Most Americans learn about war from history books, where battles end on one page and peace starts on the next. Reality is different. As we're seeing in post-war Iraq, there's a shadowland between war and peace -- a difficult transition period that few occupied nations escape.
We would do well to study our own history more closely. After World War II, U.S. troops in Europe faced many of the same problems that coalition troops in Iraq do now. Austria, which American soldiers occupied along with British, French and Russian forces until 1955, offers a case in point.
Unlike Germany, Austria was officially a "liberated" country. GIs in Vienna set about doing much the same as the Americans are doing in Baghdad -- keeping enemy troops contained, providing a safe environment, feeding civilians, training new security forces, purging hardliners and preparing the people for self-rule.
As is the case today, the initial months of the Austrian occupation were bleak and hardly encouraging. On occasion, U.S. troops were harassed and killed. Daily reports listed unexplained fires, explosions, ambushes and cut communications wires. Many were suspected to be the work of covert Nazi agents trained in sabotage and guerrilla warfare. But even ordinary Austrians quickly grew resentful of their American liberators. "They jostle us in passing on the street," complained one homesick GI who expected to be welcomed as a "conquering hero."
Indeed, the Austrians, as well as all the liberated countries of Europe, had little to be joyous about. Conditions were appalling. Daily reports listed the greatest concerns: few jobs, rampant crime, riots, rumor-mongering and tremendous uncertainty. Most Europeans expected to freeze or starve to death in the winter of 1945-46, six months after the war was over.
The Americans in Austria also made many of the same mistakes made now in Iraq. Preparations for the post-conflict period were inadequate. Troops were poorly trained and organized for the task, the various government agencies in charge of coordinating relief didn't work well together, and priorities weren't always settled. It seems the strongest American tradition with regards to occupation duties is a tradition of forgetting how to do them.
Yet the occupation of Austria was a dramatic success. Nazi harassment failed to win popular support, and opposition faded after a few months. Even more important, dynamic leaders from all sides of the political spectrum quickly came to the fore and agreed that peace and reconstruction were more important than settling old scores. In fact, if not for the outbreak of the Cold War, by 1948 all the Allied troops might well have gone home.
The prospects in Iraq are similar. The people there have the resources and the talent they need to rebuild. If the leaders of the three major ethnic groups are willing to work together, and if the people can put the fear of Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party behind them, then the chances for a brief occupation and a quick withdrawal of coalition troops are good. But if the Iraqis refuse to take responsibility for their own destiny, the prospects are not good.
At the same time, Iraq's neighbors need to shift their energies from criticizing the Americans to supporting efforts to get the country get back on its feet. It is in no one's interest, except the Baathists, to turn Baghdad into Beirut or Iraq into Bosnia.
Meanwhile, America needs to take deep breath and face reality. Even under the best circumstances, occupation duties are not an easy or pretty task. U.S. forces should continue to focus on providing a safe and secure environment by stamping out remnants of Baathist opposition, setting up domestic Iraqi security forces, and turning over the country to self-rule sooner rather than later.
James Carafano, author of the book "Waltzing into the Cold War: The Struggle for Occupied Austria," is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire