Hard Lessons

Here’s something worrisome in today’s Thomas Friedman column:

“The most striking thing,” one Arab diplomat remarked to me, “is that there are no debates going on [in the Arab world.] There is no W.M.D. debate. There is no debate about the atrocities and the mass graves. Even inside Iraq there doesn’t seem to be much soul-searching, like there was in Germany after World War II. That is worrisome to me. People have to learn from the mistakes that were made, and there is no attempt at doing that.”


The World War II example is telling, because after the war we faced our biggest challenge ever in remaking conquered nations. And it’s a challenge we accepted and achieved.

West Germany became out staunchest ally in continental Europe, a short ten years after being our most serious and implacable foe. And they remained so until a few years after the Cold War, when (let’s be honest) our interests and theirs diverged. Japan went from being one of the most militaristic societies on Earth to, arguably, one of the most pacifistic. And they remain so, even though today they face a nuclear threat from North Korea and a resurgent China.

But why?

Was it our amazing tutelage? Um, probably not. Due to the Cold War, we had to do all sorts of nasty things, setting all kinds of bad examples. Did it have to do with the threat posed by the Soviet Union? Almost certainly, but only in part — sizeable minorities of both the BRD and postwar Japan were ardent Communists. So what did we do to teach them their lessons so completely?

We smashed them like no other nations had ever been smashed before. We brought their terrible wars home to them, in the most terrible of ways. We rubbed their noses in their own shit until their surrender was truly, deeply unconditional.


Want to know why Japan prefers to settle problems diplomatically? Look no further than the twin Ground Zeros at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How come they no longer deify their emperor? Because we damn near killed his ass when we firebombed Tokyo.

Need to understand why West Germany gave up on Nazism? Because it got every single one of their major cities reduced to rubble, courtesy of the 8th Air Force and the RAF. Want to know why West Germans feared Soviet tanks? Because they saw firsthand what Patton’s tanks could do.

Which is easier — clearing the rubble and building a house from scratch, or trying to retrofit a new, modern wing onto an old castle?

The problem we have in Iraq is, we smashed their army, but not the country.

Don’t get me wrong here, though. Let’s not level cities just because we think it sets a good example. Nuking Baghdad would be a bad idea, no matter what lessons it might teach the survivors. There’s no need to send in 30 divisions when five will get the job done.

But let’s not kid ourselves, either.

Sparing civilians is morally noble, politically necessary, and just plain the right thing to do. However, doing so takes a lot of the pain out of being on the losing side. And without pain, the lesson becomes harder to learn.


We’re doing the right thing, waging war the way we do today. War, any war, is terrible enough even without massive civilian casualties. But to fight the modern way makes waging war more difficult.

And it makes waging the peace harder, too.

UPDATE: A lot of people have commented and emailed to tell me that the guerilla campaign has little to do with the surgical nature of our three-week blitz. That’s correct — but has little to do with Friedman’s point or my own. We were speaking of the lack of “soul-searching” in the Iraqi people as a whole.


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