The Evolution of War Aims

William Stuntz draws an interesting analogy between the Iraq War and the American Civil War:

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln led what was left of his country to war to restore “the Union as it was,” to use the popular phrase of the time. Free navigation of the Mississippi River, the right to collect customs duties in Southern ports, the status of a pair of coastal forts in South Carolina and Florida–these were the issues over which young American men got down to the business of killing one another that sad summer. […] But there was a much bigger, much better, and above all much nobler dream waiting in the wings: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” (to use Lincoln’s own words)–that the chains of four million slaves might be shattered forever, that freedom and democracy might prevail against tyranny and aristocracy in a world still full of tyrants and aristocrats.

The loss of hundreds of thousands of American men–a lost generation comparable to the generation of young French, German, and British men lost in Flanders fields a half-century later–for the sake of a few Southern forts and ports would have been a tragedy as great as the senseless killing at the Somme and Passchendaele. World War I was senseless, both because it was fought over territory and because it settled nothing. The Civil War that Lincoln and Jefferson Davis set out to fight would have been no different. If control of America’s rivers had remained the war’s object, then whoever won the day in the early 1860s would have had to defend that object again a generation later, just as World War II saw a generation of British and American men fight for the same territory their fathers won a generation after their fathers won it.

Freedom and democracy, justice and the equality of all men before God and before the law–those causes were very different. Shedding an ocean of blood for them was terribly sad but not tragic: The essence of tragedy is waste, and the blood shed on the Civil War’s battlefields was not wasted. Horrible as its killing fields were, those young men accomplished something profoundly good: Their deaths ensured that (to use Lincoln’s words again) “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That is why the Civil War has gone down in history not as America’s own World War I, but as the war of America’s true “greatest generation,” the generation that preserved freedom and democracy for us and for the rest of humankind.

Like the Civil War, the purpose of the second Iraq War evolved into a broader, nobler one owing to changing circumstances.

Two-and-a-half years ago, our armed forces set out to fight a small war with a small objective. Today we find ourselves in a larger war with a larger and vastly better purpose. It would be one of history̢۪s sadder ironies were we to turn away because that better purpose is not the one we set out to achieve.

I differ with Stuntz, though, in his assertion that democratization was not part of the original rationale for the war (“had the second Iraq war turned out like the first, as the White House apparently expected”). In an October 2002 speech outlining the rationale for war, President Bush said,

America believes that all people are entitled to hope and human rights, to the non-negotiable demands of human dignity. People everywhere prefer freedom to slavery; prosperity to squalor; self-government to the rule of terror and torture. America is a friend to the people of Iraq. Our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens us. When these demands are met, the first and greatest benefit will come to Iraqi men, women and children. The oppression of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomans, Shi’a, Sunnis and others will be lifted. The long captivity of Iraq will end, and an era of new hope will begin.

Of course, that speech and others leading up to the war offered Saddam the opportunity to remain in power by complying with several demands:

In addition to declaring and destroying all of its weapons of mass destruction, Iraq must end its support for terrorism. It must cease the persecution of its civilian population. It must stop all illicit trade outside the Oil For Food program. It must release or account for all Gulf War personnel, including an American pilot, whose fate is still unknown.

While that was largely rhetorical, since few seriously thought Saddam would capitulate, it’s clear that Iraqi democracy was a goal that we were willing to sacrifice. Once hostilities commenced, however, there was never serious thought given to simply pulling out after toppling Saddam’s regime.

It is true, however, that the Bush team apparently never gave serious thought to the emergence of a serious insurgency and the flood of foreign al Qaeda fighters. But Stuntz argues we should be glad that these happened:

By prolonging the war, Zarqawi and his Baathist allies have drawn thousands of terrorist wannabes into the fight–against both our soldiers and Muslim civilians. When terrorists fight American civilians, as on September 11, they can leverage their own deaths to kill a great many of us. But when terrorists fight American soldiers, the odds tilt towards our side. Equally important, by bringing the fight to a Muslim land, by making that land the central front of the war on Islamic terrorism, the United States has effectively forced Muslim terrorists to kill Muslim civilians. That is why the so-called Arab street is rising–not against us but against the terrorists, as we saw in Jordan after Zarqawi’s disastrous hotel bombing.

