Ten years ago this week, I turned sixteen. My parents reserved a room at my favorite restaurant, Sportsman’s Grille (everything is made out of antlers and giant redwood logs, so obviously) and invited all my friends. The party was great and everyone enjoyed themselves, but the atmosphere was rendered rather uncanny by the TVs, mounted ominously in the upper corners of the room.
George W. Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein expired during my birthday party, and so in addition to our frivolities we also observed the United States preparing to go to war. It was a serious moment. How serious? Consider the terse message US Marine Corps General James Mattis sent to local Iraqi leaders as his forces entered the country:
I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.
A decade later the American people look back on a war that, by any reasonable assessment, did not go well. Decennial reflections have varied somewhat – there have been a host of articles on what we’ve “learned,” a drive to make sure we remember and shame those who supported it, as well as arguments that it’s too early to really appraise what happened in Iraq and even that it’s wrong for anyone to repent of their support for the war. I recommend reading all of them.
For my part, I’ve wondered how American reflections on Iraq compare to other historical examples of societies coping with military failure. The most common comparison is rightly Vietnam, but unlike most Americans I am a 26-year old British historian, so my first point of reference is the Boer War – the British Empire’s effort to subdue cantankerous Afrikaner populations that were inhibiting its political and economic interests in South Africa from 1899-1902.
There are numerous points of comparison: the Boer War began after a number of prelude conflicts and upon rather dubious intelligence. Hostilities broke out after an exchange of token ultimatums. Britain believed the intervention would be relatively easy, because their foes were simply less militarily capable. After initial success and euphoria, British forces realized they were fighting a much deeper conflict that closely resembled counterinsurgency. Repressive tactics and human rights violations ensued, undermining British credibility on the ground and in the international community. Though Britain ultimately “won” the war and established a new successor state to replace the one it destroyed, it was not immediately clear that the new regime shared Britain’s priorities and there was danger of ethnic civil war.
That must all sound familiar to millennial Americans. But the aftermath of the Boer War wouldn’t. A cascading wave of anxiety crashed over Britain, provoking a sort of progressive, reformist consensus that historian GR Searle calls “The Quest for National Efficiency.” This manifested in several ways – Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a Boer War hero, returned to Britain and founded the Boy Scouts, hoping to arrest the disintegration of Britons’ martial ability and their failure to rightly appraise their responsibilities. In line with dominant thinking about race in the early twentieth century, the same anxiety extended all the way to Britons’ bodies, and aggressive public health schemes aimed at women as custodians of British youth sought to strengthen what historian Anna Davin has called “Imperial Motherhood.” Damning military policy reviews carried out by Lords Elgin and Esher precipitated the reorganization of the Army’s entire chain of command and bureaucracy. A cash-strapped British Government spent most of the next decade repairing its alliances with other major powers and trying desperately to get some of them, especially its imperial partners, to share the burdens of defense spending required of a country with a global profile.
I don’t detect this trend in American reflections on Iraq. Not that Britain’s “quest for national efficiency” is something that ought to be emulated closely – we won’t prevent another Iraq by embracing eugenics or regulating baby formula more closely. Likewise, fear of decline is certainly a prominent thread in contemporary American discourse. But responses to these fears have been rather less coherent. Many have questioned the future of American involvement in global affairs. This is a perfectly appropriate response, one that also followed the Boer War. Popular criticisms of imperialism, such as JA Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study, as well as imperial subjects like Irishman Roger Casement and Indian Mohandas Gandhi, who saw the war firsthand and began to question their association with the British idea overall, are notable examples. But I’m gesturing to something beyond a national epiphany that military interventions often go badly.
In present-day terms, what underpinned the British quest for national efficiency was an acknowledgment that the country was fundamentally mismanaging its human capital. Some of the underlying issues that led to American failure in Iraq – the relationship between the Executive Branch and the authorization of military force, the expanding portfolio of responsibilities borne by the intelligence community, and the lack of a clear consensus between great powers and international organizations like the UN on how to handle crises, to name a few – remain unresolved and largely unchallenged. An acknowledgment that we face a systemic institutional shortfall in the way we handle intervention would deepen other reevaluations that have arisen in the past decade, such as Gen. David Petraeus’ COIN counterinsurgency strategy. “Learning” from the past is a tenuous exercise from the distance of a decade, never mind a century. But we might ask ourselves why, preoccupied as Americans seem to be with “learning” from Iraq, that Washington’s present political culture is rooted in gridlock rather than reform.