In an event co-sponsored by UFPPC, Bob Ericksen lectured at the Tacoma Public Library on May 18 on "The Illusion of Overwhelming Force," examining World War II and the Vietnam War and seeing what lessons learned there apply to Iraq. What follows is a synopsis of talk by the well-known historian, and of the Q&A session that followed....

By Robert P. Ericksen

** If we argue about the morality of the war, we may disagree. But we can find broad agreement that the application of overwhelming force is, by itself, not enough to ensure victory. **

United for Peace of Pierce County
May 18, 2004

--On the evening of May 18, 2004, Bob Ericksen, Professor of History at Pacific Lutheran University and a world-renowned authority on the role of the Protestant churches in the Holocaust, gave a well-received lecture at the Tacoma Public Library entitled "The Illusion of Overwhelming Force." What follows is a synopsis written up by Mark Jensen and published here with Prof. Ericksen's permission; a summary of the question-and-answer period that followed is also provided.

Five weeks ago, when I agreed to give this talk and People for Peace, Justice, & Healing and United for Peace of Pierce County began to organize this event, few of the things presently dominating the national debate had emerged.

It is not my intention tonight to talk about those events, though they relate directly to my theme tonight. Nor is it my intention to give a talk about the morality of the war. Many in the audience could do that, raising issues about the notion of pre-emptive war, the compatibility of the war with the United Nations Charter, excessive "collateral damage," and so forth. Such questions would produce many different answers.

But with respect to the question I shall discuss tonight, I argue that if we look at the history of the concept of overwhelming force, the preponderance of the evidence is such that most observers will agree: the results aimed at are not the results achieved.

Are we tempted by the notion of overwhelming force? Yes, we are. As a child, I grew up in a world in which the heroes on whom my imagination was nourished had six-guns that never ran out of bullets. And if one did run out, the hero simply tossed it aside and pulled out another.

Only last week my younger brother told me that he, as a boy, on our first trip to California, had kept his eyes constantly on the ground, thinking that he would surely find one of those guns.

Many have a deep desire to believe that overwhelming force might solve a problem. But the evidence seems to indicate that this is just not so.

Take World War II. The United States did not enjoy overwhelming force with respect to Germany and Japan. The Germans and the Japanese could build very efficient war machines to oppose us. We could not simply overwhelm them. To a certain extent, our productive capacities were greater, and ensured our victory; but we were up against a formidable foe.

In the air war we did possess a great degree of superiority. But we know now that it did not ensure victory. The results of the post-war bombing survey showed: 1) Bombing was less accurate than we had believed. 2) Production of war matÈriel was not stopped by the bombing campaign. 3) We did not succeed in breaking the will of the German people through the bombing campaign.

I'll leave out the question of Japan for now; we can come back to it in the question-and-answer period, if you like.

I'll jump to Vietnam. France had been humiliated in World War II, and hoped to reestablish its position in the world through its colonial empire. In the post-war world, the United States was tempted to side with the Vietnamese nationalists, but we decided to side with the French for the sake of post-war alliances. In the 1946-1954 war, the French expected to win because of their overwhelming technological superiority. The Vietminh (as they were called in that phase of the war) used the most primitive sorts of weapons -- but they ultimately prevailed. By 1950, the U.S. began paying most of the cost of the fight, since the U.S. now considered the fight to be one against Communism. But that didn't change anything. Eventually, the French were defeated, finally losing the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. An international conference in Geneva led to a French withdrawal.

When the U.S. contemplated the situation, it decided that the struggle against Communism required it to oppose Ho Chi Minh and his forces, which were, indeed, Communist. The U.S. decided to back Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic. Elections were rigged to provide a pretense to legitimacy. But Diem governed with authoritarian harshness and would not take direction from the U.S., and finally the U.S. supported a coup (apparently without foreknowledge that Diem would be killed). Then the U.S introduced more and more forces in the hopes that the South Vietnamese Army would prevail. A series of coups led Lyndon Johnson to remark: "I'm tired of this coup shit."

