America, Iraq, and the question of total war

OPINION: If the war in Iraq is really worth fighting, then America should fight with everything it's got.

Omar Bradley, an American general in World War II, observed: "In war there is no second prize for the runner-up." In a similar vein, the legendary Gen. Douglas MacArthur cautioned his fellow Americans: "It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it."

Despite such warnings, America's political leaders today – in both the White House and Congress – have waged the war in Iraq as if defeat were acceptable. One wonders why.

Although the United States has sustained more than 3,000 battle deaths and has spent billions of dollars in Iraq, the nation's overall fight against Saddam Hussein and his successors has been marked by hesitation and half-steps.

That's how wars are lost.

The Allies won WWII against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan with an all-out effort and resolute orders from the top. President Franklin Roosevelt called for "total war" on the Axis powers. He demanded "unconditional surrender.

Are America's current leaders that tough?

The meaning of 'total war'

Roosevelt's reference to "total war" was not mere rhetoric. Total war means everything belonging to the enemy is a potential target – their factories, their cities, even their civilians. With clear orders from Roosevelt, generals such as Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton knew what to do. They obliterated Germany's and Japan's will to fight. The cost was high, including hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in the Axis homelands.

In 1945, total war led to the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by some 3,000 British and US planes. An estimated 135,000 Germans, mostly civilians, were killed. Within days, other US bombers launched similar raids that created a firestorm in Tokyo that killed nearly 84,000 Japanese and wounded 40,000 more. A few months later, US planes dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Everything and everyone had become a target. Free-World leaders used the attacks on cities to hasten the end of the war with a minimum of Allied casualties. They felt justified. WWII presented a stark choice: kill or be killed. The Allies felt a moral imperative – an absolute duty – to crush the fascist powers that threatened Western civilization.

Does the United States have the same moral conviction today to win the war in Iraq? Listening to the debates in Congress, one would think the answer is no. Nor has the president's leadership been decisive on this point.

President Bush has warned that if US forces withdraw from Iraq, a global terrorist movement will follow the troops back to American soil. He has compared "Islamic fascism" with the Nazi threat.

Is this true? If so, then why is America's response so half-hearted? Where is the national mobilization of earlier wars? Why is there no draft? Why is the burden of this war falling primarily on a few hundred thousand military volunteers while the rest of us are told to go shopping?

Clearly the US could win the war in Iraq if it wished. It is, after all, a superpower. Perhaps a moral ambiguity about this war makes Washington hesitate. The leaders in Washington, for reasons only they fully understand, have chosen to fight a limited war with shifting goals.

Limited wars, limited results

History does not look kindly on such limited wars by the US.

Since WWII, the US has fought four large but conditional wars. Korea was a stalemate; Vietnam was a loss. The first Persian Gulf War was the only clear victory. Iraq II hangs in the balance.

However, when the US has fought "total" wars during the past 150 years, it has always won, including the Civil War and World War II. The American South tasted the bitterness of "total war" in 1864 when Union Gen. William Sherman drove everyone, including women and children, out of Atlanta and then burned most of the city to the ground. He then marched 200 miles across Georgia to the sea with 62,000 soldiers who burned and pillaged as they moved through farms and towns. Soon after, the South surrendered.

In Iraq, restraints put on US troops have given the insurgents a military windfall. It has handed them critical time – more than four years – to refine their tactics and search for US weaknesses. Limited warfare has left much of the civilian population in Iraq undeterred as they shelter and support the growing army of insurgents.

As the US fights its one-handed campaign, the insurgents are waging their own version of "total war": It's not just US and British forces being targeted in Iraq, but mosques, churches, open-air markets, restaurants, shops, government buildings, street corners – anywhere people gather. The carnage is spreading.

Air Marshall Sir Robert Saundby, one of those involved in the deadly 1945 air attacks on Dresden, said in the foreword to "The Destruction of Dresden," by David Irving: "It's not so much this or the other means of making war that is immoral or inhumane. What is immoral is war itself. Once full-scale war has broken out it can never be humanized or civilized...."

Sir Robert then adds this critical point: "... and if one side attempted to do so [wage a humanized war] it would be most likely to be defeated."

Win – or go home

That may be happening to the US now in Iraq. America and Britain didn't win WWII by building playgrounds and schools and setting up local governments. They won by pounding the other side into dust. As American Gen. George Patton once said, "Nobody ever defended anything successfully; there is only attack and attack and attack some more." Rebuilding comes later.

Many Americans say we should never have attacked Iraq in the first place. Afghanistan is where the real enemy was. It's an argument historians will have to settle. But the piecemeal way this Iraq war has been fought has added to the injury on all sides.

Perhaps the message to Mr. Bush, Congress, and the American people should be: If this fight is worth doing, if America truly has an unquestionable moral imperative to win, then wage it with everything you've got. Otherwise, why is America there?

John Dillin covered the Vietnam war for the Monitor in 1966-67 and later served as its managing editor.

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