Not only did millions of Japanese and Germans die in World War II, but U.S. and British aerial bombing of major Japanese and German cities alone killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in what is now delicately termed “collateral damage.” And that’s not even counting the carnage caused by the atomic bombs we. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final days of the war against Japan.
Violence, death and destruction on such a massive scale have a profound conditioning effect on the psyches of individuals. And the same applies to whole nations. Japan and Germany weren’t just ‘defeated’ or ‘occupied,’ they were crushed — not just their armies, but their civilian populations too. This led to a sort of national humiliation and a transformative willingness to embrace defeat and change.
True defeat changes people and nations too. The fact that our subsequent occupation turned out to be so benign was extremely important. But part of that importance was the contrast between how much these populations had suffered during the war and how much better things got for them after we took over.
And thus our problem. If everything goes according to plan, the loss of civilian life in Iraq will be minimal. Certainly, we all hope so. We’d be even happier if most of the Iraqi army simply laid down its arms when our ground troops march on Baghdad. In addition to our humanitarian interest in shedding as little blood as possible, a low death toll is key to convincing Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world that we are liberators, not conquerors or destroyers. In short, it’s key to making our invasion seem like a good thing.
But that’s the catch. Occupying armies will always keep things under control in the short-term. But the sort of transformation we engineered in the former Axis powers required a far greater pliancy, one which allowed us not only to disarm these countries but rewrite their textbooks, reorient their politics, and do much more.
Doing that in a foreign country may require a mauling of the civilian population that we are rightly unwilling to undertake.