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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).

And we were wrong to believe that Iraqis would readily see "honor" the way we wanted them to. It was strange to announce to Iraqi officers and enlisted men that defection from Saddam's army would be the "honorable" thing to do. Saddam's army was (after all) the army of Iraq. It might have made sense to announce that (under these special circumstances) defection would be brave and right, and not dishonorable; but to associate "defection" with "honor" requires a moral leap we could hardly expect from the average Iraqi. There are still Germans today who condemn the handful of brave men who tried to kill Hitler as unpatriotic, or maybe traitors.

IN SOME WAYS wartime Japan makes a strong analogy to modern Iraq. Japan (true) had no mesmerizing, mass-murdering father-figure to worship, merely a remote and colorless little emperor and a band of warlords. The Japanese regime (true) felt little call to torture and murder its own population, there being plenty of captured non-Japanese to torture and murder. (Plenty of Chinese, Malayans, Javanese, Burmese, Indians, Allied POWs.) But the Japanese people were brutally abused, nonetheless, by their emperor and his military, who sought (like Saddam) to dominate the region by brute force; who consumed neighboring countries like potato chips, with a vacant smile. The Japanese tried to rouse their fellow Asians against America on racial grounds--although they had been ruthless aggressors in Asia, as the Iraqis have been in the Middle East. And our experience with Japan makes it clear what Saddam supporters would do to Allied prisoners if they could. (Why do reporters talk about Iraqis "executing" our POWs when the word they want is "murdering"?) The Japanese army's savagery made the emperor's regime the unqualified equal, for sheer evil, of Stalin's and Hitler's.

The Japanese were suicide connoisseurs too. John Lardner wrote in May 1945, about the battle for Okinawa: "There was a great deal of Japanese suicide--a branch of hysteria the Japs have developed highly in this war--in many forms, all ingenious." He lists "suicide boats, suicide swimmers, suicide planes," all of them species of Kamikaze attack.

Of course, German wartime tactics also remind us of Iraq. With the Allies and Russians converging on the fatherland, Hitler tried to induce his operatives to destroy their own country before the enemy seized it. Germans in their death throes launched rockets wildly against England and liberated Europe, in hopes they might get lucky and at least kill someone. (Anyone!) In the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans infiltrated English-speaking fighters in Allied uniforms, driving Allied vehicles, behind Allied lines. At Malmédy they massacred American POWs.

Civilian behavior in liberated German territory was equally thought-provoking. By day, wrote Martha Gellhorn in April 1945, "No one is a Nazi. No one ever was." And the Germans declared themselves pleased and relieved to greet the Allies. But at night, they "take pot shots at Americans or string wires across roads, apt to be fatal to men driving jeeps. They burn the houses of Germans who accept posts in our Military Government or they booby-trap ammunition dumps or motorcycles or anything that is likely to be touched." Nice volks. De-Baathification will be required in postwar Iraq, as de-Nazification was in its day. (Will it fail colossally, as de-Nazification did in Germany?)

A harder question: Is it possible for any nation to produce and sustain a brutal dictatorship and be wholly blameless? I don't see how--although (of course) there are degrees of guilt, and the regime's particular enemies might be wholly innocent. Is it possible for a dictator to maim, murder, and brutalize his own people and nonetheless be supported by many, loved by some? Yes.

And yet Iraq is no Nazi Germany; it merely resembles it in some ways. And the Iraq war will have (one feels) a good and satisfying end. Saddam's natural enemies are too large a share of the nation. Coalition forces are too powerful and have been too scrupulous for any other outcome to be possible. In the end we will win the Iraqis' friendship, maybe even their gratitude--by doing what we came to do: beating their enemies. Crushing the Saddamite sadists forever.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.