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If you don’t order troops into combat, they don’t fight… and other lessons from Victor Davis Hanson

May 20, 2006

Victor Davis Hanson takes on the “too few troops” criticism of the Bush administration’s war plan. He approaches the topic with the same discursive style that his readers have grown to love. After lobbing some largely irrelevant attacks on the critics’ motives, VDH advances five arguments.

First, the claim that we’ve deployed too few troops can apply only since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. Whatever the difficulties of the three-week war, it took out the worst regime in the Middle East in record time. How could half a million troops have done significantly better?

Strange but false. On the one hand, the debate has never been about whether or not the US needed additional troops to score an even more overwhelming victory in the first phase of the conflict. People did argue, prior to the outbreak of the war, about whether the US would defeat the Iraqi army quickly or very quickly. They disagreed about whether the US would suffer moderate or very few casualties. Some thought an additional division–invading from Turkey–would be a good idea.

On the other hand, it isn’t like the conflict stepped through an inter-dimensional door after Baghdad fell. The events of the invasion shaped–and continue to shape–the occupation. Indeed, before US forces took Baghdad many critics worried that the US was moving too far too fast. The size of the American force, they argued, precluded the coalition from adequately mopping up Iraqi forces, seizing and holding supply depots, and generally securing conquered territory. All of these aspects of the campaign have come back to haunt the US.

I’m not arguing that the process of conquest determined the future direction of the occupation. The US could have compensated for these problems by putting more troops on the ground after it defeated the Iraqi army. But to pretend that the processes of conquest and occupation are completely discrete doesn’t reflect well on a military historian.

Second, it isn’t always how many troops, but their use, that determines their efficacy. In 1991, a huge American force watched as Saddam murdered Shiites and Kurds; their omnipresence meant nothing when they couldn’t use lethal force to stop the slaughter or remove Saddam.

Well, yes. When the US doesn’t use military force it doesn’t use military force. Perhaps beyond this tautology lies a better argument: that the US might have compensated for inadequate troop levels by not dissolving the Iraqi army, by more aggressively recruiting local auxiliaries, or by being less afraid of angering local interests in the early stages of the occupation, e.g., by cracking down on Sadr when US officials first started raising the alarm about his militia’s activities.

Third, much of the criticism is geopolitical rather than tactical — and better grounded back in the 1990s, when the military was slashed in the end-of-history, post-Cold War era of utopian hopes. If we were still committed to stay in Europe, Japan, Okinawa, and Korea, then tying down a huge force in Iraq might have invited hostile adventurism elsewhere. The current strains on the military were not just predicated on Iraq, but involved the entire American presence overseas, where present means were insufficient to meet the envisioned global ends.

I’m having a lot of difficulty parsing VDH here. I think he’s arguing that the US doesn’t have sufficient forces to both occupy Iraq and maintain its other overseas commitments. Or maybe he’s arguing that the US could not have gotten involved in any regional conflict and maintained sufficient forces to deter revisionist states in other regions. So, is he arguing that cutbacks in American forces after the Cold War made it impossible to put sufficient troops into Iraq while maintaining regional security elsewhere? I remember Bill Odum making a similar point: that if the US wanted to invade Iraq we should take the time to raise additional divisions. But that’s an argument for adequate preparation, not a defense of the Bush administration’s pre-war planning. Unless, of course, one buys the argument that waiting another year to invade would have led to a radioactive New York.

Does anyone seriously believe this?

On second thought, I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

Fourth, since Iraq was seen as a captive rather than a belligerent nation, we tried to preserve infrastructure and adopt restrictive rules of engagement to win hearts and minds. Part of that strategy meant rapidly training Iraqi security forces, keeping a low profile in a touchy Islamic nation, and turning autonomy quickly over to a new government. Again, a huge American force in such a war, circa Vietnam 1965, would only have presented more targets, caused more resentment, and created more Iraqi dependency on Americans.

VDH presents us with some nice non-sequiturs. Last time I checked, increasing the number of troops in an invasion and occupation didn’t have a negative effect on a state’s ability to protect infrastructure or preclude it from adopting restrictive rules of engagement. Quite the contrary. Having larger forces often makes it easier to protect infrastructure; remember, the US didn’t (apparently) have enough troops in Baghdad to protect much more than the oil ministry.

I’ve talked to American officials, in fact, who describe routinely receiving information about weapons caches from informants, but being told by “higher ups” that the US didn’t have the manpower to secure them. That’s one reason why having “more troops” might have been a good thing.

I suspect it also wouldn’t be difficult to make the case that more American troops might have facilitated training Iraqi security forces and therefore made it easier to not merely turn over control to an autonomous Iraqi government, but to have given it something easier to deal with than the threat of a slow-burning civil war. We also know how the “Iraqi dependency”, “keeping a low profile,” and “providing.. targets” concerns turned out with our current force levels.

The most interesting aspect of VDH’s argument here, however, is the way he conflates rationalizations with justifications. Let me put it this way: key players of the Bush administration believed that, among other things…

• The US could, with a little elbow grease and gumption, create an entirely new Iraqi security apparatus overnight;
• It would be possible to occupy a country without breaking some eggs, following through on ultimatums, and alienating some of the locals;
• A motley array of poorly overseen private contractors would do a better job of, in effect, implementing the occupation than the US military.

Yes, given these assumptions it did make sense to occupy Iraq with far fewer troops than most observers–civilian and military–thought necessary.

The problem: these assumptions were clearly batsh*t insane.

Fifth, there is a no-win flavor to this debate. Many are now calling for deadlines to get our “smaller” forces home right away, even as others decry the continued lack of sufficient troops to secure the country. And if our precision weapons yield far greater lethality per combatant, should we deploy the same, more, or fewer soldiers to employ them?

No one knows the optimum number of American soldiers that should now be, or should have been, in Iraq. But I suspect that, had we deployed far more Americans, the present cries to bring them home, and the accusations of imperial hubris, would have been even shriller.

Debates that taste like “no-win” tend to follow upon incompetently planned and disastrously implemented policies, don’t they?

I agree with VDH that no one knows the “optimum number” of American soldiers for the occupation of Iraq. Heck, I don’t know the “optimum number” of students for a seminar. That’s not the appropriate standard for policy making. We’re talking about looking at past experiences, considering expert assessments, and drawing reasonable conclusions about how many divisions it would take to occupy and country as large and populated as Iraq. We’re talking about doing so with the expectation that everything will not go according to plan. This isn’t rocket science. We didn’t have enough troops. Anyone with any sense knew it.

VDH may well be right that if the US had deployed more troops “the present cries to bring them home, and the accusations of imperial hubris, would have been even shriller.” Part of the reason, however, why Americans no longer support the occupation is that it just isn’t going very well. The Bush administration sold the American public a beautiful dream: an invasion without significant sacrifice, with freedom and liberty on the side. If they’d been honest–with themselves, with the public–perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten their invasion. Maybe the American people wouldn’t have tolerated a preventative war that required a larger commitment of US money and manpower.

We’ll never know for sure. But either the administration believed a successful occupation of Iraq was really crucial for US national interests, or they didn’t. If they did, then they should’ve been willing to put up with more “shrillness.” If they didn’t, then they never should’ve invaded Iraq in the first place.

How many different ways can I say it: the threat of a shriller anti-war movement is not a rationale for bad policy choices. And it is a terrible way to end an essay defending them.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.