What Would History Have Done?
April 8, 2008 1:51 PM   Subscribe

What lessons should the US have taken from history in planning the invasion of Iraq?

Nowadays the idea that the invasion of Iraq was doomed from the start is fairly prevalent, suggesting that attempts by great powers to impose their wills on foreign populations are simply a flawed idea (the US in Vietnam, the USSR in Afghanistan etc.)

Time was though, that great powers seemed to be able to impose their will on foreign populations without too much bother (e.g. France and Britain in the 19th century.) So what, if anything, has changed?

To this end I'm looking for historical examples of attempted regime change, successful or unsuccessful, that the US might have learnt from in planning the invasion of Iraq.

(More broadly, I'm thinking about whether certain features of the modern world (democracy, kalashnikovs, new media technologies, nationalism etc.) have put an end to the age of empires, or whether great power dominance is just having a bad run of form of late.)

Thanks for any help.
posted by greytape to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The comparison I've heard most often is that of the Sicilian Expedition during the Peloponnesian War.
posted by Bromius at 1:55 PM on April 8, 2008

Just because we call it an insurgency, that doesn't mean it's not a guerrilla resistance. It was repeated that this wasn't like Vietnam because there were no guerrillas. Calling them insurgents didn't make it so and traditional warfare still isn't possible. In that particular case, I'd point to fiction, not history for the lesson. This whole war, especially how it was sold, seemed to come right out of 1984.

On preview, the Sicilian Expedition is another excellent parallel.
posted by Toekneesan at 1:59 PM on April 8, 2008

So what, if anything, has changed?

People started expecting occupying powers to treat the residents of the occupied nations humanely. Colonial powers had the luxury of summary executions and mass murder if they needed to get the population in check.

On top of that (particularly in Iraq) it is easy for terrorists to obtain weapons, supplies, and explosives from neighbouring regions sympathetic to their cause. Such cooperation was impossible in colonial times, and it was a lot easier to wage a war of attrition against any resistance that was present.
posted by Krrrlson at 2:01 PM on April 8, 2008

Big question is whether this discredits regime change as a whole, or whether the Iraq war just discredits incompetent, poorly planned regime change.

Things like the Future of Iraq project suggest that the present state was not inevitable, and could have been prevented with better planning.
posted by Brian James at 2:02 PM on April 8, 2008

From history in general: Ruthlessness.
You can't impose your will on another population unless you are willing to completely subjugate them.
Once that is done, feel free to set up a Raj, puppet government, whatever you like.
The U.S. appears to have decided to try to setup a client state without actually winning the war.

For a more specific historical parallel, just look at the 1917 British invasion of Iraq. It has the same hubris, the same half-formed invasion plan. Even the same threat of "civil war" if the troops are withdrawn.
posted by madajb at 2:06 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

From France in Algeria in 1957: torture and brutality is not part of an effective strategy.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:26 PM on April 8, 2008

I recommend the Teaching Company's The Wisdom of History, which almost serves as an extended answer to this question.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 2:33 PM on April 8, 2008

what, if anything, has changed?

Individual potential firepower has greatly amplified, to the extent that a small cell of lightly trained people can amass and project over a short distance an amazing amount of destruction. It used to be that you would need several lines of dozens of well-trained shooters to get a suppressive volley going - now you just need a couple of people with AK-47s.

Asymmetrical warfare and the mindset of urban insurgency are far more advanced and deployed more widely. At the start of the 20th century it took local resistance movements decades to figure out that ways to win urban guerilla wars - now they can look it up on Wikipedia.

Information sharing has expanded so that no longer do occupying forces have anything like their former monopoly on best weapons practices or technologies appropriate for the environment. Early on in the Iraqi occupation it was noted by several observers that Iraqi resistance technologies and tactics were already developed, and were maturing at a much faster rate than anticipated. I read one interesting little comment from one of the British occupiers in Basra that Iraqi IEDs and snipers had developed within 18 months to a stage very similar to the PIRA's ~3-decade-long evolution, and in fact they had seized training documents that seemed to have been written or cribbed from PIRA materials.

In fact, as I'vw writtne before, a simple extrapolation from the British Army's experiences in Northern Ireland should have given plenty of clues. Scale up the numbers to reflect Iraq's larger population and, even discounting the fact that there are only three main factions in Northern Ireland and only two of them are antagonistic, to replicate Northern Ireland's former "stability" (almost 30 years of occupation, pervasive destruction of the economy and huge loss of life, and an army largely confined to barracks or dependent on air transport for safe mobility), you would need to kick in around 650,000 occupying troops. With ~150,000 you're just pissing in the wind and throwing lives away fruitlessly.
posted by meehawl at 2:37 PM on April 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

I would highly recommend Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel for a wonderful look at what made colonisation possible in the past.
posted by peacheater at 2:48 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

The War on Terror in general reminds me a lot of the campaign against Pancho Villa, this is especially true of the Afghan front but some of it applies to Iraq as well.
posted by Deep Dish at 3:06 PM on April 8, 2008

I think the biggest thing that we should have taken into account is Iraq's history of occupation and subsequent resistance. The Iraqi people have a good sense of their own history and they have always been famous for fighting off anyone that attempts to occupy them, for any reason. That, and we should have at least realized when we were talking about invading to "help" and to "free" them we were ripping off the last two imperial powers that had invaded Baghdad, namely Napolean's France and England in the early 1900's. For a good book on the history of the region and just how hamhanded we have been by igorning it, take a look at "Resurrecting Empire" by Rashid Khalidi.
posted by coolguy#1 at 3:12 PM on April 8, 2008

my education was greatly filled in by reading Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, specifically the description of VC terrorist activity in Long An province when John Paul Vann was active there.

Friendly government infrastructure -- the village headman, the province chief, the school and its teachers, the roads at night, are easily reachable by any insurgent element willing to engage in terrorist practices.

When you're not safe at night you're not safe at all, really, and the ability for terrorist cells to operate effectively provided they have 10% or so support among the population makes it really tough to effectively secure a nascent friendly regime.

The takeaway is that the friendly regime has to do its own security, and if we don't have an idea what this regime looks like before going in, it's a fool's errand to bust into a place to try to put one together.
posted by tachikaze at 3:31 PM on April 8, 2008

Media coverage has obviously changed enormously. Hand in hand with that, though, is the worldwide acceptance (or lack thereof) of casualties.

For example, in Vietnam, between 1956 and the end of its presence there in 1974, U.S. military losses were a little over 55,000 killed in action. That's about 3,000 per year. In 1968 alone, the U.S. lost more than 15,000 troops.

Now, contrast that with the first Persian Gulf War, where a significantly larger force of U.S. troops lost ~150 soldiers in several weeks worth of fighting that ended with the destruction and full retreat of the "third largest army in the world." Contrast that further with the Kosovo air campaign, where significant internal U.S. pressure on President Clinton to avoid a messy engagement resulted in campaign that was virtually air power alone, with not a single U.S. casualty as the result of enemy action.

So what lessons should the U.S. have taken from history? Simply put, by dint of media coverage and recent expectations, the U.S. acceptance of casualty rates is waaaaay different than decades earlier. There was no way a ground war in Iraq would have a casualty rate within the window of what the U.S. public would accept (even after 9/11), without a super-clear, super-compelling reason for doing so. The lesson should've been the crux of the Powell Doctrine -- be sure of what you're after, have an exit strategy, and strike with overwhelming force.

Bush and Co. failed on all three points.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:46 PM on April 8, 2008

An article about the Powell Doctrine, linked from the Wikipedia page is also illuminating.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:49 PM on April 8, 2008

In fact, as I've written before, a simple extrapolation from the British Army's experiences in Northern Ireland should have given plenty of clues.

This is possibly the best modern example one can find. It's a similar conflict in a lot of ways (albeit on a much smaller scale) and as it occurred in the west, it's much better documented than some conflict in, say, Sub-Saharan Africa.

As meehawl mentions, technology and ease of information dispersal makes things very different. We can look at everything from Punic Wars to colonization during the height of the British Empire, but things really have changed a lot since WWII or even Vietnam.

Of course, there's still a big cultural piece missing. Islamic fundamentalism changes the game in a lot of ways, not to mention having at least three different Iraqi factions that all seem to loathe each other. The US hasn't engaged in a lot of conflict against such a vastly different culture (the Soviets weren't that different), especially not occupational conflict.

In this regard, the best comparison is probably the Pacific Theater of WWII, and even here the US didn't occupy Japan until after official surrender. It took a pair of nuclear bombs to force that surrender and had that not happened, I'm pretty sure an attempt to occupy Japan would have looked very similar to Iraq today.

And even then, Japan was still unified. When Hirohito ordered the surrender, basically everyone accepted it. But there is no Shia Emperor or Sunni Pope, so there isn't a single oppositional force to engage or negotiate with.

In short, it's really damn complicated. The issue wasn't getting rid of Saddam, the issue is what the hell was going to happen after that. The mad engineers of this conflict didn't seem to pay this any mind, crying "Mission Accomplished" in 2003, assuming everything else would just fall into place. Clearly it did not.
posted by Nelsormensch at 3:52 PM on April 8, 2008

Man In Black: You guessed wrong.
Vizzini: You only think I guessed wrong! That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!

