Commentary Magazine

Iraq: Prophets of Defeat

A “catastrophic success” is what the New York Times has called it. The American military conquered Baghdad within an astonishing 21 days, defeating the largest Arab army at the price of only 117 American lives. But then our forces became bogged down in what, according to innumerable accounts, soon devolved into a bloody quagmire. The Bush administration, it is by now widely accepted, has conducted the second, occupation phase of the war disastrously, and the disaster has shown no sign of letting up.

In the run-up to the November election, as the chorus of critics grew ever more incessant, something like a conventional wisdom began to emerge. Its main lines went like this. The military forces deployed by the Pentagon, sufficient though they may have been to shatter the Iraqi army and capture Baghdad, have been grossly insufficient in dealing with the aftermath. The widespread pillaging following the fall of Saddam's regime was the first clear indicator of trouble lying ahead. Soon, right under the noses of American soldiers, the looting accelerated into general disorder, and general disorder then coalesced into organized insurgency.

That is hardly the end of it. The initial error of deploying too few troops was compounded by the administration's absurdly mistaken belief that the invasion would be welcomed by the Iraqi populace—a hope based, according to the Harvard political scientist Stanley Hoffmann in the New York Review of Books, “on a mixture of ignorance, hubris, and misinformation.” This mistake proved to be another “unexpected boon to insurgents, since the U.S. forces could not deal with the acute problems that were inevitable in a partly devastated country.”

Next, dissolving the Iraqi army and banning Baathists from power provided a generous stream of recruits to the insurgency. As too few American soldiers struggled to pacify a chaotic, war-torn land, morale among the troops began to plummet. It hardly helped that some reservists were required to extend their tours of duty. Given the hardship and fear, instances of insubordination in the ranks soon multiplied. Eventually there were reports of entire units disobeying orders, with soldiers refusing to drive in resupply convoys along treacherous routes.

Finally, there was Abu Ghraib, the prison where poorly trained, poorly supervised soldiers engaged in vicious abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The genesis of that notorious incident, explains the journalist Seymour Hersh in his new book, Chain of Command,1 lay “not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists” but in decisions made in high reaches of the Pentagon and the White House.

In short, the occupation has both largely discredited itself and brought disgrace upon America. By early November, with the battle for Falluja under way, with still other major cities remaining in the control of insurgents, with daily car bombings directed at Iraqi policemen and American troops, with even the Green Zone, the supposedly super-secure U.S.-controlled administrative district in the center of Baghdad, subjected to daily mortar attacks and bombings—above all, with more than 1,100 American servicemen and women dead and many more injured—the war policy of the Bush administration lay in tatters, and the prospects for fair elections in Iraq, let alone for establishing liberal democracy in that ethnically fractured country, remained a distant dream.


Or so the critics have contended. Not all of these critics, it is necessary to add, are on the political Left (though most are). In addition to figures like Hoffmann, Hersh, the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and many others, one can point to a number of skeptical or disaffected conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and George F. Will; in October, Richard Lowry, the editor of National Review, took to the pages of his magazine with a qualified but still dismal tale of “gross intelligence failures, debilitating intramural battles, miscommunications, unintended consequences, and counterproductive half-measures.”

That the picture drawn by the critics is a partial one should go without saying. They neither dwell on nor, usually, even mention the many things that have gone spectacularly well in Iraq, let alone the large number of things that could have gone very badly—and that were predicted to go very badly—but did not. Filling out the picture, not only by supplying the missing pieces but also by refuting specific arguments advanced by critics of the administration, would leave a very different picture of our progress in that country. But here I want to pursue a somewhat different line of inquiry, asking in effect how the critics could possibly be so certain in their conclusion of overall failure. To put it another way: when they pronounce this verdict, what is their standard of judgment? Failure as compared to what?

In order to address that question fairly, we need to look not at some idealized model of a perfectly successful military campaign, a campaign that one might wage in one's head, but at other military campaigns at similar points in their unfolding. How have other wars gone, especially wars that have ended well?

American participation in World War II is Exhibit A in most people's conception of a military campaign waged with maximum concentration of forces and maximum coherence of purpose. In some respects, to be sure, juxtaposing the two conflicts might appear to be a stretch: in Iraq we are now engaged in a clean-up operation against terrorists and insurgents, not attempting to subdue a major power like Nazi Germany. But the parallel should not be lightly dismissed. Indeed, the very differences between the two situations accentuate the value of the exercise.

This is particularly so if one concentrates on the last stages of World War II. For in late 1944 and until Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, the U.S. was in its military prime, battle-hardened, united at home as never before, and fighting a war that might justly be called a supreme national emergency. If things nevertheless went badly awry in the endgame of the “good war” fought by the “greatest generation,” might that not suggest the folly of entering summary judgments concerning the more ambiguous conflict in which we are now engaged?


