Friday, March 03, 2006
"IRAQ'S MOMENTOUS ELECTION, ONE YEAR LATER" Iraq War Supporters Are Running For Cover James S. Henry
For those who have not been paying attention in class, the so-called "Iraq War" has recently been setting new records for violence, brutality, and terror -- with at least 379 to 1300 iraqi fatalities in the last week alone, in the wake of the bombing of the 1,062-year old Al-Askariya shrine at Samarra.
Nor did the apprentice Iraqi Army -- with its 20,000-man force, trained by the US military at the phenomenal cost of $15 billion to date, or $750,000 per soldier -- prove to be much help in quelling the violence. This is not really surprising -- after all, this Army shares the same divided loyalties as the population at large.
While a few senior US military officers have issued Westmoreland-like statements assuring us that "the crisis has passed," and that this is not -- I repeat -- not a "civil war," it is hard to know what else to call it.
A few journalists have speculated that, ironically enough, all the increased violence and polarization may undermine the Pentagon's "hopes" to reduce the number of US troops in Iraq to 100,000 by year end.
Those "hopes," however, are vague. One suspects that they have always been mainly for public consumption, including the morale of US troops. We only began to hear about them last fall when opposition to the war really soared in the US.
The Pentagon's not-so-secret hope -- among senior planners, at least -- is different. This is to turn Iraq into a neutered or even pro-US -- better yet for cosmetic purposes, "democratic" -- regime right in the heart of the Middle East, complete with permanent basing rights, immunity for US personnel from war crimes prosecution by the International Criminal Court, and, naturally enough, the occasional juicy construction, security, arms, and oil contract for friendly US and UK enterprises -- at least so long as they are not owned by Dubai.
ALL AGAINST ALL?
It is this vision that is most threatened by the recent surge in Iraqi violence. Clearly this is no longer just a "foreign terrorist/ dead-ender-led insurgency" against the US and its apprentice army.
Nor has the US-guided constitutional process, and continuous interventions by our heady Ambassadors in Baghdad -- safe behind the walls of the world's largest US embassy -- succeeded in stabilizing the country.
Rather, Iraq is now engaged in a complex, multi-sided bloodbath, fought along age-old religious, ethnic, and clan lines by well-armed groups. While American battle deaths continue, almost all the casualties are now Iraqis felled by Iraqis.
Furthermore, this inter-Iraqi violence goes well beyond the suicide bombings that still garner most of the media's attention. It escalated sharply in the last year, long before the Samarra bombing, and even as the vaunted constitutional process was unfolding.
For example, as reported by the Guardian this week, the former director of the Baghdad Morgue recently fled the country, fearing for his life after reporting that more than 7000 Iraqis had been tortured and murdered by "death squads."
According to the former head of the UN's human rights office in Iraq, most of these victims had been tortured by the Badr Brigade, the military wing of SCIRI, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
As we reported over a year ago on this site, SCIRI is not just some fringe element. It is one of Iraq's two key Shiite-led political factions, and one of the principle victors in the December 2005 parliamentary elections. Unfortunately, our expectations have been fulfilled. Upon acquiring power, SCIRI has behaved exactly as anyone familiar with its history -- but apparently not the US military -- would have expected.
Meanwhile, among America's befuddled liberal intelligentsia, hard-nosed realism has been sorely missing. The December election and its January 2005 predecessor were events that most neoliberal observers -- for example, the American Prospect -- could not praise highly enough:
Iraqis have concluded one of the most successful constitutional processes in history. Rarely, if ever, before has an important country moved from tyranny to pluralism so quickly, with so little bloodshed, and with such a quality and degree of popular participation.
This assessment was spectacularly wrong. Iraq's constitutional process has not led to "pluralism," much less staunched the bloodshed.
Rather -- no doubt with ample assistance from Iranian secret agents, "foreign fighters," and other officious intermeddlers -- the process has exacerbated social and religious divisions -- divisions that Iraq was always noted for mitigating.
The continued US presence has also helped to legitimize the extremists, letting them fly the "national liberation" flag. We have reached the point where country's armed private militias are expanding faster than the US-trained police and army.
Indeed, about the only thing that all Iraqi factions -- apart from some
Kurds and the country's dwindling minority of remaining secularists -- agree on now is the desire for the US military to leave. We should respect their wishes.
TOO FEW TROOPS?
By now, even arch-conservative pundits like William F. Buckley have agreed that the Iraq War was a costly mistake, and that a US withdrawal is called for.
Meanwhile, however, some die-hard US neoliberal defenders of the war -- including tough-guys like the New York Times' Tom Friedman and Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens -- are still denying the existence of Iraq's deep-seated, historically-specific obstacles to democratization and unified self-rule, as well as the overwhelming opposition in Iraq to the US presence.
It might also interfere with certain pet theories, like the "inevitable triumph of technology and free markets over local markets, nations, peoples, customs and practices," or the "inevitable struggle to the death between Islamic extremism and Western democracy."
On closer inspection, this claim spins itself into the ground faster than a Halliburton drill bit.
- One key reason why more troops were not available was the fact that the war's supporters -- not only the Bush Administration, but also leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman, and their pundit camp followers -- failed to persuade anyone other than Mad Tony Blair that a variety of cockamamie theories about "democratizing the Middle East," the "connection" between Saddam and al-Qaeda, and WMDs had any validity whatsoever.
