Will history of South's occupation repeat itself in Iraq?

August 3, 2003 Peoria Journal Star


The American army that crushed Saddam Hussein's forces in record time with minimum losses has been called new. But it is not. It is Robert E. Lee come back to life, with Jeb Stuart's cavalry disrupting enemy lines of communication and reporting on troop dispositions and Stonewall Jackson then making flanking attacks where no rational commander should have anticipated danger.

The concept of "doctrine" concerns training and equipping the armed forces to face the most likely and most dangerous foes. The debate over doctrine goes back to the foundation of the nation, with Jefferson arguing for a military establishment that would be incapable of waging any war effectively (and hence unlikely to be powerful enough to overthrow the government). But the War of 1812 demonstrated conclusively that this was a stupid idea.

Except where forces were trained and led by extraordinary commanders (Winfield Scott on the Canadian border and Andrew Jackson against the Indians and at New Orleans), the army was ineffective. It could not even protect Washington, D.C.

The creation of military academies changed the situation radically. When the Mexican War came along, European experts predicted a Mexican victory: Americans were not a military people, they could not invade a distant land, and there was a strong anti-war party. The Mexicans, in contrast, were unified, had considerable experience in their civil conflicts, were well-equipped and were fighting a foreign foe who was invading their homeland.

Scott proved the experts wrong, taking a small but mobile and well-trained army through the mountains to capture Mexico City. Robert E. Lee led the U.S. Marines in the assault on "the halls of Montezuma" at Chapultepec, but it was Stonewall Jackson's artillery that proved decisive.

The Mexican War has been seen as a rehearsal for the Civil War. Not in a literal sense, but almost all the figures of the War Between the States were there. They knew one another and often were friends. Lee was not given a command at the start of the Civil War, but once he took over the Army of Northern Virginia, he abandoned the defensive tactics that had failed to stop McClellan's slow but steady advance on Richmond. Lee employed surprise and firepower, very much as Stonewall Jackson had done in the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862. The impact was greater on his opponents' morale and self-confidence than on his forces, but there it was devastating.

The problem with Lee's strategy was that it could not win the war. Southern forces could not invade the North and hold it. The Yankees, with overwhelming numbers and materiel, could occupy whatever land they could conquer. One Northern general matched Lee's genius - U.S. Grant, whose early campaigns were slash-and-dash forays, confusing and overwhelming his enemies in the Kentucky and Vicksburg campaigns, then driving the Confederates from Tennessee. But when Grant confronted Lee, he was more cautious-he brought the industrial and human power of America to bear on his foe. It was not pretty, but it did the job.

Ever since then, the U.S. Army has modeled itself on Grant. No one could imagine an American army being outnumbered, poorly equipped and fighting on the defensive. Grant-style armies won World Wars I and II. The U.S. army lost only one major battle against the Germans - the Kasserine Pass in North Africa, its first engagement against a seemingly invincible foe using Blitzkrieg tactics. No one has ever said that the American tanks were better, or American units on the whole were equal to their enemy. But they won, and they won decisively.

This is the debate that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been carrying on with Army traditionalists. The Secretary of Defense inherited a military designed to face and defeat a very impressive Soviet war machine. But the threat had changed. The ensuing debate has been much like B-grade westerns of decades past: a West Point-trained officer comes to the West and discovers that American Indians do not fight according to European rules. John Wayne then shows him what has to be done.

Iraq was the first major test of the new Army. Tommy Franks' campaign was brilliant. But is it capable of imposing a peace? Grant and Sherman conquered the South, but the occupying forces left in place were too few to carry out the social and economic reforms planned by idealistic, radical Republicans, and ultimately they were withdrawn. Little had changed in the South. Except, oh yes, slavery was eliminated.

Most current attacks on President Bush are political posturing, but every now and then someone comes close to asking a serious question about military doctrine. Will American policy build on the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, or return to the grist machine of the Cold War, or take a Jeffersonian stance? Meanwhile, oh yes, Saddam Hussein is gone. (At least we think so.)

William L. Urban is the Lee L. Morgan professor of history and international studies at Monmouth College.