If we weren’t born yesterday, we know by now that it is so much easier to start a war than to end one. Our military talks about going into a war with an “exit strategy,” but what makes us think that we know enough about the situation in the country we are invading to devise an exit strategy that is based on any kind of reality, Take Iraq, for example. We stepped into that tar baby (or was it something equally sticky, but more pungent?) with a display of what George W. Bush called “shock and awe.” It made for good newsreel photography, but don’t you think that once people figured out was happening, they burrowed deep into their warrens and, except for a few unlucky souls, managed to survive.
For a while, things looked pretty good. But then something happened that the Pentagon never imagined: The invasion forced the irreconcilable elements of Iraqi society to splinter apart so quickly that, before we knew what was happening, we found ourselves in a civil war. After the first victories, we bottled ourselves up in the Green Zone. Whenever our boys ventured out, they risked being blown to smithereens by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Wars tend to accelerate the rapid transformation of societies. Take a look at what happened with all the displaced persons who found themselves stateless at the end of the Second World War.
We are not the only ones to find ourselves in this situation. Take Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of Russia—in 1941. Hitler and his General Staff thought that after some quick one-sided victories, Stalin would sue for peace. After all, the Soviet leader had no idea what was coming. When a Nazi deserter crossed into Russia to warn of an impending mass invasion the day before Barbarossa, Stalin casually had him executed as a spy attempting to sow disinformation. The Germans won their rapid victories and, for two years, came close to taking it all. They had an exit strategy, however, that bore no relation to reality. They thought Stalin would quickly sue for peace. Hitler would then take over Belarus and the Ukraine, send the Slavic riff-raff to death camps, and re-settle the area with prosperous German farmers. So ingrained was this image in the Germans’ minds that they made three slight errors:
- They did not plan to repair or replace the tanks, trucks, artillery, and other war machinery that would bog down on muddy Russian roads.
- They did not equip their troops with winter clothing.
- They did not have enough gasoline and oil to power their working war machinery.
When the Russians began their counter-offensive, they found the roads littered with frozen Wehrmacht corpses. Only 10-20% of the vaunted Nazi tanks were still working. And Paulus’s Sixth Army could not take Stalingrad because they didn’t have the fuel to get a sufficient number of their war machines into battle.
And as for the transformations wrought in Russian society, they were extensive. The war unified the Russians behind Stalin: They called it the Great Patriotic War. They moved their manufacturing capabilities out of range of the German bombers. Unlike Hitler, Stalin actually listened to his generals … in the long run, anyhow. On the negative side, Stalin assumed that every Russian who was ever behind German lines was suspected of collaboration: Hundreds of thousands were sent to the Gulag.
Japan’s exit strategy was to form a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere consisting of China, Korea, Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines, and whatever other country they were able to overcome. No one told the Imperial Japanese Army, however, to be nice to the conquered peoples of East Asia. The net result was that no one voluntarily wanted in to Japan’s scheme.
Even Germany’s Schlieffen Plan (see Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August) in the First World War was defective. It was no longer 1870, when Bismarck and von Moltke crushed France in a cakewalk. They forgot to consider that this might turn out to be a long war which they were not sufficiently endowed with the natural wealth to endure.
And so it goes. I am grateful that we did not take the opportunity to invade Syria. I can just see it now: After both sides whine for American help, no sooner would we show up than both sides would say, “Let’s get ’em” and proceed to blow us into kingdom come.