- Second, while a handful of Pentagon skeptics did support larger troop commitments before the invasion, they were in the minority -- and not just because of Rumsfeld's desire to fight the war with a high-tech army. Most of the war planners and pro-war enthusiasts alike were swept away by Friedman-like naievete about the enthusiasm of ordinary Iraqis for US-backed "liberation." They systematically underestimated the Iraqis' nationalism and their resentment of occupation -- especially by armies of "Christian" nationals from the US and the UK. In retrospect, it is easy to say that even more troops were needed to maintain order and suppress resistance. But the larger US presence would have provoked even more resistance.
- As most US commanders agreed, the "more troops" answer is flawed from a technical perspective, given the nature of the insurgency. It would have provided more targets for suicide bombers, without delivering a remedy for their simple IED and sniper tactics. While more troops might have provided better border interdiction, Iraq has a larger land mass than Vietnam, and twice as many neighbors. For the "more troops" claim to work with any certainty, the number would have had to rival Vietnam proportions -- at least 500,000, probably for several years. The US military manpower system has already experienced great strains trying to sustain its 133,000 commitment to Iraq with a volunteer army -- to be effective, the "more troops" approach might well have required a military draft.
Apart from New York's Congressman Rangle, who may have just been tweaking the establishment's chin for his black constituents, not even the most aggressive neoliberal warhawk has ever proposed that.
Ever since WMDs failed to turn up and Saddam's connection to al-Qaeda turned out to be a canard, the neoliberal warhawks have been running for cover -- worried, quite rightly, that history will not take kindly to their dissembling, and their collaboration with the Bush Administration's neoimperialists.
For much of the last three years this cover story was provided by the expectation of "nation building," "democratization," and the "training of the Iraqi Army" -- achievements that always seemed to be, conveniently enough, just around the corner.
As the last week's events have dramatized, these are all more mirages in the desert. We've run out of time and excuses.
Monday, November 21, 2005
SOVIET EXPECTATIONS Vs. REALITY IN THE AFGHAN WAR Striking Parallels to the US Experience in Iraq James S. Henry
Thanks to the current national debate over the Iraq War it is now clear to everyone except a few die-hard NCIs (NeoConservative Imperialists) that the real issue about the Iraq War is "constructive withdrawal:" not whether, but precisely when and how.
There are many examples in history of unilateral military withdrawals -- including Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000 and from Gaza August 2005, the US withdrawal from Beirut in 1984, and the French withdrawal from Algeria in 1962.
But as we debate the most constructive way for the US to withdraw from Iraq, one of the most interesting experiences for us to consider - ironicially enough -- is the painful Soviet experience in Afghanistan.
The following excerpt is from a pre-9/11 report by the US-based National Security Archives on the lessons learned by the Soviet Union from its brutal, unilateral 1979-89 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
The Soviet Army intervened in Afghanistan in December 1979, about six months after US President Jimmy Carter signed off on a secret proposal by National Security advisor Zbigniew Brezinski to aid the opponents of the pro-Soviet Afghan regime -- hoping to entrap them into a Vietnam-like quagmire.
For better or worse, apparently this effort succeeded -- with a little help from Soviet cupidity. The Soviet military only left the country in December 1989, after an unsuccessful decade-long effort to defeat Afghan's determined insurgents -- many of whom were US-backed Islamic militants.
The resulting intervention ended up costing the Soviet Union 15,000 of its own troops, 50,000 causalties, and billions in hard currency, and contributed heavily to a domestic heroin and HIV/AIDs epidemic that continues to this day. An estimated 1 million Afghanis also perished because of the war, and more than 2 million refugees had to abandon their homes in Afghanistan for refuge in Pakistan and Iran.
The war also provided a training ground for many of the Islamist rebels who eventually played a critical role in "terrorist" activities all over the world, including Chechnya, Kashmir, the Sudan, and al-Qaeda's disparate efforts against the US and Israel.
Many observers believe that the Afghan invasion was one of the greatest strategic blunders in Soviet history, and that it contributed heavily to weakening and destabilizing "the Russian bear." Indeed, former US officials like Brzezinski still like to take credit for this effort, viewing it as the final nudge that toppled the entire Soviet Empire. (They are rather less eager to take credit for the other long-term byproduct of the Afghan War, the rise of political-Islamic extremism.)
In any case, as the following excerpt makes clear, there are many resemblances -- some of them almost eerie -- to the recent US intervention in Iraq.
The old cliche still has force -- those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.
THE SOVIET AFGHAN EXPERIENCE - EXCERPTS
. ....."Believing that there was no single country in the world which was not ripe for socialism, party ideologues like Mikhail Suslov and Boris Ponomarev saw Afghanistan as a "second Mongolia." Such conceptualization of the situation led to the attempts to impose alien social and economic practices on Afghan society, such as the forced land reform.
The Soviet decision makers did not anticipate the influential role of Islam in the Afghan society. There were very few experts on Islam in the Soviet government and the academic institutions. The highest leadership was poorly informed about the strength of religious beliefs among the masses of the Afghan population.
Political and military leaders were surprised to find that rather than being perceived as a progressive anti-imperialist force, the Afghanis as foreign invaders, and "infidels." Reports from Afghanistan show the growing awareness of the "Islamic factor" on the part of Soviet military and political personnel.
The Afghan communist PDPA never was a unified party; it was split along ethnic and tribal lines. The infighting between the "Khalq" and the "Parcham" factions made the tasks of controlling the situation much more challenging for Moscow notwithstanding the great number of Soviet advisors at every level of the party and state apparatus.
The war in Afghanistan had a major impact on domestic politics in the Soviet Union. It was one of the key factors in the delegitimization of Communist Party rule. Civil society reacted to the intervention by marginalizing the Afghan veterans. The army was demoralized as a result of being perceived as an invader. .
The prominent dissident and human rights activist, Academician Andrei Sakharov, publicly denounced the atrocities committed by the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.
The image of the Soviet Army fighting against Islam in Afghanistan
also contributed to a rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the
Central Asian republics and possibly to the strengthening of the
independence movement in Chechnya, both of which continue to pose major
security threats to Russia today.
The Soviet Army also quickly realized the inadequacy of its preparation and planning for the mission in Afghanistan. The initial mission—to guard cities and installations—was soon expanded to combat, and kept growing over time.
The Soviet reservists, who comprised the majority of the troops initially sent in, were pulled into full-scale combat operations against the rebels, while the regular Afghan army was often unreliable because of the desertions and lack of discipline.
The Soviet troops had absolutely no anti-guerrilla training. While the formal mission of the troops was to protect the civilians from the anti-government forces, in reality, Soviet soldiers often found themselves fighting against the civilians they intended to protect, which sometimes led to indiscriminate killing of local people.
Operations to pursue and capture rebel formations were often unsuccessful and had to be repeated several times in the same area because the rebels retreated to the mountains and returned to their home villages as soon as the Soviet forces returned to their garrisons.
The Soviet troops also suffered from the confusion about their goals—the initial official mission was to protect the PDPA regime; however, when the troops reached Kabul, their orders were to overthrow Amin and his regime.
Then the mission was changed once again, but the leadership was not
willing to admit that the Soviet troops were essentially fighting the
Afghan civil war for the PDPA. The notion of the "internationalist
duty" that the Soviet Limited Contingent was fulfilling in Afghanistan
was essentially ideological, based on the idea that Soviet troops were
protecting the socialist revolution in Afghanistan whereas the
experience on the ground immediately undermined such
The realization that there could be no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan came to the Soviet military leadership very early on. The issue of troop withdrawal and the search for a political solution was discussed as early as 1980, but no real steps in that direction were taken, and the Limited Contingent continued to fight in Afghanistan without a clearly defined objective.
Early military reports emphasized the difficulty of fighting on the mountainous terrain, for which the Soviet Army had no training whatsoever. Parallels with the American War in Vietnam were obvious and frequently referred to by the Soviet military officers...."
<center><font color="red">(c) SubmergingMarkets, 2005</font></center>
Saturday, October 30, 2004
IRAQI FUBAR: The Road to God Knows Where
Whatever Americans may choose to believe about whether they are really better off with Saddam Hussein gone, it is by now evident that, nineteen months after the US invasion of Iraq, most ordinary Iraqis feel much less secure, much less well-off, and more anti-American than ever before.
Indeed, the country appears to be spiraling out of control. Nor is it clear that even a sharp post-US election crackdown by Coalition Forces, with all the attendant Iraqi casualties that it is likely to produce, will be able to turn this trend around.
So far, neither leading US Presidential candidate appears to have fully come to grips with this deteriorating situation in Iraq, or the fundamental strategic blunders that underlie it. At least they are not saying so in public.
A rather undistinguished, pig-headed, President continues to defend his faith-based initiative for “democratizing” the Middle East.
A rather undistinguished junior Senator from Massachusetts -– who has spent much of his life trying to be on all sides of recent US wars -- continues to argue that the key problems with the Iraq War have been tactical – too few troops and equipment, too little Allied support, too few trained Iraqis, careless handling of high explosives, and so forth.
Neither of these positions is realistic.
Indeed, as we will argue below, regardless of who is elected US President on November 2, the facts on the ground in Iraq are now pointing relentlessly toward one seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion:
The US will only be able to stabilize Iraq, preserve that country's national unity, win more support for the interim government, undermine the role of “foreign terrorists” in the country, and secure a modicum of domestic and international support for “democratization” if and when it links the calendar for Iraqi democratization and constitutional reform to a firm, near-term timetable for the withdrawal of all US forces (though not necessarily all Coalition forces) from the country.
Monday, June 14, 2004
The "Reagan Revolution," Part One: Did He Really Win the Cold War?
Former President Reagan’s $10 million taxpayer-funded bicoastal funeral extravaganza is finally over, so we may now be able to regain a little objectivity about the man’s true accomplishments. This really was an extraordinary Hollywood-scale production – one of Reagan’s best performances ever. Apparently the actor/President started planning it himself way back in 1981, shortly after he took office, at the age of 69. Evidently he never expected to live to be 94.
For over a week we have been inundated with neoconservative hagiography from adoring Reagan fans -- one is reminded of Chairman Leonid Brezhnev's funeral in 1982. Even the final event’s non-partisan appeal was slightly undercut by the fact that only die-hard conservatives like President George W. Bush, former President George H. W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and Canada’s Brian Mulroney were invited to give eulogies. But at least this saved Democrats the embarrassment of having to say nice things about their fiercest, most popular, and most regressive antagonist of the 20th Century.
Some Bush campaign staff members reportedly recommended shipping the casket home from DC to California by train. Cynics suggested that this was intended to prolong the event and further distract voters from Bush’s serious political difficulties.
Thankfully Nancy Reagan spared us this agonizing spectacle. She probably recognized that it would only invite unfavorable comparisons with FDR, whose family eschewed the state funeral in favor of the more humble train ride. Furthermore, AMTRAK no longer serves most of the towns along the way, due in part to service cutbacks that really got started under President Reagan.
There has already been quite a bit of dissent from the many one-sided tributes to Reagan. Most of it has focused on domestic policy -- especially Reagan's very mixed track record on civil rights and the HIV/AIDs epidemic, his strong anti-union bias, the huge deficits created by his “supply-side” legerdemain, his deep cutbacks in welfare and education spending, and his weak leadership on conservation, the environment, consumer protection, and energy policy. Reagan’s hard-right bias on domestic policy certainly was underscored by the almost complete absence of blacks and other minorities among the ranks of ordinary Americans who lined up to mourn his passing.
With respect to foreign policy, the “Iran-Contra” arms scandal and Reagan’s support for apartheid were recalled by some observers. But most of the attention was directed to Reagan's supposedly uniformly positive contributions to the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
In this article, the first of two in this series, we'll examine Reagan's foreign policy contributions more closely. The analysis has important implications not only for our assessment of Reagan, but also the White House's current incumbent.
DID RONNIE REALLY “WIN THE COLD WAR?”
We can debate this alleged role endlessly. Of course, like John Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”), Reagan made one very forceful speech in Berlin (“Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev.”) Especially during his first term, he also supported policies that tried to roll back the Soviet Empire’s frontiers in distant places like Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, and Grenada. He also expanded the US defense budget, accelerated the deployment of theater-nuclear missiles in Europe that had already been started by President Carter, and financed the (largely-nonproductive) first round of the “Star Wars” anti-missile program. All these moves no doubt increased pressure on the Soviets, and probably encouraged them to negotiate and reform.
However, Reagan was hardly responsible for the fact that the “Soviet Empire” had been more or less successfully “contained” almost everywhere except Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan from the 1950s to the 1980s, and that even these client states had become more of a burden to the USSR than a blessing.
Nor was he responsible for the fact that President Carter had initiated anti-Soviet aid to the Poles and the Afghan rebels in the late 1970s; deployed the first long-range cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe in December 1979, partly in response to the Soviets’ deployment of SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe; suspended Senate consideration of the SALT II Treaty in January 1980; and issued Presidential Directive 59 in August 1980, adopting a new, much more aggressive “countervailing force” strategy for nuclear war.
Nor did Reagan have much to do with the fact that a whole new generation of Soviet leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, took power in 1984-85, or the fact that these new leaders chose the “glasnost/ big bang” route to reform rather than the more gradual and successful one that has kept the Chinese Communist Party in power to this day. This was also a matter largely of the Soviets' own choosing.
Nor was Reagan responsible for the fact that Gorbachev, who actually sought to preserve a stronger, reformed version of the Soviet Union rather than disband it, proved to be much less adept at Russian politics than Boris Yeltsin.
Even if we acknowledge that Reagan’s policies contributed to ending the Cold War, therefore, the historical record is very far from giving him “but for” credit for this happy ending.
In fact, even if "Cold War liberals" like Jimmie Carter and Fritz Mondale had presided over the US throughout the 1980s, the odds are that the very same key systemic and generational factors that helped to produce fundamental change in the Soviet system would have still applied – with very similar outcomes.
WHAT RISKS DID RON RUN?
In the literature on the economics of investment, it is well established that (at least in equilibrium, with competitive markets) there are no increased rewards without increased risk. When it comes to evaluating historical leaders, however, apparently this basic principle is often overlooked.
Reagan’s confrontational approach to the “Evil Empire” clearly was very distinctive. But this was hardly an unmixed blessing. Indeed, we now know that he took incredible risks in the early 1980s, and, as discussed below, that we are all extraordinarily lucky to have survived this period intact.
Furthermore, we are all still living with serious systemic risks that are a direct byproduct of Reagan’s high-risk strategies—even apart from the long-term legacy of his Afghan “freedom fighters” and latter-day terrorists.
For example, only in the mid-1990s, after the USSR’s collapse, did we learn that the Soviet Politburo and top Soviet military planners really had become convinced in the early 1980s that Reagan had adopted a new pro-nuclear war-fighting strategy, changing from “mutually assured destruction” to the pursuit of an all-out victory.
Soviet leaders came to this conclusion partly because of several key developments in military technology and strategy.
- By the early 1980s the US had acquired a growing advantage in submarine-based nuclear weapons (D-5 Trident missiles, with greater accuracy and short flight times) and anti-submarine warfare techniques, as well as space-based communications, surveillance, and hunter-killer satellite capabilities.
- As noted, Carter and Reagan both started to deploy cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe and on submarines. These were just 4-6 minutes from the Soviets’ command-and-control centers and many of their ICBM silos, which they counted on for up to two-thirds of their deterrent capability.
- In the early 1980s the US also took several steps that were apparently intended to increase its chances of surviving a nuclear war. These not only included “Star Wars,” but also hardened telecommunications, new command-and-control systems and some “civil defense” measures, and revised policies for “continuity in government.”
On top of these structural changes, the Reagan Adminstration’s aggressive rhetoric and behavior also contributed to this new Soviet view of US intentions.
In early 1981, for example, Reagan ordered the military to mount a still-highly-classified series of “psyops” that probed USSR airspace and naval boundaries with US and NATO jet fighters and bombers, submarines, and surface ships. The US and NATO also conducted several large-scale exercises in 1982-84. The US also sharply increased its assistance to “freedom fighters” like the Nicaraguan contras, the Afghan rebels, and Jonas Savimbi’s bloodthirsty South-Africa-assisted renegades in Angola.
As we now know, all this belligerent US activity scared the living daylights out of old-line Soviet leaders like Yury Andropov. It reminded them of Hitler’s sudden blitzkrieg attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, a searing experience for which Stalin had been surprisingly unprepared. They came to believe that the US was actually planning the nuclear equivalent of this blitzkrieg -- a first strike that would decapitate Soviet command-and-control while minimizing the effects of retaliation on the US. Of course Europe would be probably destroyed in such a confrontation. But the Soviets assumed, perhaps correctly, that the US saw “Old Europe” as dispensable.
In response to this perceived US threat, the Soviets did not roll over and play dead. Rather, drawing on their 1941 experience, their first response was to assume the worst and try to prepare for it.
- From May 1981 on, they ordered a worldwide intelligence alert, code-named “RYAN”, aimed at keeping the Politburo informed on a daily basis of US preparations for a first strike.
- The Soviets shifted their nuclear posture decisively to “launch-on-warning.” For the first time they also provided the Politburo with the ability to sidestep the Soviet General Staff and launch all strategic missiles with a central command. To support this shift, they also deployed new ground-based radar and space-based early-warning systems.
- Most striking of all, in the early 1980s the Soviets also implemented a full-scale nuclear “doomsday” system, code-named “Perimeter.” This system, first tested in November 1984, placed the power to unleash a devastating retaliatory strike against the US essentially on autopilot, whenever the system “sensed” that a nuclear strike against Moscow had either occurred, or was about to occur.
Together, all these shifts in Soviet defensive strategy cut the decision time available to their leaders, when deciding how to respond to a perceived US/ NATO attack, to as little as 3-4 minutes.
As Gorbachev later
“Never, perhaps, in the postwar decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence, more difficult and unfavorable, as in the first half of the 1980s.”
To our great distress, despite the mutual de-targeting that was announced with so much fanfare by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin in 1994, both these Cold War “hair trigger” responses to Reagan’s initiatives are still in place today, responsible for controlling at least the 5000+ strategic nuclear warheads that Russia still maintains.
Lt. Colonel Petrov had been forced to make a profound decision about world civilization in a matter of minutes, with alarms and red lights going off all around him.
These systems have already experienced several close calls. Among the incidents that we know about were those in September 1983, August 1984, and January 1995. In this last incident, President Yeltsin -- who was not always a picture of mental health and stability -- came within minutes of unleashing a full-scale nuclear retaliation in response to a false alarm set off by a Norwegian research missile that was sent aloft to study the Northern Lights. Apparently it bore a striking resemblance to an incoming Trident missile on Soviet radar until it crashed harmlessly in the sea.
The September 1983 incident, at the height of Soviet tensions with the Reagan Administration, and just a few months after the huge anti-Soviet NATO exercise “Able Archer” in Western Europe, was even more scary. In 2000, Lt. Colonel Stanislov Petrov, the duty officer who had been in charge of an early-warning bunker south of Moscow at the time, told Western journalists what happened when the new early-warning computers at his facility suddenly reported a full-scale US attack:
"I felt as if I'd been punched in my nervous system. There was a huge map of the States with a US base lit up, showing that the missiles had been launched. I didn't want to make a mistake…..I made a decision and that was it. In principle, a nuclear war could have broken out. The whole world could have been destroyed. After it was over, I drank half a liter of vodka as if it were only a glass and slept for 28 hours."
Ultimately it turned out that the new Soviet early-warning system had malfunctioned. Lt. Colonel Petrov had been forced to make a profound decision about world civilization in a matter of minutes, with alarms and red lights going off all around him.
Fortunately for all of us, he decided to not to believe his own computers.
Unfortunately for all of us, a modified version of that same hair-trigger early warning system is still in place in both Russia and the US to this day, since neither side has ever reverted to the pre-Reagan “MAD” strategy -- and Lt. Colonel Petrov has long since retired to a humble Moscow flat.
From this vantage point, President Reagan’s long-term legacy is a little more difficult to evaluate, even with respect to his impact on the Cold War.
- Clearly he had a great deal of help from others, as well as from sheer fortuity.
- We are still living with the heightened risks in the world system that were partly created by the aggressive nuclear strategy adopted by President Reagan, and to some extent by President Carter before him. If Russia’s early warning systems and doomsday systems – both of which are now reportedly starved for maintenance funds -- should ever fail, history may not be so kind to Ronald Reagan, assuming that there is anyone left to write it.
- Much of Reagan’s vaunted “strength” was really based on a blithe combination of sheer ignorance, blind faith, and risk taking. Compared with President Nixon (who, like FDR, also eschewed a state funeral), Reagan knew almost nothing about world affairs other than what he read in The Readers Digest and (perhaps) The National Review.
- On the other hand, compared with the insecure Nixon, who was constantly seeking reassurance from his advisors, Reagan certainly did have much more faith in his own convictions. With respect to the Soviet Union’s nuclear strategy, like a determined child, he may have never fully appreciated the fact that he was playing with…well, er.., much more than dynamite.
After the fact, of course, like any high-stakes gambler who bets it all on “black,” spins the wheel, and wins, Reagan looks like a hero, at least to many Americans.
However, whether or not ordinary citizens of the world should look back on this track record and cheer, much less encourage our present and future leaders to adopt similar blind-faith strategies, is very doubtful.
Indeed, today, most of the rest of the world seems to regard President Reagan -- rather more accurately than many Americans -- as the friendly, fearless, perhaps well-meaning, but really quite reckless “cowboy” that he truly was.
(c) James S. Henry, SubmergingMarkets.com, 2003. Not for reproduction or other use without express consent from the author. All rights reserved.
Sunday, June 06, 2004
The Forgotten Members of the "Greatest Generation"
This weekend President Bush was in Europe, celebrating the 60th anniversary of D-Day. He was joined by thousands of American, British, Canadian, and French veterans of World War II, members of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” as well as the Queen, the UK’s Tony Blair, France’s Jacque Chirac, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder, all of whom converged on Normandy for commemoration ceremonies. As Schroeder duly noted, the fact that all the leaders of these former allies and enemies could finally come together to celebrate D-Day for the first time means that “the post-war period is finally over.”
Many other US leaders, from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to John McCain and John Kerry, have also recently tried to associate themselves with the valor and sacrifices of American veterans in our increasingly long list of foreign wars. Their tributes have been similar, whether the veterans in question fought in wars that were short or long, one-sided or evenly matched, just or unjust -- and whether or not the politicians in question have ever spent even a single minute on an actual battlefield.
This year, such martial rhetoric is flying thicker than usual because of the coincidence of several events. In late April, the long-awaited $190 million memorial to America’s World War II veterans was finally unveiled in Washington DC. Its architectural reviews have been decidedly mixed, especially by comparison with the beautifully-understated Vietnam War memorial. But this certainly is a long-overdue tribute to the 16.4 million Americans who served in that objectively “good” war and the 405,000 who lost their lives in it.
We are also in the middle of an unusual US Presidential election race, which is proceeding while the country fights two wars at once – the war in Iraq and the less visible, potentially much more dangerous “war on terror.” Both key Presidential candidates are vying hard to be viewed as stalwart defenders of national security and close friends of the veterans community.
Indeed, the whole period from Memorial Day to July 4th has become a high season for veteran commemorations and martial romanticism. Those who happen to part of the majority of Americans who are neither veterans nor members of the “Greatest Generation” may feel a bit uncomfortable – sort of like non-Christians at Christmas.
I don’t happen to share this discomfort. To begin with, my family has done more than its share of fighting for the nation since it arrived in Virginia in the 1620s. We’ve volunteered for almost every single “good” American war in history, from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 to the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korea War. As for the “Greatest Generation,” we also supplied several authentic members, including my father, a World War II veteran who served four years with the Navy in the South Pacific, and my uncle, one of General Patton’s tank commanders who helped to liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.
It is also not the fault of subsequent generations that almost all the wars that the US has chosen to fight since the Korean War in the early 1950s have been one-sided affairs, undertaken against more or less defenseless Third World countries like Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Granada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Except for Afghanistan, where the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to build training camps, none of these countries ever attacked us or our allies, posed a serious direct threat to our national security, or even had air forces or navies, much less nuclear weapons.
These wars were basically neo-imperialist adventures in gunboat diplomacy. Not surprisingly, most of them proved to be vastly more lethal to the hapless natives than to US troops. For example, while the US lost 58,226 killed and 2300 missing in Vietnam, the Vietnamese lost an estimated 1 million combatants killed, 4 million killed and 200,000 missing in action, most of them to our relentless bombing campaigns.
Furthermore, while those American veterans who have served in genuinely defensive wars certainly deserve to be honored, our political leaders do no service by oversimplifying their contributions. As the history of Germany indicates, excessive militarism and the idealization of martial values like “honor, duty, and blind obedience to one’s superiors” may help to encourage still more aggressive wars, which creates more veterans, which creates more glorification, which encourages still more wars…..
So, in the interests of reversing this venomous cycle, we offer the following critique of “Greatest Generation” mythology -- and also pay homage to other members of the Greatest Generation whose contributions have largely been forgotten.
The conventional image that most Americans seem to have of the US role in World War II is that we – or, at most, the US and the UK – basically won the war.
In this view, fed by sixty years of Hollywood films, poltical rhetoric, jingoistic reportage in the mass media, and bad history courses, the vast majority of the “Greatest Generation” supposedly volunteered courageously to fight against the Axis Powers. The US military supposedly played a decisive role in defeating not only Japan but also Nazi Germany and Italy, and the Normandy invasion was supposedly critical to the German defeat.
Unfortunately, it was not quite that simple.
>Draftee Predominance. To begin with, of the 16.4 million US veterans who served in World War II, only about a third were volunteers. The rest were drafted. Even in this “best of all possible wars,” therefore, where the lines between good and evil could not possibly have been any clearer, compulsion, not volunteerism, was the main motor force. In fact, volunteerism was even less in evidence during World War II than it was during the Vietnam War. Just a quarter of the 2.6 million Americans who served in the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1973 were draftees – notwithstanding the role that the draft played in stimulating opposition to that war.
>Casualties. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the US suffered a grand total of 6603 casualties, including about 2000 killed in action or missing. Our other non-Soviet Allies added another 3646 casualties. All told, that first day, there were about 3000 killedamong all the Allies. For the entire Battle of Normandy, the US suffered 126,847 casualties, including about 30,000 killed, and the UK and other non-Soviet allies added 83,045 casualties.
For World War II as a whole, as noted, the US suffered 405,000 American deaths. About 290,000 of these were due to combat, the rest to accidents and disease.
These were impressive losses by comparison with other American wars. Only the Civil War recorded a larger number of total fatalities, but those included a huge number who died from disease. World War II's combat fatalities was the largest for any US war.
Despite these records, the fact is that all these US and non-Soviet Allied casualty statistics pale by comparison with those suffered by our key Ally on the Eastern Front, the Soviet Union.
All told, the USSR lost 8.7 million to 11 million troops killed in combat against Germany, Italy, Rumania, and the other Axis coalition members from 1941 to 1945. This included 500,000 troops killed at the Battle of Stalingrad alone from September 1942 – January 1943. There were also 440,000 Soviet troops killed at the Siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1944, 250,000 at the decisive Battle of Kursk in June 1943, and 450,000 on the march to Berlin in 1945.
In addition, there were also another 12-18 million civilian casualties in the Soviet Union during World War II, compared with the 60,000 civilian casualties that the British lost to Germany air raids, and negligible US civilian casualties.
>Strategic Role – Germany. Most important, far from playing a decisive role in defeating Hitler, the fact is that the D-Day invasion came so late in the war that even if it had been turned back by Hitler, the chances are that this would have only delayed the Soviet advances into Berlin by six months to a year at most, without fundamentally affecting the outcome of the war.
The Soviets had been lobbying hard for a D-Day invasion from 1942 on, but were resisted by Churchill, in particular, who favored a "southern" strategy through Italy and the Balkans -- and had been a lifelong hardline anti-Communist.
During the 1944 Normandy invasion and the Battle of France, the key battles involved, at most, about 15 Allied and 15 Germany divisions.
On the Eastern Front, by comparison, from 1941-44 more than 400 Germany and Soviet divisions battled each other along a 1000-mile front, and the Soviets succeeded in destroying more than 600 Germany divisions. (Overy, Why the Allies Won, 321).
Even as the Normandy Invasion was proceeding, the much larger Soviet Army was driving towards Berlin, destroying Germany’s main army group and costing the Axis powers nearly 4 million casualties.
Without this Soviet effort on the Eastern Front, therefore, the Normandy invasion could not have succeeded, and Hitler would probably have prevailed. Combined with the successful invasion of Normandy, by the time it came, the main effect was to shorten the war a bit in Europe.
Nor did the “Lend-Lease” aid provided to the Soviet Union by the US and the UK during the war prove decisive. Much more important was the fact that Soviet industry, relocated to the east, was able to out-produce Germany several times over in aircraft, tanks, and artillery pieces throughout the war.
Despite all this, the commemoration speeches given this weekend by Western leaders failed to even mention the Soviet contribution to the war effort. .
>Strategic Performance – Japan. As for the war with Japan, it has long been recognized by military historians that it was distinctly less important than the war with Germany. Without the victory over Germany, the victory over Japan would have been impossible; with it, given Japan’s relative weakness, V-J Day was basically just a matter of time. Consistent with this, the war with Japan only consumed about 15 percent of the total US war effort.
After Germany’s demise in April 1945, the US, with some belated help from the Soviet Union, turned its attention to Japan, and quickly swept it out of China and the Pacific. By August 1945, when the US dropped its two atomic bombs, the Japanese were already on the verge of surrender. As Gar Alperowitz, the leading historian of Truman’s decision to drop the bomb, has argued, that decision was largely undertaken to impress Stalin, not because of military necessity or to save American lives.
All this is not to say that American World War II veterans do not richly deserve the honors that have been bestowed on them. Millions of them fought valiantly, at D-Day and elsewhere.
However, especially in these times, when the US has given in to the temptation to launch an unprovoked war largely alone on its own, it is important to remember how much assistance the US needed from allies in its most important victory ever -- and how it achieved its best results when it was fighting a clearly justified defensive war.
This viewpoint offers a helpful perspective on several other popular myths about World War II. These include (1) the myth that British intelligence breakthroughs like “Ultra” – a program that broke German encryption codes -- were critical to the war’s outcome; (2) the myth that US economic capacity provided the decisive edge; and (3) the myth that the atomic bomb had to be used to force Japan’s surrender.
This analysis also provides an interesting perspective on the many critics who have deplored the “tragedy” of the Russian Revolution and the brutality of Stalin’s forced industrialization campaign during the 1930s.
