Part of the reason we ended up in such a mess in Iraq is that we had not clue what we were getting ourselves into, compounded with not knowing who we could trust. Our go-to man after the invasion, Ahmed Chalabi, is perhaps better known as Chalabi the Thief. Chalabi is a fool, but we were more foolish to have trusted him.
“C&H argue that nearly everyone in South Vietnam supported Ho Chi Minh except for the dictator and his cronies.”
My impression is that the pattern was more systemic.
It only recently dawned on me that a massive problem the U.S. had in assessing public opinion in South Vietnam in the critical 1954-1964 era was that practically zero Americans spoke Vietnamese. (In contrast, the U.S. had a modest but highly useful number of Japanese speakers by 1945; but then the U.S. quickly got into a confusing and dangerous situation in Korea made worse by practically no Americans having any knowledge of Korean.)
But lots of Vietnamese spoke French. And they tended to be anti-Communist.
But Vietnamese who spoke French and thus could articulate their opinions to Americans turned out not to be a representative sample of Vietnamese opinion. The French-speakers tended to be from families who had long collaborated with the French imperialists, and thus tended to be hated by the Vietnamese who didn’t speak French. There was also a lot of overlap among the categories “speaks French,” “Catholic,” “refugee from Communist North Vietnam,” “lives in Saigon,” “educated,” “hates the Communists,” and “tells us everybody they know hates the Communists.”
And there were hundreds of thousands of these people, far more than just “the dictator and his cronies.” (A lot of them live in America today.)
And Americans, many of whom had served in France in the World Wars, could converse fairly easily with these large numbers of French-speaking Vietnamese, who kept telling us it was a great idea for the U.S. to intervene in Vietnam against the spread of Communism.
The strategic problem was that although there were large numbers of French-speaking Vietnamese in Saigon, there were immense numbers of non-French speaking Vietnamese out in the countryside. And they hated the French-speaking Vietnamese and wanted to kill them.
Here are a couple of other East Asian examples: In contrast, the U.S. had a modest but highly useful number of Japanese speakers by 1945 after investing heavily in Japanese language schools and the like during the War. And the U.S. handled Japan pretty adroitly in late 1940s.
But the U.S. immediately got into a confusing and dangerous situation in Korea made worse by practically no Americans having any knowledge of Korean. Reading Wikipedia’s account of the U.S. role in South Korea in 1945 to 1950 is nightmarish because practically nobody in America had any clue about Korean language, culture, history, or politics. It was an entire civilization of very intense people about which Americans had only vague knowledge before suddenly becoming patron of the southern half in 1945. Liberal Americans were worried (not unreasonably) that the mercurial president installed by America would start a war with North Korea and it came as a shock when North Korea started the war on 6/25/50 and quickly overran most of the South.
It has been all too easy for us to be misled by whoever happens to speak English [or any other convenient lingua franca], when no one in charge has any clue about the history or politics of the areas we find ourselves fighting wars in. The English were far better than us at that game, and it still didn't pay off in the end. If you can't win, you shouldn't play.
What Would Hitler Do?
It makes a difference whether an occupying power can use a functioning civil administration or has to start from chaos. That was the burden of Elizabeth Stanley-Mitchell's essay in today's New York Times: No Peace Without Surrender. She notes, correctly, that it was much harder to get relief and reconstruction efforts off the ground in Germany in 1945 than it was in Japan. In Japan, the government and even the military were still working, because the country surrendered as a unit. (Much mention has been made in the press recently about the difference between a "capitulation" and a "surrender." Japan fudged the distinction by surrendering unconditionally on terms.) Germany, in contrast, had been occupied by several powers before the end. Few institutions were working. That is not a good place to begin, as the recent chaos at Basra illustrates. Stanley-Mitchell argues that the future of Iraq will be much brighter if we can find someone with sufficient authority to surrender.
A correction is in order, though. Contrary to what Stanley-Mitchell says, Germany did surrender in 1945, on May 7. Some regional commanders had surrendered in the preceding days. However, on that day, the German military as a whole surrendered, to General Eisenhower and representatives of all the Allies, at Riems. Neither was this just an act of the military. General Jodl, who represented Germany, signed at the direction of Grand Admiral Doenitz, who succeeded briefly to the leadership after Hitler killed himself the week before. The Allies never treated with Doenitz's government again, but the Germans did lay down their arms in a coordinated fashion. (The chief exceptions were in the east, where some units continued to try to fight their way west.)
