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

The same sort of thing is likely to happen in postwar Iraq. Of the
hundreds of officials in Ambassador Bremer's entourage, only about
twenty are active State Department employees with overseas
experience. The rest are political appointees sent by the White
House. This is no way to run a Raj, as the Russians discovered in
Afghanistan, where their presence between 1979 and 1988 was
underpinned by Soviet Communist Party officials seconded from local
duties to "state-building" activities abroad. Only three members of
Bremer's staff reportedly speak fluent Arabic. There are a fair
number of good English speakers among Iraqis, but that only makes the
task of discerning who is invested in unsavory motives even harder.
Not surprisingly, aspiring Iraqi politicians are cautious about
associating too intimately with neophyte foreign proconsuls who
depend on selected local collaborators for their knowledge of the
country. "It is very difficult to participate in something that we
have no control over", one insisted. "We don't want to be part of the
blame committee when something goes wrong."

In Japan, the American occupation was heavily laden with colonial and
racial overtones and unburdened by self-doubt. And while the United
States today is a much more multicultural, multiethnic and tolerant
society than it was in 1945, the Iraqis will nevertheless
characterize the American presence as a re-run of their imperial
experience. German and Japanese politicians discovered that
opposition to AMG policies, and claims that the Americans had allowed
socialists and communists to infiltrate the government to prepare the
revolution, were sure-fire formulas for election. Roughly analogous
political platforms could develop in Iraq, even though U.S.
administrators bend over backwards to be neutral in Iraqi political,
ethnic and religious disputes.

Defeat and liberation

A third, related dilemma is how to reconcile defeat and liberation.
By 1945, both Japan and Germany had been made to feel the hard hand
of conquest. Both countries were utterly devastated by Allied
bombing. The occupiers took the view that Axis populations were
incorrigibly vicious and immoral, indoctrinated to fanaticism by
decades of chauvinistic propaganda. "Unconditional surrender",
proposed by Franklin Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference of
January 1943, expressed a determination to rebuild the Axis countries
from the ground up, so that they would no longer threaten world peace.

For Japan and Germany, utter defeat became the entry to liberation.
It was part and parcel of the logic of the war. Indeed, the two were
inseparable. As Dower has noted, defeat and surrender liberated the
survivors from the requirement to die. Defeat also discredited
militarists and Nazis and eradicated any residual desire in either
country to reclaim world power or even dominant regional roles. In
the ashes of their cities, Japanese and Germans were liberated from
the grip of ideology and became pragmatists, unlike 1918, when defeat
spawned violence and revolution. America's former enemies desired a
democratic, free-market future, not because the occupiers wanted it,
but because defeat caused a seismic attitude shift among the
populations who now wanted to put the past behind them and rebuild
their lives.

This is particularly clear in the Japanese case. MacArthur forced
conservative Japanese politicians to pass ground-breaking social
legislation--land and labor reform, decentralization of the police,
female suffrage, education and judicial reform, and a new
constitution--that they had every intention of revoking. But the
politicians were unable to do so because the Japanese people became
strongly attached to them. In Germany, Christian Democratic and
Social Democratic parties, sensing this mood shift, began before long
to encourage moderation and cooperation with the occupiers rather
than resistance to them.

Unlike postwar Japanese and Germans, Iraqis are unlikely to recognize
any such links between defeat and liberation. Their country has been
spared physical destruction on the scale that was inflicted on the
Axis powers. This should have made Iraqis well-disposed toward the
occupiers. Yet coalition forces opened to very mixed reviews in
Baghdad and surrounds. True, the weight of Ba'athi dictatorship
having been lifted from the country ought to count in favor of the
United States, but even that must be deemed a mixed blessing. This
blessing is especially mixed for Sunnis whose ascendancy was
guaranteed by Saddam, and also for those who regard with apprehension
U.S. promises of democratic reforms, which might hand over power to
the Shi'a. On top of it all, the failure of an Arab army, once again,
to put up a respectable fight offers up yet another humiliation, and
humiliation seldom metastasizes into gratitude. At least the Japanese
and the Germans went down fighting, even if in defense of discredited
causes, and could console themselves that they had succumbed to force

In contrast, Gulf War II has not discredited pan-Arabism along with
Ba'athism, nor put to rest Saddam's promise to liberate Jerusalem
like a modern-day Saladin. Saddam may be gone, but similar
ideological incantations continue to cast a spell over the Arab
imagination. As a result of all this, America cannot be easily viewed
as a liberator. The Iraqi body politic sees itself as having been a
victim of European colonialism, and it sees the Anglo-American
occupation as its second coming.

