Despite many differences, there are striking parallels between Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Hitler’s invasion of Russia, and understanding these parallels serves to warn of the coming storm Bush is calling down upon all of us.
Hitler’s decision to invade Russia was a horrific turning point in history, certainly the most consequential decision of the twentieth century and likely the most destructive in all of history. We still live with some of its terrible results.
In material terms, America’s invasion of Iraq cannot be compared to the invasion of Russia. Germany took on a gigantic opponent, arrogantly regarded as its inferior in civilization and technology.
America’s invasion was of a country with one-twelfth its population and, of more importance from a military point of view, with roughly one-twelfth its per capita income. America’s tiny victim was sick, too, with water systems, electricity, and other vital infrastructure demolished by the first Gulf War, ten years of sporadic bombing by U.S. planes supposedly enforcing a no-fly zone, and a cruel embargo which took countless lives.
Germany greatly underestimated Russia’s strength. Hitler said privately it would all be over in three weeks. Naturally, with the prevailing ethos of "working towards the Fuehrer," more accurate assessments had a limited constituency. Besides encountering what must rank as the most heroic human resistance in history, the Germans were shocked to find that the Russians were not quite so backward after all, the T-34 tank for example proving superior to much of German armor. The invasion of Russia gave us history’s most terrible battle, Stalingrad, and its greatest tank battle, Kursk. It left 27 million Soviets dead, a loss that dwarfs the loss of any other country in any war.
The military capability of Iraq was grotesquely over-stated before America’s invasion. Iraq’s actual capabilities were well known to a number of experts, including weapons inspectors, intelligence services, and a number of international agencies and governments – not just its lack of sophisticated weapons but the terrible state of its basic infrastructure and the sheer physical exhaustion of its people. Informed voices were literally drowned out by propaganda and manipulation. Skewed editorials, planted news stories, deliberately provocative opinion pieces, forged evidence, and phony expert books tumbled from all the outlets of America’s Ministry of Truth to make the declared enemy seem far more menacing than he was.
Bush has quickly managed to forget weapons that never existed, but to this day he continues to deliberately, falsely blur terrorism with the invasion of Iraq, although every informed person on earth knows that absolute governments like Hussein’s are the most unfriendly to terrorism or any other "ism."
Both Bush and Hitler came to office determined in favor of invasion. Their decisions reflected no informed judgment of new developments or the discoveries of intelligence services. It was quite the opposite in both cases. We know Hitler viewed the western Soviet Union in precisely the same way that the early United States viewed western North America – as a vast reservoir of resources and an expanse promising immense economies of scale for future agriculture and industry. He wrote about these matters as he served a brief prison term for the 1923 putsch. And his thinking on this was not original. There had been Germans of the extreme right – politicians, military men, journalists, and others – who thought in these terms for decades.
The decisions in neither case reflected genuine assessments of the risk involved. Hitler’s risk was immense, as events proved. The only risk Bush saw was the alienation of constituencies for which his political circle already had only contempt. There was never any question whether America could defeat Iraq’s armed forces. An apt comparison for the invasion might be a dozen well-fed bullies beating up one poor, crippled man.
Of course, Bush’s genuine risks, the ones of which he took no account whatever, were also large but longer-term. Unthinking people tend to ignore the long term and anything requiring some imagination. You might be able quickly to defeat Iraq’s army, but could you defeat an angry people humiliated by the squalid mess America made of their country? Could you stop the intense sense of injustice and anger at such treatment sweeping through the Islamic world? Could you keep American forces occupying Iraq for years to come? Could you stop the deep unease felt by many old allies at such high-handed tactics?
We know from good anecdotes that from the beginning of his administration, Bush was ready to invade Iraq were there an opportunity, and we know from the Downing Street Memos that Bush realized he had been given his opportunity after 9/11. After all, the Neo-cons, upon whom he seems to depend for his only association with anything superficially intellectual, had advocated an invasion for a decade as the way to end America’s complicated, nasty involvement with Iraq. And nothing could better please the majority of American Jews, who traditionally support Democrats, than knocking out Israel’s most implacable foe. I think many Neo-cons advising Bush, apart from their usual sheer relish in advocating military force, probably believed an invasion offered the foundation for a new national political coalition in the United States. In this at least they may have been correct.
Strategic thinking clearly is not part of Bush’s mental endowment, but the Neo-cons stand ever ready to supply the deficiency. It wouldn’t take great arguments to convince Bush because always in the background, there was Bush’s murky relationship with his father, predisposing a weak son towards one-upmanship and revenge. We don’t know for sure, but Hitler’s fairly successful and apparently brutal father, may well have helped set him on the path of destruction.
Attacking a relatively insignificant country is an easy way in America for a shabby politician to gain credentials for strength and determination, Americans already possessing considerable suspicion and contempt for the strange ways of faraway places. It’s a tired old political act, performed many times, but it still works.
Hitler and many Germans viewed Russia as a threat, one that could only grow over time as the Soviet Union developed economically. The invasion was justified in terms of stopping a menace before it became unstoppable. Long before the invasion, Hitler repeatedly appealed to the prejudices of Western countries concerning the horrors of a growing Bolshevik monster. Bush’s obtuse "Doctrine" concerning pre-emptive attacks on those regarded as threats is an exact mimicry of Hitler’s attitude towards Russia.
