Historical Context M.I.A.-Blame the Commander in Chief

“History does not exist here anymore,” declared an official of the Basra Museum of Natural History, which was looted and burned last week. He’s right in more than one sense: History has played only a minor role in the drama of Iraqi liberation. I’m not speaking of the coalition’s military campaign, or of the attempt by the Saddamite regime to put together an effective defense against it. Rather, it is from the manner in which the war has been portrayed, analyzed and understood that any real sense of history has gone missing. As the military phase of this operation gives way to the more complex peacemaking and nation-building stages, that absence will take on more alarming implications.

From the first, the American public (whose disdain for the details of even their own past has produced a national crisis in the teaching and learning of history) was asked to view what was happening inside Iraq without the benefit of historical context. Neither military spokespersons nor the news media were able or willing to pump air into this vacuum. Although the two groups joined forces to treat us to 24-hour coverage of the war, by the end of the campaign’s first weekend, a set of baffling and potentially paralyzing questions dominated public discourse-questions that couldn’t be answered without reference to history.

Our forces had driven to the outskirts of Baghdad in four days. Was that a good thing? Were we moving too slowly, or were we moving too quickly? The sudden appearance of vicious Iraqi paramilitary units along the supply and communication lines of our forward fighting units suggested that the coalition gamble had been too risky-hadn’t it? Or does this sort of thing happen whenever a deeply penetrating attack is launched? And what about those Iraqi fighters-hadn’t we been told that the Iraqi military was going to surrender right away? Why were they putting up such a desperate fight? And why were we making our troops operate under unusually restrictive rules of engagement? Of course, we needed to worry about civilian casualties, but didn’t we always worry about them?

Neither supporters of the invasion nor its opponents provided historically informed answers. Administration officials did not hammer the most apparent and potent point available to them, that the speed of the American armored advance was greater than anything any nation had ever been able to achieve through comparable means, better even than our own U.S. armored divisions’ performance during the famously rapid liberation of France in the summer of 1944. Nor did any military representative adequately explain that yes, whenever you launch deep armored strokes, the enemy will seek to cut your lines of supply and isolate your forward units-indeed, this is something that, far from fearing, you almost court, as it requires the enemy to leave at least some of his defensive positions and move about openly, making him vulnerable to attack by tactical air power and counter-maneuvers on the ground. Chess games such as this were played out during the German invasion of France in 1940, for example, and produced the infamous Allied disaster at Dunkirk.

Someone at the Pentagon might also have pointed out that in the period before battle is joined, you must never allow yourself to believe rumors about enemy strength. Remember our own George Armstrong Custer. Or consider the German general staff: Both in 1870-71 and in 1940, they were convinced that the French would put up a more determined fight against the invading forces than they actually managed.

History can be a sore subject. No one in the administration was willing to remind the public of just how much distrust had been sown when George H.W. Bush turned away from the Iraqi uprising during and after the first Gulf War in 1991. A reminder would have given the American public useful insight into the behavior of the Iraqi people-but it would also have tarnished the reputation of our current President’s father. Though the administration chose to keep quiet, by the culmination of the current campaign, the news media and anti-war groups were making much of the betrayal angle, as were more than a few soldiers interviewed at the front.

To explain fully the strict new rules of engagement, American officials would have had to acknowledge that avoiding civilian casualties has never been a traditional American military priority. The planners of the Iraq invasion, aware that punishing civilians does nothing to hasten an enemy’s demise and in fact only prolongs resistance, promulgated the new rules for our young soldiers, and the troops obeyed with a discipline unequaled since the great European professional armies of the 18th century. In doing so, however, our troops broke with two centuries of brutal American military tradition. And while the Bush administration and U.S. commanders talked with admiration of the behavior of our soldiers, they could not discuss the departure from past habits-not without implicit criticism of previous American generations, including the one dubbed “the greatest” by Tom Brokaw. (It’s worth noting that Mr. Brokaw was forced to downplay the fact that during World War II, his “greatest” generation inflicted massive casualties against civilians, and against uniformed friendlies.)

The lack of attention to historical precedent was even more marked on the part of those opposed to the war in Iraq, and predictably so: For reasons unknown, when it comes to foreign policy and military affairs, the left seems generally to concede history to conservatives. “United, as ever, in opportunism and ignorance” (to borrow Tony Blair’s recent indictment of the British Liberal Democrats), the anti-war movement declared months prior to the conflict that we would suffer massive casualties upon invading Iraq, and that the entire Arab world-or at least a good chunk of it-would band together to defy our forces, devastate our civilian population and shatter our international reputation. These predictions ignored the fact that from the rise of Islam and even earlier, Arab nations and tribes have almost always refused to help one another in moments of crisis (the salient modern example being the failure of wealthy Arab states to lend effective assistance to the Palestinians). Even when they have succeeded in coordinating their efforts, Arabs have generally fallen back to squabbling among themselves long before their enemy-whether Mongol, Turk or Western-has had a chance to defeat them.

As it happened, it was not solidarity but shame and shock that were voiced throughout the Arab world following the fall of Baghdad: shame at the speed of the Iraqi collapse, shock that Western forces were altering the political map of the region. “American tanks are creating changes in the Arab world!” bemoaned one Al Jazeera commentator, who didn’t bother to mention that for too long, Arab leaders had themselves refused to initiate any meaningful amelioration of the lives of those who lived under sadistic despots such as Saddam Hussein. Only one Arab leader betrayed any awareness of the historical context: Osama bin Laden, in yet another recorded audio message, seemed to direct his bile as much at ever-fractious Muslims as at the nations of the West.