So do most of Iraq's neighbors. After all, in 1945 the United States
defeated and occupied not the colonized, but the colonizers. After
1945, the neighbors of both Japan and Germany were delighted to have
Washington park its troops on and democratize two bullies who had
disturbed the peace more or less continuously since the 1870s. But
Iraq's neighbors, even those secretly grateful to Washington for
having executed Saddam's regime, regard a prolonged U.S. presence in
Iraq with dread--although not all for the same reasons. Turkey fears
that the Americans have kicked over the anthill of Kurdish autonomy.
The Gulf states fear that Saddam's demise will redound to Tehran's
benefit. American troops bivouacked within a Scud's throw of Islam's
holiest sites hoist a red flag in a place--Saudi Arabia--where
religious toleration is an alien concept. Local and regional mistrust
of American motives and the American presence will make it difficult
to concentrate on the issue of democratizing Iraq, especially if
resentment erupts into attacks that create security issues for
coalition forces. Thus, rather than having a situation, like the
Soviet threat, that drives Iraqis toward American protection and
values, the external situation around postwar Iraq is precisely the
reverse. It will feed Iraqi opposition to the occupation.

Stability and progress

Our fourth dilemma will be to reconcile the need for stability with that of "renewal" and "democratization." Unlike World War II, when the Allies viewed the defeated populations as accessories to a criminal regime, the Coalition views most Iraqis as Saddam's unenthusiastic victims. Nevertheless, criminals must be punished and the iron grip of the Ba'ath Party over Iraq's public life shattered.

The war crimes trials that took place at Nuremberg between 1945 and 1949 and in Tokyo from 1946 to 1948 aimed, in the words of Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson, to demonstrate "the ineradicable stain their leaders had put on their name among nations", and "to make it impossible for anyone ever to say in times to come, 'Oh, it never happened--just a lot of propaganda--a pack of lies.'" Unfortunately, the post-1945 trials came to be seen by the German and Japanese populations not as the first step in a "re-education" process, but as "victor's justice" and "exercises in revenge." A nation that had flattened German and Japanese cities, dropped the atom bomb (twice), and killed hundreds of thousands of women and children was in no position, the "liberated" argued, to accuse others of "crimes against humanity."

That was only the half of it. In the eyes of many Germans, Russian judges at Nuremberg represented a Soviet government whose troops had carried out systematic, mass rapes in eastern Germany, expelled millions of German nationals and ethnic Germans from East Prussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary under horrendous conditions, and amputated approximately one-quarter of Germany's prewar territory. Their presence introduced a cynical and sour note of moral ambiguity into the proceedings.

In theory, the situation should be different in Iraq. Despite the images of innocents suffering death and chaos presented in the Arab media, the overthrow of Saddam was accomplished with a minimum of collateral damage, at least by World War II standards. Baghdad war crimes trials will be directed at Ba'athis accused of crimes against other Iraqis. Nevertheless, trials will be carried out against a backdrop of anger in the Arab world over un sanctions that allegedly caused the deaths of thousands of Iraqi innocents. Questions about the motivation and legitimacy of Coalition intervention may pose legal conundrums, too. And Sunnis, who benefited most from Saddam's rule, may interpret war crimes trials as Kurdish and Shi'a revenge for their domination of Iraq (and well they might be).

The administration has wisely promised to allow Iraqis to judge their own leaders. But even this does not guarantee the justice or legitimacy that will allow Iraq to turn a new page. "Key leaders" will surely seek to portray themselves as victims, like those Japanese and German war criminals able to garner public sympathy by insisting that they had made the "patriotic choice" of defending their country. ss General "Panzer" Meyer, convicted by an American court of the murder of Canadian POW's, was given a torchlight parade and a telegram of congratulation from the West German head of state when a German court released him short of serving his full sentence. In order to prevent a permanently disaffected class of people, similar to the sort that had destabilized interwar Germany, from congealing around opposition to occupation policy--and also in order to build up a political constituency for a moderate Federal Republic--Adenauer re-integrated men into the government who had "very bad political records." He even went so far as to restore the pension rights of former Nazi officials and  SS men.

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