Don Sensing agrees and quotes some analysis of his own on the nature of this insurgency from July:

Our enemy is compelling us to retain a larger force in Iraq than we hoped to before we invaded. Our failure to foresee the insurgency was real, but not fatal to achieving our objectives. […] Iraq is proving to be al Qaeda’s abbattoir — even some native-Iraqi Baathist terrorists are fighting against them now. There’s no denying that the victory being won over al Qaeda in Iraq is tragically costing many Iraqi lives and the lives and blood of and American troops. Yet for al Qaeda to see the light and give up the fight there would almost certainly ultimately prove more costly to free peoples than for al Qaeda to continue fighting there.

Next week’s elections, while not a finish line, should be a major milestone. Once a permanent Iraqi government is elected–this time with substantial Sunni participation–it will be even clearer that al Qaeda’s fight is with the Iraqi people rather than the Americans. Their ability to achieve their objectives will thereby be much lessened–even if their ability to create casualties continues.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Anderson says:

    A better analogy, IMHO, would be if Lincoln had announced the Civil War was necessary to free the slaves, and then the Union forces had swept through the South and discovered that there weren’t really any slaves.

    Oh, and don’t forget the Slave Inspectors from England who traveled the South before the war, didn’t find any slaves, and reported as much to Lincoln, who mocked them and started the war anyway.

    Then after a few hundred dead, he could do a funny little skit where he’s down on the plantation, looking for the slaves, and can’t seem to find any. Lincoln had a great sense of humor, I’m sure he would’ve been a hoot.

  2. anjin-san says:

    I wonder what the families of those killed in the crossfire those maimed, and torture victims feel about the “nobility” of our goals.

  3. McGehee says:

    Anderson leaves out the fact the Buchanan Administration called for ending slavery in the South too, and all the Democrats in Congress supported this, only to turn around and oppose it and accuse Lincoln of lying when he actually tried to implement Buchanan’s policy.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Also worth considering, Al Queda was not in Iraq prior to the war.

  5. Anderson says:

    Ah, but Buchanan was just trying to deflect attention from his affair with the young lady who blew the … candles out in the White House.

  6. RJN says:

    We are in Iraq to provide protection for Israel, and nowhere but Iraq offers such location, location, location.

    Strategy, strategy, and more strategy is the reason we will be remaining in Iraq for some time. Iraq borders Kuwait, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Iraq is smack dab in the middle of strategy.

    Forget all the crap about the benefits, of the invasion, to the Iraqis; that never was going to work. I can not imagine any responsible analyst, who, using half of his brain, did not know that Iraq would divide into bickering factions after an American invasion.

    Iran and Israel are the dubious “beneficiaries” of this war. They will, in the near future, nuke it out to begin WWIII. I dont want it, and you dont want it, but I think we are going to get it.

  7. Anderson says:

    Doubtless a few years after WW3, the troglodytic survivors will be astonished to find some of their number scoffing at the idea that there was ever such a war in the first place.

  8. odograph says:

    I caught a little bit of the “Left, Right, and Center” radio show today. The guy representing the Right was I think billed as a “Right Libertarian.”

    He made a forceful case for the return of true conservatism, and no foreign adventures. One of his good rifts was on “neocons” as not conservatives but reformed Trotskyites. They’ve taken the old communist mantle that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” and run with it.

    Victors get to write the history, no doubt. Victors in the American civil war wrote a story about freedom. That always plays well.

    But we have a long way to go before “victory” in Iraq is truly gained. For that reason it’s hard to know what story will be written.

    … it may be that before then histories about rampant neocons will take root.

  9. McGehee says:

    Al Queda was not in Iraq prior to the war.

    Except that they were, Mr. Burkett. Salman Pak mean anything to you?

  10. McGehee says:

    One of his good rifts was on “neocons” as not conservatives but reformed Trotskyites.

    That wouldn’t by any chance be the chairman of the Thomas More Center for Middle East Studies, Dr. Victorino de la Vega?

