Politics & Policy

Iraq, and America, At a Turning Point

16 months, in perspective.

We are now 16 months into the Iraq war. At a similar stage in earlier American wars, how were our forces faring?

Well, at about this point in the French and Indian Wars George Washington had been defeated and forced to surrender at Fort Necessity (he was released after being disarmed), and then disastrously beaten in a fight where his unit of 1,400 men took 900 casualties and ended up running away. (Washington himself was not injured but had two horses shot from under him, and took four bullets through his coat.)

Washington’s next experience of war, in the American Revolution, began with equal tribulation. Sixteen months into his command, the American army was suffering through a series of traumatic defeats. They’d lost every single battle since the Declaration of Independence, and had depleted 90 percent of their military strength in heavy fighting. Most of the remaining soldiers declared they were going to go home when their enlistments expired, and in many parts of the new nation citizens were pledging fresh oaths of allegiance to the tyrant King George.

Sixteen months into the Civil War, a permanent breakaway of the southern states looked like imminent reality. The Union army that marched on Richmond had been beaten with tens of thousands of casualties. Robert E. Lee had launched an invasion of the north, and Washington, D.C. was on the brink of being overrun.

Sixteen months into U.S. involvement in World War II, the Japanese had taken control of all of the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Our British allies had suffered the most catastrophic defeat in their history when they lost 130,000 fighting men in Singapore. The Japanese had just as thumpingly ejected the U.S. from the Philippines, and were actually in their tenth month of occupying American soil in Alaska. It would take 1,000 American dead (far more than our total losses in Iraq to date) merely to eject the enemy from this Aleutian Island foothold over the course of a few days in the seventeenth month of the war.

At month 16 of the war in Europe, meanwhile, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Greece, Yugoslavia, and other countries had all been lost. German submarines were in the process of wiping out Atlantic shipping. And death camps like Treblinka had been opened and were in the process of killing millions. By the end of that year, 40 percent of the world’s Jews, for instance, would be dead.

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We have had some tough moments in Iraq this year. But we must remember that every war has tough stages and low points that victorious nations must grind through. The difference between civilizations that triumph and civilizations that surrender is often simply a matter of keeping your determination and fighting spirit intact through the down days. I’ve spent months embedded with combat troops in Iraq over the last year, so I realize there is nothing easy about any of this. But there some challenges in life that simply cannot be evaded.

It took years for the U.S. to launch humane democracy in Germany and Japan after World War II. In just 16 months in Iraq we have made great progress–as I report at length in a new book built on detailed firsthand observation of the counterinsurgency and reconstruction. The Shiite middle that is going to dominate Iraq has stuck with us through many travails. An encouraging interim government is beginning to take responsibility for the country’s fate, with wide support from everyday Iraqis. An economic bloom is unfolding. There is a surge of new information, freedom, and opportunity never before seen in Iraq. These plants will bear previously unseen fruit in the parched sands of greater Arabia, and ultimately make America safer.

Has the price been too high? The casualty rate in Iraq, Max Boot has noted, has been 1.5 percent of all troops serving in the theater. That compares to 6.2 percent in Vietnam, and 6.5 percent in World War II. The terrorists, though, believe modern Westerners have lost the fortitude needed to sustain a nasty fight. “One thing is for sure: the extremists have faith in our weakness,” noted Tony Blair recently. “And the weaker we are, the more they will come after us.”

The late Michael Kelly, who observed humans at their cruelest in the Balkans, Iraq, and elsewhere, particularly urged American opponents of war to never forget that “accepting death is indispensable to defeating death.” If our public and our political class will exhibit that same wisdom and courage, then this is a fight America can win.

Karl Zinsmeister, editor in chief of The American Enterprise has just published Dawn Over Baghdad: How the U.S. Military is Using Bullets and Ballots to Remake Iraq, the first book about Iraq’s guerilla war and reconstruction. His earlier book about the 2003 hot war in Iraq is entitled Boots on the Ground: A Month With the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq.

  Karl Zinsmeister is the editor in chief of Philanthropy magazine. He formerly advised Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President George W. Bush on domestic policy.


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