The Benefit of Retrospect – Winning the War and Losing the Peace

It’s often said that most generations repeat the errors of previous generations and fail to capitalize on the benefit of retrospect. With the ability to objectively analyze past events free from the cognitive biases of the time and with the addition of additional information that became available after the event that there is no reason to fail to learn from the lessons of history, sadly however, we often do.

Academics, commentators and strategists have long held that the seeds of World War 2 were planted in the actions of the allies at the end of World War 1 and few would argue otherwise. In removing assets and taking punitive measures they left a demoralized Germany struggling to survive in the post war world resulting in a fertile breeding ground for right wing and nationalist extremism. With the nation living in poverty right wing extremists laid the blame at the foot of Germany’s enemies.

In a departure from the previous practice of repeating earlier errors the allies acted differently at the end of World War 2. In addition to clearly defining their end state, the removal the Nazi regime, they identified the causes of the war and developed a plan to create a successful and peaceful Germany able to succeed in the post war world. Whilst they went for the head of the beast capturing the senior figures of the regime, putting them on trial before imprisoning or executing them they left the essential elements of the state intact.

They disarmed the military, removed the political element of the leadership but left the remainder intact. They did the same for the civil service and the police and turned all three of them round to work in providing a degree of stability in what was a very volatile situation. After stabilizing the immediate situation they set about rebuilding the economy, people were put to work, corporations were established (or re-established) and factories were repaired and production resumed. Then, after establishing security and igniting a fledgling economy they established a constitution that included safeguards to prevent a third major war between Germany and surrounding nations.

As a result Germany became an economic powerhouse and a model of stability for decades reaching right up to the present day. Few would argue that the post war plan was a success.

Fast forward 2 or 3 generations to the western interventions in the Middle East and let’s focus on Iraq. Although different in many ways, there are many similarities as there are in any conflict, so surely, with the benefit of retrospect the allies would have a valid post war plan in place. Regrettably no.

Although the mission started with a clearly defined objective, the removal of the regime, in which the allies were very successful, , the post war plan left a lot to be desired. Rather than focusing on recovery and reconciliation the invading force focused on retribution. Iraqi troops were sent home or military units ‘dissolved’ as troops made the decision for themselves. Members of the Ba’ath party were removed from office even though they were only ones that had the knowledge and ability to run the power stations, other see the sanitation, police the streets and the list goes on.

Now, although the Ba’ath party was Saddam Hussein’s powerbase not every party member was a dedicated follower. Of course, it is necessary to identify those that truly led the regime to commit genocide and multiple crimes against humanity but the lower ranking members kept the country going and the same can be said for the military and the police. The result was a country in disarray, possibly even in a state of anarchy. The population of Iraq had no jobs, no utilities, the food supply chain had been disrupted and more importantly, no structure and no vision for the future.

Saddam Hussein and his regime did many things, but one them was to provide for the basic needs of the Iraqi population. They didn’t have much but they had enough and it didn’t take long for the new reality to soak in. After the joyous scenes following Saddam Hussein’s removal from power the Iraqis’ came down to earth with a bump and rapidly started to believe that were not better off but in fact they were worse off than they were before and when you remove a totalitarian regime, you have a frighteningly small window of opportunity to make things better.

Rather than follow the advice provided by Germany’s success the allies did very little. Arguably, Iraq in 2003 was not Germany in 1945 but Iraq did have a (somewhat) functioning civil service. It had a military and a police force and most importantly, it had the world’s second largest oil reserves. So why didn’t the allies keep enough of Iraqi’s functions of state intact to build a viable economy in a stable state with an organized and established government? What happened in the transition to peace?

As a result of this shortsighted approach the decade that followed was a tragedy. The country descended into a bitter civil war. Power went to those that the old regime kept under control and atrocities were committed on an industrial scale. Thousands of troops and civilians died. Ultimately, by failing to follow the lessons of the past and utilize the benefit of retrospect, the US and her allies won the war but lost the peace.