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Have We Given in to Defeatism?

The news from Iraq, as far as we can tell, is not good. The war to remove Saddam Hussein was quick and relatively bloodless, but the more ambitious goal of bringing democracy to the Fertile Crescent still seems a long way off. Recent events in Fallujah suggest that it could be many months—years perhaps—before the various Saddam loyalists and foreign terrorists arrayed against the U.S. and its Iraqi supporters are defeated once and for all.

As a result of this, criticism of the administration has been mounting. Much of this comes from predictable quarters. Those who opposed the Iraq war from the beginning have trotted out the now-familiar Vietnam analogy; but then again, they have been doing so repeatedly for over a year now. Paleoconservative Pat Buchanan has called Fallujah the “high tide of empire”; but he has been denouncing the course of U.S. foreign policy as “globaloney” ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Some of the critics, however, are new ones—individuals who supported the war, but are beginning to despair over the administration’s subsequent handling of Iraq. Over at National Review Online, Mackubin Owens fears that the failure to level Fallujah sends a signal to the enemy that the United States is weak. Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Washington Times says that while the situation might not yet merit the term “quagmire,” it might deserve to be called “quagmiry.” Andrew Sullivan believes that the White House “doesn’t have a clue” about what is occurring in Fallujah.

For those of us who have been carefully watching the news reports, desperately trying to figure out what is going on, these seem like dark days, indeed. But as bad as things seem now, they were worse in 1942. Much worse.

There were many Americans who earnestly believed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that World War II was practically over. Now that the massive economic power of the United States was being directed against the Axis, the war could be won in just a few months. The rest was, in Churchill’s later words, “merely the proper application of overwhelming force.”

But that “proper application” would end up taking quite some time to develop. In the first six months after Pearl Harbor the news from abroad was uniformly bad. The Germans had resumed the offensive in Russia, and although they had failed to take Moscow they seemed poised to seize the strategically vital oil fields east of the Black Sea. In North Africa Rommel’s Afrika Korps was menacing the Suez Canal. Closer to home, by June 1942 U-boats hovering off the East Coast—close enough that they were able to see the headlights of cars on shore—had sunk nearly 400 American ships.

As bad as all this seemed, developments in East Asia and the Pacific theater were even worse. By the middle of 1942 the Japanese had succeeded in conquering the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, and most of Burma and New Guinea. In addition to the staggering losses inflicted on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Japanese ships and aircraft wreaked havoc against American, Dutch, and British forces throughout the Pacific, even managing to sink the mighty British battleship Prince of Wales, one of the newest in the Royal Navy.

A spate of propaganda over the past ten years about the “greatest generation” has contributed to a widely-held belief that during World War II Americans accepted such developments stoically, without complaint, and that bad news only intensified their resolve to see the fight through to a successful finish. In fact, the reverse was true; Americans were stunned by these reversals, and were quick to look for someone to blame. For a while the British appeared to be a convenient target; one poll taken after the fall of the North African fortress of Tobruk elicited responses suggesting that there was “too much tea-drinking and not enough fighting.” The editors of the New Republic, meanwhile, complained that the British army was underperforming due to a “social rigidity which has kept the best British military ability from coming to the top.”

Nor was the administration immune to criticism, particularly for its commitment to defeating Germany first. Given that it had been the Japanese who had attacked Pearl Harbor, Americans found it difficult to understand why in the first months of the war more U.S. troops were being sent to the United Kingdom than to, say, the Philippines, where they might help Gen. Douglas MacArthur to stop the invading Japanese forces. A Gallup poll showed that a substantial majority of the population believed that Japan was the nation’s “chief enemy,” and therefore that most of the country’s resources should be committed to the Pacific. In fact, as late as mid-1943 a bipartisan group of senators—all of whom, it should be noted, had a history of opposition to the president’s policies—were accusing the administration of an almost criminal neglect of the war against Japan.

Such attacks convinced Roosevelt that he had to give the American people a victory; if possible, before the midterm congressional elections in 1942. However, Operation Torch—the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa—had to be pushed back until after Election Day, and the result was a debacle for the Democratic Party. The Republicans picked up no less than 44 seats in the House of Representatives and nine in the Senate. Only in the so-called “Solid South” did Democrats manage to survive reelection challenges.

But even if Operation Torch had taken place before Election Day it is unlikely that the result would have been much different. American troops coming ashore in French-held North Africa soon encountered stiff resistance from French troops, who arguably fought harder in this campaign than they had against the invading Germans in 1940. The fighting only ceased when an agreement was negotiated with Admiral Jean Francois Darlan, the Vichy French commander. This, however, led to howls of protests from liberals—Darlan was a fascist, and to negotiate with him was a betrayal of what the war was supposed to be about. “A deal with the devil,” was how radio commentator Walter Winchell put it. In the words of historian Thomas Fleming, hostility to the Darlan deal reflected the struggle “between the New Dealers’ approach to the war and those who rated realism above moral purity.”

If these events have largely faded from public memory, it is no doubt because we know that ultimately what mattered was the outcome of the war—the Allies won, Nazism and fascism were crushed, and the former Axis Powers would become constitutional republics. The defeats of 1942, and the resulting criticism of the war effort, today appear to be of merely academic interest. However, it is important to remember them during these trying days. Modern communications have developed to the point that every bit of information coming in from Fallujah and elsewhere is eagerly pored over, and a host of reporters, columnists, radio personalities and Internet bloggers are under pressure to offer instant analysis, desperately trying to make sense of a complicated situation based on highly limited information. In such a situation, is it any wonder that the overall picture we receive tends to be one of imminent disaster?

None of this is to claim that the administration’s handling of Iraq is above criticism; still less to suggest that the Allied victory in World War II makes triumph in the Middle East somehow inevitable. It should, however, remind us that what strikes us as noteworthy in the here and now might well end up in the final analysis as insignificant details. The fortunes of war are ever-changing, and apparent short-term failure is frequently the price to be paid for long-term success. What in isolation might seem to be a bad policy or a devastating setback might well turn out to be very different when put into a larger context. In other words, those who are predicting disaster in Iraq based on mere tidbits of information coming in from Fallujah may find themselves looking foolish in the long run.