The Iraq War and Similarities With an Earlier Conflict

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Mr. Johnson is a professor of history at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN and author of A Gallant Little Army.

The president stood accused of fabricating an excuse to get into the war.  He stubbornly insisted that his reasons were valid, but members of the opposition party were skeptical.  The army was sent to liberate the country from an irresponsible government.  It achieved rapid battlefield victories, but had to surmount unforeseen obstacles.  American soldiers found that the people they came to liberate distrusted them because of a radically different culture and religion.  And as the war dragged on, the president faced growing criticism. 

Sound like the war in Iraq?  It’s not.  The president was James K. Polk and the war was with Mexico.  In 1846 when Polk, a Democrat, asked Congress for a declaration of war, he cited a Mexican invasion across the Rio Grande that resulted in American blood shed on American soil.  Skeptics from the opposition Whig party suspected that Polk’s story was invented to hide ulterior motives for instigating a war.  However, the president’s majority party limited debate and succeeded in passing the war bill.

Although the administration promoted a war policy, it sent an insufficient number of troops to Mexico.  It went to war with little strategic planning because it expected a quick conquest that would result in the transfer of land from Mexico to the United States.  By the second year of the war, the cost had risen and so had the demand for soldiers.  Troop strength became so low in 1847 that General Winfield Scott had to halt his army’s march to Mexico City until a troop surge augmented his numbers to a level that made ground operations feasible again.

The leading generals in Mexico had to contend with discipline issues, which constitutes a common problem among soldiers in a foreign land.  Scott was more successful than others in controlling his men because he took the unprecedented step of declaring martial law and exacted severe punishment for breaches in discipline.  Stern punishment has the double benefit of limiting bad behavior and assuring the indigenous population of their safety.  What Scott understood was that success in occupying a foreign country depends on winning hearts and minds, and the fastest way to lose that battle is to tolerate bad behavior.

Just as in Iraq today, the most delicate issues in Mexico had to do with cultural and religious differences.  The Catholic Church was the dominant religion in Mexico, and it was a key instigator of guerrilla activity.  Priests were often the ones who led insurgencies against the Americans, and to rally opposition they portrayed the invaders as “heretics” who sided with the devil against the Catholic Church.  Also, as in the current conflict, it was after the capture of the enemy capital, when most people thought “mission accomplished,” that prolonged guerrilla activity slowed the peace process.

Over time the opposition became more vocal.  The center of the antiwar movement consisted of abolitionists who knew that the acquisition of land would mean the expansion of slavery.  Writers such as Henry David Thoreau became outspoken opponents of the war, and even politicians got into the act.  Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln grew so skeptical of Polk’s reason for going to war that he demanded, through his famous Spot Resolution, that the president verify the facts in his earlier war message.  Ohio Senator Thomas Corwin astonishingly said that he hoped the Mexicans would welcome the American soldiers to “hospitable graves.”  Such defiance naturally resulted in the charge of unpatriotic conduct and even treason.  Even so the Whigs took control of the House of Representatives in the next election.

Other factors in Mexico bear a resemblance with the current struggle.  Local civilians were punished by other Mexicans for assisting the Americans.  Internal factions in Mexico fueled the growing indigenous insurgency.  The Americans tried to avoid damaging houses of worship so they would not be accused of making war on Mexico’s religion.  And, most striking, faulty intelligence resulted in a senseless battle at a place called Molino del Rey where it was erroneously thought that the Mexicans were making cannon–a weapon of mass destruction. 

Commentators have frequently compared the Iraq War to Vietnam, but few have cited the numerous similarities with the Mexican-American War.  In fact, few Americans know anything about the earlier conflict even though it was our first foreign war, and as a percentage of the total who served, it was the deadliest conflict in our history.  Even though Americans know little about this war, many would recognize names like Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant who were among the many future Civil War generals who learned their first lessons of war in Mexico.  It is unfortunate that we know so little about this war despite ongoing demographic changes that seemingly demand a better understanding of our relations with our southern neighbor.  Imagine how a better knowledge of history could influence policy decisions in the twenty-first century.

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Arnold Shcherban - 9/16/2008

Sorry for grammatical errors in the previous comment.

Arnold Shcherban - 9/16/2008

One of the elements of the military package denied to Israel WAS bunker-buster bombs. However, the latest info
from Haaretz is that the US has already agreed to provide those for Israel.
The alleged rejection was the same type of world-deceiving move, as the "difficulties" in the negotiation
beyween US and POland on installation
of anti-missile facilities, since then signed by the Polishn government.
American governments systematically violate or unilaterily end signed by them international aggreements at their will, so only completely ignorant or inborn idiots continue to believe that US momentous decisions express its principal, long-term policy values, which has been perpertually imperialistic.

R.R. Hamilton - 9/11/2008

Dear Mr. Baker,

I think you will be as glad as I am to hear that the U.S. not only does not have (current) plans to attack Iran but has red-lighted Israeli plans to do so.

I hope this will remain our policy for the foreseeable future.

Raul A Garcia - 9/7/2008

The author makes a good point about upgrading our collective knowledge on the history of that war. I would also posit that after Independence, our wars in the Ohio country against the various Native American nations could also be considered as wars against sovereign nations- The English indeed had recognized them as such and some present litigation, such as by the Onondaga in New York state (Syracuse), is partly founded on these sovereign recognitions.

omar ibrahim baker - 9/3/2008

Americans know very little about the US/Mexico war of this post and seem to know even less of the true forces behind the USA conquest of Iraq and its ultimate objectives.
However the crucial difference between the two wars is not the one cited in Mr. Johnson's article.
The USA fought that war against Mexico for American reasons, no matter how reprehensible those may be, whereas the conquest of Iraq by the USA was undertaken for non American substantially Israeli reasons.
America's seemingly overpowering reluctance, or inability, to see and perceive that cardinal fact could lead the USA to find itself wholly engaged in a new war, against Iran, for exactly those same un-American, Israeli, reasons and , to boot, paying for it in blood and treasure more than the real beneficiary , as it is now paying in Iraq.

R.R. Hamilton - 9/2/2008

The author calls the Mexican-American War (1846-48) our "first foreign war".

Wouldn't the naval war against France (1798-1800) qualify? Or the battles in North Africa against the Barbary States? Or even the War of 1812 which saw us invade Canada?

Btw, I would contend that the U.S. was in a war with Mexico before the formal declaration. Mexico had never accepted the independence of Texas. Thus, to the Mexicans, the U.S. invasion of "their country" began with the crossing of the Sabine River, not the Rio Grande (or even the Nueces as is sometimes suggested).

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/1/2008

If we carry the analogy further, we can see Gen. David Petraeus being elected President of the United States, just as was Mexican War hero Gen. Zachary Taylor...

Vietnam does not make a good comparison, of course, because the wars in Mexican and Iraq were both victories for the United States.

Your "commentators who have frequently compared the Iraq War to Vietnam" were premature idiots.