The President gave a speech in Colorado Springs today urging Americans to emulate the sacrifices of the World War II generation in pursuing victory in the War on Terror. In his talk he admitted that occupying Iraq has been a learning experience for him. It seems to have dawned on him finally that the country can't be equated with Germany and Japan at the end of the earlier war. He notes that reconstruction efforts in those countries went on in relative quiet, though it's still not clear how he accounts for the difference. At least he and his people aren't claiming anymore that Americans had to fend off violent resistance from die-hard Nazis or Japanese militants.But what made Iraq different? Bush reflexively points to the existence of a terrorist ideology in Iraq, but does he really think that the several Iraqi factions were more fanatical, more violent, more extremist than the Nazis or the militarist clique in Japan? Is the difference due to the nature of the occupied people, the nature of the occupiers, or the circumstances of the occupation?
I've argued before for the last option. The end of World War II left the Germans and Japanese people as a whole feeling thoroughly and rightly defeated. Their governments had surrendered unconditionally. Their countries had been destroyed and the consensus in both countries was that they had brought it upon themselves. The people in general were more implicated in a "total war" than the Iraqis ever were, and seem to have accepted occupation as their just punishment, however they felt about the occupiers. In Iraq, no matter how high you estimate civilian casualties, "Shock & Awe" didn't approach the devastation of 1940s style total war. In Iraq, there was no actual surrender ceremony; Saddam's government simply vanished. In Iraq, the people don't appear to have accepted responsibility for Saddam's crimes. To the contrary: ever since the Gulf War they've seen themselves as undeserving victims of punitive policies, from the 1990s sanctions to the present occupation. The real difference may not be whether or not the Iraqis appreciated their "liberation," but whether they accepted their punishment.
But let's not rule out the other possibility that the nature of the occupiers is different. This may be a tough case to make since it would mean that Americans have changed somehow since the 1940s. But some things obviously have changed. The occupiers of Germany and Japan were FDR's army from the land of the New Deal, a conscript force for few of whom the military was a way of life. The occupiers of Iraq are a volunteer army with mercenary auxiliaries, quite likely more alienated from their civilian brethren than their grandfathers were, and acting on orders from George W. Bush. American devolution probably has been a factor in the Iraqi disaster, as has been the unique circumstances of Iraq itself. It remains for people with more time on their hands to figure out the relative influences. I'll just remind you that the President mentioned none of this in his speech. He did mention that he's still learning, but someone's going to be collecting his worksheet very soon.