By William J. Astore
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), earned a doctorate in modern history from the University of Oxford in 1996. He has taught military cadets at the Air Force Academy and officers at the Naval Postgraduate School, and now teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. His books and articles focus primarily on military history and include Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The world's finest military launches a highly coordinated shock-and-awe attack that shows enormous initial progress. There's talk of the victorious troops being home for Christmas. But the war unexpectedly drags on. As fighting persists into a third, and then a fourth year, voices are heard calling for negotiations, even "peace without victory." Dismissing such peaceniks and critics as defeatists, a conservative and expansionist regime -- led by a figurehead who often resorts to simplistic slogans and his Machiavellian sidekick who is considered the brains behind the throne -- calls for one last surge to victory. Unbeknownst to the people on the home front, however, this duo has already prepared a seductive and self-exculpatory myth in case the surge fails.
The United States in 2007? No, Wilhelmine Germany in 1917 and 1918, as its military dictators, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his loyal second, General Erich Ludendorff, pushed Germany toward defeat and revolution in a relentless pursuit of victory in World War I. Having failed with their surge strategy on the Western Front in 1918, they nevertheless succeeded in deploying a stab-in-the-back myth, or Dolchstoßlegende, that shifted blame for defeat from themselves and Rightist politicians to Social Democrats and others allegedly responsible for losing the war by their failure to support the troops at home.
The German Army knew it was militarily defeated in 1918. But this was an inconvenient truth for Hindenburg and the Right, so they crafted a new "truth": that the troops were "unvanquished in the field." So powerful did these words become that they would be engraved in stone on many a German war memorial.
It's a myth we ourselves are familiar with. As South Vietnam was collapsing in 1975, Army Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., speaking to a North Vietnamese counterpart, claimed the U.S. military had never lost a battle in Vietnam. Perhaps so, the NVA colonel replied, "but it is also irrelevant." Summers recounts his conversation approvingly, without irony, in his book On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. For him, even if we lost the war, our Army proved itself "unbeatable."
Though Summers' premise was -- and remains -- dangerously misleading, it reassured the true believers who ran, and continue to run, our military. Those military men who were less convinced of our "unbeatable" stature tended to keep their own counsel. Their self-censorship, coupled with wider institutional self-deception, effectively opened the door to exculpatory myths.
A New American Stab-in-the-Back?
Warnings about a new stab-in-the-back myth may seem premature or overheated at this moment in the Iraq War. Yet, if the history of the original version of this myth is any guide, the opposite is true. They are timely precisely because the Dolchstoßlegende was not a post-war concoction, but an explanation cunningly, even cynically, hatched by Rightists in Germany before the failure of the desperate, final "victory offensive" of 1918 became fully apparent. Although Hindenburg's dramatic testimony in November 1919 -- a full year after the armistice that ended the war -- popularized the myth in Germany, it caught fire precisely because the tinder had been laid to dry two years earlier.
It may seem farfetched to compare a Prussian military dictatorship and its self-serving lies to the current Bush administration. Yet I'm not the first person to express concern about the emergence of our very own Iraqi Dolchstoßlegende. Back in 2004, Matthew Yglesias first brought up the possibility. Last year, in Harper's Magazine, Kevin Baker detailed the history of the stab-in-the-back, suggesting that Bush's Iraqi version was already beginning to germinate early in 2005, when news from Iraq turned definitively sour. And this October, in The Nation, Eric Alterman warned that the Bush administration was already busily sowing the seeds of this myth. Other Iraqi myth-trackers have included Gary Kamiya at Salon.com, and Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith at Commondreams.org. Just this August, Thomas Ricks, Washington Post columnist and author of the bestselling book, Fiasco, worried publicly about whether the military itself wasn't already embracing elements of the myth whose specific betrayers would include "weasely politicians" (are there any other kind?) and a "media who undercut us by focusing on the negative."
Is an American version of this myth really emerging then? Let's listen in on a recent Jim Lehrer interview with Senator John McCain, who, while officially convinced that the President's surge plan in Iraq was working, couldn't seem to help talking about how we might yet lose. His remarks quickly took a disturbing turn as he pointed out that our Achilles' heel in Iraq is… well, we the people of the United States and our growing impatience with the war. And the historical analogy he employed was Vietnam, the catalyst for the deployment of the previous American Dolchstoßlegende.
While the Vietnam War was disastrous, McCain conceded, our military had -- he argued -- turned the tide after the enemy's Tet Offensive in 1968 and the replacement of Gen. William Westmoreland with Gen. Creighton Abrams as commander of our forces there. Precisely at that tipping-point moment, he insisted, the American people, their patience exhausted, had lost their will to win. For McCain, there really was a light at the end of that Vietnamese tunnel -- the military saw it, yet the American people, blinded by bad news, never did.
In today's Iraq -- again the McCain version -- Gen. David Petraeus is the new Abrams, finally the right general for the job. And his new tactic of protecting the Iraqi people, thereby winning their hearts and minds, is working. Victory beckons at the end of the "long, hard path" (that evidently has replaced the Vietnamese tunnel), unless the American people run out of patience, as they did back in the late 1960s.
McCain is no Hindenburg. Yet his almost automatic displacement of ultimate responsibility from the Bush administration and the military to the American people indicates the traction the stab-in-the-back myth has already gained in mainstream politics. For the moment, with hope for some kind of victory, however defined, not quite vanquished in official circles, our latest dagger-myth remains sheathed, its murderous power as yet unwielded.
