I wonder how the macho men of the Bush administration whiled away the hours over the Christmas holidays. Visiting the relatives? Watching football on TV? Planning the next projection of American power, while trying not to think about looming political scandals in Washington?
Perhaps the president broke precedent and pleased the first lady by reading a few books. Maybe the vice president did, too, being as how he reputedly inhabits a quiet, secluded subterranean bunker in an undisclosed location. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld? Bite your tongue. He probably spent the time practicing his old wrestling moves on the immediate family or chewing broken glass for fun.
If the stalwart guardians of the nation did by chance reacquaint themselves with the world of books, a good choice of reading matter -- an even better one, if they had read it prior to the invasion of Iraq -- would have been Rick Atkinson's magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning history, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 [Henry Holt & Co., 2002].
Atkinson, a journalist by trade and a historian by avocation, has penned what is easily the best narrative of the Second World War since Cornelius Ryan's classics on the European theater, The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. By turns lyrically poetic and incisively analytical, he traces the North African campaign in all its excruciating detail, both on the ground and in the strategy room, from the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria through the agonizing and costly Tunisian desert offensive that ultimately sealed the fate of the Axis armies.
An Army at Dawn is the story of how a green American military, created from scratch on the eve of war, was gradually transformed into an efficient fighting force capable of winning the conflict in Europe. But it is more than that, of course; it is also a case study in the essential stupidity of war.
Atkinson's blow-by-blow account of Operation Torch, the amphibious landings at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers, is a mind-numbing catalogue of confusion, flawed planning, mistakes, misjudgments, hubris, overconfidence and just plain bad luck. Murphy's Law (if it can go wrong, it will) was in full operation. The Americans and their British allies succeeded in the end, but only because the other side was also victimized by the vagaries of war and because it was inevitably worn down by sheer numbers and superior logistics.
Atkinson's book contains plenty of heroics, the stock element in accounts of war, and its biographical sketches of the principals involved (Eisenhower, Patton, Rommel, Montgomery and others less prominent) are brilliant. Nevertheless, what lingers in the mind is the portrayal of military folly: uncoordinated convoys, mistaken landfalls, lost landing craft, inadequate intelligence, botched communications, ill-equipped soldiers, deaths by friendly fire, pigheaded attacks on impregnable positions, killing of innocent civilians and tactical blunders compounded by unanticipated terrain and bad weather. If this sounds familiar, it should; it's the stuff of all wars, including the one we're in now.
World War II was an inevitable conflict, a war not of choice but of necessity. In that respect, it differs from Iraq, the quintessential war of discretion. This doesn't mean the "good war" was a desirable war with a preordained outcome. Atkinson provides a useful corrective to self-congratulatory histories of the Stephen Ambrose variety, which imply that we were victorious because of our innate superiority in courage, character, imagination and initiative. If readers come away from An Army at Dawn with nothing else, they will come away with a sense of the arbitrariness of war, the extent to which it can be a roll of the dice -- and not to be undertaken lightly.
That's certainly the case in Iraq, where war's arbitrary nature, a consequence of the "fog" that always surrounds it, has been on display from the beginning, highlighted perhaps by Donald Rumsfeld's memorable "stuff happens" remark during the looting of Baghdad.
Stuff certainly does happen, not least civilian deaths, which now total between 30,000 (if you accept President Bush's cavalier low-ball estimate) and 100,000 (if you prefer the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health figure), many of them due to intentional terrorist bombings but many more to inadvertent collateral damage from US air strikes, artillery bombardments and infantry actions.
Murphy's Law is also operating in Iraq with respect to American troop deaths, most of which have resulted from an occupation that, according to war planners, was not supposed to be necessary. But then, nothing much has gone according to plan since the invasion. There have been no hidden WMDs, no substantial oil revenues, no welcoming native Iraqis, no effective local security forces, no surrendering insurgents and no military answers to troop-killing IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or suicide bombers.
There has also been no spontaneous flowering of democracy, elections notwithstanding. But none of this was foreseen by the war hawks, blinded from the start by foolish arrogance and misplaced optimism. As Rick Atkinson shows, the unforeseen always happens in war, and that's why war, where avoidable, should always be avoided.
Now, the war-hawk line has become oddly defensive: Regardless of the reasons for invading, we're there and can't leave without dire consequences, chief among them being that withdrawal equals defeat and defeat, in turn, equals a victory for international terrorism and loss of the entire region. The old domino theory once more raises its ugly head. As the late, great antiwar warrior Eugene McCarthy would have reminded us, the same thing was said about Vietnam a generation ago: Withdrawal would lead to catastrophe. It didn't happen; the main consequence of withdrawal was embarrassment for those in power.
The truth is we remain in Iraq largely because the administration has invested so much in the enterprise psychologically; the president has made it the raison d'être of his term in office. Withdrawal would be a personal defeat for him, a catastrophe not for the country or the world, but for his place in history.
In short, George W. Bush has become hostage to his Iraq policy, and the nation is held hostage with him. It was the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. In Lincoln's prophetic words, "We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.