Iraq: The Lessons of History


A few years ago, a think-tank in Los Angeles asked me as an historian for my views on the coming war with Iraq. I replied, I was against the war as almost all wars lead to unanticipated and unintended consequences. Often so amazing as to be beyond human imagination at the time they are started. "Just look back in history," I said. This is not what the scholars anticipated. They expected me to point out the pros and cons of a war in Iraq and dealing with a conquered nation in the Middle East. Now that the war has gone badly, not as anticipated, the wisdom of history speaks out: "I could have told you, why didn't you learn from the past?" All history teaches the same, the unexpected consequences of war.

The Viet Nam War should be a lesson for America on the matter of considering withdrawing from the war in Iraq. President Nixon wanted to continue the war in Viet Nam because "if Saigon fell all Southeast Asia would fall" — that is Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, North Borneo, Philippines would go to communism. Considering these feared consequences the loss of 60,000 troops in the war would seem to be justified. Yet Saigon did fall, but not one of the countries in Southeast Asia fell to Communism. Nixon and his advisers were dead wrong! Was the war a waste? The problem was America's fear of the awesome power of communism — that it would take over the world if not checked and defeated — not aware it was a faulty system that had feet of clay, doomed to failure if given enough time. Communism’s most energizing force was America believing it was an almost invincible force for evil. It was for evil, but not as invincible as thought. It was doomed to failure. America's assault on communism energized and perpetuated it. If left alone it would have withered and died much earlier as an unworkable system.

In today's war in Iraq are we faced with a situation like Viet Nam and President Nixon who told of the awesome consequences if we pulled out? Today President Bush believes that the whole Middle East will turn to chaos and go to radical Moslems if we pull out. Barry Goldwater had the situation understood when he opposed Reagan sending the Marines to Lebanon. His reason? "All those people want to do is kill each other." Are we not energizing the fundamentalist Moslems like we did the communists in Viet Nam? If they take over the Moslem world in the Middle East, what kind of a civilization are they capable of establishing? Will not the moderate civilized Moslems get fed up with these psychopathic killers and root them out of their world? It is their problem and they and they alone can deal with it in the long term. The unintended and unimaginable consequences so common to wars have taken over in Iraq much to our leaders’ surprise but not history's surprise.

Let us turn back in history. Take the end of the greatest civilization of the ancient world, Greece. In the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta the war leader of Athens, Pericles, had the people and soldiers crowd behind the walls of the city in close quarters as a defensive war measure. In these close quarters a great plague swept through Athens and killed a large number of the inhabitants, even Pericles. Greece never recovered from the losses caused by the plague though the war dragged on for many years. Thus an unanticipated factor caused by the war brought an end to the greatest civilization in the ancient world. In a similar fashion, Assyria was taking over the world. It had conquered the Kingdom of Israel and taken the Israelis into captivity to become the Lost Tribes of Israel. Only the small nation of Judah remained, 1/10 the size. The Assyrians camped around Judah ready for an easy conquest until a plague hit their camp and they broke the siege and fled. An unanticipated consequence like in Greece.

Take a look at Europe over the last 1000 years. At the innumerable wars and peace treaties that followed. There are as many maps of Europe as there were wars in Europe. Poland changed size and shape too many times to count, so also many other countries like Hungary and Austria and Lithuania. War was behind all these changes. Take 1914 to 1950 and look at the changes, almost beyond belief, caused by those two great wars.

World War I started in 1914. The British government told the nation, "The boys will be home by Christmas." They did not come home for over 4 years leaving over 800,000 in graves in Europe. The British Empire never recovered from this loss of so many of its intelligent young men. The same was true for France, and worse for Russia, which was so weakened by the war that the 300-year-old Romanoff dynasty collapsed leaving a wasteland for communists. To assure the dynasty would not recover Lenin had the Tsar and his family murdered. It took 80 years for the Russian people to shake off the bondage of communism, even opening up the churches for a very religious people. Russia lost most of its European empire.

The Middle East was remade creating Iraq and all the many new countries out of the Ottoman Empire with Britain and France in charge. Germany lost its overseas empire in Africa and the Pacific, and much of Europe. The Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II as the world was turned upside down in a war that was to be over by Christmas! In the Nuremberg war trials after World War II, against the German leaders who started World War II, the lawyers for the German leaders tried to set up a defense that the war was an extension of WWI and justified because of the unjust peace at Versailles. The court refused to allow this defense. With the passing of time many historians believe this view had merit. The war started by empires colliding with each other as with most of Europe's wars for centuries. America did not participate in the final peace treaty and let Britain and France run the show. An embittered Germany sought revenge not only in the territorial losses, but also for the reparations that wrecked the German economy. Talk about unanticipated consequences!

In the 19th century consider the American Civil War. Lincoln wanted to call up troops for three or four months. What started in April was to be over in the summer. It lasted 4 years killing 650,000 men. The South would not accept defeat, saying, "The South will rise again." Not so. The Europeans followed the war intensively especially on slavery. Slavery in 1860 was on its way out on the world stage, in the Netherlands, Denmark, France, in Britain as early as 1833. Even for 30 million serfs in Russia. The European scholars thought the best way to get rid of slavery in America was for the South to win! Since the South was a small nation dependent on trade the world would demand that slavery be abolished if it was to trade with Europe, so hostile were the major nations to slavery. While the Lincoln government went out of its way to please the South on slavery, as the war carried on it was the slaves who demanded freedom and got it with the war's help. One British journalist wrote at the beginning of the war, "Lincoln was to give slavery more protection than it had ever enjoyed if only the South would come back in the Union." Today Lincoln lovers forget that.

Consider the American Revolutionary War, a glorious historical event we have been celebrating for over 200 years, but it was not so glorious for African Americans. One British writer in the 1860s wrote that the worse thing in British history was to tax the American colonies and set off the Revolution in 1776. Why? Because if the American colonies had remained in the British Empire, then in 1833 when Parliament abolished slavery throughout the Empire that would have abolished slavery in America over 30 years earlier than it was. In many of the former colonies to this day they celebrate "Emancipation Day" the first Monday in August of each year as a national holiday. Such is one of the not well-known unintentional consequences of the War for Independence.

The Second World War saw the nations of Germany and Japan reduced to simple commercial nations with no military, naval or air power. These nations started World War II with great hopes and in the beginning great successes. With Britain, France and the Netherlands involved in a war in Europe it was easy pickings for the Japanese. Only America stood in the way of Japanese conquest of all of the Far East. The amazing Japanese success at Pearl Harbor made everything look like easy pickings for sure. The disasters that ultimately followed to Japan were unbelievable as well as unanticipated consequences. What war is known for doing — the unanticipated. Even for Russia, one of the victors, in the loss of life in millions of millions of people. In 1970 a taxi driver in the Soviet Union pointed out to me how there were so few adults of middle years just young and old people, as for people in the middle years few were left as a result of the loss of life in what they called the Great Patriotic War. The Russian people had no stomach for another war, he said.

All the major colonies of the great powers disappeared. The war hastened that. Colonies are a thing of the past as all the efforts to acquire colonies came to naught hastened by the wars. Look at a map of the world in the 1930's; Britain rule was most everywhere except for French and Dutch colonies. Today nothing remains. Winston Churchill did not want to be a party to the dismemberment of the British Empire, on which the sun never set.

What will be the unintended and unanticipated consequences of today's war with Iraq? Anybody's guess will do. Beware of the so-called experts.

July 31, 2007

Charles Adams Archives