September 23, 2003

September 23, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

A Phony "Phony History"

What irony: In opposing President Bush's actions in post-war Iraq, some critics who accuse the administration of engaging in "revisionist history" are rewriting history themselves.

What sparked their charge was a pair of speeches given Aug. 25 to the Veterans of Foreign War by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In discussing the problems facing allied occupation forces in Iraq, Rice and Rumsfeld referred to problems encountered by occupation forces in post-World War II Germany to show that post-conflict operations are often fraught with danger and difficulties.

The comparisons sent ex-NSC staffer Daniel Benjamin, a former Clinton National Security Council aide, on the warpath. In an Aug. 29 article in Slate magazine, scathingly titled "Condi's Phony History: Sorry, Dr. Rice, postwar Germany was nothing like Iraq," Benjamin takes Rice and Rumsfeld to task for mentioning the Werwolf, Nazi agents trained to carry out acts of sabotage against the occupying forces.

Benjamin doesn't deny the Werwolf existed, but he dismisses their significance. "In practice," he sniffs, "Werwolf amounted to next to nothing." The idea that Allied Forces encountered any meaningful confrontation after Germany's surrender he rejects as merely "a greatest-generation pander."

This view of post-war Nazi resistance quickly gained currency in the mainstream press. Articles in The Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post quoted Benjamin to suggest that the administration was guilty of exaggerating conditions in postwar Europe.

But Rice and Rumsfeld had it about right. And their main message -- that no one can reasonably expect any occupation to be bloodless, frictionless and effortless -- should be above dispute.

In his Slate article, Benjamin tries to prove the administration guilty of "sexing up" the German occupation by citing two history books that have almost nothing to say on the subject. That's hardly what you'd call evidence.

Further, he minimizes the significance of what those books report about the Werwolf resistance. Sure, there was guerrilla warfare, but measured by Benjamin's grand scale, "… little materialized." Additionally, he assures us, there was "no major campaign of sabotage … no destruction of water mains or energy plants worth noting" (emphasis added). Benjamin appears fully committed to "sexing down" the situation whenever possible.

What he apparently didn't bother to do is read Perry Biddiscombe's "Werwolf! The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement, 1944-1946," which gives full chapter and verse on Nazi-postwar guerrilla operations. It's true that the Werwolf was poorly organized, and the threat of attacks greatly subsided after a few months of occupation. But they were very real. A survey of records by the U.S. Army Center of Military History shows that at least 39 combat deaths occurred in the first few months of the occupation. If the Nazis had been better organized, the Werwolf might well have given World War II GIs as much trouble as the thugs in Iraq are generating now.

And Werwolves weren't the only problem. Violent crime, thievery and black-marketing were rampant. Germans incessantly complained to U.S. military officials about inadequate public safety. And these threats paled in comparison to the physical privations. Many feared masses of Germans would freeze or starve to death in the first winter after the war. To suggest that the first year of occupation was anything less than a dreadful, harrowing experience for many Germans is just bad history.

Making the postwar reconstruction of Europe appear like a walk in the park suggests that somehow this administration must have screwed things up terribly to face such a plethora of problems. In fact, history suggests the opposite.

Occupations are rarely easy. And it's understandable that the Pentagon couldn't completely and precisely predict the postwar conditions it would face in Iraq. In time of conflict, it's impossible to fully anticipate the end state--what the country will look like after the war. There is a "fog of peace" fully as dense as the "fog of war," the phrase Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz used to describe why battles never go as planned.

Misusing the past offers little insight to understanding the scope of the challenge the United States faces today. In truth, the key to success in Iraq is to take a page from the occupations in postwar Europe: Stand-up a legitimate government and domestic police forces, and let the people rebuild their own country.

It took four years to do that in post World War II Germany. Sometimes it takes that much time and effort to be on the right side of history.

James Jay Carafano, author of "Waltzing into the Cold War: The Struggle for Occupied Austria," and a former instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Related Issues: Middle East