With the 2006 election approaching and the War on Terror still at center stage, it is worth taking stock of whether our invasion of Iraq was worthwhile or whether it has become a misbegotten adventure.
My judgment is that in certain respects the invasion can now be called a mistake. But it was a mistake worth making. We have learned a lot. We are going to be in confrontation with Islam for a long, long time, perhaps the better part of this century, and it isn’t surprising we should get a few things wrong in the opening rounds. The invasion hasn’t made things worse, as some people are now contending. But there have been misjudgments and we shouldn’t make them again.
The biggest mistake was to romanticize the Iraq Shi’ia and convince ourselves that they were a population ready to adopt democracy as soon as they were liberated from Saddam Hussein. Go back through the pages of the Weekly Standard and you will find Stephen Schwartz and Reuel Marc Gerecht making the same old argument — the Shi’ia will welcome us as liberators. Even in Sunday’s New York Post, Schwartz was still portraying the Shi’ia as the good Muslims while the Sunni are the bad Muslims, financed, of course, by Saudi Arabia.
All bad wars begin with the sense that there is some mystical ally on the other side waiting to be liberated. During the Crusades, Christian Europe had the myth of Prester John. My favorite example is the Spanish-American War, which was fueled by the Hearst newspapers’ lurid tales of Evangelina Cisneros, a 17-year-old Spanish beauty lying in a Cuban prison.
It is true that the Iraq Shi’ite spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has labored mightily to guide his followers on a peaceful course. He should have easily won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. In the end, however, the Shi’ia have preferred Muqtada al-Sadr and his armed militia. It is much more traditional in Muslim culture. And so we have civil war instead. (Remember, our supposed Shi’ite allies are the same people who gave us the Ayatollah Khomeini and nuclear Iran.)
Another mistake was illustrated in the statement President George Bush made last month at the New York Public Library. Celebrating a world literacy program at the New York Public Library, the President said:
One reason radicals are able to recruit young men…to become suicide bombers, is because of hopelessness. One way to defeat hopelessness is through literacy, [which gives] people the fantastic hope that comes by being able to read and realize [their] dreams.
Sorry, Mr. President, but a fair number of recruits for Al Qaeda already have their Ph.Ds. Read Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower and you will find highly educated scholars from all over the Arab world showing up in Afghanistan to fill the jihad brigades. Alongside them were oil millionaires with suitcases full of money, eager to join the cause. Islamic fundamentalism has nothing to do with poverty or lack of education. Just the opposite, it is an ecstatic spiritual pilgrimage for people unsatisfied with banality of ordinary life — very similar to the glorified ambitions of affluent student radicals in our own culture.
So we are in a long-term battle with another civilization, one that is remarkably different from ours, has a strong penchant for endless violence, and isn’t going to leave us alone.
THE LAST TIME WE WERE in this kind of confrontation was with Japan during World War II. Although it is not much remembered, Americans in the Pacific Theater perceived themselves to be fighting a completely different breed of human being. Joseph C. Grew, the former ambassador who was imprisoned by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, told audiences on his return to America:
“Victory or death” is no mere slogan for these soldiers. [Their] military policy… from the highest general to the newest recruits [is that] the man who allows himself to be captured has disgraced himself and his country.
The Japanese eventually reverted to kamikaze attacks, but suicidal commitment was persistent throughout the war. One of the things that terrified American soldiers was that Japanese soldiers would not surrender but fought to the last man. At Guadalcanal only a handful of the 30,000 Japanese defending the island allowed themselves to be captured. The ratio of killed-to-captured was generally about 120-to-1, as opposed to 4-to-1 in European wars. John Hersey reported in Life:
Quite frequently you hear marines say: “I wish we were fighting against Germans. They are human beings like us. Fighting against them must be like an athletic performance — matching your skill against someone you know is good. Germans are misled, but at least they react like men.
Japanese civilians had the same fanaticism. In Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of the Atom Bomb Against Japan, J. Samuel Walker reports:
[On] Saipan in 1944, American were horrified by the spectacle of Japanese soldiers shooting civilians, even those carrying children, who attempted to give themselves up to the Marines. Even more traumatic was the sight of thousands of civilians who joined the remnants of the Japanese army in death by jumping off steep cliffs, sometimes holding children, or blowing themselves up with grenades. The suicides of noncombatants were a consequence of the stories they had been told about the cruelty and bestial behavior of American soldiers.
Yet this fanaticism also gave the Japanese an overwhelming feeling of self-confidence. As Ambassador Grew usually concluded in his lectures:
At this very moment, the Japanese feel themselves, man for man, superior to you and to me and to any of our peoples. They admire our technology, they may have a lurking dread of our ultimate superiority of resources, but all too many of them have contempt for us as human beings…. The Japanese leaders do think that they can and will win. They are counting on our underestimates, on our apparent disunity before — and even during — war, on our unwillingness to sacrifice, to endure, and to fight. [All Grew and Hersey quotes from Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb.]
The Japanese were, at the time, a “pre-modern” culture in which the individual is almost entirely submerged in the group. Suicide and the fanaticism we associate with totalitarianism came naturally. This cycle was only broken with the dropping of the atomic bomb and complete surrender. When the American conquerors proved not to be so merciless as advertised, the Japanese quickly adjusted and became a successful modern civilization.
What are the same chances of this ever happening with Islam? Not very good at the moment. Not very good at all. The Islamic world is much larger, more diffuse, and much more deeply ingrained in a culture of violent group fanaticism. Its inhabitants are not going to give up jihad for a long, long time, if ever. Nor do they want to. In a way, the Iranians might do us a favor by developing their own atomic weapons. Then we could engage in the “mutually assured destruction” that kept the Soviets at bay for four decades. Unfortunately, given the record of Islamic fundamentalism, there is no guarantee that Iran wouldn’t drop the bomb on Israel, even if it meant their whole county would be wiped off the map in retaliation. Martyrdom is fatally woven into Islamic thought.
All this enables us to see through the current argument that invading Iraq has somehow encouraged Muslim fanaticism. The fanaticism was there long before we invaded and will be there long after we’re gone. Any culture that can get upset over cartoons needs no provocation.
Instead, we should count the enormous positive consequences of the invasion — Libya’s abandonment of terrorism, the breaking up of Pakistan’s nuclear cabal, the setback to jihadists as they are forced to fight on their own territory.
THE QUESTION, OF COURSE, IS what do we do now? The costs of becoming a permanent police force in Iraq are becoming very difficult to sustain. The U.S. Army is stretched beyond its limits and many units now being recycled back for a third tour. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is now in the crosshairs, but of course Rumsfeld’s sin — both to the Weekly Standard warriors and to portions of the military — is that he has tried to do the job with too few troops.
All this won’t really come to a head until the 2008 elections, but it is worth taking the bull by the horns now. Should we impose a draft or will that only lead to a downward Vietnam-like spiral? Should we abandon Iraq and let the Shi’ites and Sunni fight it out themselves? How do we protect the Kurds, who have been truly liberated from Saddam and are well on their way to becoming a modern people? It would seem that at some point in the next two years other Islamic countries — and maybe even the spineless UN — might perceive that they have some interest here.
All this is a task for the last two years of the Bush Administration. But let’s start by acknowledging both our accomplishments and our mistakes. We are not building a “little America” over there. Islamic culture was violent long before we arrived and will continue to be so long after we’re gone. But we have gained considerable ground in protecting America and in ensuring that we do not find ourselves surrounded by a ring of terrorist states.