    ‘Cause “Trotskyite” is his second favorite word. After “pharisaic.”

  11. Herb says:


    Just when I thought you might be turning away from you normal Negative comments, you go and spoil any hope I had for you, You turned 180 degrees and are now back to your usual negative rehtoric.

  12. john says:


    don’t get it yet do ya? It’s not politics, It ain’t even belief, it’s just business…nothing personal.

  13. anjin-san says:


    Sorry dude, you already pulled the “Burkett” crap, then ran like the wind when I produced documentation to back up what I said.
    You are going to need more then “Rush says so” to prove Al Queda was in Iraq.

    A bright high school kid could tell you that the very secular Saddam & Al Queda are natural enemies. Course the Bush admin just fires anyone who tells them anything they don’t want to hear…

  14. anjin-san says:


    Thousand of innocents have been killed in a war we started and you have the stones to rant about negativity?


    Our moral position in America today is that people like Herb don’t give a rats ass how many innocent people in Iraq, men women & childern, are killed or mutilated so that they can “feel safer” as they watch American Idol…

  15. McGehee says:
  16. McGehee says:
  17. McGehee says:

    Saddam’s regime was harboring — and training — terrorists of all stripes. Your insistence that reality isn’t real changes nothing.

    As for this:

    Sorry dude, you already pulled the “Burkett” crap, then ran like the wind when I produced documentation to back up what I said.

    Did you fax it to me from Abilene, Bill?

  18. Herb says:


    Your “lecture leaves a little to be desired:

    You (conveniently) forgot to tell everyone here that under the harsh rule of Saddam, many thousands of innocents were killed. You seem to only tell the story that fullfills your “hate Bush” agenda and it shows.

    Your negative side is in with everything you say, you don’t have a positive side about you and that also shows, Before you start lecturing anyone, clean up your negative approach and find a little good about living in America. You say that you have a “long History” here in the US, now either you are or are not an American. So far, you have shown that you favor anyone that wants to tear this country apart. and that is why you are NEGATIVE.

  19. aunty says:

    [Editor’s Note, November 2005: More than two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there has been no verification of Khodada’s account of the activities at Salman Pak. In fact, U.S. officials have now concluded that Salman Pak was most likely used to train Iraqi counter-terrorism units in anti-hijacking techniques. It should also be noted that he and other defectors interviewed for this report were brought to FRONTLINE’s attention by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a dissident organization that was working to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Since the original broadcast, Khodada has not publicly addressed questions that have been raised about his account of activities at Salman Pak.]

  20. McGehee says:

    For the record: No, I don’t really believe Anjin-san is Bill Burkett — but his obsession with the “Bush AWOL” conspiracy theory suggests little of what he has to say would be different if he were.

  21. aunty says:


    In addition to the PBS editor’s note you “forgot” to include in your earlier post, there’s this:

    “Torture May Have Provided False Qaeda-Iraq Link Intel”

    The Bush administration based a crucial prewar assertion about ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda on detailed statements made by a prisoner while in Egyptian custody who later said he had fabricated them to escape harsh treatment, according to current and former government officials. The officials said the captive, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, provided his most specific and elaborate accounts about ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda only after he was secretly handed over to Egypt by the United States in January 2002, in a process known as rendition.

    The new disclosure provides the first public evidence that bad intelligence on Iraq may have resulted partly from the administration’s heavy reliance on third countries to carry out interrogations of Qaeda members and others detained as part of American counterterrorism efforts. The Bush administration used Mr. Libi’s accounts as the basis for its prewar claims, now discredited, that ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda included training in explosives and chemical weapons.

    The fact that Mr. Libi recanted after the American invasion of Iraq and that intelligence based on his remarks was withdrawn by the C.I.A. in March 2004 has been public for more than a year. But American officials had not previously acknowledged either that Mr. Libi made the false statements in foreign custody or that Mr. Libi contended that his statements had been coerced.

  22. anjin-san says:


    You did not provide a shread of documentation. ‘Nuff said.

    In case you are as reading comprehension challagend as you seem to be, I never said he was “AWOL” I said he used his Dad’s influence to get out of his service obligation early during a shooting war. (While brave men were dying in Nam). When I provided documentition you got quite pretty fast.

