Iraq and the Western Front

Author: Samuel Metz 

Date: 11/23/06


Vietnam is not the only battle that Iraq resembles. Another is Verdun.

The battle of Verdun on the Western Front of World War I lasted 10 months. The city, held by French troops, was of no strategic value to either side. In fact, the Allied line would have been much improved had the Verdun salient been abandoned and lines reestablished to the south. However, the city held enormous psychological value to French politicians.

The idea of an invasion of Iraq has a remarkable parallel to this. The concept began as a plan for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu created by American conservative foreign policy experts. These same planners, when later invited into the Department of Defense, revived it as the primary goal of the first George W. Bush administration. At no point did American leaders consider Iraq to have military or strategic importance.

In 1916 General Erich von Falkenhayn, German Chief of Staff, cleverly exploited the irrational French commitment to Verdun. He devised a campaign not to take the city, but to lure French troops into it to kill as many of them as possible: "Bleeding the French Army white" was how he put it. The plan succeeded. On the evening of the first attack, Prime Minister Briand of France, convinced his government would fall if the city did, awoke the officers of Verdun to tell them, "If you surrender Verdun, you will be cowards, cowards! And I'll sack the lot of you!" The commander, General Joffre, got the message loud and clear. Hundreds of thousands of French troops were dispatched to its defense.

Our military leadership received a similar message before the start of the Iraq invasion. Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki found himself prematurely retired when he merely suggested that the Army might need more troops to achieve victory than the administration would admit to. No military leader missed the meaning: only retired Army leadership has dared breathe any hint that the Iraq invasion might not have been well conceived.

Tactically, Verdun was a French victory. The city held and the territory lost to German attacks retaken. The German Crown Prince commanding the armies assigned to besiege the city apparently forgot his mission was to destroy French troops rather than take territory; his massive attacks cost the German army nearly as many casualties as the French: 475,000 French to 420,000 German.

One can similarly make a case that our invasion of Iraq succeeded: Saddam Hussein and his Ba'athist colleagues are in custody or in flight. The subsequent Iraqi government, albeit ineffectual, does not engage in wholesale genocide. The first national election saw millions of Iraqis defy terrorist threats to cast their votes. By these terms, Iraq is a triumph.

Strategically, however, the Verdun campaign was a French disaster. Because of appalling battle conditions, the French command rotated soldiers through Verdun for only a few weeks to avoid wholesale battle fatigue. By the time the campaign withered, 75% of the French army served time in what was called the "charnel house." Morale of the French troops was shattered. General Nivelle, called the Hero of Verdun because of his successful campaign to recapture lost territory, could convince French troops to participate in one more offensive, the Battle of the Somme. His second campaign failed and casualties were as grotesque: 200,000 among the French; British and German casualties were double that.

The French army mutinied. Fifty four divisions refused to move. One hundred thousand soldiers were court-martialed. After a few mutineers were executed, quiet was restored. Nonetheless, the spirit of the Army was crushed. For the rest of the war, French troops held their trenches but participated in no further offensive operations. Although ultimately the entry of the United States into the war led to victory, the French army was useless.

Like Verdun, Iraq is a strategic debacle. Two years after the President declared victory, the US Army continues to suffer ongoing and increasing casualties against an amalgam of enemies who grow stronger every day. Some Army units are beginning their third rotation in Iraq. Casualties among the civilian population our Army is charged to protect are fifty-fold higher than those of American soldiers. Security in the region is in turmoil. Syria and Iran fight a proxy war with partisan militias. Our government is being bled white financially to maintain the military status quo. There is no end in sight.

The 3,000 deaths suffered by the US military in Iraq hardly compares with those suffered by the French at Verdun. However, we should not ignore the effect on Army morale of the more than 150,000 casualties among the wards of the US, the Iraqi civilians.

Will our soldiers suffer a similar end to those of the French Army? They fight a hopeless battle they were never trained to fight. Their rules of engagement leave no room for error. They fight insurgents and partisans whose goal is not to take and hold territory, but to sap the spirit of the occupying army and the civilian population until futility overwhelms them.

One historian said of Verdun, "Psychological and political considerations were allowed to take precedence over good military sense." Certainly the response of our President to the present crisis is in a similar vein: The resolution in Iraq will fall to the agenda of future Presidents. This is not a strategy. This is an abdication of responsibility. Can we escape having our government's fear of domestic political embarrassment keep its Army in a war that can be neither won nor ended?

James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly quoted an anonymous US Marine officer in Iraq: "We can lose in Iraq and destroy our army, or we can just lose." The cost of the war in Iraq cannot be measured only in civilian and army casualties. If we do not appreciate the cost to the American soldiers risking their lives in a futile military occupation, we risk having an Army that will not fight.

References:

James Bamford. Pretext for War. Doubleday, 2004

James Fallows. Why Iraq has no Army. The Atlantic Monthly, December 2005 www.theatlantic.com/doc/200512/iraq-army, accessed 20 November 2006

Alistair Horne. The French Army and Politics. Macmillan Press, 1984

Alistair Horne. The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. Penguin Books, 1979

A. J. P. Taylor. The First World War. Penguin Books, 1963

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