Victory Is Certain, But What Comes Next?

Twelve years ago, as bombers were softening up the Iraqi Republican Guard and American generals were designing their Hail Mary battle plan, I regularly passed a billboard on Interstate 280 in New Jersey that featured the disagreeable images of three known butchers: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Saddam Hussein. “Don’t Let It Happen Again!” the billboard demanded.

What, I wondered, was the “it” that ought not be repeated? Another Holocaust, this one engineered out of Baghdad? A Steel Veil stretching from Algeria to Indonesia, to replace Europe’s rusting Iron Curtain? These seemed highly unlikely. And while Saddam clearly was an awful figure, did he have anything in common with those two burn-in-hell murderers, other than a ratty mustache?

In the years since Saddam was chased out of Kuwait, he has revealed himself to be an unstable man posing a deadly threat to an unstable region. If he still seems out of place in any gallery of bloodthirsty rogues, it is not for lack of trying. Had he the opportunity (he certainly has the means), he clearly would wage horrendous war on his neighbors to make himself master of the Persian Gulf, and perhaps even more.

Honorable, decent people have concluded that he must go, and that men, women and children will have to die in order to remove him. Their memorial will be a slightly more secure world, just as today’s Europe is a monument to the millions lost when bombs fell on the continent’s ancient capitals during World War II. Indeed, that awful conflict casts its eternal shadow over today’s debate. Pro-war commentators invariably remind us (as that billboard in New Jersey did 12 years ago) of the price of inaction in the face of danger. Nobody wants to be today’s Neville Chamberlain, armed with worthless pieces of paper signed by ghastly dictators. Everybody wants to be a new Churchill, filled with righteousness and moral clarity, calling evil by its proper name and summoning the forces of civilization for a just and necessary war.

Those who oppose an invasion of Iraq, or who believe that means other than war have not been exhausted, risk being labeled as appeasers in the mold of Chamberlain. Many of those who support an invasion see themselves playing the role of modern Churchills, certain that delay will mean disaster.

But what if the model for today’s conflict is not Europe circa 1938, but Europe circa 1914? What if we are on the verge not of remaking the surly face of the Middle East, but of a bloody calamity destined to claim a generation-except that this time the rows of poppies will not be limited to Flanders fields?

The ghosts of 1914 so often are forgotten when talk turns to issues of war and peace. Instead, when faced with either Soviet misbehavior in the 1970’s or Iraqi aggression in 1990, we replay Churchill’s greatest hits and are instructed to go and speak and act likewise-never mind that the great man once said that “to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.”

We have been jaw-jawing with Iraq for a dozen years, war supporters will point out. Jaw-jaw has gotten us nothing but continued defiance and greater threats to regional security.

That’s all true. But still, it’s hard to shake the notion that we are on the edge of something new and terribly frightening, with consequences we cannot begin to anticipate. Forget the lessons of Munich for a moment and reflect on the lessons of August 1914, when men were mobilized by the millions in part simply because talk of war creates its own irresistible momentum. The Kaiser, the czar, the king, the generals-they had no choice but to go to war, lest they lose their precious credibility. By the time the war was over, tens of millions were dead, four empires (Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German and Russian) were gone, another (British) was bankrupt, and a wretched, defeated corporal decided that one day soon he would restore Germany to its rightful place among great nations.

No battle ever goes according to plan, and few wars produce predictable results. The legacy of World War I was not a world made safe for democracy, but a cauldron of bitter resentment. The legacy of World War II was a democratized Western Europe and a transatlantic alliance that included the powers we vanquished.

War supporters are convinced that an invasion of Iraq will end not only in military victory (on that, even opponents and skeptics are bound to agree), but in a glorious reconfiguration of the Middle East. If we fight, that goal will be in every patriot’s heart.

But it is not unpatriotic, nor is it even faint-hearted, to be wary of what may follow a by-the-book victory. Those historians on the television talk shows will recall that the Allies defeated the Kaiser and his friends in 1918, only to face an even more dreadful madman 20 years later. Victory Is Certain, But What Comes Next?