Sunday, December 21, 2003

What War Is It, Anyway?

Reading about war in Iraq in blogosphere and elsewhere, I noticed that many people try to put this war into patterns of past conflicts. Most left-wing and anti-war bloggers are putting the sign of equation between US military involvement in Iraq and US military involvement in Vietnam. Right-wing blogosphere, on the other hand, tries to present US war in Iraq as a remake of WW2; the only issue is whether the US military and war-making results are on 1946 or 1942 levels. Some go far in the past. In latest Feral Tribune I noticed an excerpt from the article by Ben Bagdikian, in which he compares US invasion of Iraq 2003 with Napoleon's ill-fated campaign in Russia 1812.

All those comparisons miss one important point. Trying to explain present-day events through past examples represents either intellectual laziness or inability to comprehend them. If someone tries to think of present-day Iraq in terms of Vietnam War or WW2 he/she would have to experience, sooner or later, the very same rude awakening as those military experts in 1914 who had all their expectations of major European conflict based on 1871 experiences. In other words, each conflict is unique and history, contrary to conventional wisdom, doesn't repeat itself, at least not with such detailed precision to allow predictability.

However, I think I have found a past war that have few striking similarities with events in present-day Iraq. It is Boer War, which have been fought between British Empire and independent Boer republics of today's South Africa between 1899 and 1902. Today this war is all but forgotten, for various reasons, some of them I had written about in my review of 'Breaker' Morant, one of rare motion pictures dealing with it.

Let's see what Boer War and current US military involvement in Iraq have in common:

1) In 2003 USA is supreme military and economic power in the world. In 1899 British Empire was supreme military and economic power in the world.

2) USA justified its invasion of Iraq with the need to increase American security and keep strategic resources from being used by American enemies. British Empire in 1899 was concerned with gold deposits in Boer territory being used to finance army that would threaten British colonies in Africa.

3) In 2003 US invasion of Iraq was almost universally opposed by world's public opinion and the overwhelming majority of the world's governments, including such countries like France, Germany and Russia. In 1899 British war against Boers was universally opposed by world's public opinion and countries like France, Germany and Russia – for different reasons – also gave tacit or even more explicit support for Boers.

4) In 2003 US military was widely expected to easily crush Iraqi armed forces; despite some minor setbacks, such expectations were met and territory of Iraq was occupied in matter of weeks. In 1899 British military was widely expected to easily crush Boer armed forces; despite some minor setbacs, such expectations were met and Boer republics were occupied in matter of months.

5) The end of "major combat operations" in Iraq 2003 was followed by the rise of Iraqi insurgency, which proved too organised, too sophisticated and too brutal for US military, obviously unfit to deal with irregular forms of warfare. In 1899 defeat of Boer conventional forces was followed by the rise of Boer guerrillas, whose tactics, level of organisation and irregular combat skills proved to be a serious problem for British military.

6) In military terms, Iraqi insurgents represents nothing more than a nuisance; their mere presence, however, requires USA to keep disproportionately large army in Iraq, draining the world's strongest nation financially, psychologically and politically. A century ago, Boers couldn't chase British out of their country, but their mere presence forced Britain to keep quarter million of men in the far corner of its Empire and increased the financial, political and psychological cost of war.

This is where similarities between present US involvement in Iraq and Boer War end (or not – 2003 US media frenzy over Jessica Lynch is in many ways similar to the way British press in 1899 covered Boer siege of the British outpost in Mafeking), and where pundits are going to make mistake of trying to predict the future based on past.

For example, Americans, in most likelihood, can't or won't use British recipe for ending the war. Despite Guantanamo looking like a holiday resort compared with majority of world's prisons, any idea of putting civilian population of "Sunni Triangle" into similar institutions – "protective detention centres", "strategic hamlets" and all other names for phenomenon commonly known as "concentration camp" – is going to increase world's anti-Americanism to the levels intolerable even for the most arrogant and most chauvinistic segments of US government. On the other hand, Iraqi insurgents and whatever and whoever lies behind this phenomenon is over-demonised in American media so, unlike Lord Kitchener, Americans can't negotiate the end of war. Finally, unlike early 20th Century, world (and American) public simply wouldn't have stomach for a settlement in which two sides settle their differences and the expense of third, which happens to form majority of country's population (in 1902 British and Boers could do that to native Africans; in 2003 US government and "Resistance" can't do it to Shias, Kurds etc.).

Would Iraq become prosperous and stable Middle Eastern democracy in matter of few years or would it continue to be nasty quagmire of fanaticism, guerrilla warfare and sectarian violence? The answer for this lies in the future, not in the past.


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