Going Wobby?

Stephen Green, following up on a post by Steven Den Beste, contrasts the brutal sacrifices made during WWII in general and D-Day in particular with the comparative timidity of the way we’re fighting the war on terror and its Iraqi subsidiary.

D-Day was a huge risk, militarily and politically. And even though it was a risk that paid off, the cost was still 10,000 dead and wounded American soldiers.


1944 was a Presidential election year. That’s right — President Roosevelt risked it all on D-Day, in the middle of an election campaign.

This year’s election, just like any other, is a popularity contest. The war, however, is not. The war isn’t about winning votes. The war isn’t about pleasing the EU or the UN. And the war is most certainly not about trying to make those in Fallujah who ought to fear us, like us instead.

Let’s hope President Bush still understands all that.

I’m pretty sure he does, although I’m less convinced of that than I was a year ago. In some ways, this war is more important to the U.S. than was WWII. Hitler wasn’t a threat to the U.S. mainland, after all. But we live in a much different social climate. We’re much more cynical and much less deferential to presidential authority. Today, the actions of a Pat Tillman are virtually unfathomable to most Americans; in 1941, they were the norm. Even single digit losses of volunteer soldiers causes a panic. We lost more people in the first few minutes at Omaha Beach than we’ve lost in the entire thirteen months plus in Iraq.

For whatever reason, Bush and Co. made a decision after 9/11 that the war was going to be handled by the professionals and that ordinary Americans should simply go about their lives as if nothing has happened. Tom Friedman and others made passionate arguments that this was a mistake; that war should require across-the-board sacrifices from everyone. I’m of mixed minds on the issue. Modern warfare can’t be fought using the mass mobilization techniques of the past, making a WWII-style effort both unnecessary and counterproductive. Still, societal buy-in to the war effort is crucial. The president has been asiduous in reminding us that a war is on, that it will be a long one, and that there will be much sacrifice. I’m just not sure most people believe it or really understand what that means anymore.

Could we sustain 400,000 battle deaths in an “optional” war today? I tend to doubt it. At a minimum, it would take another 9/11 to provide the opportunity to mobilize that support. The last one is too distant a memory already.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    James, this isn’t directed at you, but is more of a general rant that’s been building up in me for awhile now.

    Lots of people have been debating the sense of comparing Iraq to the Vietnam war lately. I’ve got my own mixed opinions about that, but I’m truly sick of trying to compare Iraq, or the War on Terror in general, to WWII. It’s just stupid.

    It’s not just the methods of the wars that are completely different – WWII was a conventional war, with uniformed soldiers going out to do battle, governments formally declaring war & specific ideas of what victory for either side meant; GWOT is an undeclared war waged by completely random people on totally unpredictable targets, regardless of their actual benefit to either side.

    No, it’s not just that. Hitler truly wanted to conquer the planet, and he was fully capable of doing it. If just frighteningly small number of events had turned out differently, he might have succeeded. Now let’s look at today’s threats. Does anyone honestly believe that even if Bin Laden’s plans had all gone perfectly on 9-11, the USA would have ceased to exist? Is there any building that can be destroyed, any person that can be killed, any symbol that can be desecrated, that would actually cause this country to vanish?

    WWII was a war for survival. This is not. I’m well aware that Bin Laden and many other people out there would love to see America on fire, from sea to burning sea, would love to erase us from history altogether. But there is absolutely no chance they can do that. You cannot hurt someone until they agree with you. You cannot hate someone out of existence. The Holocaust showed us that. The Inquisition showed us that. The Crusades showed us that.

    Maybe Clinton’s policy of treating terrorism as a law-enforcement thing didn’t work. Maybe Bush’s policy of actively attacking terrorists will work. But never forget that these people are nothing more than low thugs. Some have money, some have cunning, some have dedication. All are threats to individual life and limb. But none of them are capable of what they aspire to. Don’t give them that kind of credit.

  2. WWII was a war for survival. This is not.

    Reasonable people disagree with the second sentence of this excerpt.

  3. legion says:

    Then reasonable people might want to address the paragraphs immediately before and containing that excerpt. Hitler had a realistic chance of taking the Allies down; my position is that the terrorists don’t. Wanting it to be a war of survival doesn’t make it one.

  4. Hitler had a realistic chance of taking the Allies down; my position is that the terrorists don’t.

    Apparently you haven’t been paying attention to Islamofascist efforts in Europe. They do actually want to impose Muslim theocracies everywhere. If we don’t fight them everywhere, we will lose.

