The Last Iraqi Insurgency
By NIALL FERGUSON
New York Times
From Ted Kennedy to the cover of Newsweek, we are being warned that Iraq has turned
into a quagmire, George W. Bush's Vietnam. Learning from history is well and good, but
such talk illustrates the dangers of learning from the wrong history. To understand what
is going on in Iraq today, Americans need to go back to 1920, not 1970. And they need to
get over the American inhibition about learning from non-American history.
President Bush, too, seems to miss the point. "We're not an imperial power,"
he insisted in his press conference on Tuesday. Trouble is, what he is trying to do in
Iraq and what is going wrong look uncannily familiar to anyone who knows
some British imperial history. Iraq had the distinction of being one of our last and
shortest-lived colonies. This isn't 'Nam II it's a rerun of the British experience
of compromised colonization. When Mr. Bush met Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain on
Friday, the uninvited guest at the press conference which touched not only on Iraq
but also on Palestine, Cyprus and even Northern Ireland was the ghost of empire
First, let's dispense with Vietnam. In South Vietnam, the United States was propping up
an existing government, whereas in Iraq it has attempted outright "regime
change," just as Britain did at the end of World War I by driving the Ottoman Turks
out of the country. "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors
or enemies, but as liberators," declared Gen. Frederick Stanley Maude a line
that could equally well have come from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this time last
year. By the summer of 1920, however, the self-styled liberators faced a full-blown
A revolt against colonial rule is not the same as a war. Vietnam was a war. Although
the American presence grew gradually, it reached a peak of nearly half a million troops by
the end of the 1960's; altogether 3.4 million service personnel served in the Southeast
Asian theater. By comparison, there are just 134,000 American troops in Iraq today
almost as many men as the British had in Iraq in 1920. Then as now, the enemy consisted of
undisciplined militias. There were no regular army forces helping them the way the North
Vietnamese supported the Vietcong.
What lessons can Americans learn from the revolt of 1920? The first is that this crisis
was almost inevitable. The anti-British revolt began in May, six months after a referendum
in practice, a round of consultation with tribal leaders on the country's
future and just after the announcement that Iraq would become a League of Nations
"mandate" under British trusteeship rather than continue under colonial rule. In
other words, neither consultation with Iraqis nor the promise of internationalization
sufficed to avert an uprising a fact that should give pause to those, like Senator
John Kerry, who push for a handover to the United Nations.
Then as now, the insurrection had religious origins and leaders, but it soon
transcended the country's ancient ethnic and sectarian divisions. The first anti-British
demonstrations were in the mosques of Baghdad. But the violence quickly spread to the
Shiite holy city of Karbala, where British rule was denounced by Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi
al-Shirazi perhaps the historical counterpart of today's Shiite firebrand, Moktada
al-Sadr. The revolt stretched as far north as the Kurdish city of Kirkuk and as far south
as Samawah, where British forces were trapped (and where Japanese troops, facing a hostage
crisis, were holed up last week).
Then, as now, the rebels systematically sought to disrupt the occupiers' communications
then by attacking railways and telegraph lines, today by ambushing convoys. British
troops and civilians were besieged, just as hostages are being held today. Then as now,
much of the violence was more symbolic than strategically significant British
bodies were mutilated, much as American bodies were at Falluja. By August of 1920 the
situation was so desperate that the general in charge appealed to London not only for
reinforcements but also for chemical weapons (mustard gas bombs or shells), though these
turned out to be unavailable.
And this brings us to the second lesson the United States needs to learn from the
British experience. Putting this rebellion down will require severity. In 1920, the
British eventually ended the rebellion through a combination of aerial bombardment and
punitive village-burning expeditions. It was not pretty. Even Winston Churchill, then the
minister responsible for the air force, was shocked by the actions of some trigger-happy
pilots and vengeful ground troops. And despite their overwhelming technological
superiority, British forces still suffered more than 2,000 dead and wounded.
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Is the United States willing or able to strike back with comparable ruthlessness?
Unlikely if last week's gambit of unconditional cease-fires is any indication.
Washington seems intent on reining in the Marines and pinning all hope on the handover of
power scheduled apparently irrevocably for June 30.
This could prove a grave error. For the third lesson of 1920 is that only by quelling
disorder firmly and immediately will America be able to achieve its objective of an
orderly handover of sovereignty. After all, a similar handover had always been implicit in
the mandate system, but only after the revolt had been crushed did the British hasten to
install the Hashemite prince Faisal as king.
In fact, this was imperial sleight of hand Iraq did not become formally
independent until 1932, and British troops remained there until 1955. Such an outcome is,
of course, precisely what Washington should be aiming for today American troops
will have to keep order well after the nominal turnover of power, and they'll need the
support of a friendly yet effective Iraqi government. Right now, this outcome seems far
from likely. What legitimacy will any Iraqi government have if the current unrest
There is much, then, to learn from the events of 1920. Yet I'm pessimistic that any
senior military commander in Iraq today knows much about it. Late last year, a top
American commander in Europe assured me that United States forces would soon be reinforced
by Turkish troops; he seemed puzzled when I pointed out that this was unlikely to play
well in Baghdad, where there is little nostalgia for the days of Ottoman rule.
Maybe, just maybe, some younger Americans are realizing that the United States has
lessons to learn from something other than its own supposedly exceptional history. The
best discussion of the 1920 revolt that I have come across this year was in a paper
presented at a Harvard University conference by Daniel Barnard, an Army officer who is
about to begin teaching at West Point. Tellingly, Mr. Barnard pointed out that the British
at first tried to place disproportionate blame for their troubles on outside agitators.
Phantom Bolsheviks then; Al Qaeda interlopers today.
But for the most part we get only facile references to Vietnam. People seem to forget
how long it took and how many casualties had to pile up before public
support for that war began to erode in any significant way. When approval fell below 40
percent for the first time in 1968, the total American body count was already past the
20,000 mark. By comparison, a year ago 85 percent of Americans thought the situation in
Iraq was going well; that figure is now down to 35 percent and half of Americans want some
or all troops withdrawn though fewer than 700 Americans have died. These polls are
chilling. A quick withdrawal would doom Iraq to civil war or theocracy probably
both, in that order.
The lessons of empire are not the kind of lessons Americans like to learn. It's more
comforting to go on denying that America is in the empire business. But the time has come
to get real. Iraqis themselves will be the biggest losers if the United States cuts and
runs. Fear of the wrong quagmire could consign them to a terrible hell.
Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at New York University and a senior fellow
of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is the author of the forthcoming
"Colossus: The Price of America's Empire."