Friday, November 25, 2005

Even with history's lessons, we repeat our war behavior

Since the beginning of the "lightning" strikes on Iraq three years ago this coming March, a constant undertone of criticism has compared this generation's war to the 1960s generation's Vietnam War.

Many, particularly supporters of the Iraq conflict and its imprecise goals, have pooh-poohed the comparison, pointing out (without too much geographical genius) that one was in Asia and the other in the Middle East. Also, that Vietnam was fought against an army and its related guerrilla movement, while Iraq is being fought against a congeries of largely unrelated, mad insurgents who strike with the rationality of thunder or hurricanes.

But the Vietnam analogy does not dissipate -- and for good reason.

Only recently, Sen. John McCain, who suffered as a POW in North Vietnam, stated that Iraq was even more serious for America and would have even more dire consequences.

I share McCain's wise, if dark, vision.

Looking at the comparisons between the two wars -- and at what we might learn from them about our country and ourselves -- we have to consider at least two important questions that are crucially tied to our future:

1) What can and should we learn from comparing our behavior in the two conflicts that could help us today?
2) What can we learn from the American way of war, and the Anglo-Saxon history that precedes it historically, that could free of us from the repetitious behavior that seems to bind us?

Vietnam and Iraq are closely related in the American psyche.

Others have called them both "optional wars" or wars of choice.

But I choose to call them "theoretical wars," because they were fought not on the basis of any threat to America or even for any territorial gain, but because of unproven theories advanced by men who, in fact, turned out to be woefully wrong.

If Vietnam fell, the theory went, other Asian states would "fall like dominoes" and all of Asia would overnight become communist. (How many times did those of us in Vietnam nod disbelievingly at the strategic stupidity of such thinking!) Vietnam was, to its makers, not a colonial war, with the Vietnamese fighting us as the "New French," but a war against the spread of communism in all of Southeast Asia.

So we fought for theory and lost 50,000 good men and women, killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, and brought only humility and shame down on our country.

In Iraq, again we are fighting not because of any real threat to us -- 9/11 was clearly the work of the Taliban and al-Qaida out of Afghanistan -- but because of theory.
Weapons of mass destruction would destroy us.
Saddam is a maniac.
We need to fight the terrorists there so they're not waking us up in the morning on the South Side of Chicago or in Portland or Seattle.
Democracy in Iraq would save the entire Middle East.

To today's creators, Iraq was not a war of occupation in a traumatized land that still remembers the bloody British occupation of the last century, but a noble war of the West to save the entire Middle East.

So we fight again for elusive and slippery theory, we lose good men and women, we kill countless Iraqis, whose children then move on to become insurgents, and we are now despised in a wondering world.

But it behooves us to look back still further -- to the early decades of the 20th century and particularly to the period of the British empire, to the French and, to a far lesser degree, the American intervention in the Middle East between 1915 and 1922, a period parallel to the First World War in Europe.

The comparison between what a fading, yet still driven British empire did in the Near East then is so stunningly similar to what we are doing in Iraq today that it takes a serious person's breath away.

Look at the classic analysis of the period, "A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East," by scholar David Fromkin. It's all there in excruciating detail, how the Anglo-Saxon world endlessly repeats its disastrous policies toward the world.

Between 1915 and 1922, in those same countries of the Middle East in which we are deeply mired, the British actions exactly paralleled ours. T.E. Lawrence was there with his often illusionary victories and tales. At one point, the British thought of giving Iraq to the British Raj in India, sort of to get rid of it.

A mysterious Arab named Muhammed Sharif al-Faruqi, his background unknown to the British imperialist officers, was nevertheless trusted by them; they believed him when he said he had an "Arab uprising" to support them. It was as nonexistent as the weaponry and intelligence a similar man, Ahmed Chalabi, gave to the Pentagon.

The Brits dreamed on and on. They would replace the Caliph, the highest authority in the Islamic world, in Constantinople -- no, they would give the French Constantinople as a prize for French concessions. They lost tens of thousands of men in a mess of a battle at Kut in modern Iraq, but never thought to analyze why.

The more they lost, they more London thought they had to gain -- after a period, it had to be made "worthwhile." But after the area had more or less momentarily settled down, Brits demobilized massively, and Winston Churchill saw they no longer had the manpower to enforce anything, much less empire. And so it ended, but the Middle East never forgot all those humiliations at the hands of the West.

We must ask why WE repeat.

In its status, Iraq today is as much a theoretical war as was Vietnam, and as were the British in Iraq, and Syria and Palestine.

We could easily have learned from history -- but, once again, we did not.

By Georgie Anne Geyer


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