Sunday, February 04, 2007

Why US?

So why are Americans supposed to care more about Iraq than the Iraqis do?

That is the essential problem with those who favor the "surge," or even maintaining American military involvement for longer than it would take for us to make an orderly withdrawal that would not sow intolerable confusion among those who proclaim themselves our allies.

In an earlier post, I suggested that the problem with Iraq was not too few Americans but too few Iraqis, I noted in passing that the slow progress of the Iraqi security forces can be compared to the development of the US Army during the Civil War. As we send thousands of additional Americans into harm's way (and it will not be the 20,000 or so that the media talks of, but about 35,000 to 45,000, because the figure bruited about only covers combat troops, and leaves out the supporting forces they need), let's take a look at that instance in our history.

Unlike Iraq, the United States was not conquered by a foreign power, and our army was not disbanded. On the other hand, not only did a large part of the nation pull away and declare independence (a proportion larger than the Sunni or Kurdish parts of Iraq), but an even higher fraction of the nation's military leadership went with the rebels.

Not that the US Army--or Navy for that matter--were that much to boast about before the war. It has been said that the army of 1861 was stocked with officers who knew about leading a troop of cavalry against Indians, but not about leading regiments, much less divisions and corps.

Yet within two years the United States Army had become a fully professional fighting force able to field large armies across distances unknown to the militaries of Europe, at least outside of Russia. By 1864, the army had become one of the great military aggregations in history. The exploits of the US Army in the Civil War are mind-boggling even today: Balked six times before Vicksburg, Mississippi, Grant took 40,000 men down the river--running past the batteries mounted on the cliffs above in unarmored steamers--and made his way behind Confederate lines to come up behind the city and invest it. The next year, Sherman conducted a campaign from Chattanooga to Atlanta that is still studied in staff colleges around the world. In the course of Sherman's advance, his troops re-built the railroad to Atlanta faster than the Confederates could tear it up.

The army did not exist in a vacuum, of course. Lincoln is generally credited with being the greatest President in American history, and he assembled a corps of leaders who mobilized the nation--the North, anyway, in the first of the wars between societies that we have come to know. Factories turned to war production. Young men, old men, even women substituted for those who had gone off to fight.

All of this was not orderly, of course, or free of incompetence or corruption. Look at the list of commanders that Lincoln appointed and then removed before he found men who could win the war--the amazing part is that he kept on and that he had enough political support to keep up the search until the found those he needed.

Do you see anything like this in Iraq? If something analogous is happening, we aren't hearing about it, even from the administration and its apologists.

I'm not suggesting that Iraq needs to produce a Lincoln, but it has not even produced a Jefferson Davis: the South's war effort would have been notable had it not been up against a North led by Lincoln, Grant and Sherman.

In our Civil War, Americans answered the call to the colors. In Iraq's civil war...Americans are again the ones who are answering the call. Oh, yes, several hundred thousand Iraqis have signed up for the army and the police, and many have been killed by car bombs as they lined up at recruiting stations. But why have they not learned to fight--at least to fight as disciplined units?

Is the problem a lack of leadership? Or is it a lack of will? Or the absence of a sense of national identity? Perhaps it is all three. But whatever the cause, by now it is clear that there are not enough Iraqis who identify with the nation, and are willing to put themselves on the line for it, to damp down sectarianism sufficiently for the country can emerge as a functioning state that provides at least rough equality to all religious and ethnic groups.

Before we went into Iraq, I posited that the absence of an effective opposition to Saddam Hussein should tell us to steer clear of grandiose adventures designed to bring on a new kind of nation in the Middle East. Unfortunately, I was right. It is now clear that, whether we go or stay, Iraq will either split apart along ethnic and religious lines or will emerge united under the dominance of the winner, or winners, of its own civil war.


Anonymous said...

Well said. If only 43 had advisors as smart as you are.

The Old New Englander said...

It's actually frightening to think that the chief executive might not have advisors smarter than me! But, if we remember David Halberstam's "Best and the Brightest" from the Vietnam era, perhaps the problem is not intelligence, at least not of the intellectual variety.