Occupational Hazards

Occupational Hazards

Mini Teaser: Many Americans, including some of senior rank, appear to hold candy-coated views of the post-World War II U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan. Dealing with Iraq will be hard enough without enshrouding ourselves in myth.

by Author(s): Douglas Porch

He was right to worry. Indeed, hardly had the U.S. occupation ended
when war criminals were set free, "undemocratic" bureaucratic
privileges and status were re-instituted, education reforms were
abandoned and quiet retribution was meted out to many who had
supported the occupation. Surveys taken a full decade after the war
discovered that a majority of Germans still believed that "Germany's
best time in recent history had been during the first years of the
Nazis." A significant minority opined that "Nazism was a good idea
badly carried out" and believed "Hitler was a great German leader."
Writing in 1961, an American historian of the occupation of Germany
recorded that "most of what Americans tried to promote as positive
programs produced negative effects that far outweighed their positive

Of course, it is true that both Japan and Germany evolved over time
into flourishing democracies, pillars of harmony rather than enemies
of peace. In retrospect, this transformation appears nothing short of
miraculous. Both countries, after all, incubated aggressive military
cultures before 1945. And while Japan and Germany had experimented
with representative democracy, their feeble civil societies succumbed
rather easily to political violence and intimidation in the 1930s. So
how did success come about?

The truth is that the successful rehabilitation of the two former
Axis powers resulted less from Allied occupation policies than from
an array of other factors in combination. These included enlightened
political leadership, "economic miracles" spurred by the Marshall
Plan in Europe and the Korean War in Japan, and the precedent,
however frail, of functioning democratic government in both
countries. Japanese and Germans were both talented, innovative,
technologically-advanced peoples in 1945 who had been abused by their
political systems and pulverized by the war. They had both the skills
to rehabilitate their economies and the deep desire to put the past
behind them. Hardly had the blackout paper been pulled from windows
when, in the view of the historian John Dower, millions of Japanese
resolved "to create a private life free from the dictates of the
state." Above all, though, fear of the Soviets caused leaders in both
countries, supported by their populations, to take shelter under the
U.S. military umbrella.

In short, the real U.S. contribution was to take out the bad guys,
set the ground rules for democratic reform, provide basic
security--and otherwise get out of the limelight. The actual
rehabilitation sprang from a combination of what General Clay called
"the recuperative powers" of both the Japanese and Germans, "Soviet
frightfulness", and patience while Japanese and Germans overcame
their resentment of U.S. rule and internalized their democratization
in the 1950s and 1960s.

This is a far cry from what is now imagined to have happened. The
common, historically untutored assumption now is that if vicious and
amoral Axis populations, capable of ghastly cruelties and suicidal
fanaticism on an unprecedented scale, could be transmogrified under
direct and somewhat protracted American management into orderly,
law-abiding, even humdrum societies, then why not semi-Ba'athified
Iraq? After all, Saddam demoralized rather than fanaticized his
people, so in a fundamental sense Iraq should be easier to
democratize than was Japan or Germany. Doesn't Iraq merely have to
recover the strong traditions of civil society and cultural
pluralism, as Eric Davis has described them, submerged in 1968 by
chauvinistic pan-Arabism and the despotism of the Ba'ath Party?

Alas, it will not be so easy. Post-Saddam Iraq is a poor candidate to
replicate the success of Japan and Germany--a realization that seems
to have informed the initial reluctance of the Bush Administration to
undertake a nation-building role there. Though once a relatively
tolerant, pluralist society, Iraq has become a fractured,
impoverished country, its people susceptible to hysteria and
fanaticism. They are historically difficult to mobilize behind a
common national vision, and no Yoshida Shigeru or Konrad Adenauer can
be expected to emerge from a ruling class that inclines toward
demagogy and corruption.

Nor is the political environment of the Middle East likely to induce
Iraqi politicians, with the blessing of their population, to snuggle
up to the United States as did Japanese and German leaders during the
Cold War. Iran could be a problem but, unlike the Soviets, not a
large enough one to inspire such useful fear. Instead, most Iraqis,
taunted by Al-Jazeera images of Palestine and egged on by
opportunistic clerics of several sorts, are far more likely to see
America as their biggest problem. As for prewar experiences of Iraqi
democracy, there are none.