* * *

Seriously, though, the answers above are excellent. Everybody has already said the same things I was going to say, especially the point about Northern Ireland.
posted by dseaton at 5:05 PM on April 8, 2008

The U.S. has waged several wars against significantly smaller countries since world war 2. We were defeated in Korea and Vietnam. Since then, we have alternated between two strategies: war by proxy (e.g., the contras in nicaragua) and short limited wars against vastly weaker opponents(e.g., the invasions of Grenada, the first invasion of Iraq, Panama, etc). The truth is as Mao stated a long time ago: "Now U.S. imperialism is quite powerful, but in reality it isn't. It is very weak politically because it is divorced from the masses of the people and is disliked by everybody and by the American people too. In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain. I believe the United States is nothing but a paper tiger. History as a whole, the history of class society for thousands of years, has proved this point: the strong must give way to the weak. This holds true for the Americas as well." This has been true for over half a century.
As an American whose family is from a country that the U.S. has invaded, let me make clear: the sooner we realize that no one wants to be assaulted, occupied, and exploited for the resources of their homeland or as a symbol of domination and control, the better off the entire world will be. That's the lesson.
posted by history is a weapon at 5:05 PM on April 8, 2008

The two analogies I've heard most frequently are the US occupation of the Philippines (wiki: "The conflict was officially declared over on July 4, 1902.[3][4] This was the end of the war as far as the United States and the Filipino elite were concerned. However, to the Filipino masses, who saw the war against the Americans as a continuing struggle for independence, the resistance lasted longer.") and the British occupation of Iraq (Churchill: “I am deeply concerned about Iraq. There is scarcely a single newspaper—Tory, Liberal, or Labour—which is not consistently hostile to our remaining in this country…. At present we are paying eight million a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano.”).

Also, the US chose not to learn from the former Yugoslavia. Its more recent experience with peacekeeping in a multiethnic society would have been more relevant than the triumphalist books about the US occupation of Japan and Germany that CPA officials were reading at the time.
posted by ibmcginty at 5:32 PM on April 8, 2008

Here's the article I was looking for about Americans looking to the inapposite, but pleasant, occupations of Japan and Germany.
The adrenaline pumping through me, I was rereading the best modern book on the Iraqi Shi'a and hastily trying to teach myself some Iraqi colloquial dialect.

Pausing to take in the moment, I glanced around at my new colleagues. Those who were awake were reading intently. When I saw what they were reading, though, a chill crept over me, too. Not one seemed to need a refresher on Iraq or the Gulf region. Without exception, they were reading new books on the American occupation and reconstruction of Germany and Japan.
posted by ibmcginty at 5:36 PM on April 8, 2008

Now I'll offer my own pet theory for the trifecta of posts.

When the US occupied Japan and Germany, it had conquered peoples who (1) viewed themselves as cohesive countries, and (2) had been mobilized for war, and to a large extent supported the deposed regimes. They'd been beaten, and they knew it. A non-brutal American occupation was great news from their perspective.

Iraq was not an obvious nation, and had not been mobilized to support its dictator. When American bombs came raining down, Iraqis were not happy with the US.

Here's an article from before the invasion that examined the difficulties of the occupation.
posted by ibmcginty at 5:51 PM on April 8, 2008

Go read the War Nerd.
posted by flabdablet at 7:09 PM on April 8, 2008

Based on reading Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly (and seconding A Bright Shining Lie), I see definite parallels to the Vietnam War:
  • The US entered the war on false pretenses
  • The US is simultaneously claiming the country's government is sovereign and trying to call the shots
  • The conflict is primarily political, but the US is trying to win it militarily
  • The opponents of the US are in their own country, and fighting to control their own country
  • Language and cultural differences make it difficult to distinguish friend from foe
  • The US government is lying about how well things are going
  • The US is overstating the involvement of external forces
  • The military is trying to fight an insurgency using army-vs.-army methods
  • The US is going to lose
We severely underestimated the determination of a people to control their own country. As Ho Chi Minh said, "You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win."

Technically the people fighting us and the Iraqi government are resistance (#5), not an insurgency (#2) since the resistance to the occupying forces began before the government formed.

On top of that (particularly in Iraq) it is easy for terrorists to obtain weapons, supplies, and explosives from neighbouring regions sympathetic to their cause.

Well, there's also the massive number of weapons dumps that were spread across the country that the US military couldn't secure because they didn't have enough troops. And a large portion of the insurgency is made up of the 500,000 former Iraqi military that we fired, leaving them without jobs but with weapons and military training.

We were defeated in Korea and Vietnam.

I'd say we defeated North Korea, got too close to China for China's comfort, and fought China to a draw.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:22 PM on April 8, 2008

About the casualties: medical technology and medevac capabilities have advanced so much since the Vietnam War, and body armor is more commonly used, that many people survive horrific injuries now that would039;ve been fatal in the Vietnam War. Also, comparing the casualties so far in the Iraq War to the entire Vietnam War is misleading. Iraq 2004 Looks Like Vietnam 1966 .
posted by kirkaracha at 8:25 PM on April 8, 2008

kirkaracha, you're actually making my point, although you seem to be disagreeing with it. Casualty rates are down, both because of the size of the conflict and medical advances, but it's still out of context with both Vietnam, the first Persian Gulf War and the Kosovo campaign.

When casualty rates are low, each successive casualty is more unacceptable. The lesson is that politics and war is that it's often about context. If I steal five bucks from from a poor person, everyone gets mad. If I steal five bucks from Bill Gates ... well, he'll be OK. If I steal five bucks in order to feed my starving family ... well, that's understandable, too; sometimes you have to steal in order to stay alive.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:01 AM on April 9, 2008

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