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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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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.