Given all of this country’s past wars involving intelligence failures, tactical and strategic blunders, congressional fights and popular anger at the president, Iraq and the rising furor over it are hardly unusual.
Imagine if the House of Representatives had debated a resolution to authorize the president’s use of force in Iraq only after the bombs were already falling. And what if after the debate, in the middle of the war, with our troops already in combat, Congress had suddenly denied such approval?
That is precisely what happened to President Clinton during the Serbian war of 1999. Neither the Senate nor the House agreed to sanction the administration’s ongoing preemptive bombing campaign against Serbia. That congressional rebuke prompted liberal commentator Mark Shields to scoff on PBS Newshour that American troops were “putting their life on the line, and (the Congress) are saying, we’re not with you.”
Or consider the national mood in 1968 when the United States suffered over 16,000 American dead in Vietnam (at that rate, we lost more troops in three months than we have during the entire four-year Iraqi war). In response, riots racked the country. Protesters stormed the Democratic Convention in Chicago. And a polarized country saw both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. gunned down.
Nothing in Iraq comes close to the furor over Korea, either. Again, suppose the following: President Bush conducts an ongoing public fight with the new commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who in turn serially whines to the press that he is being backstabbed by an unsupportive administration. Bush then fires Petraeus. The general returns to the United States to tickertape parades, while the president becomes even more detested as thousands more Americans are killed.
That scenario sums up the Truman-MacArthur row over the stalemate in Korea. During that conflict, President Truman fired Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson; fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, his senior military commander in the theater; and faced calls for impeachment from U.S. senators, including the venerable Robert Taft. By February 1952, Truman’s approval ratings had hit 22 percent — the lowest-known polls of any sitting U.S. president, George W. Bush and Richard Nixon included.
During World War II, more than 1,000 Marines were killed in 72 hours on the tiny Pacific island of Tarawa, storming head on a Japanese stronghold that was considered at best an optional objective. The Time magazine photos of American corpses in the surf caused national outrage and calls for the resignation of widely respected Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Pacific veteran Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith said the senseless American slaughter was analogous to Pickett’s costly and futile charge at Gettysburg.
Optional conflicts like the Mexican War, the Philippines Insurrection, Korea and Vietnam all cost more lives than Iraq. Even our most successful wars witnessed far more lethal stupidity than anything seen in Baghdad. Thousands of American dead resulted from lapses like the Confederate surprise at Shiloh, Japanese surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, and the German surprise attacks in the Ardennes.
There have also been plenty of major policy failures in our history — a failed invasion of Canada during the War of 1812, a failed 12-year reconstruction of the south, a failed effort to help Chiang Kai-shek stop Chinese Communists under Mao, a failed effort at the Bay of Pigs to remove Fidel Castro, and a failed effort to stop communism in Southeast Asia, to name a few.
Since World War II, our intelligence agencies failed to foresee the Chinese invasion of Korea, the Yom Kippur War, the fall of the Shah of Iran, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the sudden spread of Islamic fundamentalism, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Cambodian and Rwandan holocausts, and the acquisition of the bomb by Pakistan and North Korea.
Nor have past wars been any easier on other presidents than Iraq has been on President Bush. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon left office despised. Exhausted wartime presidents Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were either assassinated or died in office. The controversial aftermath of World War I was a likely cause of Woodrow Wilson’s stroke.
The high-stakes war to stabilize the fragile democracy in Iraq is a serious, costly and controversial business. But so have been most conflicts in American history. We need a little more humility and knowledge of our past — and a lot less hysteria, name-calling and obsession with our present selves.
© 2007 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.