Max Hastings is one of the leading historians of World War II—and these days, as it happens, a vociferous critic on political grounds of the American intervention in Iraq. His new book, Armageddon,2 attempts to answer a fundamental question: how did the Nazi regime manage to hang on as long as it did while facing such a formidable coalition? In 1944, with the Red Army advancing inexorably from the east and Britain and the United States from the west, the Third Reich should by all rights have collapsed. Instead, it managed to survive for another winter and spring of ferocious fighting. Why?

One thing Hastings makes crystal clear is that progress on Germany's western front was gravely impeded by Allied choices. Perhaps the most consequential of these choices had to do with troop strength. The Americans, writes Hastings, had “woefully underestimated the size of the force that would be needed to defeat Hitler,” and the consequent shortage of troops—“a ground army far smaller than [the U.S.] population would have allowed”—repeatedly plagued the Allied effort. In the end, it was the huge number of Russian soldiers, ordered into battle by a brutal dictator, who did the “main business of destroying Hitler's armies,” and who paid the price for it. More than 200,000 Americans died in the European theater, as compared with a staggering eleven to thirteen million Soviet soldiers.

How well did we anticipate the actions and intentions of the enemy? In late 1944, even after years of battlefield contact, the U.S. would seem to have been almost as much in the dark as it is said to be now in Iraq. At the time, writes Hastings, the Allies were in possession of intelligence showing that German forces were being transferred in great numbers from the eastern to the western front. They also had ample evidence, including from intercepted communications, that the enemy was assembling in the Ardennes forest. But when the Germans launched their mass offensive in the Ardennes on December 16, the Americans and the British were taken completely by surprise. As a result of this intelligence lapse, what came to be called the Battle of the Bulge claimed more than 10,000 American dead, another 47,000 maimed, and some 23,000 captured.

How had the Allies missed the obvious? Their “most conspicuous error,” Hastings explains, “was to expect rational strategic behavior from their enemy.” He attributes this error to, in a resonant term, “over-confidence.”

What about troop morale? In the winter of 1944, in the face of fierce combat, “Allied fighting strength was . . . eroded by the loss of thousands of men who simply quit” (emphasis added). Hastings adduces an astonishing statistic: at the beginning of 1945 “the U.S. provost-marshal acknowledged that more than 18,000 American deserters were roaming the ETO [European Theater of Operations],” the equivalent, he notes, of several divisions. Having “disappeared from their units to become scavengers,” these men “became familiar flotsam in every urban area of western Europe.”

Conduct toward enemy soldiers and civilians? Although American soldiers in Europe were by and large civilized in their treatment of the German populace and captured troops—and untainted by the sort of hatred typically directed at the Japanese in the Pacific theater—American (and British) honor was hardly without blemish. There was, to begin with, heavy looting of German treasure, both public and private. Worse, there was widespread rape of civilian women—nothing like what the Russians were doing to German women in the east but sufficiently acute to prompt General Dwight D. Eisenhower to contemplate the public execution of American perpetrators. There were also abuses of POW's, and not just in a few isolated cases. Far from being “a uniquely German practice,” writes Hastings, “dealing summarily with captives”—i.e., killing them—was done by Americans as well.

Hastings's objective is hardly to relativize Nazi wrongdoing. He stresses, for example, that the Nazis committed crimes against both POW's and civilians that are without parallel in history. But he is at pains to establish the record, and the record shows not only that America in World War II committed monumental blunders in the field but that some American soldiers perpetrated extreme and horrific deeds.

Nor does Hastings, in a narrative confined to the last year of the war, tell us anything like the whole story on these various scores. A fuller account of the conflict over its duration would regale us with statistics of needless combat deaths in far higher numbers, grisly tales of American soldiers ill-fed and unequipped or underequipped for battle, strategic and tactical errors of surpassing obtuseness, and much more. Surely, one might think, the scale of such transgressions should have been enough to discredit the officers in the field, the military brass at the War Department, the civilian leadership in the White House—indeed, the entire effort.


Of course it did not. Many of the misdeeds of World War II were not widely known at the time, and even if they had been, it would likely have had no bearing whatsoever on the perceived righteousness of the war. This, indeed, is the real difference between then and now, when much less egregious transgressions are considered more than sufficient to proclaim the utter wrongness of the war against Saddam Hussein.

The reasons for this difference are themselves no mystery. One of them has to do with the advent of televised combat, which, in depicting war in something like its true gruesomeness, has tended to heighten the American aversion to casualties and by extension to war in general. Another is the adversarial culture that infects much of the media, along with the by now reflexive habit among many liberals and leftists of reaching for the lowest possible explanation of American motives and intentions. And then, in the case of specific critics of the war, there is also the more or less explicitly political agenda that lies at the heart of their analysis.