    Wanting it not to be a war for survival won’t make it not be.

  5. James Joyner says:


    I don’t doubt that Hitler’s capabilities were far greater than those of the jihadists. Still, his ambitions didn’t extend to the U.S. mainland and he was pretty well tied up by the Soviets in any case.

    The jihadists don’t have the resources of a mighty industrial economy behind them but their intentions are much more lethal. Further, it’s not inconceivable that they could get their hands on nuclear weapons or at least biological agents. Certainly, bin Laden’s forces killed far more Americans before we joined the fight than Hitler killed before our belated entry into WWII.

    Saddam’s Iraq was somewhere in between in both capability and intent.

  6. Pat Berry says:

    But if the United States is transformed beyond recognition, is that really survival? The resulting country may call itself the USA, but it won’t be the country I live in today.

    The Islamists do have the power to accomplish that. To see one version of how it would work, look at Europe right now. Spain and France and Germany have been convinced not to resist the rising tide of Islamism, and they are being inundated by it. Spain has let Al Qaeda choose its government. France is incorporating sharia into its laws. Germany is experiencing a resurgence of antisemitism. And because they’ve bought into the politically correct notions that all cultures are equal and negotiation is always preferable to war, those countries have effectively surrendered. Europe is doomed.

    That can happen in the U.S., too. The clock is ticking, and the terrorists are not going to be idle just because we are. When the first nuke goes off in an American city, what will the result be? I see three possibilities: 1) Surrender, European style. 2) Fortress America: a totalitarian police state. 3) A decision by the United States to fight this war for real: no cease-fires, no negotiation, no retreat. As in WWII, accept nothing but unconditional surrender.

    Only option 3 actually allows the United States as we know it to survive. The other two may preserve the name, but they won’t preserve the nation.

  7. legion: you also forget that Americans had something during the World War 2 era that they don’t, as much anyway, in this current conflict: the conviction that we are right, and our enemies are wrong. I am not at all certain that many Americans don’t have at the back of their minds the nagging thought that we may very well have “deserved” September 11th because we are so very, very awful. (There are a variety of reasons why we lack the national confidence we had in the forties — the ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam, the fact that our great wealth is a source of guilt as much as it is a source of pleasure, the reluctance to face the responsibilities of being the most powerful country in the world, the desire to isolate ourselves from all the problems of the rest of the world, and so on.) Our enemies play on this feeling, which is an outgrowth of our good nature not our bad, because of their very weakness. It is their chief weapon against us. That is why this is a war of survival, though a different one from World War 2.

  8. pittspilot says:


    Our technological progress has caught up with us. Hitler may have had some power, but his ability to attack the United States proper was very limited.

    In today’s world, with the fast communication, the open society, and the fast transportation, how far are we away from getting hard hit by either a biological or nuclear weapon? I can think of several different methods for getting nukes or biologics into the country. Think of suicidal small pox carriers?

    In this way, nations like Iran, Iraq, and others are far more dangerous, and can do far more damage then Germany ever could have.

  9. Peter says:

    Demographics. The birthrate in Islamic countries far exceeds that of any Western country. How long before there is an Islamic majority in Western countries? Some forecasts project 2030 for some European countries. They won’t have to fire a shot. Had the fanatics not started this so-called War on Terror the demographics would have won the world for Shari’a law eventually.

    What world do you think you’d return to if you slept for 100 years? 200?

  10. Will Allen says:

    Intelligent people with time, money, and dedication have a reasonably good chance of achieving at least tactical success. For the governments of Pakistan and North Korea, that meant developing nuclear weapons. For the Islamist terrorist groups, tactical success means detonating a nuclear weapon in an American city, because unlike the governments of Pakistan or North Korea, they really, really, wish to slaughter a lot of Americans, and thay are not sensitive to deterrence. It is extremely unwise to believe that what the governments of Pakistan and North Korea were able to obtain is unavailable to non-state actors who have large resources.

    When the attack occurs, I have very little doubt that of the three options outlined by Pat Berry, the third will be chosen. Nay, not chosen, but absolutely demanded by an enraged American electorate that will conclude that the “root cause” of this conflict is that there are a lot of people alive who should not be. Not too many Americans gave a damn about the incinerated civilians of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki.

    The result will be absolutely hideous for all involved, for a titanic, global, slaughter has an awful effect on the slaughterer as well as the slaughtered. How titanic? I don’t think 100 million-plus dead is being hyperbolic. Nuclear or biological weapons may not even be employed. When a 21st century technological collossus starts contemplating the ways in which millions of people can be efficiently killed. while also leaving infrastructure intact, innovative people will think up horrors that few, if any of us, can imagine.