So, unless the Baathist regime in Iraq exhibits some uncharacteristic concern for legal forms in its last days, this collapse may look more like the end of the Confederacy than of the Third Reich. Robert E. Lee surrendered, but the Confederate government never did. Indeed, after it fled Richmond, it planned to try to contact a surviving southern army and continue the struggle. For the Iraqi government to do something similar, however, it would first have to admit it has lost control of Baghdad.
* * *
When I sat down to write this entry, I had intended to speculate a little about possible career options for Iraq's Minister of Information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, but too many people seem to have had the same idea already. (The Iconoclast, for instance.) In any case, soon we will no longer be able to enjoy his briefings, which are real-time exercises in alternative history.
It is, perhaps, no slight to the man to suggest that he is no Joseph Goebbels. As Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels used to make things up in the final weeks of the Third Reich, but I am not aware that he made up quite as much as his Iraqi counterpart. He had to be realistic about the Russian assault on Berlin, because he was the city's Nazi Party leader, and so to some extent responsible for its defense.
Goebbels' diaries for 1945 are available in English (Hugh Trevor-Roper was the editor). They show that he knew exactly what was happening; so did Hitler. The Nazi strategy was based on the knowledge that there was tension between the Western Allies and the Soviets. Goebbels correctly surmised that the tension would get worse when the two halves of the alliance came into direct contact. The Nazi strategy was to keep a government in being, in the hope that open hostilities would break out, and then the East or West would try to ally with Germany.
In this the Nazis were more delusional than the Baathists. The Iraqi leadership was rational in believing that a coalition of Security Council powers would bring the Coalition to heel before it got to Baghdad, or even that domestic US opposition to the war would force a stand down. The prestige press all around the world was arguing for just this.
* * *
It is possible to overplay the analogy between the Iraq War and World War II. Paul Krugman's column in The New York Times today, entitled The Last Refuge, manages to make Senator John Kerry look even worse by using such an analogy to defend him.
The irrepressible Krugman reminds us that, in 1944:
Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate, campaigned on the theme that Franklin Roosevelt was a "tired old man." As far as I've been able to ascertain, the Roosevelt administration didn't accuse Dewey of hurting morale by questioning the president's competence. After all, democracy "including the right to criticize" was what we were fighting for.
Then, unfortunately for the object his of solicitude, Krugman makes this connection:
Last week John Kerry told an audience that "what we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States." Republicans immediately sought to portray this remark as little short of treason.
I don't doubt that Thomas Dewey said that FDR was a tired old man. He was a tired old man; people could see that just by looking at him. Imagine, though, that Dewey had said that FDR should be treated the same way that the Allies planned to treat Hitler: that FDR should be tried for war crimes, or removed from office by force. That might not have been treason for legal purposes, but certainly would have comforted the Axis Powers; and yes, in that context, to say such things would have been unpatriotic.
I actually had not paid much attention to what Senator Kerry said. Only after reading Krugman's column did I realize just how outrageous the comment was.
* * *
Speaking of malicious people making things worse for themselves, there is a lesson to be learned from the assault on Baghdad by those readers who plan to start their own fascist states. Those triumphal avenues in Baghdad, which now have American tanks on them, once provided wonderful settings for the monuments to the Maximum Leader. In fact, that sort of city layout is related to the growth of state power in various ways. In post-revolutionary Paris, the dramatic new boulevards not only allowed for patriotic parades; they also made it far easier to suppress popular insurrections. A city laid out with wide, straight streets is the worst sort of urban terrain for irregular fighters. However, irregulars seem to be the only effective force the Iraqis have. As Tolkien put it: "Oft evil will doth evil mar."
* * *
Finally, if you will permit me one last mention of The New York Times, we see this same principle applying in its pricing policy. The Sunday New York Times went to $3.50 this last weekend. This happens even as the paper's content becomes less reliable and more bigoted. I can't imagine who the audience is for the glossy special features that seem to have occasioned the increase, but I know I am not in it.
I have been reading the Times every Sunday since at least the mid-1970s. Enough is enough, I think.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly