Iraq and the Ghosts of 1940

As bad news from Iraq  assaults viewers with machine gun bursts of gloom every day, predictions about consequences of an American defeat range from the deadly serious to the catastrophic. The elephant-in-the-living-room analogy of course is Vietnam, with its hideous aftermath of executions, hordes of citizens fleeing in terror, and that humiliating scene of American helicopters lifting off buildings in Saigon to escape the final North Vietnamese offensive. This antithesis to the flag raising at Iwo Jima has been burned in our national consciousness, and the war’s most cynical critics seem eagerly to anticipate something analogous inevitably taking place in Iraq. Clearly, it’s hard to forget how the American defeat emboldened our enemies, prompted the USSR later to invade Afghanistan, and generally make life miserable for the United States in Latin America and Africa during the seventies and eighties.

However, though events of those years seemed significant at the time, in retrospect we may suggest that they didn’t amount to much in terms of American national security. At the most, the Vietnam setback gave a temporary boost of confidence to a moribund empire and a permanent analogy for some moribund American politicians. But we should forget Vietnam; it’s irrelevant. The USSR collapsed and Vietnam now is prospering. Instead, think France, 1940. Few events in modern history offer more lessons in the cataclysmic logic of unintended consequences in warfare.

First, let us dispatch those components that obviously don’t fit: Iraq is not France, nor a great power; Germany is not the United States, and contrary to professional Bush-haters, the American President is not Hitler. Now let’s look at the interesting parts, all of which stem from the deadly domino effect propelled by a strategic military defeat. Max Boot, in his superb and recently published “War Made New” (October 2006) recounts the basics and quotes historian David Reynolds who sums up the situation superbly: “…more than anything else, it was the fall of France which turned a European conflict into a world war and helped reshape international politics in patterns that endured for nearly a half century.”

Consider the terrifying litany of events that followed the triumphant march of German troops through Paris. Japan and Italy decided to ally with the Nazis, forming the original Axis of Evil; Italy went on a romp through the Balkans and North Africa, with such ludicrous incompetence that Hitler was compelled to send one of his most talented Generals, Erwin Rommel, into the region to clean things up. This opened a new area of operations that delayed an Anglo-American invasion of France for at least two years. By the time of D-Day plus thirty, the USSR was well on its way to occupying Eastern Europe and creating what Heinrich Himmler and later Winston Churchill would call The Iron Curtain.

But that’s not all. British preoccupation with the Mediterranean along with French and Dutch impotence encouraged Japan to run amok in East Asia and the South Pacific, eventually feeling sufficiently confident to bomb Pearl Harbor. Bound by the Tripartite Pact, Hitler declared war on the United States, which gave massive aid to Britain and the USSR. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this train of events concerns the Middle East. The Holocaust led to the creation of the Israeli state in the heart of Dar al Islam, prompting further a series of conflicts that have traumatized the region and may continue indefinitely. Further, French protectorates in the Middle East allied themselves with Vichy France, a puppet of Germany, and as Bernard Lewis concluded in a 2005 essay that appeared in Foreign Affairs: “It was at that time that the ideological foundations of what later became the Baath Party were laid, with the adaptation of Nazi ideas and methods to the Middle Eastern situation.” Thus, when President Bush talks about fighting Islamo-fascism, there is more truth to his words than perhaps even he realizes. The ghosts of 1940 remain alive and malevolent. And with the possible infusion of nuclear weapons into the area, the possible effects are unthinkably horrifying.

But think about them we must. A collapsed Iraq would tempt the ambitions of Syria and Iran; Saudi Arabia, alarmed by Persian aggression, would plead for American help; the USA, for reasons that border on treason, would come to the aid of this totalitarian regime; a Wahhabized and nuclearized Pakistan joins the fray, frightening India, which alarms China. Islamist radicals worldwide are thrilled by the defeat of the Great Satan; terrorist incidents proliferate. Seeing a world distracted, North Korea, like Japan in the 40s, thinks of ways to take advantage of the situation, leading to decisions that force Tokyo to rethink its nuclear options, which makes Beijing go ballistic.

Is all this a flight of morbid fancy, an unreasonable stretch of a gloomy imagination? Let us certainly hope so. If not, expect our grandchildren to ponder the ghosts of 2006, as their forebears once pondered the ghosts of 1940.