Hitler’s way of explaining to Germans his vision for gaining resources and the economies of scale to assure Germany’s future greatness was the word "lebensraum." He hoped to duplicate the economic advantages of America’s size through a single great stroke in Russia.
Bush’s invasion was supported by a more modern and limited notion of lebensraum. Generally over the last half century of America’s world ascendancy, force is no longer used to extend the lands under direct American rule. There are minor exceptions, but directly ruling large additional portions of the world would be costly, inefficient, and often counterproductive. America’s homeland long ago reached a size adequate to guarantee it many future economic advantages. Locals may rule abroad so long as they do not question American policies and privileges. Force is used to intimidate or eliminate those who disagree.
The reason for the invasion of Iraq was to crush Israel’s chief opponent, a man who regularly put difficulties in the path of American freedom of action in the region, while putting great oil resources into friendlier hands and striking terror into any Middle Eastern leaders in whose hearts might lurk such evil as questioning America’s role. Bush and the Neo-cons like to talk of this last effect as bringing democracy to the region, but there is no basis for accepting such fatuous language. You don’t "bring" democracy to people, especially by killing large numbers of them and building air bases on their territory. We may be sure the Neo-cons will be happy to see the region’s clutch of suitably intimidated presidents-for-life and princes continue with their ways altered just enough to make Washington feel no sense of challenge.
Hitler gave no serious thought about how Germany would manage the tens of millions of Slavs falling under his rule. The long-term prospects, even had the invasion proved more successful, were not bright. Talk about reducing them to slavery to serve the Reich was easy enough, but just what would be entailed in such a vast scheme? The migration of Germans into the region, pushing Slavs from their homes, also would be a vast and long-term project. Would the German army have to occupy these lands in force indefinitely? Would they fight guerilla war for decades against enraged people? Perhaps some awareness of these problems generated Hitler’s demand for absolute ruthlessness in the conquered territories. Whole categories of people and officials were murdered outright. Prisoners were treated with no regard for law or humanity.
Bush faces something of the same problems on a smaller scale, and all indications are that little thought or planning was given to them. Hussein’s party had spent decades favoring friendly and tribal groups over the Shia majority and the Kurds. Huge amounts of land had been redistributed to the favored, and the original owners want their places back. The pressure on the U.S. would be all the greater since any effort to even begin establishing democratic institutions, Hussein’s repressed majority would be the people with whom you must work.
The Sunni whom Hussein favored are naturally at the heart of the fierce resistance movement that now has emerged. They not only lost their favored positions and good jobs but face the possibility of losing homes or farms. The resistance has in turn created such feared conditions that little progress has been made to repairing the vast destruction done to the country. Bombings in the occupied country within a week of the London Underground bombing killed many times as many people. People are still without work and without such basics as dependable electrical service. They must stay in broken homes without electricity, in fierce temperatures, avoiding the streets. All this might well have been anticipated, but thoughtless ideologues aren’t interested in such gritty realities when they launch their grand schemes at the expense of others.
American forces may not be engaging in assembly-line murder, but their behavior has been deplorable. The worst horrors of Abu Ghraib prison have been kept secret, including the rape of children. A gulag of secret prisons has been established in several locations of the world, including Afghanistan and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and nobody knows what goes on in these places. Activities at the Guantanamo torture chamber, approved and supported at the highest levels of the American government, rightly have damned any claims the nation has as being a leader in human rights. The CIA has such an extensive system of transportation for torture abroad there is a special name for it, rendition. The CIA also has murdered suspects. The disappearance of about three thousand Afghan prisoners still has received no official explanation, although witnesses say they were horribly murdered by warlords with American troops quietly watching. No one should forget Rumsfeld’s Reinhard Heydrich-like statement at about that time that prisoners in Afghanistan should be done away with or walled away for life.
Hitler was a fervent believer in raw Social Darwinism. He actually was a convert to a form of brutal paganism, captivated by the notion that brutality offered the necessary infusion of strength for a people somewhat enfeebled by the ethical norms of his time. He regarded Christianity as a weakness, although he could not openly speak that way. He often clearly misjudged who in fact were the fittest, but his enthusiasm was palpable when talking of the necessity for his generation of Germans to show utter ruthlessness in order to earn future greatness.
The talk of American Neo-cons is more tempered, but it comes from exactly the same moral and intellectual root stock. Social Darwinism and worship of force are conspicuously on display in Washington. Rather than hating Christianity, the Neo-cons have harnessed it, at least a substantial American portion of it, to their purposes.
Importantly, the Neo-cons have different Christian material with which to work: America’s fundamentalists display many attitudes and behaviors more in keeping with paganism than Christianity. This is particularly true when it comes to war and the military. America’s Jesus, the one embraced by millions of fundamentalists, seems to be heartily cheered by war. He doesn’t appear to oppose hate either since preaching against groups like gays comes pretty close to an obsession for many of His most prominent ministers. He can’t be opposed to money changers in the temple because that’s the main work of all those financial empire-building evangelists.