Dilemmas of Nation-Building

America's nation-builders in Iraq, then, have their work cut out for
them. While the historical precedent of governing postwar Japan and
Germany may supply inadequate blueprints for Iraq, nation-builders
will face many of the same problems encountered by Douglas MacArthur
and Lucius Clay after 1945, problems endemic to any nation-building
enterprise. We ought to study the German and Japanese models so that
we can avoid having to suffer through such nastiness all over again.

There are essentially four dilemmas that we will need to work
through. The first concerns the transition from the Anglo-American
occupation to a new Iraqi army and police force. The second is about
collaborators and retribution. The third concerns the tension between
the asymmetrical psychologies of defeat and liberation, and the
fourth has to do with balancing the need for both stability and

Whose army?

Our first dilemma is to decide the size of the desired military
footprint and the duration of the Anglo-American military occupation
before turning the store over to the locals. Clearly, Iraq has
already paid a significant price in public order for the Pentagon's
decision for a "light" invasion that jettisoned weight for tactical
and operational speed. A significant military presence must remain
long enough to ensure essential services and law and order. The
docility of the Japanese and Germans, and the lack of an outside
threat until the Cold War began to harden, allowedfor a fairly rapid
drawdown of U.S. forces. After all, Truman planned for the American
occupation of Germany and Japan to last only two years.

While post-1945 occupiers planned to rule Japan and Germany
directly--even for these two years--in practice the repatriation of
U.S. forces swiftly turned over the task of running the country to
the locals, with the U.S. military retaining vague supervisory powers
over security, military government courts and de-nazification.
MacArthur's GHQ, which the Japanese joked stood for "Go Home
Quickly", offered a "super-government" to superintend the workings of
the Japanese bureaucracy, whose powers were actually enhanced under
American "indirect rule."

The fact of ongoing turmoil in Iraq, the need to police and
administer the country, and the threat of a national break-up or
civil war argue for a large U.S. garrison for the foreseeable future.
A significant troop presence will also give Washington leverage with
a new government as it is slowly forming. The costs of a heavy
occupation, however, will undoubtedly be repaid in a currency of
resentment, which will undercut the legitimacy of an emergent Iraqi
leadership reliant on U.S. arms for its security. A large troop
presence may actually de-stabilize other parts of the region as well,
creating more security problems than it solves--especially if U.S.
troops become targets for popular outrage and armed attacks.

In addition, soldiers are not particularly adept at
"nation-building", which they do not regard as their primary mission.
Those who have pointed out that U.S. troops have nevertheless done a
lot of policing and nation-building over the years merely state a
fact that has no real bearing on the essential point. If U.S.
soldiers do police and administrative work in Iraq for a long while,
Iraq will invariably come to look like a "second occupation", a
resurrection of the deeply resented British colonial presence. It
will also be associated in Middle Eastern minds with Israel's
occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. A jostling of carpetbagger
American businessmen armed with lucrative contracts to rebuild Iraq,
backed by a massive military presence, will make Baghdad look like
Scarlet O'Hara's Atlanta. It will further stoke Arab skepticism of
U.S. motives, especially if Iraqis see their oil revenue diverted to
defray the costs of the occupation.

Whose democrats?

The second dilemma focuses on those Iraqis who would befriend and
collaborate with us. In Japan and Germany, the help of genuine
democrats prepared to look upon the American arrival as a true
liberation was seldom accepted by officials on the qui vive for
left-wingers or opportunists. Democrats soon came to resent the
cultural arrogance and authoritarian methods of the American Military
Government (AMG), as well as its preference for conservative
politicians hostile to democratic innovations, many of whom had been
close to the collapsed authoritarian regimes.

On the local level, the ability to speak English became the main
selection criteria for employment, which brought in a motley
collection of local AMG employees--some with criminal records--who
proceeded to install their friends in government jobs. Because local
U.S. Military Government personnel were inexperienced, frequently
rotated and almost never spoke the local language, they relied on
these people to inform de-nazification and "re-orientation" programs
and to decide on property requisitions to house Americans. As a
result, American occupiers who claimed to be democratizing Germany
instead appeared arbitrary and hypocritical to most Germans. "There
are your democratic friends from America", Germans who favored the
American programs were told. "What have they brought you?"

Essay Types: Essay