From March of 1965 on, the U.S. introduced ground troops and escalated the conflict, until it had 543,000 troops in Vietnam. At the same time, it began an intensive bombing campaign. We dropped three times as many bombs on Vietnam as we had dropped in all of World War II. The number of Vietnamese who perished is in the millions. Furthermore, we had almost complete control of the theater of war; only the occasional surface-to-air missile interfered with U.S. supremacy in the air. The U.S. won every battle. But the biggest complaint was: the enemy could not be located to fight. Understandably, the enemy declined to show up and engage in conventional combat; this was a guerrilla war.

We only fully learned that we had lost in 1975, when the regime collapsed. After 58,000 combat deaths, we had lost the war.

The single biggest problem our soldiers had was that they couldn't identify whom to kill. It's been said that the war was fought "with one hand tied behind our backs." In fact, we used overwhelming firepower, and would have won the war if we had been willing to destroy the entire Vietnamese nation, as we indeed had the power to do. But we chose not to. And as it was, use of overwhelming force tended to create more enemies than it destroyed.

The question becomes: what set of assumptions did we bring into the Iraq war? It's true to say that the entire leadership of this administration believes that we were insufficiently willing to fight hard in Vietnam. Indeed, the desire to show that Vietnam was no longer relevant to our circumstances was an important factor in this war.

In Iraq, we have total control of the air. We have air supremacy, night vision, every sort of military superiority. Even so, the commander of the 82nd Airborne (I believe it was) said recently: "We can win every battle, but I don't think we'll win the war."

It's very tempting to assume that we can win the war with overwhelming force. But the assumption is belied by events. Once again the troops cannot distinguish friend from foe. In Vietnam, My Lai was, to some degree, an expression of the frustration felt such a situation. We have not seen such an atrocity in Iraq, but there are accusations of unnecessary killing in Iraq, too. And we have witnessed the intentional humiliation and abuse of Iraqis. The Rumsfeld memo of several months ago (whether deliberately leaked or not) made a relevant point: we are not sure whether we are killing more terrorists than we are creating.

Let me give two more examples: 1) In Fallujah, despite a vow to find the perpetrators of the murder of four American civilian contractors, the U.S. was unable to do so. Though we could have prevailed in Fallujah by destroying the city, short of that we could not prevail, and accepted instead a different outcome. 2) In the struggle against the al-Sadr militias, we face a similar situation.

Arguing about whether it was worth it to overthrow Saddam Hussein can be contentious. After all, there are few rulers nastier than he was. But discussing overwhelming force can lead to a consensus: we cannot prevail simply through overwhelming force.

I'll take some questions.

Q -- What were our objectives in Iraq?

A -- In February 2003, I was in Germany, and I remember watching George W. Bush say that we were aiming to 1) protect ourselves from weapons of mass destruction; 2) overthrow Saddam Hussein; and 3) help establish a free democratic Arab state that would be an example to the region.

Q -- But what were our real objectives?

A -- I think they had to do with demonstrating American power and our willingness to use it, in order to establish a global hegemony. Oil was a factor, but it was secondary to this demonstrative goal.

Q -- What has been the role of our not coming to terms with Vietnam as a factor in these events?

A -- In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, many, including many in the military, said that we would not do that again. But since 1980 the problem of the Vietnam War has been reinterpreted, wrongly; and this has gotten us seriously into trouble.

Q -- I'm interested in the question of the role of religious support for the war.

A -- The makers of the film being produced featuring my work on the Holocaust -- which will come out early in 2005, not in 2004, by the way -- are specifically interested in this question. They believe that we're in danger of worshipping the nation as God. I agree. My work shows that a vast majority of German Christians believed that Hitler was good, and they supported him. Hitler was the candidate of the time in favor of "family values." In America, we have a diverse Christian community; but the most visible Christians are in the "family values" crowd.

Q -- What is the difference between the Sunnis and the Shiites?

A -- That goes back to theological differences centuries old, that I'm ill equipped to explain. It's theologically complex; at this point it is mainly a difference between ethnic groups.

Q -- Back to Vietnam and Iraq. After Vietnam, there was deep suspcion of military solutions. Bush I said that the Gulf War had eneabled us to end "the Vietnam syndrome." But there is lots of evidence that we misinformed Saddam about our intentions, and that the U.S. wanted war in 1990. One can also argue that Kosovo demonstrated a desire for war. The "desire to demonstrate war-making capacity" is a very strong argument.

