Special Report

Keeping the Faith

Some thoughts about Haditha, the war in Iraq, and historic context.

By 6.2.06

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Now for a few thoughts about the war in Iraq and historic context.

First, I keep running into men and women of the left who tell me that going into Iraq unprepared and undermanned and under-armed was the worst foreign policy and defense mistake this government has ever made.

Certainly, it was one hell of a mistake. That's obvious and cruel for all concerned. And to continue Donald Rumsfeld's stewardship of the war effort when he has made such a hash of it strikes me as extremely peculiar. The man has his points, but guiding the Iraq war is not one of them. We are three years into it, have spent many lives and hundreds of billions we can ill afford, and we are worse off than we were three weeks after hostilities commenced. With the best troops on the planet and the best weapons on earth, we are clearly in a desperate mess.

But it is a small mess so far.

It pales by comparison with FDR's acts of hostility to Japan and Germany, provoking Pearl Harbor, when he knew or should have known we were drastically unprepared for World War. When FDR taunted Japan, stopped shipping them supplies we had always sent them, and practically begged them to go to war with us, it was probably the right moral thing to do. In fact it surely was. But he was the most popular President of all time. He had fairly good (but far from perfect) control of Congress. He could have made sure we were better armed before he got us into war. The unpreparedness of U.S. forces caused us terrible losses at Pearl Harbor and far worse ones in the Philippines. They let hundreds of U.S. vessels go to the bottom along with their brave crews under the U-boat onslaught. Yes, he did learn and geared us up for total war. But the mistakes at the beginning were extremely bad.

That was a far bigger foreign policy mistake than Iraq.

FDR caving in at Yalta, baiting the greatest man of all time, Winston Churchill, and instead siding with the worst killer of his own people of all time, J.V. Stalin, to create a Soviet slave empire in Eastern Europe -- that was a far worse mistake than the Iraq war and cost far more lives. Sending captured Russians back to Stalin to be murdered by the hundreds of thousands -- that was a far worse mistake than Iraq.

Getting us into Vietnam -- a gift from JFK and LBJ, done under the falsest of pretexts especially by LBJ -- that was a far worse mistake than Iraq. I don't think anyone believes we will lose fifty thousand men in Iraq. But that's how many we lost in Vietnam, thanks to an adventure started by gung-ho warriors who had no clue of what they were in for -- just like Iraq only far worse.

Iraq was a mistake. And it's turning out badly. We lack the national will to win this war. We had no good reason to be there in the first place. (Thank you, CIA.) We were supposed to not get into any more wars we did not absolutely need to be in. If we did get into them, we were supposed to go in with enough force to win. We screwed up every part of this and it's a mistake. But the worst foreign/ defense policy mistake of all time? Very far from it.

Second, Haditha. Another disaster. There are explanations. Obviously, if Marines, our toughest and roughest, see their friends blown to bits by terrorists hidden by the general population, they are going to be furious at the general population. They are going to be tired and frightened and ready to kill. A dear friend who has killed in Iraq says that a civilian just cannot imagine the feeling killing gives you in terms of power and release. ("Ye shall be as gods," comes to mind.) So, it's understandable that the Marines killed the innocent because as they saw it, in Haditha, there were no innocents. It is understandable, but it's terrible in the way many terrible parts of the human soul are understandable.

Again, humans hate seeing their friends killed for no reason. Humans are fearful of getting killed themselves in war and especially in wars like Iraq, where the enemy is everywhere. And humans like to kill those they fear. But explicit killing of civilians is not allowed any longer, and the men involved will be tried, as they should be.

But what is truly incredible about the war in Iraq is how FEW civilians U.S. forces have killed. In World War II, it was explicit doctrine to bomb, blow up, incinerate, and suffocate as many Germans and Japanese as we could. We firebombed cities in Germany and Japan around the clock for years. We attacked civilian neighborhoods explicitly (under the inspiration of the British, who wanted "...measure for measure..." as Churchill said against the Nazis for bombing British cities, and rightly so).

We set off firestorms that killed tens of thousands in a night in Japan and Germany. Children were incinerated in their mothers' arms. Whole districts and all the people in them were simply erased from history.

This was the way we, the best, kindest nation on earth by far, fought the biggest war of all time. We are not talking about killing twelve civilians but about killing millions.

Now, under Mr. Bush, we did not carpet bomb Baghdad. We do not level whole neighborhoods though we easily could. We risk and lose lives every day to fight and kill or capture only the guilty.

This is new in the history of warfare in the past sixty years. In a war that has been going on for three miserable years, there have been only a handful of reports of civilian deaths at U.S. hands. Any is too many. But let's not kid ourselves. Mr. Bush and the incredibly brave and decent men and women who are fighting this war are fighting with a restraint that is novel in the history of war.

I don't excuse the killers. I do offer some understanding and some context about them and about history. Things could be a lot worse, and we have every reason to be deeply proud of the men and women who fight the most inhuman killers on the planet almost always by extremely humane rules of engagement. And Mr. Bush has made some dreadful mistakes, but a look into the past offers some hope that we have gotten through far worse mistakes and gone on to a wary happiness. "There is a lot of ruin in a nation," as Adam Smith so brilliantly said. The key is to ascend the learning curve. And to keep the faith with those in harm's way in Haditha and everywhere else.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.