WAS IT A MISTAKE to go to war in Iraq? The latest voice to say so is that of conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online's shrewd editor-at-large and, until last week, a supporter of the war.
Goldberg hasn't become a John Murtha clone; he still believes that a precipitous American withdrawal would hand the jihadis a victory, and that finishing the job is preferable to bugging out and leaving Iraq a shambles. He proposes putting the question to the Iraqis: Let them vote on whether US troops should stay or go.
But he has concluded that invading Iraq was the wrong choice, however well-intentioned. "The Iraq war was a mistake," he writes, "by the most obvious criteria: If we had known then what we know now, we would never have gone to war with Iraq in 2003."
Yet is that really how this war -- or any war -- should be judged?
A re-enactment of the British burning of the White House in the History Channel documentary "First Invasion: The War of 1812."
In 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain, in part because of Britain's crippling blockade of US ports and the forced impressment of American seamen into the Royal Navy. But if Americans had known in 1812 what they found out in 1814 -- that the enemy would capture Washington and burn the Capitol, the Treasury, and the White House -- would they have gone to war with Britain? Perhaps not. Does that mean the war was a mistake?
We know now that the War of 1812 ended not with a US defeat, but with Britain, a superpower of the day, fought to a stalemate by its former colonies. As a consequence, the young republic earned international esteem; never again would Britain challenge American independence. Indeed, never again would the two nations make war on each other. If Congress had known that in 1812, would it have voted for war? Quite likely. Maybe by an even larger majority.
Wars are routinely botched, and the Iraq war is no exception. Overconfidence, intelligence failures, poor planning -- none of it is unique to the current war or the current administration.
In 1944, the Allies were sure that Hitler was nearly beaten, that the Germans had no appetite for a counteroffensive, and that the quiet Ardennes Forest along the Belgian-German border was a good place to station rookie soldiers and exhausted units needing a breather. It took the generals utterly by surprise when Hitler hurled a quarter of a million troops against the Ardennes, launching what would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was the bloodiest encounter of the war for US troops -- five ghastly weeks during which 19,000 American soldiers lost their lives, and another 60,000 were maimed or captured.
Fighting the Nazis as well as a savage winter, the Allies took tens of thousands of casualties during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
Today we realize that the Battle of the Bulge was Hitler's last gasp, and that the European war would be over a few months later. But at the time there were fears that the war might grind on for years. Doubtless some Americans found themselves thinking that the war with Germany had been a blunder -- one that could have been avoided "if we had known then what we know now."
Iraq is not the first war to plummet in popularity. At the start of the Civil War, many Northerners giddily anticipated a quick victory. Secretary of State William Seward "thought the war would be over in 90 days," writes historian David Herbert Donald in his splendid biography of Abraham Lincoln. "The New York Times predicted victory in 30 days, and the New York Tribune assured its readers 'that Jeff. Davis & Co. will be swinging from the battlements at Washington . . . by the 4th of July.'"
Had they had an inkling of the carnage to come, would they so lustily have cheered Lincoln's bid to save the Union? Long before the war's end, the cheers would turn to bitter censure. By 1863, the war was being denounced in Congress as "an utter, disastrous, and most bloody failure," while Lincoln and his administration were despised for their incompetence. "There never was such a shambling, half-and-half set of incapables collected in one government," Senator William Pitt Fessendon of Maine said in disgust, "before or since the world began."
The point isn't that the violent mess in Iraq today is analogous to the Civil War in 1863, or to the Ardennes in 1944, or to the burning of Washington in 1814. The point is that we don't know. Like earlier Americans, we have to choose between resolve and retreat, with no guarantees about how it will end. All we can be sure of is that the stakes once again are liberty and decency vs. tyranny and terror -- that we are fighting an enemy that feeds on weakness and expects us to lose heart -- and that Americans for generations to come will remember whether we flinched.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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