is a direct response to the return of sovereignty and some sort of democratic process. In short, the recent tone of defeatism in American media and public opinion is largely a consequence of a badly informed American public. Again, while the Bush administration deserves a significant part of the blame, media across the board is equally guilty.


Ben H. Severance - 5/10/2004

A thoughtful article. Mr. Moser compares current doubts about the war in Iraq to American concerns in WWII. He could just as well have discussed the Civil War, especially 1863 and 1864, years when the cost and duration of the fighting were taking their toll on the northern homefront's morale. Yet Lincoln persevered and prevailed, and most Americans are thankful for his leadership. Caveat: Bush is no Lincoln.

We would all do well to keep Moser's suggestion for caution in mind when evaluating the current war. HNN is visited by many scholars who certainly understand how dangerous it is to take events out of context or make snap judgments. Unfortunately, many of us (myself included) have done just that in more than one of our comments.