Then again, perhaps that's not quite the case, even now. In The Empire Strikes Back, young Luke Skywalker asks Yoda, his wizened Jedi Master, whether the dark side of the Force is stronger than the good. No, Yoda replies, just "easier, quicker, more seductive" -- an accurate description of the dark power of the stab-in-the-back myth. Politicians sense its future power and alter their positions accordingly. For example, no leading presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat, dares to be labeled "defeatist" by calling for a major withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2008. Exceptions like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, or even Bill Richardson only prove the rule -- with support in the low single-digits, they risk little in bucking the odds.
Fear of being labeled "the enemy within" is already silently reshaping our politics as even decorated combat veterans like Congressman (and retired Marine Corps colonel) John Murtha are not immune from being smeared for criticizing the President's war. Politicians recognize that, in a campaign, it's well-nigh impossible to overcome charges of weakness and pusillanimity. Senator Hillary Clinton senses that she may be unelectable unless she argues for us to continue to fight the good fight in Iraq, albeit more intelligently. In fact, if you're looking for significant changes in troop levels or strategy there, better hunker in for Inauguration Day 2009 -- and then prepare to wait some more.
Of Myths and Accountability
McCain's comments did echo a Clausewitzian truth. In warfare, the people's will is an indispensable component of a nation's warfighting "trinity" (that also includes the government and the military). It's exceedingly difficult to prevail in a major war, if a leg of this triad is hobbled. By choosing not to mobilize the people's will, by telling us to go about our normal lives as others were fighting and dying in our name, the Bush administration actually hobbled its own long-term efforts. Now, they are getting ready to claim that it was all our fault. We were the ones who lost our patience and will to victory. This is rather like the boy who killed his father and mother, only to throw himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan.
Back in 2002-2003, with an all-volunteer military, a new Blitzkrieg strategy, and believing God to be on their side, it appears Bush and Company initially assumed that broader calls for support and sacrifice were militarily unnecessary -- and unnecessarily perilous politically. Now, despite dramatic setbacks over the last four years, they still refuse to mobilize our national will. Their refusal reminds me of the tagline of those old Miller Lite beer commercials: Everything you always wanted in a war, and less -- as in less (or even no) sacrifices.
So let me be clear: If we lose in Iraq, the American people will not be to blame. We cannot be accused of lacking a will that was never wanted or called upon to begin with. Yet the stab-in-the-back myth gains credibility precisely because so few high-level people either in government or the military are being held accountable for failures in Iraq.
In World War II, Thomas Ricks reminds us, our military relieved seventeen division commanders and four corps commanders of duty. With the possible exception of Brig. Gen. Janice Karpinski of Abu Ghraib infamy, has any senior officer been relieved for cause in Iraq? Since none apparently has, does this mean that, unlike the spineless American people, they have all performed well?
To cite just one typical case, Major General Kenneth Hunzeker served as the commanding general, Civilian Police Assistance Training Team, from October 2006 to July 2007 in Iraq. Surely, this was a tough job, especially for a man with no proficiency in Arabic. Yet, by all accounts, Iraqi police units to this day remain remarkably corrupt, militia-ridden, and undependable. Does this mean Hunzeker failed? Apparently not, since he was promoted to lieutenant general and given a coveted corps command. Interestingly, his most recent official biography fails to mention his time in Iraq leading the police assistance team. Even if Hunzeker was indeed the best man for the job, what kind of progress could have been possible in a ten-month tour of duty? By the time Hunzeker learned a few painful lessons, he was already jetting to Germany and command of V Corps.
If no one is held accountable for failed policies, if, in fact, those closest to the failures are showered with honors -- as was, for instance, L. Paul Bremer III, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad for the President from May 2003 to June 2004 -- it becomes easier to shift blame to anyone (or everyone). Here, German precedents are again compelling. Because the German people were never told they were losing World War I, even as their Army was collapsing in July and August 1918, they were unprepared for the psychological blow of defeat -- and so, all-too-willing to accept the lie that the collapse was due to the enemy within.
This is not to say that today's military has been silent. To cite three examples, retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez recently criticized the surge strategy and called the Iraq war "a nightmare with no end in sight." Another perspective came from 12 Army captains formerly stationed in Iraq, who, writing in the Washington Post, also rejected the surge and called for rapid withdrawal as the best of a series of bad options. Finally, seven NCOs in the elite 82d Airborne Division (and then still in Iraq) offered graphic illustrations (on the op-ed page of the New York Times) of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back nature of "progress" on the ground in Iraq.
Think of these as three military perspectives on a disastrous war. But even they can serve as only a partial antidote to the myth that some kind of victory is inevitable as long as we, the American people, remain supinely supportive of administration policy.
Given the right post-war conditions, the myth of the stab-in-the-back can facilitate the rise of reactionary regimes and score-settling via long knives -- just ask Germans under Hitler in 1934. It also serves to exonerate a military of its blunders and blind spots, empowering it and its commanders to launch redemptive, expansionist adventures that turn disastrous precisely because previous lessons of defeat were never faced, let alone absorbed or embraced.
Thus, the German military's collapse in World War I and the Dolchstoß myth that followed enabled the even greater disaster of World War II. Is it possible that our own version of this, associated with Vietnam, enabled an even greater disaster in Iraq? And, if so, what could the next version of the stab-in-the-back bring in its wake?
Only time will tell. But consider yourself warned. If we lose Iraq, you're to blame.
Copyright 2007 William J. Astore
07 November 2007
By William J. Astore