The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan is not isolated. Reports of American troops recently firing on Syrian troops along the border intensify concerns about threats towards Syria and Iran, and although the ongoing mess in Iraq makes another invasion seem unlikely that says nothing of other aggressive or surreptitious acts. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that 9/11 was a direct result of the CIA’s huge dirty war in Afghanistan and that Al Qaeda is – or was, for I doubt its continued existence as an organization despite silly reports that somewhere on the Internet it continues taking credit for many acts – in great part an American creation.
What the Neo-cons call terror is not the true focus of their frenetic efforts. What they are after is control over change in key parts of the world that are now changing rather quickly. And their concern is not just with western Asia. China has become the target of new verbal attacks in Washington. American politicians, always friendly to foreign ownership so long as it is Americans doing the buying, have made ridiculous statements about China’s efforts to buy North American companies, particularly Unocal.
The Neo-con’s idea of a globalized world is one in which America owns all that it wishes abroad while getting to choose which nations abroad are acceptable to own something in America. This is quite revealing of the nature of their commitment to a globalized world, not a world of international give and take, relatively free trade, and fairly negotiated agreements but a world which operates by a biased set of rules laid down and enforced by the United States. It is free trade and internationalism according to the arrogant and oleaginous Thomas Friedman.
It occurs to me, part of the attitudes now on display in Washington go back a very long time, far before the Cold War. The cliff-hanger movie serials of the 1930s were filled with them. From Ming the Merciless, ruler of the planet Mongol, in Flash Gordon to the Dragon Lady of Terry and the Pirates, China has been a troubling psychological presence in the American mind. Western Asia featured heavily, too, in serials about the Foreign Legion. An early one, called The Three Musketeers, had an American adventurer-pilot (John Wayne, in an early role) throwing in his lot with a group of Legionnaires somewhere on the Sahara fighting the evil of one El Shaitan, head of a secret organization called the Devil’s Circle opposed to the French. Everything about this pot-boiler prefigured the saga of Osama and Al Qaeda by half a century. Most interestingly, the secret identity of El Shaitan turned out to be some kind of vaguely western merchant.
The recent words of Rumsfeld on the threat of China’s new build-up of arms read almost like black humor. Here is a man a man who has presided over two invasions, a man who actually called for killing prisoners, a man who supports torture, a man who encourages a new generation of "usable" nuclear weapons, and a man who has a military budget greater than the combined military spending of half the planet, expressing concern over China’s modernizing of some of its military forces. Washington’s just-announced plans for nuclear cooperation with India are threats aimed directly towards China.
Ironically, important parts of China’s modernization, more and longer-range missiles, represent precisely the response experts warned Washington of if it insisted on proceeding with its high-risk project for missile defense which, of course, carries a threat of neutralizing the nuclear deterrents of China and Russia. Russia earlier had announced a dramatic new technology for its long-range warheads to avoid interception as a response to the same American developments. Other parts of China’s build-up reflect concerns over American threats to block China’s claim to Taiwan, a claim Washington accepted in writing under Nixon, but one over which Neo-cons today are making all kinds of threatening noises.
American hostility towards China is all the more fascinating since China with regard to the external world has been a relatively peaceful country for half a century. Over that same time, America has chalked up dozens of bloody interventions and wars. Fifty-five years ago, when China did enter the Korean War, it was only after strenuous efforts to warn Washington that MacArthur’s army must not approach North Korea’s main border with China, the Yalu River, warnings that simply were ignored.
Bush’s Washington has been periodically bellicose towards China from the beginning, taking cues from the Neo-cons who singled out a rising China years ago as a potential case for Cartago delenda est. But now the pace of threatening gestures and remarks is becoming steadier and more dangerous. Any one who knows anything about modern China understands that serious American efforts to undermine China’s claim to Taiwan will result in conflict. The case is just as certain as someone provoking the United States by claiming California is ready for independence and actively working to promote it. This does not necessarily mean all-out war, for the Chinese are subtle and understand American technical superiority (for now) in advanced weapons. There are many ways for China to strike at the United States, including at the extreme of allowing some of its excellent missile technology and nuclear know-how to fall to the spies of hostile lands.
Bush is working hard to give us a world characterized by divisiveness, resentments, suspicions, and violence because that is the kind of world in which America may freely act as arbiter, seeming to stand above the turmoil like Zeus with his thunderbolts. In part this derives from lack of understanding, in part arrogance, but control over the lives and institutions of others is the greatest motivator for Bush, just as it was for Hitler. Of course, he believes, or pretends to believe, that he is working towards a world of peace and democratic values, but it is to be a world where peace, democracy, and rights are defined exclusively on his terms. Recent events in London and earlier in Spain show exactly what Bush’s legacy is to be, a world full of people seething with resentment over what the U.S. has done, angry and frustrated enough to attack even those browbeaten and bribed into the fatuous Coalition of the Willing. The London bombers appear to have been home-grown, not imported. Moreover we live in a world, particularly considering Eastern and Western Asia, where there are far more of "them" than "us."
"War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes."
"I spent 33 years in the Marines. Most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism."
— USMC Major General Smedley Butler