Modern war is about destroying the enemy’s army and seizing control of his territory. Even when it can be achieved, victory still brings problems. If Army officers wanted to be civilian bureaucrats they wouldn’t have gone into the military. Yet civilian bureaucrats lack the means to effectively govern conquered territory. Both civilians and soldiers agree to ignore this reality in what one scholar labels the “denial syndrome.” Unfortunately, scholars have a lot of evidence with which to work in sorting out good practice from bad. People can’t help but compare the successful occupations of Germany and Japan after the Second World War with the disastrous aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. What went right with the earlier occupations? What went wrong with the later occupation?
After victory in the Second World War, the American military occupied huge territories of the defeated enemies. Those countries acknowledged that they were beaten and that the war was ended. The military had created immense global logistical systems that enabled it to move supplies to the conquered areas. It had very large military forces available to support and enforce American military government. The desire to avoid any renewed military danger from Germany or Japan inclined Generals Lucius Clay (Germany) and Douglas MacArthur (Japan) to sort out the conquered people, not just to punish them. The suddenly developing Cold War with the Soviet Union motivated Americans (and the Germans especially) to not want a break-down of civil affairs.
Very different conditions prevailed in Iraq. The war plan assigned far too few soldiers to occupation duty, then American forces were further drawn down. Very quickly, the George W. Bush administration transferred authority in Iraq to what proved to be an inadequate Civilian Provisional Authority. Iraqis did not acknowledge that they were beaten and that war had ended. Instead, Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurdish conflicts broke out into the open. Shi’ites looked to neighboring Iran for support, while Iran sought to undermine the American and Sunni positions. While Germans had feared the Soviet Union, many Sunni embraced the insurgency that quickly became associated with the radical Islamists of Al Qaeda.
One—depressing—“lesson of History” might be that people fail to learn from History. The George W. Bush administration failed to study the “good occupations” of Germany and Japan. The Obama administration continued the same chaotic occupation policies launched by the Bush administration. One reason for this failure may lie in the clash between any “lessons” History teaches and what people want to believe. Lost in the adulation of the occupations of Germany and Japan is the reality that Americans raised in an environment of inter-war isolationism were only constrained to embark on internationalism by harsh necessity.
Also lost in recent accounts is the reality that Rome wasn’t built in a day. By focusing tightly on the brief periods of military administration, then jumping ahead to the long-term outcomes, it is easy to attribute change to military government. This analysis falls short of a real explanation. On the one hand, civilian governments by the defeated peoples took decades to create democratic political cultures. They wanted to avoid repeating the errors of the past. On the other hand, Germany became a democracy because the victors in the Second World War partitioned the country, then parked 20,000 tanks on top of the place for almost half a century.
 Susan L. Carruthers, The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace (2016); Nadia Schadlow, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory (2017). In a typically American solipsism, the authors ignore the contemporaneous British experience with the government of conquered territories.
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