TCS Daily

Occupational Hazards

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - July 24, 2003 12:00 AM

To better understand what's happening in Iraq today, it's useful to examine previous American military occupations. The study of the American experience in Germany, for example, is revealing in that it shatters some commonly held myths regarding the post-World War II American occupation experience.


Many people seem to believe that once the Allies accepted Germany's surrender to end the war in Europe in 1945, any and all German resistance to Allied forces and their plans ceased completely. But the Allies had to take measures to quell resistance from various German groups. Organizations like the "Werewolves" were bred by the dying Nazi regime to hamper the Allied advance into Germany and the occupation of Germany. In his book Kommando: German Special Forces of World War Two, James Lucas tells us of Allied soldiers ambushed by Werewolf forces, clashes between Werewolf partisans and Allied forces in the closing days of the war, and leaflets found in the American zone of occupation in Germany detailing plans on how to undermine the occupation through sabotage and other measures.  In addition to the Werewolves, the Nazis organized the Freikorps and the Volkssturm in a further effort to resist the Allied advance upon and occupation of Germany.


Thankfully, the resistance amounted to very little. But it demonstrates a fundamental truth about military occupation: expect homegrown movements determined to undermine an occupation.


While resistance may prove ultimately futile, the potential dangers can be significant. For example, although General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to the victorious Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Confederate soldiers and generals urged Lee to give his blessing to a burgeoning movement that would have continued the war against the Union in guerilla fashion. Confederate President Jefferson Davis supported the desire to carry on with the war despite the devastation to the South, and despite the opposition of his Cabinet.


Indeed, it appeared for some time that further hostilities would be necessary until Union General William Tecumseh Sherman was able to obtain the same terms of surrender from remaining Confederate forces that Grant received from Lee. And hostilities would surely have continued if General Lee hadn't made plain his complete disapproval of any plan to continue the war through guerilla operations. The Union avoided all of the problems inherent in a continued Confederate resistance. But as the Duke of Wellington said about the Battle of Waterloo, "it was a close-run thing."


Guerilla War


While history suggests resistance should not be surprising, there are some historical differences that make post-war Germany and Japan, as well as the American South after the Civil War, imperfect comparisons with today's Iraq.


For example, coalition forces did not endeavor to utterly destroy Iraqi infrastructure and society. On the contrary, the reliance on smart weapons technology allowed the coalition to leave a large portion of Iraqi infrastructure untouched. While the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime constitutes a dramatic change in Iraqi society, the fact that Iraqi infrastructure was generally left intact (unlike in Germany of the postbellum American South) minimized the degree of social disruption -- making it easier for enemies of the occupation to organize a resistance movement.


Additionally, former Ba'athists and their allies have a great deal to lose if the occupation of Iraq is successful. Most will be captured and tried (or in the case of Saddam's sons, killed) for various crimes. These people have a life-or-death interest in causing Iraq to backslide into the status quo ante.


Most Iraqis are convinced that despite all of the obstacles that remain, their lot in life has improved since the fall of Saddam Hussein. As such, they are unlikely to lend material or moral support to any resistance movement, dooming it in the long run. Any resistance movement faces the hopeless task of dislodging a disproportionately powerful Allied force -- one that has decided to take the offensive against remnants of the Ba'ath regime with a series of military operations designed to further stamp it out. Such operations have helped make the Taliban and al Qaeda scarce in Afghanistan. They can do the same to the resistance in Iraq.


None of this is meant in any way to diminish the nature of the challenge. Despite the fact that major combat hostilities are considered to be at an end in Iraq, American soldiers continue to face intermittent attack from Iraqi irregulars. The attacks have prompted General John Abizaid -- the man who succeeded General Tommy Franks at CENTCOM -- to acknowledge that a state of guerilla war exists in Iraq. Nevertheless, while there are challenges, they can be -- and if history is any guide, most likely will be -- overcome.


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