What Will Endure Once Iraq War Is History?

As America geared up for the war against Iraq that began two years ago Saturday, there was talk of a "cakewalk" and a swift departure once the regime of Saddam Hussein fell. Within months, President Bush famously addressed troops on an aircraft carrier flying a "mission accomplished" banner.

But the mission was not accomplished -- and two years on, it still isn't.

Iraq has not been a lightning strike like the 1980s invasions of Grenada and Panama, or even the 1991 Gulf war. And Bush now says the U.S. presence in Iraq will continue for the foreseeable future -- perhaps ultimately making the Iraq fight longer in duration than U.S. involvement in World War II.

"Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself," Bush told reporters Wednesday. "There's positive signs that have taken place in the development of the Iraqi security force, but there's still work to be done."

'Strategic Impact'

The length of a war does not always match its historical profile. America fought in World War I for a year and a half. That's similar to or less than the duration of lesser-known fights including the 1899 insurrection in the Philippines (which cost thousands more U.S. lives than the Iraq war), the late 1700s "quasi war" with France, the early 1800s Barbary wars, and even recent wars or interventions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti and Somalia. In addition, American deaths in Iraq so far are considerably less than in most of its "major" wars.

Still, could posterity one day judge the war in Iraq as a momentous conflict in America's history, similar to the world wars, the Civil War or Vietnam?

"How serious this [Iraq war] is going to be is not a matter of duration," said Anthony Cordesman, ABC News' military analyst. "What's going to really count is its strategic impact."

Such impact gives most of America's major wars overarching -- some might say oversimplified -- themes in history books, says Jon Guttman, editor of Military History magazine. For instance, the Revolutionary War earned American independence, the Mexican War expanded America's borders to include California and the Southwest, the Civil War preserved the union and led to the end of U.S slavery, the Spanish-American War and World War I announced and confirmed America's presence as a global power, and World War II defeated fascism.

"Vietnam was a reminder that no matter what power you have, terrain or the populace -- if it's determined enough -- can prevail against the technology," Guttman said. "We kept changing our objectives until we forgot what they were. The other side stuck to theirs. We spent too much time presenting the war as something other than what it was, which could be applied to Iraq today."

Raised Stakes?

Some speculate the high stakes in Iraq -- raised by the overlapping war on terror and instability in the Middle East -- could bring about dramatic changes.

"There's a tremendous amount riding on it one way or the other," Guttman said. The Iraq war's legacy could include "the possibility of a ripple effect that might create other democratic governments in places where there hadn't been any or the possibility of a backlash that could make al Qaeda's agenda more popular."

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, sees a similar equation, but more localized historical fallout.

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