    From the National Review:

    “Later that year, he asked for and received permission to leave the Guard early so he could attend Harvard Business School.”

    Maybe the National Review is a pinko, far left, MSM, terror symp publication…

    So McGhee, please show us a post about where I said Bush was “AWOL” Just one will do.

    Run like the wind, McGhee…

  23. anjin-san says:


    Lets get this straight. Saddam killed thousands. Now thousands are being killed in the crossfire of a war we started.

    You feel better.

    F______king amazing.

  24. anjin-san says:

    Sorry McGhee, you did provide a link. Tell me. did you read the editor’s note on the PBS site regarding the credibiltiy of Sabah Khodada?

    [Editor’s Note, November 2005: More than two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there has been no verification of Khodada’s account of the activities at Salman Pak. In fact, U.S. officials have now concluded that Salman Pak was most likely used to train Iraqi counter-terrorism units in anti-hijacking techniques. It should also be noted that he and other defectors interviewed for this report were brought to FRONTLINE’s attention by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a dissident organization that was working to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Since the original broadcast, Khodada has not publicly addressed questions that have been raised about his account of activities at Salman Pak.]

    LOL, following Bush’s lead I see. Hear what you want to hear and ignore the rest. A guy with an agenda of his own says Iraq is to blame for 9/11, thats all you need to hear.

  25. spencer says:

    Salman Pak — the right wing press could not make up its mind if it was a biological warfare facility or a terrorists training came before the war. It is really a shame that after the war they were never able to show that either claim had any basis in fact .

  26. anjin-san says:

    Don’t think we will see McGhee on this thread again…

  27. Herb says:


    You have a POTTY Mouth.

    Tell everyone here just whose side are you on.

    You seem to always support and praise the Terrorists and Dictators.

  28. Herb says:


    You are not smart enough to get ahead of McGehee.

    McGehee deals in facts while you deal in negative Bush Hating rehtoric.

  29. anjin-san says:


    I am sorry, but the fact that you equate compassion for innocent victims of the Iraq war with “support for terrorists” pretty much says it all about you. Dismissed.

    As for McGhee, as usaual when his paper thin arguments get shredded, he chooses to “cut & run.”

  30. Herb says:


    Your form and definition of “Compassion” equate to support and Praise as you have ststed many times. You have a few problems Anjin;

    You are amoung the Left Coast leftys

    You put all your stock in the left wing propaganda publications

    You don’t have a clue on how and what Americans think

    When you really get upset, you have a potty mouth.

    Uou don’t have a positive word to say about anyone or anything.

    You are a Democrat desguised as a Republican.

    And, you do not support our Country.

  31. Bart says:

    Heh, an interesting article. the comparisons are very similar, and contrary to the rather entertaining posts here, accurate.

    While the two poles argue about whether we should or should not be in Iraq, please do not forget that whether we like it or not, we are. I find it an incredible waste of energy to throw punches over a decision that has already been made. We are there now. Al Qaeda (however you choose to spell it) is THERE. We have an opportunity to dismantle and organization and we are winning that fight. The reference to the hotel bombing was DEAD ON. Arab countries are beginning to see how Al Qaeda is indiscriminately killing even their own people in an attempt to fulfill it’s corrupted and extremist religious views. When they are bombing Israel or England or Spain or hell, the U.S., it is easy to rationalize a justification that helps them sleep at night. Just as it is easy for us to do the same when warlords genocidally kill MILLIONS in Darfur, Sudan. The world is rarely just. Can you blame a leader/soldier/country/society for trying to right that injustice? Yes, people die, war is hell. But in the evolution of modern warfare, this war is coster fewer innocent (and American) lives than ANY other war in the history of this country (and most others I’m sure). The effort is there. So soon do many of you forget the millions of civilians killed in the air raids over Europe in World War II, arguably the most glorified in recent history.

    Point? Get off your high horse, fight for what you believe is right instead of preach what you don’t follow, and please, PLEASE try and remember that you still have no freaking clue compared to those over there in Iraq and the Middle East.