The Magazine

Why Fascists Fight

From the April 14, 2003 issue: The Japanese and Germans did, so why should the Baathists be any different?

Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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"YOUR COUNTRY sinks beneath Jewish-Anglo-American bombs. Your parents lie amid the ruins. Come avenge them." That might be a quote from the Iraqi information minister; it comes in fact from a leaflet printed by the SS and discovered in liberated Cologne, March 1945. The similarities between Iraq on the one hand, and Nazi Germany and wartime Japan on the other, are deep and important. If we take them seriously, they strengthen our convictions and change our expectations about the Iraq war.

Many of the war's supporters expected that large numbers of Iraqis might rally immediately to the coalition's colors. The forecast is nothing to be ashamed of; just the opposite. No mass surrenders--and yet the military plan is working beautifully. It was robust enough to shrug and keep going. In any case, American optimism has proved itself (ounce for ounce) one of the most precious commodities known to man. Without it, we could never have undertaken the war in the first place.

Yet the mass surrenders' not having materialized in the early days of the war is (equally) nothing to be surprised at; just the opposite. From Germany in 1944 to Japan following Shock-and-Awe I (otherwise known as the atomic bomb at Hiroshima) to the Bay of Pigs in Cuba and beyond, Americans have been too optimistic about the odds of oppressed peoples' turning out their brutal rulers. To do so is a harder feat on account of fear and loyalty--requires more courage and greater moral clear-sightedness--than we give it credit for.

A few weeks before the war, I argued in these pages that we should notice the resemblances between Castro and Saddam; that Americans tend to underestimate the power of tyrants to terrify their populations; that in the Second World War we expected Germans to rally to our side and turn against Hitler--but that Hitler turned against Germany instead, and "Saddam might be drawn to the same maneuver." Two weeks into the war, those arguments still seem plausible. It still seems possible that Cuba, Nazi Germany, and wartime Japan make better analogies to modern Iraq than (say) Afghanistan or Occupied France.

In spring 1944, the French were badly in need of rescuing, and so were the Germans. But the two nations responded to their liberators in opposite ways. The French were overjoyed. The Germans fought bitterly every inch of the way, and greeted the Allies in sullen silence. Why should we have thought that Saddam's Iraq is more like Occupied France than Nazi Germany?

Americans and Britons had believed all along that the Nazi regime might fall at any moment, that Germany might collapse "from the inside"--some thought that the huge bombing campaigns of '43 and '44 might do it, some that D-Day would trigger a German surrender, some that the first German city to fall (Aachen, in October '44) would lead to a quick end of German resistance. It didn't happen. The Allies underestimated the extent to which Germans continued to "think brown" (that is, Nazi) right up to and past the end of Nazi rule. They underestimated the extent to which Hitler's thugs had terrorized his enemies into silence. And they underestimated the ambivalence with which most populations (no matter how battered and bloodied) are likely to greet a tyrant's appeals to patriotism, and a foreign army's breaking down the door.

Which hardly means that Germany did not need to be liberated. Such "ambivalence" is natural and to be expected, and also (under the circumstances) suicidal and stupid. But wars of "internal liberation" like ours against Iraq are rare in human history. Partly that is because no one (by and large) hears the screams of broken victims. (Listen to antiwar protesters all over the world as they try to drown out with their own voices the shrieks of the tortured.) And partly it reflects the inevitable ambivalence of hostage populations. It takes a U.S.-sized hyperpower to approach such a war with any confidence.

Saddam is no Hitler, but give him credit for trying. And if Iraq is no Nazi Germany, it is no Occupied France either. It lies somewhere in between. That doesn't mean that our plan to liberate and democratize Iraq was misconceived. To the contrary: In comparing Iraq to Nazi Germany, or to wartime Japan, we underline how essential this war is. And we emphasize that the long-term prognosis is good: Japan and Germany did not welcome their liberators, but eventually did become (though it seemed wildly implausible at the time) free, democratic nations, and great burbling fountains of soothing, sententious stability in their regions.

The Iraq war was necessary, the plan was right, the prognosis is good . . . but we were wrong to sentimentalize the Iraqis. No one ever worried about the Germans' "hearts and minds" (or France's either).