Richard Lowry is a conspicuous exception in this regard. He, at least, makes a point of noting that some of the administration's missteps were “the result of the inevitable uncertainties and surprises of warfare.” His well-reported analysis also has the virtue of explaining how the errors he documents were the almost inevitable outcome of “a series of choices that could never be entirely right.”

But such fair-minded judgments are rare. Stanley Hoffmann, for example, was someone opposed from the outset to the decision to remove Saddam Hussein. The “central U.S. aim,” he argued then, was to build an American empire in which Iraq would be turned “into a U.S.-dominated satellite, with American bases, American companies in charge of its oil, and a compliant regime.” It is thus no surprise that, after we went in, he wanted us to get out, and fast. Toward that objective he began assiduously amassing all the supposedly “good reasons for calling an end to the occupation,” an enterprise that has involved him in indiscriminately tarring not only Washington but Washington's friends, especially Israel.

Seymour Hersh also has an agenda; its ends are similar to Hoffmann's, but its means are less savory. In the first phase of the Iraq war, Hersh, reporting for the New Yorker, distinguished himself by his unbridled pessimism concerning the course of battle. Even as American forces were successfully carrying out one of the most breathtakingly rapid and successful thrusts in the history of warfare, his first dispatch began: “As the ground campaign against Saddam Hussein faltered last week, with attenuated supply lines and a lack of immediate reinforcements, there was anger in the Pentagon.”

When Baghdad fell within days of this piece's appearance, Hersh immediately began to shift ground: “The Bush administration, it turned out, had won a major battle, but still had a war to fight.” That war is the continuing occupation, and Hersh has long since pronounced its certain doom and the terrible consequences that will follow from it. Chain of Command is advertised by its publisher as nothing less than a “devastating portrait of an administration blinded by ideology and of a President who has made the world a more dangerous place for America.”

It would be more accurate to say that Hersh is an author blinded by ideology, and that his objective is to present an America as dangerous as he is capable of making it appear. Indeed, where his book itself is insufficient for that purpose, Hersh has seemed quite prepared to go beyond it. On the lecture circuit (we learn from the New York Observer), he has offered up gory details of alleged U.S. atrocities in Iraq that are truly appalling. Thus, quoting one of his anonymous “sources,” a soldier in the field, Hersh informed one audience that

orders came down from the generals in Baghdad: we want to clear the village, like in Samarra. And, as [the soldier] told the story, another platoon from his company came and executed all the guards, as his people were screaming, “Stop!” And he said they just shot them one by one. He went nuts, and his soldiers went nuts. . . . And the company captain said, “No, you don't understand. That's a kill. We got 36 insurgents.”

Without a doubt, a massacre so reminiscent of My Lai is a sensational allegation. Without a doubt, it is almost certainly false, a fabrication cavalierly pawned off by Hersh as fact. An army of foreign journalists in Iraq, not exactly diffident when it comes to exposing American abuses, has thus far failed to unearth a single corroborating bit of evidence for this “atrocity,” and the U.S. military has no reports from the field attesting to an incident even faintly resembling it. Is this a critic whose views, let alone whose facts, are to be trusted on anything?


Information about how our fight in Iraq is proceeding is necessarily difficult to assess. It comes to us filtered through a variety of cloudy if not, as in the case of Hersh, altogether occluded lenses. But this is nothing new; radical uncertainty is the essence of warfare, and the ability to navigate through that uncertainty is the art of generalship. Even though the Battle of the Bulge ended in a resounding defeat for Nazi Germany and spelled the certain end of Hitler's regime, the American and British victors had little immediate appreciation of that fact. To the contrary, Hastings reports, the German capacity to have mounted so fierce an offensive provoked “despondency” and a “resurgence of caution” in the Allied high command. In the beginning of 1945, just as the Third Reich was crumbling, the Western powers began vastly to overestimate the size and strength of the arms arrayed against them. They also began to move their own forces into “strong defensive positions” lest the Germans counterattack again. Four months later, against their expectations, Germany surrendered unconditionally.

In Iraq, success may not come four months from now (though it might), but the contention that we have already failed is blazingly ignorant where it is not outright malicious. In listening to today's prophets of defeat, it helps to keep in mind that some are suffering from a severe case of self-induced amnesia about what war is and what fighting a war entails. Others, who know better, are opposed not only to the war in Iraq but to American purposes more generally, and to American success most of all.

November 8, 2004



1 HarperCollins, 416 pp., $25.95.

2 Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945. Knopf, 640 pp., $30.00.


About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.

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