Western in the Springfield Republican: "Bush Shouldn't Make Attack on Iraq Sound Easy"

This op-ed ran in the Sunday Republican on Sunday, March 9, 2003

American military action over the past century has been a mixed bag. We've seen some tremendous successes and some catastrophic failures.

Unfortunately, the strategy on Iraq appears to have more in common with the three major American military failures of the 20th century than with the successes.

In the great triumphs “World War I and World War II"  the threats to the United States were unambiguous and Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt demonstrated true leadership by not shying away from giving the American public an honest appraisal of the sacrifices necessary: War was hell and it would not be easy.

When Americans heard of battlefield losses, they were overwhelmed with sadness, but did not soften their determination.

In the three failures, however -- the war in the Philippines from 1898 -1903; Korea; and, Vietnam - Americans turned against the wars amid rising casualty rates and because of lingering questions as to whether war was absolutely necessary.

This reaction stemmed in large part from the way the American leaders had presented the case for war.

As Presidents McKinley, Truman, and Johnson and their supporters in Congress and the media made the case for their respective wars, they spoke of the dangers of inaction in absolute terms  America's very existence was at risk.

At the same time, however, they all deliberately avoided any discussion of how many Americans or others might die.

When American troops got bogged down and when soldiers and civilian started dying in large numbers, American re-examined the justifications for war and concluded they had been duped by their leaders.

The current approach on Iraq has several parallels with these failures.

For example, during the State of the Union speech President Bush again asserted the dangers facing the United States in absolute and uncompromising terms: America simply cannot wait.

But, while the president proclaimed to a rousing applause that America will be triumphant, he did not speak frankly or honestly of the potential sacrifices needed, nor did he provide any sense of how many Americans or others might die.

It seems clear that the leading voices in support of war are operating under the remarkably casual assumption that this war will be quick and decisive.

Much of the commentary following the President's speech, especially that on Fox Cable News, has even seemed downright giddy with anticipation for war.

Wars, however, are not sport. They are extraordinarily complex events with very real human costs.

And they rarely go according to script.

McKinley, Truman, and Johnson rushed into war believing they would win decisively.

McKinley believed the Filipinos would welcome American Troops with open arms after they were liberated from the Spanish.

General Douglas Macarthur persuaded Truman that China would not enter the war in Korea.

Johnson believed a strategy of counter-insurgency coupled with nation-building efforts would lead to victory in South Vietnam.

All were wrong.

And, while there are many reasons to conclude that American troops would win a war in Iraq, there are many plausible scenarios that should raise questions about the excessive optimism being conveyed by the president and his supporters.

First, the United States is preparing to kill a deeply entrenched regime armed with chemical and biological weapons. It is not a stretch to believe that Saddam may try to use those weapons against American troops, against Kuwait, or against Israel.

Any such attack could dramatically raise the body count or alter the course of the war.

Second, President Bush is assuming that Iraqi civilians will welcome American troops with open arms upon their liberation from Saddam's regime.

While this might happen, it is also highly plausible that this war will see urban warfare. Street to street fighting changes things, and more troops and civilians almost certainly will die as a result.

This could dramatically influence civilian perceptions of Americans as "liberators."

Furthermore, if there is urban fighting, how long will it be before the world sees graphic pictures of heavily armed American soldiers taking aim at seemingly lightly armed Iraqi civilians?

The lesson from American correspondents reporting on the massacre at Balangiga in the Philippines a century ago and the vivid video footage out of Vietnam and Somalia suggest that it only takes one event for the ramifications to be profound.

Here it is not just the reaction from the so-called "Arab street" that is worrisome. Rest assured, neither the international community nor Americans will tolerate extensive civilian casualties – especially if the United States is acting outside of explicit United Nations Security Council approval.

If Americans and civilians die in large numbers, this war will rip apart, not just Iraq, but perhaps the United States as well.

No one knows how things will go on the battlefield. But one thing is certain; war is ugly. Good, decent and honest people will die; children will become orphans; and parents will experience the ultimate grief of seeing their children die before them.

History warns us that Americans are ill served when our leaders ignore the reality of war and delude themselves and the public into believing it can be done on the cheap.

Jon Western is a professor of international relations at Mount Holyoke College. He is currently completing a book on American military interventions and the politics of selling war.