The Iraq war has now lasted longer than World War II, repeated news stories inform us, meaning that editors, in good conscience, should prepare correction boxes admitting that no, this is a mistake. The combat stage in Iraq lasted a little over three weeks. The occupation has lasted as long as World War II, but the U.S. occupation of Germany and Japan has continued in one fashion or another pretty much to this very day.
To say as much is not to pretend that the Iraqi occupation is anything less than deeply troubling. U.S. troops are being killed week in and week out while Shiite death militias are retaliating against Sunni terrorism with terrorism of their own. Our enemies quit killing us after World War II. They had been roundly defeated, and their civilian populations ached from massive bombings. Things did not go so well in Germany in the first year afterthe war, but the prosecution of Nazi war criminals and extensive aid got us past the worst of it.
The point in differentiating between combat and occupation — even a deadly, chaotic one — is that sloppy thinking about such things can lead to sloppy policy. The occupations after World War II aided in rebuilding the societies with which we had been at war, while protecting them from the Soviet and other menaces. The occupation in Korea — continuing a half century after the stalemated war there — has enabled South Korea to avoid communist enslavement and eventually to emerge as a prosperous democracy of more than 48 million people.
Contrast that to what happened in South Vietnam after Congress in 1974 violated U.S. pledges by eliminating military funding to the South Vietnamese. There was, first, the hysteria during the evacuation from Saigon as the North Vietnamese had their victory. But far worse, there were the thousands who died on forced marches to re-education camps, the thousands who died in them, the thousands who were executed.
Maybe the war in Vietnam was a mistake — as I myself believe —and maybe there was no chance of the United States winning it short of steps we were finally unwilling to take for humanitarian and other reasons, including fear of Chinese intervention. But it is impossible to ignore the terrible consequences of the way in which even our financial support evaporated, just as I think it impossible to pretend that an essentially unqualified exit from Iraq holds no risks of mass murders escalating to genocidal proportions or of a governmental collapse feeding anti-U.S. terrorist ambitions, robbing us of credibility and strength in the war against Islamic fascists and threatening Middle East instability far worse than what now exists.
We are faced with something in Iraq — and now in Afghanistan — that in combination is unlike anything we have ever faced before, the constant onslaught of suicide bombers disguised as civilians, of a hidden enemy undeterred by risk of death, but rather embracing it, while armed with modern weaponry and perfectly agreeable to waging their ferocity on innocent noncombatants, including small children. Erase all the mistakes of this occupation, and this frightening fact would likely still be staring us in the face, which is different from saying we cannot possibly figure out answers that will quell the fighting and further the cause of saving our civilization from a barbarism so vividly on exhibit on 9/11.
It’s not hubris to say that there are a wide variety of approaches that could prove effective — that we can find answers if we will, but likely not an occupation that lasts for decades.
Examiner columnist Jay Ambrose is a former editor of two daily newspapers. He may be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com
Decades ago, I was a reporter in Albany, N.Y., working for a newspaper at the foot of a hill that could be ascended only with huffing, puffing, knee endangerment and sweat unless you employed a trick.