Keegan: War is Chaos

John Keegan, who has been sidelined the past few weeks recovering from major surgery, weighs in on negative press coverage of the Iraq War in his piece “History tells us that most conflicts end in chaos.”

The media’s message is clear: Iraq is a mess that should never have been allowed to happen. Yet media people are precisely the sort who know perfectly well that wars usually end in a mess.

Many of them, by training, are history boys or history girls. Moreover, they have been trained to perceive reasons why some wars end neatly and others do not.

The Second World War, which has largely formed Western attitudes to war termination, ended neatly for simple reasons: both the Germans and Japanese had had the stuffing knocked out of them. Their cities had been burnt out or bombed flat, millions of their young men had been killed in battle, so had hundreds of thousands of their women and children by strategic bombing. The Japanese were actually starving, while the Germans looked to their Western occupiers both to feed them and to save them from the spectre of Soviet rule. Two highly disciplined and law-abiding populations meekly submitted to defeat.

Because we in the Atlantic region remember 1945 as the year of victory over our deadliest enemies, we usually forget that the Second World War did not end neatly in other parts of the world. In Greece, the guerrilla war against the Germans became a civil war which lasted until 1949 and killed 150,000 people. Peace never really came to Japanese-occupied Asia. In China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma, the Second World War became several wars of national liberation, lasting years and killing hundreds of thousands. In Burma, the civil war persists.

The aftermath of the First World War was worse. On Armistice night, Lloyd George, leaving the House of Commons with Winston Churchill, remarked: “The war of the giants is over. The war of the pygmies is about to begin.” The pygmies, in civil wars in Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states, Finland and above all Russia, went on fighting for years, killing or starving to death millions. A full-blown war of conquest by Greece against Turkey ended in a Greek humiliation but also 300,000 deaths.

And there was, of course, a war in Iraq, caused by Britain’s attempt to enforce the mandate to rule granted by the League of Nations. Britain eventually prevailed, but at the cost of 6,000 Iraqi deaths and 500 in its own forces. British casualties in this war scarcely exceed 100. Then, as now, the occupiers complained that “every Iraqi has a rifle”.

History boys can explain easily – and convincingly – why some wars, as that against Germany in 1945, end in unopposed occupation of enemy territory and why others, as in Iraq in 1920 and 2004, do not. In the first case, the defeated nation has exhausted itself in the struggle and is dependent on the victor both for necessities and for protection against further disaster – social revolution or aggression by another enemy. In the second case, the war has not done much harm but has broken the power of the state and encouraged the dispossessed and the irresponsible to grab what they can before order is fully restored.

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It is a regrettable but not wholly to be unexpected outcome of a campaign to overthrow a dangerous Third World dictator. If those who show themselves so eager to denounce the American President and the British Prime Minister feel strongly enough on the issue, please will they explain their reasons for wishing that Saddam Hussein should still be in power in Baghdad.

Unfortunately, this media reaction is a predictable consequence of fighting insurgents and terrorists on 24-7 live television. Further, as Keegan notes, the current messiness was a sufficiently likely outcome that we should have been better prepared for it. Whether more “boots on the ground” or some different decisions here and there would have minimized the chaos is unknowable. Certainly, though, the Administration could have done a better job of lowering the gleeful reaction that followed the end of major combat operations by preparing the public for the likelihood of more deaths ahead. Some lip service was paid to that, even in the now infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, but it was certainly not a major theme. History boys, after all, should expect a hostile press.

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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.