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Wrong Answer

We should worry about winning the war, not making friends.

5:10 PM, Mar 24, 2003 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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A RUMSFELD ANSWER at a press conference revealed an easy-to-fix yet important problem with the administration's view of the war.

No cheering crowds greeted American forces entering Germany in 1945. Unquestionably the Americans did arrive as liberators. But having your own country liberated can be drastically different (psychologically, emotionally) from the sort of liberation that removes a foreign occupier. When you are under attack, the normal human reaction is to rally round. And of course many Germans loved Hitler despite hating him; their moral compasses were bent and took months, years or forever to straighten out. Cheering crowds might greet us in Baghdad. But even if they do, there is more to this story than freedom and the American army.

Rumsfeld had a chance to explain it all at a press conference, and passed up the opportunity. (He has been inspiring in this war. My goal is not to criticize; merely to look at an important policy question.) The secretary was asked: Do the allies expect the intensive bombing of Baghdad to conduce to pro-American feelings of the sort we keep talking about, and keep anticipating among the freed Iraqis? After all (the questioner said), in Britain, Germany, Japan, and North Vietnam bombing made the population pull together and hunker down.

At first Rumsfeld didn't answer. But shortly afterward he returned to the question (which clearly struck him as important); he pointed out that, after all, Saddam had murdered many thousands of his own people.

But that isn't the point. Hitler was an unparalleled murderer (of Germans also, not only Jews). A better answer: history to date suggests that air bombing yields one and only one response among the target population--hatred. That's human nature. No matter how precisely your airmen aim, the experience of heavy explosives falling out of the sky can only be terrifying; can only leave a person feeling vulnerable and bitterly angry. But you did mention Japan and Germany? True, we bombed them both to hell. Are you suggesting that the Iraqis will come to hate us like the Japanese and Germans did? It's true (it's obvious) that no one loves a bomber while the bombs are falling. But it didn't take long, once peace was restored, for the Germans and Japanese to decide that we were their friends after all.

Albert Speer's "Inside the Third Reich" gives a first-rate, first-hand account of German reaction to Allied bombing. "In the burning and devastated cities we daily experienced the direct impact of the war. And it spurred us to do our utmost. Neither did the bombings and hardships that resulted from them weaken the morale of the populace. On the contrary, from my visits to armaments plants and my contacts with the man in the street I carried the impression of growing toughness." And consider how American airmen, toward the end of the war, were routinely told that if they were shot down they must surrender to the Germany military, not to civilians. Otherwise they risked being murdered on the spot. It's human nature, and we can't repair or repeal it.

So what does the question really mean? That America ought to do what's needed to win wars. If our cause is right, the liberated civilians will be with us in the end.

Of course not even the Nazis surrendered dead and captured prisoners to the newsreel photographers. Consider what such an act (and the way many Iraqis seemed to love it) says about Iraqi character. Consider that Hitler had many admirers in Germany--not only among the power elite, and even after he had lost the war. Surely Saddam has many admirers in Iraq today. Other Germans were so terrified of the Nazis, it took much time and evidence before they were convinced that they were safe consorting with Hitler's enemies. And surely many Iraqis remain Saddam admirers for one reason or other today.

Will there be cheering throngs to greet American liberators on Baghdad's streets? Maybe. But history has plenty to tell us in cases like this. In itself, dropping bombs on a city is not a surefire way to win its heart. (This rule holds even for precision bombs.) (Not recommended for recalcitrant girlfriends either.) Less obvious, more important: In a case like Saddam's Iraq, many hate him unambiguously, some are too scared to hate him at all, some hate him unless he is winning, others are still making up their minds and always will be. In Germany itself, Hitler still has his admirers--probably a lot more than any official survey will ever reveal.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.