President Obama announced last week that the war in Iraq will end on December 31. That this came as a surprise to many is odd since President Bush said years ago that American forces would be gone as of that date. Judging from the apoplectic response, the republicans must have been nodding off when W made that decision. Granted, much has changed since then, but one question has remained in place: How will the Iraqis govern themselves? If our experience in the past 9 years tells us anything, it might be that they will continue the ethnic infighting that has marked their history for centuries.
The argument about whether we should have ever gone into a military adventure in Iraq will not be settled in our lifetime. It seems obvious the reasons for the intervention were manufactured by faulty intelligence but at least Saddam Hussein is gone. As one Iraqi said shortly after his deposal, “Under Hussein we had security but no freedom. We now have freedom but no security.” How the Shiite/Sunni/Kurd animosities will evolve is far from certain. Anyone who thinks a Jeffersonian democracy is just over their sandy horizon ignores thousands of years of conflict in the region.
With that in mind, I began to think about how wars start, how they are conducted, and how they end. My assumption through the years has been that if it were not for geography, radical political ideology, and religion, we might all live in peace. A little research revealed information that caused me to rethink that. Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod have put together The Encyclopedia of Wars. In the last 3000 years, there have been 1763 wars. I am sure that would be disagreement among scholars and participants as to what constitutes a war but I was surprised to find of that number only 123 have been fought for religious reasons. In the United States they list 17 wars since the founding and only one that has had a religious backdrop: The current war on terrorism. Without putting too much emphasis on it, they cite 66 of the 123 religious wars have involved Islamic societies. If religion were a major cause of war, then one might think that the United States, one of the most religious nations, would have been involved in many more.
Looking back at our history of warfare, there are some that seem justified; a consummate evil was being imposed on a population and we came to the rescue. If there were ever such a clear cut case, I would think it would be World War II. Things got a little murkier with the Korean War or “police action” as it was called. Then came the Vietnam War with its trumped up Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the domino theory. Even the architects of that terrible time have come, for the most part, to denounce it as a mistake.
Now we are looking at total instability throughout much of the Middle East. Wisely, we have taken a hands-off position as far as troop commitments are concerned, but what has happened in Libya certainly would not have taken place without a huge amount of logistical support from the United States. How much involvement we will have in Syria, in Yemen, in the Palestinian/Israeli problems is an open question.
One thing has become clear in the recent decisions about Iraq: They want to determine for themselves what their future will be. That holds true for Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and the rest of the region. What eventually settles into place may be vastly different from what we have envisioned, but it’s important to recognize that most of the world is quite different from us. That does not give us the right to impose our systems on them nor does it release us from the responsibility of protecting our own interests.
That brings up another point: Where we have no strategic or vested interests, we pay little attention to genocide. Central Africa points that out with shocking starkness.
Our lust for war is far more complicated than geography, politics, and religion. Human nature dictates we do not want others to impose their will on us and that leads to conflict but the conduct of war is changing. We may have seen for the last time, as Robert Gates pointed out, the end of the deployment of large ground forces. War #1764 is likely to be carried out by drones and special operations. If nuclear weapons are involved, #1765 may be fought with rocks.
The saddest fact of all is the countless deaths in war may have solved an immediate issue, but our need to fight remains undiminished.