Many members of the anti-war movement hurled accusations of “fascism” and “imperialism” at their opponents, and a few managed to grab hold of Saddam Hussein’s obsession with Joseph Stalin for long enough to hatch the idea that the coalition forces moving on Baghdad were headed for another Stalingrad. The estimable British historian Anthony Beevor, author of a definitive work on that earlier battle, needed precisely three minutes on ABC News to utterly demolish any supposed similarity between the two situations, and the anti-war groups reverted again to voodoo history.

That the third force in the war debate, the media, should also have shunned historical analysis is depressing, but unsurprising. Television anchormen and correspondents, as well as newspaper editors and reporters-whatever their protests to the contrary-almost invariably become infatuated when confronted by men and women in uniform: Surely the Pentagon knew this when they devised the system of embedded journalists, which took infatuation to the level of seduction. So potent was this romance that the U.S. Army of Experts (Retired) were never advised to slow the pace of their chatter, even though their greatest achievement during the war was that they were consistently wrong in analyzing it (a truth now universally recognized and often mercilessly mocked). Even Public Television’s NewsHour , which can usually be relied on to muster a gaggle of historians when an American President so much as sneezes, did not deem the Iraq war worthy of historical analysis, and plagued its viewers with nightly visits from a rotating team of retired colonels, one or two of whom had insights worth hearing, but most of whom were as useless to the program as Generals Barry McCaffrey and Wesley Clark were to NBC and CNN, respectively.

Nothing-not even the rapid-fire madness of embedded reporting-created more confusion among the public than the ranks of bloviating experts. Certainly, there was no valid journalistic or intellectual reason for it: When newspapers and networks want political analysis, they don’t go out and dig up obscure former Congressmen and governors to provide it. Why, then, do they believe that retired soldiers-many of whom, like politicians, have constituencies and patrons they serve and protect-would offer the best critique of a war? In their insecurity, they turned to the very characters who failed us in the last Gulf War. (There were a few exceptions to the media embargo on historical analysis. In the interests of disclosure and accuracy, I should say that I appeared on the same ABC program that hosted Mr. Beevor, and on other programs, too.)

Here’s an example of how events are misjudged when military history is ignored. When American troops occupied Baghdad, the chief worry on all sides was that our soldiers would be perceived as occupiers rather than liberators, despite the fact that they had already been welcomed as friends in many other parts of the Iraq. Occupy the capital forcefully, we were told, and the good will of the Iraqis and the Arab world generally will be lost forever.

Any historian with even a passing acquaintance with the behavior of conquerors from Julius Caesar to Lawrence of Arabia’s great competitor in the Middle East, British General E.H. Allenby, could have told you what would happen next. A conqueror often represents the only source of real order available to the subdued city or nation, yet the residents nonetheless often resist the imposition of that conqueror’s control. The conqueror, if he is foolish, will try to exert his will at once; if he is wise, he will shrug innocently, hold his troops at a distance-and allow the conquered people their autonomy. Anarchy almost invariably ensues, and before long, the once-resistant citizens will be ready to accept-even to beg for-occupation and forceful rule by the conqueror.

I don’t at all mean to add to the dark rumors circulating that the coalition forces tolerated or orchestrated the looting in Baghdad and other cities; and I vigorously reject the idea that coalition troops wanted the looting to go as far as it did. But I do believe that the military leaders failed to provide adequate threshold limits for the chaos-levels at which the coalition troops would be ordered to step in and stop the outrages. (The looting of hospitals, museums and libraries should never have been allowed.) That adequate ground rules were not provided was, I suspect, an error of omission. Whatever the case, it is not only unnecessary but farcical for American leaders to now go on suggesting that they could not have prevented the looting. After all (as every Iraqi knows), U.S. troops managed to protect the Baghdad Hospital when they needed to-and also all those precious Iraqi oil fields.

What the failure to provide looting guidelines reveals-especially in the case of the ransacked museums and libraries in Baghdad and Basra-is, at best, a careless and, at worst, a callous disregard for history. Yes, we should be thankful that American military planners paid great attention to history in assembling the coalition forces’ operational orders and rules of engagement. But in all other respects, the past, it seems, was deemed simply not worthy of scrutiny. And this disregard, which finally must be laid at the feet of the leader responsible for initiating the campaign, President George W. Bush-a man, not coincidentally, of harrowingly limited historical interest or knowledge-is unspeakably dangerous.

Already, we seem to have forgotten that the Iraqi campaign began as a battle in the war on terror. We rightly invaded Iraq to prevent the confluence of two threats-weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism-not to bring “freedom and democracy” to the nations of the Middle East. But having given voice to those magical words, we now run the extreme risk of further enraging Muslim populations when freedom and democracy fail to materialize quickly and fully-as they almost certainly will.

Advocates and evangelists call such talk pessimistic. They talk endlessly of the Marshall Plan and of our efforts to rebuild post–World War II Japan. But we completely devastated both of those countries, and they were politically and morally isolated by 1945; a comparison to Iraq is strained at best. Even if the comparison were apt, we ought to remember that we still have large numbers of troops stationed in both Europe and the Pacific some 60 years later. Are we prepared for another massive, long-term commitment-to an Arab country? How would the pro-Israel lobby react if we were to grant an Arab country equal status with Israel?

A great many things that once seemed unthinkable have been happening of late. Perhaps a sudden appreciation of history will be among them. Perhaps we can, after all, pursue a balanced Middle East policy, and help bring that region-and, by extension, our own people-greater security. (After all, the coalition drive to Baghdad wasn’t a miracle; it was simply an example of how to make good use of the lessons that military history has to offer.) Perhaps we will learn to rely on enlightened strength rather than arrogance. But it will be a tough fight, and a close one.

Caleb Carr’s The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians (Random House) has been published in an updated and expanded edition.