It’s the kind of speculation that maybe only a history nerd (like me) would love, but the Los Angeles Times published it, anyway — four historians discuss what Julius Caesar, George Washington, Genghis Khan, and Abraham Lincoln might say about Iraq. Excerpts —
When Caesar led his legions into Gaul â€” basically present-day France and Belgium â€” in 58 BC, many of the tribes there greeted him as a liberator. Six years later, almost all of them rebelled against him in a war fought with appalling savagery. Through skill and luck, Caesar won. He then spent the better part of two years in painstaking diplomacy. As one of his own officers put it: “Caesar had one main aim, keeping the tribes friendly and giving them neither the opportunity nor cause for war.” It worked, and Gaul remained at peace when he left in 49 BC.
Until the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, Washington thought of the war against Britain as a contest between two armies. When the British army presented itself for battle, as it did on Long Island in the summer of 1776, Washington felt honor-bound to fight â€” a decision that proved calamitous on that occasion and nearly lost the war at the very start. That’s because the British had a force of 32,000 men against his 12,000. If Washington had not changed his thinking, the American Revolution almost surely would have failed because the Continental Army was no match for the British leviathan.
But at Valley Forge, Washington began to grasp an elemental idea: Namely, he did not have to win the war. Time and space were on his side. And no matter how many battles the British army won, it could not sustain control over the countryside unless it was enlarged tenfold, at a cost that British voters would never support. Eventually the British would recognize that they faced an impossibly open-ended mission and would decide to abandon their North American empire. Which is exactly what happened.
Genghis Khan recognized that victory came by conquering people, not land or cities. In contrast to the Americans in 2003, who sought to take the largest cities first in a campaign of shock and awe, the Mongols in 1258 took the smallest settlements first, gradually working toward the capital. Both the Mongols and the Americans used heavy bombardment to topple Baghdad, but whereas the Americans rushed into the capital in a triumphant victory celebration, the Mongols wisely decided not to enter the defeated â€” but still dangerous â€” city. They ordered the residents to evacuate, and then they sent in Christian and Muslim allies, who seethed with a variety of resentments against the caliph, to expunge any pockets of resistance and secure the capital. The Americans ended up as occupiers; the Mongols pulled strings, watching from camps in the countryside. …
… Fundamentalist Muslims look back at Mongol secularism as a scourge. But, although U.S. rule in Iraq has produced a constant flow of refugees, particularly religious minorities, out of the country, under Mongol rule Christian, Muslim, Jewish and even Buddhist immigrants poured into the newly conquered Iraq to live under the Great Law of Genghis Khan. It was said that during this time a virgin could cross the length of the Mongol Empire with a pot of gold on her head and never be molested.
So what might Lincoln do today?
First, focus on the real enemy: terrorists. When advisors suggested he start a war with England merely to woo patriotic Southerners back into the Union, Lincoln replied: “One war at a time.” He also rejected adventurism against French-controlled Mexico. Today Lincoln would fight only the war that needs fighting.
Second, embrace flexibility. Seek the right generals, strategies, troop levels and weaponry, and be willing to change course and personnel swiftly.
Third, communicate objectives with frequency, passion and precision. No one can match Lincoln’s eloquence, but no president should abandon Lincoln’s commitment to engage the public.
Fourth, spend more time at the front. Lincoln visited the troops often, absorbing their pain and boosting their morale. Maybe his case was better, but his manner of symbolizing it was best.
Finally, abandon the notion of divine will to justify war. Even the pious Lincoln came to realize it was fruitless, even sacrilegious, to invoke God as his ally. “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God,” he lamented. “Both may be, and one must be, wrong.” As Lincoln understood: “The Almighty has his own purposes.”
It should be noted that Caesar and Genghis Khan achieved their goals in ways that are frowned upon in civilized circles today. But although tactics might have to be modified, it doesn’t hurt to look at their strategies.