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David Day: Because Countries Don't Like to Admit Defeat, They Often Keep Fighting Long After Looming Defeat Is Obvious

Roundup: Historians' Take




David Day, in the Australian (12-22-04):

[David Day, an honorary associate of the history program at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, is author of Conquest: A New History of the Modern World (forthcoming, HarperCollins).]

If history is any guide, it will take many more lives than the nearly 1 per cent of the population who have been killed since the toppling of Saddam. The historical record reveals that governments tend to keep their armies fighting long after defeat has become almost certain.

To avoid the political cost of surrender, they enter a state of denial about defeat. Rather than cutting their losses at an early stage and thereby limiting the bloodshed, political and military leaders tend to keep the troops fighting and the civilians dying until defeat is incontrovertible.

Thus, within three weeks of the landing at Gallipoli in 1915, it was clear to British military and political figures that Winston Churchill's mad plan for capturing the Dardanelles was doomed to failure. Yet no one was prepared to pay the political cost that would be incurred by calling a stop to a campaign that had already taken the lives of 15,000 Allied troops. It would take seven more months of senseless fighting, tens of thousands more deaths and the exposure of the debacle in the press before the British admitted defeat.

Similarly, on the Western Front of World War I, millions of troops were sent to their deaths in useless offensives when both sides knew their forces would be unable to break through the formidable defences of trenches and barbed wire to score a decisive victory. It was only when the German home front collapsed, partly under the impact of the economic embargo, that the generals and politicians conceded the uselessness of it all and agreed to an armistice.

In World War II, the German denial of defeat continued until the Allies had occupied most of Germany and the Russian armies had levelled Berlin. Even then, Hitler hoped that a last-minute rupture between the Americans and Russians might yet save his Reich from destruction. Only after his suicide could the surviving Nazis attempt to sue for peace. As for their Japanese allies in the Pacific, not even the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the destruction of its navy could force the Japanese government to surrender in 1945. It took the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to make Japan acknowledge what had been clear to the rest of the world for nearly three years.

Sometimes, of course, denying defeat can buy time for an apparently vanquished nation during which the situation might be turned around. Thus the British denied defeat following the collapse of their forces in France in 1940. Instead of agreeing to a compromise peace with Germany, the intervening English Channel allowed them to adopt a defiant stance when a cool assessment of the opposing forces might have dictated otherwise. Eighteen months later, the balance of forces shifted in Britain's favour and the defeat of Dunkirk was gradually transformed into eventual victory, although at the cost of many millions of lives that might otherwise have been saved.

Britain was sustained in its denial of defeat in 1940 by a sense of the justice of its cause and the innate superiority of its arms and people, a belief that was sorely tested by events such as the fall of Singapore.

The Americans were fortified by a similar sense when they went into Vietnam in the 1960s, setting their technology and their manpower against the Vietnamese guerillas. They were even more sorely tested than the British because of the ignominy of their eventual defeat 10 years later, when they had to withdraw by the anti-war turmoil at home and defeat on the battlefield.

Despite nearly 50,000 dead, the Americans were loath to acknowledge Vietnam as a defeat. Some blamed the US, under pressure from the peace movement, for supposedly restricting its forces from unleashing their full fury against the Vietnamese and thereby denying them victory. Not that much was held back, with everything from defoliation to napalm used against the Vietnamese at the cost of more than 1million lives.

For some Americans, the war in Iraq is meant to expunge the ignominy of Vietnam, which is partly why the agony for Iraqis is likely to be prolonged. But there are other factors that make an early end to this war unlikely.

First, there will be no clear battlefield defeat like the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu to force a US withdrawal. Instead, there is likely to be continuing skirmishes and bombings that take a growing, but never devastating, toll on the US forces. Without some such climactic act, the pressure for withdrawal will take a long time to build.

Second, the domestic American opposition to the war, as well as the opposition worldwide, will continue to be muted by the brutality of the insurgency and the feeling that the world is better off without Saddam.

Third, the Americans have too strong an interest in retaining control of Iraq to give it up lightly....


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