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COMMENTARY: WAR

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Success and War: World War II to Afghanistan

Britain went to war against Italy and its dictator, Benito Mussolini, in 1940. The U.S. joined Britain. Together they imposed defeat on Mussolini's military. Mussolini was killed. The Italians were left to govern themselves and it worked well for Italy and the world.

It was different with Germany. An effort was made to de-nazify Germany that was largely detested by the Germans. Germany was occupied by the Allied powers and divided into occupational zones. The U.S. was slow in allowing local self-government in its zone, and the Soviet Union's attempt to control matters concerning Germany was a disaster for the Germans and the world. Eventually the Germans were left to work out their own problems. The myth that the Germans were inherently aggressive and warlike and had to be contained evaporated.

Moving from Europe to Asia, Japan was defeated militarily before July, 1945, but the U.S. was in a hurry for Japan to surrender and believed that occupation of Japan's main island, Honshu, was absolutely necessary. Japan's surrender came in mid-August against the wishes of a few military diehards, and the U.S. occupation of Japan on behalf of the Allied powers began.

That occupation was contentious at the beginning until the U.S. and General MacArthur gave up on the idea of an Allied military rule over the Japanese – well documented historically and well described by Japan's most respected historian on the occupation of Japan, Takemae Eiji. Leaving the emperor in place and self-rule for the Japanese worked well. There were war crime trials that were confusing for the Japanese and considered a farce by thinking people such as George Kennan, but the Japanese got over it and the occupation ended officially in 1952.

The Koreans were less fortunate than the Japanese. The World War II allies had agreed to a Russian and U.S. occupation of Korea, ostensibly to disarm the Japanese military. The Koreans already had a government to replace Japan's colonial rule – in exile in Chongqing, China. Japan's governor-general in Korea, Nobuyuki Abe, was looking forward to an orderly withdrawal of Japanese from Korea, and he invited Korean leaders to meet with him to make this possible. It would have been better to have left the Koreans work out their own affairs. But on August 12, Soviet troops entered the the north of Korea, and on September 8 U.S. forces entered the south. The Soviet Union supported a Communist regime in the north, and the U.S. supported a regime that it approved. The regime in the north was uncooperative regarding elections to unite Korea, and in 1950 Stalin backed an attempt by the north to unify Korea through military conquest. Then the United Nations, led by the United States, supported the south in what became three years of war that devastated the country and left it divided. Korea and the world would have been better off had Korea been left to work out its transition to independence itself.

At the end of World War II in Asia there was another unfortunate intervention in a country that had been occupied by the Japanese: Vietnam. The British came, ostensibly to disarm the Japanese. In September, 1945, Ho Chi Minh made his speech about freedom and declared Vietnam independent. This was widely supported by the Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh was a Communist but also widely revered as an independence leader. In 1946 war broke out in Vietnam as a result of the French trying to reimpose their rule, and most but not all Vietnamese sided with Ho Chi Minh.

The French were defeated militarily at Dien Bien Phu by the Communist-nationalist forces in 1954 and agreed to a division of Vietnam that was supposed to last only a couple of years, with the French in control of the southern half of the country. The Communists were promised elections to reunite the country, but this was not allowed to happen. Instead a war broke out between an anti-communist regime centered in Saigon, in the south, supported by Vietnamese who had acquired the Roman Catholic faith of the French and also supported by those Vietnamese military men who had fought on the side of the French. The United States sided with the Saigon regime against Communism, but Buddhists and many others in the south did not – especially peasants who disliked the reimposition of landlords and the brutalities of the Saigon regime. The war between the Saigon regime and peasants in the south was quickly joined by Ho Chi Minh's regime in the north, which believed it had a right to rule the whole of Vietnam.

The U.S. did not wage war against Communism in Vietnam with the same intensity that it had waged war against the Germans and the Japanese. Its war was more like the wars of colonial powers: an attempt at control abroad while living a normal life at home. It was under Republican presidents that the U.S. withdrew from that war – judged by many to be a mistake. The U.S. lost 50,000 young men killed, many more wounded and a great loss in treasure. The U.S. fell from world leader in per capita Gross National Product to 15th place. Its reputation as a liberator of nation's had fallen. The whole of Vietnam became Communist as it would have had the elections promised in1956 been allowed to take place. The Vietnamese would have been better off had those elections to reunite Vietnam been allowed to happen.

The war in Vietnam was followed in 1990 by Saddam Hussein's invasion of the sovereign nation of Kuwait . The United Nations led by the United States intervened in support of Kuwait, and Kuwait was left with its independence.

But Saddam Hussein's odious regime remained in power – unlike the regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and the Japanese militarists. Hussein went on to brutalize Iraq's Shia, including the Shia Ma'dan (or marsh) Arabs, and he was still at war against the Kurds, whom he had gassed in 1988. Hussein, moreover, was not living up to the agreements with the UN regarding the end of hostilities between his regime and the UN.

While tensions continued between the British and U.S. on one side and the Hussein regime and those who accepted Hussein's rhetoric on the other, war was raging in Bosnia. The international community and the U.S. were too pacifistic in the face of Serb aggression, but finally a little bombing forced the Serbs to desist, and the war in Bosnia came to a close, to be followed by conflict in Kosovo.

