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Jewish World Review
Oct. 23, 2006
/ 1 Mar-Cheshvan 5767
If we had known then . . .
Was it a mistake to go to war in Iraq? The latest voice to say so is
that of conservative commentator JWR columnist Jonah Goldberg, National Review
Online's shrewd editor-at-large and, until last week, a supporter of the
Goldberg hasn't become a John Murtha clone; he still believes that a
precipitous American withdrawal would hand the jihadis a victory, and
that finishing the job is preferable to bugging out and leaving Iraq a
shambles. He proposes putting the question to the Iraqis: Let them vote
on whether US troops should stay or go.
But he has concluded that invading Iraq was the wrong choice, however
well-intentioned. "The Iraq war was a mistake," he writes, "by the most
obvious criteria: If we had known then what we know now, we would never
have gone to war with Iraq in 2003."
Yet is that really how this war or any war should be judged?
In 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain, in part because of
Britain's crippling blockade of US ports and the forced impressment of
American seamen into the Royal Navy. But if Americans had known in 1812
what they found out in 1814 that the enemy would capture Washington
and burn the Capitol, the Treasury, and the White House would they
have gone to war with Britain? Perhaps not. Does that mean the war was a
We know now that the War of 1812 ended not with a US defeat, but with
Britain, a superpower of the day, fought to a stalemate by its former
colonies. As a consequence, the young republic earned international
esteem; never again would Britain challenge American independence.
Indeed, never again would the two nations go to war. If Congress had
known that in 1812, would it have voted for war? Quite likely. Maybe
by an even larger majority.
Wars are routinely botched, and the Iraq war is no exception.
Overconfidence, intelligence failures, poor planning none of it is
unique to the current war or the current administration.
In 1944, the Allies were sure that Hitler was nearly beaten, that the
Germans had no appetite for a counteroffensive, and that the quiet
Ardennes Forest along the Belgian-German border was a good place to
station rookie soldiers and exhausted units needing a breather. It took
the generals utterly by surprise when Hitler hurled a quarter of a
million troops against the Ardennes, launching what would come to be
known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was the bloodiest encounter of the
war for US troops five ghastly weeks during which 19,000 American
soldiers lost their lives, and another 60,000 were maimed or captured.
Today we realize that the Battle of the Bulge was Hitler's last gasp,
and that the European war would be over a few months later. But at the
time there were fears that the war might grind on for years. Doubtless
some Americans found themselves thinking that the war with Germany had
been a blunder one that could have been avoided "if we had known then
what we know now."
Iraq is not the first war to plummet in popularity. At the start of the
Civil War, many Northerners giddily anticipated a quick victory.
Secretary of State William Seward "thought the war would be over in 90
days," writes historian David Herbert Donald in his biography of Abraham
Lincoln. "The New York Times predicted victory in 30 days, and the New
York Tribune assured its readers 'that Jeff. Davis & Co. will be
swinging from the battlements at Washington . . . by the 4th of July.'"
Had they had an inkling of the carnage to come, would they so lustily
have cheered Lincoln's bid to save the Union? Long before the war's end,
the cheers would turn to bitter censure. By 1863, the war was being
denounced in Congress as "an utter, disastrous, and most bloody
failure," while Lincoln and his administration were despised for their
incompetence. "There never was such a shambling, half-and-half set of
incapables collected in one government," Senator William Pitt Fessendon
of Maine said in disgust, "before or since the world began."
The point isn't that the violent mess in Iraq today is analogous to the
Civil War in 1863, or to the Ardennes in 1944, or to the burning of
Washington in 1814. The point is that we don't know. Like earlier
Americans, we have to choose between resolve and retreat, with no
guarantees about how it will end. All we can be sure of is that the
stakes once again are liberty and decency vs. tyranny and terror that
we are fighting an enemy that feeds on weakness and expects us to lose
heart and that Americans for generations to come will remember
whether we flinched.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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