The Perils of Escalation in Iraq: A Grim History Lesson

Editor's Note: Despite the clear reality, as demonstrated in the Nov. 7 election, that the American public is completely fed up with the occupation of Iraq, increasing our troops and commitment, not setting the stage for withdrawal, is receiving much attention in policy discussions and media coverage.

While there were other factors that influenced election results, like Republican corruption and economic fears brought on by neoliberal trade policies, exit polls showed little doubt that large majorities of voters want out of Iraq ... and soon, and surely not an escalation of the war, as John McCain is calling for.

This anti-Iraq occupation sentiment comes amid rising U.S. military casualties and extraordinarily violent daily events. Public disgust with U.S. Iraq policy comes against the backdrop of 2,876 American soldiers killed, as well as the highly professional study of Iraq civilian deaths published in the journal Lancet -- a study praised by leading epidemiologists -- which shockingly concluded that between 400,000 and 700,000 Iraqis have died in the conflict.

What will escalation do to our troops and to the people of Iraq?

The answer seems pretty clear. Escalation, as Greg Zachary points out in the following article, is often a step of military and political desperation. And as Zachary writes, when more troops get sent in, the conditions invariably get worse.
-- Don Hazen, AlterNet Executive Editor

The Perils of Escalation in Iraq: A Grim History Lesson

The perils of escalation can be found in the pages of American history. These perils demand a greater appreciation as the nation ponders the option of escalating the war in Iraq.

Escalation is always a seductive option when war aims go unmet. After taking casualties and losing ground, an occupying army can look on the prospect of reinforcements with enthusiasm. For the political overlords of a war going badly, escalation carries an immediate appeal by raising hopes of ultimate victory, as the enemy collapses in the face of increased forces and firepower. Of course, talk of escalation can be abused by political cynics. One appeal of favoring escalation is prospective: critics of a failed war can always argue later that if only their side committed more forces, defeat would have turned into victory.

In the case of the Iraq war, the appeal of escalation is linked to the widespread, if erroneous, belief that the United States never committed adequate troop levels to pacify Iraq. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the chief proponent of the escalation scenario, argues that only through an escalation of the war can Americans for the first time stand a decent chance to win. With U.S. forces facing defeat in Iraq, and with Iraqi civilians suffering even more terribly than the foreign occupiers, McCain's escalation scenario holds out the possibility of lowered American casualties (a consequence of "strength in numbers") and a safer Iraq safer for the locals.

Escalations can backfire, however. Let's consider the escalations in the two wars that most resemble the Iraq war.

The first is the Korean War, waged by the United States on the Korean peninsula from 1950 to 1953. In the first half of the 20th century, Japan conquered Korea and, with Japan's defeat at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and the U.S. -- allies during the war and now victorious -- split Korea between north and south. Under the sway of the Soviet Union, North Korea adopted communism as an ideology and in June 1950, without warning, attacked South Korea. U.S. forces intervened to save the south, evicting the North Koreans.

The United States then faced a momentous decision. Having restored the status of the two Koreas prior to the war, should the U.S. military now stand down? Or should the United States escalate the war in the hopes of forever ending any threat from the north? Under the leadership of Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. invaded North Korea with the stated aim of "liberating" it.

The escalation tragically backfired when China sided with North Korea and sent its own battle-hardened troops against U.S. forces. For a brief time when China threatened to overwhelm the Americans, and MacArthur was famously fired for his over-reach (the episode has echoes of Donald Rumsfeld's recent humiliation as secretary of defense). The war then settled into a bloody stalemate, and even today, more than 50 years later, two Koreas remain, with military tensions high.

The escalation solved nothing and cost much. More than 60,000 Americans were killed in the Korean war, which finally ended through negotiations, not military action.

The Vietnam War saw two escalations. Like Korea, Vietnam was a small Asian nation divided in two as a consequence of decolonization fostered by the end of World War II. Also like Korea, Vietnam was invaded by the Japanese, who supplanted France as the colonial power. With Japan's defeat in 1945, France returned, only to find a nationalist leader, Ho Chi Minh, entrenched in the north of Vietnam. Minh was renown for his resistance to the Japanese invaders and would likely have united the southern part of the country under his common rule had not the French resisted.

When France tired of fighting in Vietnam, the United States took over the role of reinforcing the South Vietnamese government. By 1963 and President Kennedy's assassination, however, the so-called policy of "Vietnamization," or training the south Vietnamese to fight in their own defense against the northerners, was a failure.

Faced with the triumph of Ho Chi Minh, the new president Lyndon Johnson vowed, "I will not lose in Vietnam." In 1965, he tried to make good on his promise, vastly expanding the number of U.S. troops, which rose first to 300,000 (and then to 500,000 in 1968). Johnson also ordered a massive air bombing of North Vietnam so that within two years American planes had dropped more tonnage on the Vietnamese than they had during Germany, Japan and Italy during World War II.

With more troops and more bombing, Johnson confidently spoke of "light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam.

In response, the North Vietnamese, and their supporters in the south, mounted a devastating Tet offensive in January 1968. Attackers even penetrated the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon.

Though American and South Vietnamese forces eventually turned back the Tet invaders, and even inflicted heavy losses on the North, the prospect of a quick end to the war was exposed as a delusion. The failure of Johnson's escalation of the war was a double tragedy since not only did his decision cost many American lives and much money, the failure of escalation undercut support for his campaigns against institutionalized racism and poverty in America.

Even worse, new evidence unearthed by historian Fredrik Logevall, author of Choosing War: the Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, suggests that the south and the north could well have negotiated an end to the war and a government national unity as early as 1965, sparing all sides 10 years of deadly fighting.

The second escalation came after President Nixon took office in 1968. Nixon had campaigned on promises to end the war and he tried to do so -- by escalating the war. His decision to secretly bomb North Vietnamese supply lines in Cambodia destabilized that small neighboring country and directly led to the rise of the dreaded Khmer Rouge, who in the late 1970s was responsible for the killing of a million of the Cambodian comrades.

When expanding the war failed, Nixon sought to negotiate what he called "peace with honor," and in 1973 the U.S. withdrew its troops. Two years later, South Vietnam collapsed and the country united around a single government based in Hanoi and led by Ho Chi Minh.

The past is not always prologue, of course. But the failed escalations in Korea and Vietnam are surely warnings against any escalation of the war in Iraq. And surely the failed escalations of the past should cast doubt on any premature euphoria over escalating the Iraq war. The escalate scenario should only be met with dread -- and the hoary reminder that people who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

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