John Dillin, who covered the war in Vietnam, argues that we should have waged (and should still) “total war” in Iraq, if we think the war is important enough to pursue. He notes that whenever the U.S. has waged total war we have prevailed; when we’ve fought on a more limited basis, the results have usually proven unsatisfactory.
I’m not sure that, given the special conditions in Iraq, we could have waged total, World War II style warfare there following the successful invasion. However, it seems clear enough that the decision to limit our military response at key moments in order to accommodate political concerns was a huge mistake. I’m thinking in particular of when we backed off in Fallujah following the frying of American contractors and when we let Moqtada al Sadr live to fight another day the first time he crossed us.
Winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis by building playgrounds for their kids and so forth is a worthy objective. But the minds that matter most in Iraq belong to those who were willing to take up arms against us. The only way to influence those minds was through relentless and overwhelming force. One can both build playgrounds and crush insurgents, but when the two larger goals — making the populace like us and making the enemy fear us — collide, only the latter goal should receive weight, whereas at key moments we apparently tried to balance them.
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