At the height of the glory of ancient Athens, Alcibiades and others persuaded the Athenians to launch an invasion of Sicily. They believed Athens was destined to be the superpower of the entire region. Those who argued that Athens was the dominant power in the Aegean Sea and had no business sending troops 600 miles to the middle of the Mediterranean were outvoted. The Sicilian Expedition, of course, was a disaster; and Athens, with its excessive pride and ambition, never regained its former stature. In my history classes, I used to describe this as being the stupidest misadventure by any major power before the U.S. chose to go 9000 miles to the jungles of Vietnam. However, that was before George W. Bush and company decided they wanted to invade Iraq.
History is full of unnecessary military actions that led to unmitigated catastrophes. On every Dec. 7 we are reminded of one of the most infamous: Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. There was no legitimate reason to attack the U.S. base. Japan’s only hope of eventual success was to capture and occupy the Hawaiian installation to prevent us from rebuilding it and using it to launch a retaliatory response. Japan didn’t even try. The main thing the Japanese admiral accomplished was to awaken “a sleeping giant.” It led to the U. S. domestic mobilization that produced a mighty industrial nation and to atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The greatest lesson from the American folly in Vietnam was this: The U.S. should avoid getting involved in an ideological war in a land with a culture, tradition, and history alien to our own. We originally sent advisers there to prevent the Soviet Union from spreading its communist domination into South Vietnam. What we encountered was a nationalist Vietnamese named Ho Chi Minh. Those in our diplomatic corps for Southeast Asia who understood the situation had been drummed out of the State Department during the McCarthy Era in the early 1950’s. They were suspected of being communist sympathizers because they had pointed out that Ho had the people’s support. When nationalist Buddhist monks began setting themselves on fire in the streets of Saigon in the early 1960’s, John Kennedy realized something was amiss but didn’t live to set it right.
The second most important lesson from our Vietnam debacle has become the Colin Powell Doctrine: Have a definable goal and commit enough troops to get the job done. The First Gulf War of 1990-91 was an example of that lesson learned. The goal was to drive Saddam’s army out of Kuwait. A UN coalition of 660,000 troops from 34 countries formed in Saudi Arabia to defeat 360,000.
At that time, I was teaching a night class at the Texas Union of the University of Texas in Austin. My 12-hour class was on the strategies and battle tactics of the American Civil War. One of my students was going to miss the final two nights because his reserve unit was being sent to Saudi Arabia. He asked if I had any idea what tactics would be used in the attack on Saddam’s troops. I said that I didn’t think it would matter: Whatever we did would probably result in Saddam’s troops stampeding back to Iraq. Fortunately, my guess was correct, but my “non-answer” was solidly based on Saddam’s disinterest and inability to prevent our troop build-up prior to the pending attack.
I also told him, and the class, that I hoped he wouldn’t have to go into combat. Russia was trying to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Obviously unable to defend his position, Saddam appeared interested. Nevertheless, we didn’t wait. We attacked anyway and successfully drove Saddam’s army back to Iraq. Had we given the Russians more time, the 25,378 deaths in the war may have been avoided; however, our preparation for the war met the criteria for success of the Powell Doctrine.
The reason we attacked early was probably because “the crazies” within the George H. W. Bush administration didn’t want a peaceful resolution. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and his cronies (Wolfowitz, Libby, Perle, and Rumsfeld) wanted to show the world that the U.S. was all-powerful in the absence of the defunct Soviet Union. They believed our armed forces should be used only for fighting – as an attack machine. These neoconservatives opposed using U.S. troops for peacekeeping.
“The crazies” came to near-absolute power in the incompetent, diabolical Bush-Cheney Regime and are best known today as “the chicken hawks.” They were among those “hawks” who supported the Vietnam War, but who went to great lengths to make sure their own lives were never placed in jeopardy. They love war as long as someone else does the fighting and the dying.
Already involved in a justifiable war in Afghanistan because of 9/11, once again “the chicken hawks” were in a hurry to go to war against Iraq. The official reason was to prevent Saddam from developing and using weapons of mass destruction. However, to prevent an invasion, Saddam agreed to allow UN inspectors to return to Iraq. The case for war was weakened every day that Hans Blix and his inspectors found nothing at any of 500 investigated sites; therefore, we ordered the inspectors to leave Iraq so we could invade.
With “the chicken hawks” running our country in 2003, both major lessons of Vietnam were ignored. The invasion of Iraq was a product of their neoconservative ideology. They believed that our military should be used to expand an American empire, to punish any country that they thought questioned our position as the sole remaining superpower, and to impose a democratic system on people who can’t even relate to such a thing. Also, none of them seemed to know the difference between a Shiite, a Sunni, or a Kurd. They knew Saddam could be defeated with a minimal number of troops, but they never planned to bring in the 500,000 troops they knew would be needed to keep the peace. They didn’t believe soldiers should be used for that.
Why did President Bush personally want this war? He wanted to best his father. George H. W. Bush failed to get reelected. The father ended his Gulf War without taking out Saddam Hussein. The son knew this war would accomplish both of those objectives and make him the superior. He wanted this war because of hubris. Hubris is excessive pride and ambition – and the ancient Greeks taught us what that is: It’s that stuff that comes before a fall.
What do Athens’ Sicilian Expedition, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States’ intervention in Vietnam, and the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq have in common? All were caused by excessive pride and ambition, all were unnecessary wars of choice, and all led to disasters. Philosopher George Santayana was right: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published December 30, 2006,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.