If we needed more evidence that those surrounding President George W. Bush have a tin ear for the lessons of history, it came ten days ago when National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley referred to increasing the number of American troops in Iraq as “the big push” that would bring victory closer.
“The Big Push” is a phrase that came into the language with another troop surge that was supposed to bring another war to victory. For months beforehand, the Big Push was how British cabinet ministers, propagandists, generals, and foot soldiers talked about the 1916 Battle of the Somme. (It is even the title of a later book on the subject.)
The First World War had been in a deadly stalemate for the better part of two years. A string of horrific battles had revealed the huge toll of trench warfare: Defenders could partially protect themselves by building deeper trenches, concrete pillboxes, and reinforced dugouts far underground. But when you went “over the top” of the trench to attack, you were disastrously vulnerable — out in the open, exposed to deadly, sweeping machine-gun fire as you clambered slowly across barbed wire and bypassed water-filled artillery-shell craters.
So, what did the Allies do? They attacked. At the time, in numbers of men involved, it was history’s largest battle. The plan was to break open the German defense line, send the cavalry gloriously charging through the gap, and turn the tide of the war. The result was a catastrophe.
The British army lost nearly 20,000 killed and some 40,000 wounded or missing on the first day alone. German machine gunners, after waiting out the long preliminary bombardment in their fortified bunkers underground, returned to the surface in time to mow down the advancing soldiers. After four and a half months of fighting, British and French troops had suffered more than 600,000 casualties. The Big Push had gained them roughly five miles of muddy, shell-pocked wasteland.
Like the Big Push of the Somme, the Big Push in Iraq is a reapplication of tactics that have already proven a calamitous failure. As the outspoken retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, puts it, it’s like finding yourself in a hole and then digging deeper.
Every piece of evidence from these past nearly four bloody years makes clear that many Sunnis and Shiites alike are driven to rage by the very presence of American soldiers walking Iraqi streets, barging into Iraqi homes, and arresting or killing people who may or may not be insurgents. Furthermore, the people arrested or killed, however unsavory, are sometimes the only force protecting their communities against attacks from the opposite side in an extremely bitter civil war. Therefore, as sociologist Michael Schwartz explained the matter some six weeks ago, a previous joint U.S.-Iraqi counterinsurgency drive in Baghdad, of exactly the type now being planned, actually increased civilian casualties.
There are huge differences, of course, between the First World War and the current fighting in Iraq. But, even beyond the optimistic talk of the Big Push, there is another eerie resemblance between the two conflicts. In both cases, a great power was itching to launch an invasion, and seized on a handy excuse to do so. For the Bush administration, of course, the excuse was September 11th. From a long string of insider revelations, we know that its top officials were hungry to invade Iraq, looked eagerly for the most far-fetched connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and — even then not finding them — invaded anyway, while continuing to vaguely imply the connections were there.
Something remarkably similar happened in 1914. Austria-Hungary was a shaky empire of restless ethnic minorities ruled by a German-speaking elite in Vienna. Nearly half the population was Slavic, including many Serbs. As a result, the imperial rulers in Vienna felt threatened by the very existence on their border of the independent nation of Serbia, small though it was. They were determined to invade it, possibly partition it, and so stamp out pan-Slavic and Serb nationalism once and for all.
They drew up detailed invasion plans. Then, most conveniently, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, the Emperor’s nephew and heir to the throne, was assassinated while on a visit to the provincial city of Sarajevo. Like the White House after 9/11, the imperial palace in Vienna promptly began an eager search for a connection to the Serbian government. Frustratingly, however, the Archduke had been killed on Austro-Hungarian soil by Gavrilo Princip, an Austro-Hungarian citizen. The assassin, an ethnic Serb, had indeed had help from a shadowy secret organization of Serb nationalists, but no connection to the government of Serbia was ever proved. No matter. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia anyway. Other countries quickly jumped in on both sides, and a conflagration began that remade the world.
Part of that remaking, ironically, was the post-war cobbling together of three provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire into what was first a British protectorate and then, after 1932, independent Iraq.
There is a final resemblance between the present bloodshed there and the First World War. Both conflicts were fought for a curiously shifting set of noble-sounding goals. With Iraq, the Bush administration has tried on for size finding weapons of mass destruction, liberating the Iraqis, combating Islamist terrorism, and installing democracy in the Arab world. In the First World War, the Allies initially talked of coming to the defense of innocent, invaded little Belgium, then of defeating German militarism and defending the British and French way of life. Once Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into the conflict, he spoke of “the war to end all wars.”
It didn’t. The humiliation of the losers and the catastrophic loss of life on both sides did nothing to end all wars and much to light the fuses of later ones — especially the Russian Civil War and the Second World War. The longer the war in Iraq goes on, and the more American troops are planted by Big Pushes in a highly combustible part of the world, the more we will continue to stoke a widespread humiliation and anger whose consequences are already guaranteed to haunt us for decades to come.
Adam Hochschild is the San Francisco-based author of six books include Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, a finalist for the National Book Award, and King Leopold’s Ghost. He is writing a book on the First World War.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]