The unpleasant reality is that Tsarist Russia had barely held its own against Germany during World War I. It t is very unlikely that a Tsarist regime or even a Kerensky-style liberal capitalist regime could have achieved anything like the rapid industrial development that Stalin accomplished during the 1920s and 1930s. however, in restrospect, there is little question that Stalin's crash industrialization program permitted the Soviet Union to acquire the industrial base that proved to be essential for the defeat of Nazi Germany.
So it is all very well for First World liberal democracies like the US and the UK to look down their long noses at Russia's developmental misfortunes. But perhaps we in the West should at least acknowledge our debt to the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s brutal industrialization program, his millions of victims, and especially the long-suffering Russian people. If they accomplished nothing else, at least they saved our liberal democracies from fascism. This is hardly an apology for Stalin. But if anyone deserves to be called “the Greatest Generation,” it was the generation of Russians that had to face down both Stalin and Hitler during the 1930s and 1940s.
This does not imply that the Normandy invasion was worthless. What it really may have accomplished was not so much the defeat of Hitler, per se, but a more balanced post-war political division of Europe. With the Soviet Army in control of Germany and perhaps even much of France and Italy after World War II, the post-war history of Europe might have been very different. In that sense, the value of D-Day was less a matter of defeating Hitler than of affecting the division of Europe with Stalin.
THE FORGOTTEN GREATEST GENERATION
In retrospect, there is one group of American veterans that unquestionably deserves to be included in the “greatest generation” -- although it is never mentioned in veteran tributes, and none of its members have ever qualified for US veteran benefits.
This is the all-volunteer group of 2800 Americans that journeyed to Spain at their own risk and expense in 1936-39 to serve as members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War.
A ragtag army, mainly consisting of leftists, union members, and many American Jews, they joined forces with some 56,000 other international volunteers from more than 50 countries, and fought against overwhelming odds to defend the Spain’s democratically-elected Republic against General Franco’s army, which was openly supported by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.
Most of these volunteers were amateur fighters, without any military training. The arms embargo that was enforced by the future Allies -- the UK, France, and the US -- against the Spanish Republic – but not Germany or Italy – prevented the Lincolns and their comrades from having adequate arms and munitions. As a result, combat fatalities were very high. More than a third of the Lincolns died in battle, even higher than the 20-30 percent fatality rates recorded by US troops on D-Day.
Meanwhile, the US, the UK, France, and most other European countries (except the USSR), heavily influenced by conservative business elements and the Catholic Church, concocted the “non-intervention pact” that prevented arms and other aid from reaching the Spanish Republic. These Western countries also stood by and watched while Germany, Italy, and their allies aided Franco, seized Ethiopia, butchered China, and occupied Czechoslovakia. Throughout the 1930s, major US firms like GM, Texaco, Exxon, DuPont, Alcoa, and IBM, as well as Wall Street firms like JPMorgan, Brown Brothers Harriman, and Citibank, also continued to trade and invest, not only with Franco, but also with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.
In the aftermath of the civil war, the Lincoln Battlion members continued to prove their heroism and commitment. After Franco won the civil war in 1939 and the Lincolns returned to the US, they were labeled as “premature anti-fascists” by the US government, prevented from holding government jobs or joining the military. To continue to fight the fascists, they had to enlist in foreign military services. In the 1950s, during the McCarthy era, many were blacklisted and otherwise persecuted. Despite such pressures, they continued to play a leading role in progressive causes throughout the last fifty years, right down to leading recent protests against the invasion of Iraq.
Ultimately, in the late 1970s, Franco’s dictatorship – which was supported by the US Government after World War II for nearly twenty years – gave way to the return of democracy in Spain.
Finally, in 1996, as a tribute to the Lincolns’ sacrifices, the “Second Spanish Republic” celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War by welcoming those American veterans who had managed to survive to a commemoration ceremony in Madrid -- a modest version of this weekend's ceremonies at Normandy. Spain, at least, recognized that these American veterans had been the forgotten members of the Greatest Generation, whose courageous efforts were never properly honored by their own country.
American veterans like my father and uncle certainly displayed extraordinary courage, sacrifice, and heroism during World War II. But, as they would have been the first to admit, in some ways they actually had a relatively easy time of it. This was not only because they had a great deal of help from allies like the Russians, the British, and the Chinese (against Japan). It was also because, as noted earlier, their war was perhaps the most clear-cut struggle ever fought between good and evil.
The veterans of all too many other American wars have had to face the fact that their wars were much less virtuous. Bearing that kind of understanding honestly certainly requires a special kind of courage and sacrifice. Perhaps that is why there is so much enthusiasm for the World War II festivities -- perhaps there is a hope that some of that war's glory will rub off on these other efforts. Those of us who have an opportunity to prevent our overly-adventurous leaders from launching such misconceived efforts, or to bring them to a halt as soon as possible, have every obligation to do so.
Finally, as we saw in the case of the Lincoln Battalion, still other American veterans have sometimes had to defy their own country’s policies of the day in order to fight for justice, and then pay a very heavy price for being “prematurely” right.
This year, as we honor those who helped to defeat global fascism, we should also honor those who were among the very first to take up arms against it.
(c) James S. Henry, SubmergingMarkets.com, 2003. Not for reproduction or other use without express consent from the author. All rights reserved.