Serb aggression against the Muslim majority population there was curtailed by more bombing by NATO and a joint occupation of Kosovo. The Muslim population appreciated it. The Serbs did not. NATO soldiers arrived on June 12, 1999 under a United Nations mandate to guard the peace and were never to leave, although the size of the NATO force diminished considerably.

On February 15, 2001 former U.S. Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman issued their report warning that the U.S. is unprepared for a "catastrophic'' domestic terrorist attack. And on August 6, 2001, President Bush received an intelligence memo titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."  He also received a warning that bin Laden may attempt to hijack airplanes.

Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization were being sheltered by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Bush administration had at its disposal the same kind of airpower that NATO had used against Saddam Hussein and the Serbs and that the Clinton administration had used cautiously and almost successfully against bin Laden. And the U.S. had the ability to correct its security lapses on the home front. President Bush compensated for his previous weakness with a dramatic show of force – a popular move given the U.S. public's intuitive desire to strike back. Instincts do not necessarily create the best policy choices and instead contribute to overreactions. An overreaction or not, President Bush chose to send troops into Afghanistan.

The Bush administration and the U.S. Congress extended the war against al-Qaeda to the regime of Saddam Hussein. Hussein was hardly an Islamic traditionalist or purist like bin Laden. He was, in fact, hostile toward al-Qaeda, but he had continued to be uncooperative in meeting his obligations to the UN, including his not having dismantled weapons of mass destruction in full view of UN inspectors. President Bush, moreover, believed that the U.S. could lend a hand in creating a new era of freedom in the Middle East. He said. "As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace."

Preparation for the invasion took months and the actual invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003. The Bush regime wanted to give self-rule to Iraq quickly. An "Interim Authority" was devised consisting of selected Iraqis who had been in exile and a greater number of Iraqis from inside Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "...we don't plan to function as an occupier."

But the Bush administration was eager to hang on to what control it had gained in Iraq. The attempt to control is what using the military option is all about, and it is not easy emotionally to give up what is viewed as gains in control. On May 8, Vice President Dick Cheney told the new man in charge of controlling developments in Iraq that he was not to rush to appoint an interim government. General Tommy Franks, in charge of the Coalition forces arrayed against Saddam Hussein, expected the Iraqis to be in charge of their own country in September and his troops by that month to return home. Instead, it was on September 16 that Bremer told a group of Iraqi ministers that it was unpleasant being occupied but that "the Coalition is still the sovereign power here."

In December, 2003, Saddam Hussein was captured by U.S. forces near his home town, Tikrit. There were still forces hostile to the occupation by foreigners, including recent arrivals from abroad, described as al-Qaeda, grabbing at an opportunity to fight the United States. The military could have stayed out of the city of Fallujah. People there were not active supporters of the old Hussein regime, and people are usually annoyed by the presence of foreign troops – just as they would be in Phoenix, Arizona or Atlanta, Georgia. In Fallujah incidents occurred that need never have happened. The Coalition forces made new enemies there. The U.S. attacked as retribution and then to control. U.S. forces in Fallujah produced no benefit for the coalition forces – just a lot of hatred and suffering.

In 2005, amid the increased hostility, parliamentary elections were held that gave the appearance of a beginning democracy. The U.S. hand picked a Shia former enemy of Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki, as prime minister in 2006, with Maliki claiming that he was a friend of the U.S. but "...not America's man in Iraq."

In 2007, 20,000 more troops were sent to Iraq, mainly to the Baghdad area, plus almost 4,000 to Diyala province, a Sunni area where the insurgency was strong. Elsewhere local tribal chiefs were looking forward to maintaining control over their areas and were opposed to interference from al-Qaeda outsiders, and they were willing to cooperate with Coalition forces against al-Qaeda.

In Baghdad, military responsibility for the Green Zone formally passed from the United States to the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Maliki called this the "day of sovereignty for which we have waited for more than seventeen years."

Finally in 2009, more than five years after it was believed that U.S. forces could leave, Iraq was recognized as independent. Prime Minister Maliki proposed January 1 to be a national holiday to commemorate "Sovereignty Day," and a small ceremony in a palace in the Green Zone in Baghdad marked the handing of sovereignty to Iraq, to the Maliki regime. Asked whether they viewed the coalition force as "liberators" or as "occupiers," 81 percent of the Iraqis questioned (not including the Kurds) chose "occupiers."

Saddam Hussein is gone, but as of January 2011 some are calling the Iraqi government dysfunctional. Bombings continue. War for the Americans lasted six years longer than expected and cost the U.S. $ 770.5 billion – the cost of deploying one U.S. soldier for one year in Iraq: $390,000 according to the Congressional Research Service. A U.S. government estimate is that more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. Some other estimates are higher. The U.S. lost 4,433 killed and 32,006 seriously wounded.

In Afghanistan, more than nine years after the U.S. troops invaded the country, the war there continues. The warlords who were fighting the Taliban from before 9/11 have enjoyed some success. The Taliban were driven from power in Kabul, but their influence has grown as they fight against what appears to rural people as a foreign occupation.

On January 26, 2011, President Barack Obama spoke of tough fighting that lay ahead in Afghanistan, but he reiterated his commitment to begin a slow withdrawal of U.S. forces before year's end – a withdrawal that is scheduled to be complete in 2014.

Copyright © 2007-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.