    This is what a very grim future hold for us, unless the Islamist terrorist groups are so marginalized within their culture as to effectively end the financial and ideological support they currently receive.

  11. legion says:

    Wow. Go away for lunch and see what happens!

    A number of posters aren’t quite getting what I’m trying to say – attacking America is not the same as defeating or destroying America. Yes, terrorists have (or could easily get, these days) the ability to kill huge numbers of people, but even if that last plane on 9/11 had gone into Congress instead of Pennsylvania, it wouldn’t have destroyed us. Perhaps, as Peter or pittspilot say, militants could take over another Afghanistan & build it into a country capable of conquering someone else, but for the next several decades (at least) we’re not going to have to worry about waking up to thousands of Al Queda paratroops dropping in over the heartland, a la ‘Red Dawn’.

    I think Pat Berry and Andrea Harris come closest to touching what underlies my concern in this whole War on Terror – The only people that can truly destroy America are Americans. Only we can decide not to be the land of the free anymore. Only we can decide to stop using the Constitution as our basis of government; nobody can force us to.

    To go back to Pat’s options, we obviously can’t roll over and surrender to any demands placed upon us. The xenophobic Fortress America option is equally crap – even if implemented “sucessfully”, it would only delay the inevitible (see above ref to Peter & pittspilot’ comments). But I disagree on option 3 being the only remaining choice. How do you define the enemy we’re at war with? Anyone who stands up and says “I’m a terrorist and I wanna destroy America?” That only gets rid of the stupid ones. Terrorists don’t wear uniforms. All Moslems aren’t terrorists. All Arabic/dark-skinned people aren’t terrorists. Forget knowing when we’ve won – how do we know we’re even fighting the right enemy?

    _That’s_ the difference between this war and WWII; it can’t be fought that way. There are evil people out there who want to destroy America and kill anyone that doesn’t look/act/think/worship the same way. They will use whatever tools they can find. Right now, it’s militant Islam. If you killed every Moslem in the world, that evil would still exist, and you’ll have murdered countless innocents. That’s my problem with Peter’s option 3 – the only way I can see to implement it is genocide, and I do not accept that. There must be another option that allows security without genocide. I just wish I knew it – maybe _I’d_ run for President then 🙂

  12. Pat Berry says:

    Legion asks some good questions. I could write a lengthy response here, but there’s no need; Steven Den Beste has already done far better than I ever could in his Strategic Overview.

    How do we define the enemy in this war? It’s the Arab/Islamic world (see Den Beste’s section I).

    How do we identify specific targets? Actually, “anybody who stands up and says ‘I’m a terrorist and I wanna destroy America'” isn’t a bad place to start, because the most fanatical of them do exactly that. This has to do with the face culture of the Arab world, in which being a fearsome warrior requires boasting loudly about your prowess and making grandiose threats against your enemies. (Think of the way professional wrestlers behave and you’ll have the right idea.) Beyond that, it’s mostly a matter of going after the terrorists’ support network. What countries harbor them? What governments, organizations, and individuals give them money, weapons, and equipment? Go after those things and you’ll hit the terrorists hard.

    But ultimately, the solution is to reform the Arab world (Den Beste’s section III-D). We won the Cold War in large part by winning the minds and hearts of the people of Eastern Europe. The key to this was the close proximity of Western Europe, and particularly the proximity of West Germany to East Germany. Eastern Europe had a front-row seat from which to see just how well liberal, free-market democracy works, and no amount of propaganda from their governments could counteract that. They saw Western civilization works, and they wanted it. That’s why the Berlin Wall fell without a battle.

    That’s why it’s absolutely imperative that we stay the course in Iraq and build a free, prosperous democracy there. The citizens of other countries in the region will see that way of life and want it for themselves. Once that happens, their corrupt totalitarian leaders will be toast. And those leaders know it, too, which is why they are determined to prevent us from succeeding.

    That’s how we win the war without genocide. Attack and destroy the true terrorists; win over the rest by showing them a better way of life than they currently have (Den Beste’s section VIII).

    P.S. Seeing my name mentioned in the same sentence with Andrea Harris was the high point of my week.

  13. geoffg says:

    How do we get the message to all the Muslims “standing on the sidelines” that they control their future? That is to say, to the extent they do not root out the terrorists themselves, they leave us nothing but Option 3.