Soldiers Become Governors.

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.[1]  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.

[1] 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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The last helicopter from Baghdad.

As we embark on an attempt to salvage Iraq from both the misdeeds of its post-Saddam Hussein/post-American occupation government and from the claws of ISIS, here’s a cold, hard lesson from History.

After his election as president in November 1964 Lyndon Johnson increased American troops in the war in Vietnam to a maximum of 540,000 men. In January 1968 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) launched a massive offensive to coincide with the Tet lunar New Year celebration. The Americans and the South Vietnamese managed to defeat the Tet offensive on the ground, but not in the eyes of American voters. Up until Tet Americans had tended to believe the assurances of progress that were being made in Vietnam on the part by their leaders. Tet changed that. Now a majority began to doubt that victory was possible and that American leaders were telling them the truth about the war. In March 1968 President Lyndon Johnson announced a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, solicited peace talks, and announced that he would not run for re-election.

Peace talks began in Paris in May 1968. When they failed to make progress, President Johnson resumed bombing until the North Vietnamese came to their senses in October 1968. However, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon encouraged the South Vietnamese to block further talks until after the November 1968 elections.

Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey in the November 1968 election. Nixon’s goal was to extricate American forces from Vietnam without the whole house of cards coming down immediately. As his foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger put it, “We’ve got to find some formula that holds things together for a year or two [i.e. until late 1970 or 1971].” That formula appeared to be “Vietnamization”: shifting the chief burden to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). While negotiations with North /Vietnam continued, Nixon began to draw down American forces. By late 1971 the total number of American troops had fallen from 540,000 under Johnson to 157,000 under Nixon. Unsurprisingly, the negotiations went nowhere since the US was obviously withdrawing and the North Vietnamese could anticipate swift victory once the Americans were gone. In March 1972 Nixon unleashed a massive air attack on North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese gave in, negotiations resumed, and a cease-fire was declared in January 1973. Most of the remaining American troops were withdrawn by March 1973.

The Republic of South Vietnam survived until early 1975. Then the North Vietnamese attacked. The ARVN collapsed, and huge numbers of refugees-in-the-making converged on Saigon in hopes of being evacuated by the Americans. Many (6,200) were, but most were not. Saigon fell on 30 April 1975.[1]

What are the parallels, if any, between South Vietnam then and Iraq now? Neither government enjoyed much legitimacy in the eyes of at least a large minority of their people. Both governments were up against ruthless and competent enemies. There are limits to what can be accomplished by airpower. The American administrations that had to clean up the mess weren’t the ones who had caused it.

Perhaps the differences are more important. Having escaped the Indochina disaster, Americans refused to recommit when a new crisis arose. The world did not end.

[1] “Leaving Vietnam,” The Week, 9 February 2007, p. 11.