A -- [Nods.]

Q -- Is Japan an example of overwhelming force prevailing?

A -- My position on Japan is more controversial than anything I said in my talk. For one think, in speaking of Japan I would raise the question of the morality of dropping the bomb. Second, I believe that, beginning in 1945, the Japanese were ready to surrender, but the U.S. didn't want a negotiated end to the war; we wanted unconditional surrender. The result that we finally achieved might, I think, have been reached without the atomic bombs being dropped. Then there's the theory that Truman wanted to demonstrate the bomb to show Stalin what we had -- as Gar Alperovitz argues in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995).

Q -- If a country like ours has such overwhelming force, can you talk about the ratio of military to diplomacy?

A -- Thanks for that question. Our forces are said not even to like to train with NATO, they're so far behind; so, what's the point? Why bother with diplomacy? My argument is that it gives us an alternative to war. But this adminstration represents the radical Republican point of view: that use of power is the path to follow, not diplomacy. The rejection of the Kyoto Accord, the ABM treaty, the International Criminal Court, etc., shows this. But the U.S.'s greatest foreign policy success -- the post-WWII Marshall plan -- was not based on mere application of force. Jesse Helms didn't like that then and ranted about it; now we have Jesse Helms's foreign policy in power. Perhaps now that this approach has been demonstrated not to work, we can see that the cooperative approach would have been better.

Q -- Did we miss an opportunity after September 11?

A -- Yes, I think we missed a great opportunity. The French were saying "We're all Americans," and the Iranians were offering to cooperate in fighting terrorism. But we blew it.

Q -- You say "the illusion of force" -- what is "the illusion," with respect to the Iraqis?

A -- The illusion is the idea that because we possess these extraordinary weapons, we will attain victory. The French warned us before, but we thought that in their case, the problem was that they were French. We thought we could achieve results through shock and awe, then through roughing people up. One quote I brought tonight but didn't use is from the May 7 New York Times; I'll summarize the gist. The Times says that in the most recent Army manual it could find, the interrogation manual says, basically, that force doesn't work. But post-9/11, it is said that this approach is "outdated." This new policy, however, is just another version of the doctrine of overwhelming force. Our allies are shocked and dismayed that we should display such contempt for Muslims. Rumsfeld was apparently saying that he was appalled at forced masturbation, but he did approve the use of naked humiliation of Arabs. Studies show, however, that the best way to get information is just through asking questions. Or if that fails, through old-fashioned espionage.

Q -- I don't think what the Iraqis think matters to Bush: he only wants to be reelected. And being a "tough guy" brings in votes.

A -- Yes, that's true. It plays well for some of the American public.

Q -- Are we moving from wars of attrition to wars of annihilation?

A -- Well, we're not fully into annihilating people yet . . .

Q -- We need to learn to encourage dialogue, and involvement. Even encouraging one-issue voting would be a good thing.

A -- I once wrote: "These are the people who spank their kids." There is, I think, a link between the personal and the political issues. But if more than 50% of the American public would vote, that would be tremendously important.

Q -- A MoveOn idea is to have voter registration materials distributed with each high school diploma.

Q -- I feel it's a choice of there being a choice of the lesser of two evils; that's why I don't vote.

Q -- We should talk before you leave!

Q -- Have you heard that people say that the U.S. was behind Nicholas Berg's death?

A -- I have no reason to doubt that that really was a terrorist killing.

Q -- Weapons manufacturers exert pressure too, do they not?

A -- Yes, I agree. It's amazing that it was Eisenhower who said that, in 1961. There are a lot of forces that make our economy responsive to war. I'm not a conspiracy guy, but those incentives are a factor.

Q -- Could you comment on the expense of the war to the taxpayer?

A -- $200 billion and counting. Whether it will affect the voters is an interesting question, as we now have the phenomenon of a party that is in favor of tax cuts also being in favor of increased military spending. Would the world be safer, and would we be safer, if we reoriented completely our priorities? I think it would be a safer world, and we would be safer.