The Hinge of Fate in Iraq

On June 25, the following resolution was tabled in the House:

"That this House, while paying tribute to the heroism and endurance of the Armed Forces … in circumstances of exceptional difficulty, has no confidence in the central direction of the war."

That would be June 25, 1942. The House would be the House of Commons in London, England. And the government in which no confidence was expressed was that of Winston Churchill.

Almost three years into World War II, repeated military failures had induced considerable war fatigue in Britain. In February 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese with 25,000 British troops being taken prisoner. In March, Rangoon fell. This was vastly damaging to Churchill’s prestige in Washington as Rangoon was the only port through which aid could be shipped to China’s Chiang Kai-shek — a very high priority for the United States in Asia.

In April, the Japanese Navy drove the Royal Navy all the way back to East Africa and shelled the British Indian coastal cities.

Then on June 21, 1942, Tobruk in North Africa fell to Gen. Rommel, with 33,000 British prisoners taken and the Suez Canal (Britain’s lifeline to her Asian empire and oil) threatened.

A week later, Churchill struggled to win that vote of no confidence. But shrewd political observers in London at the time (very much including Churchill himself) believed he was one more lost battle away from being removed from office — or at best stripped of his Minister of Defense cabinet powers and rendered a mere figurehead leader.

But during those months Churchill had been busy firing or re-assigning the generals who were not bringing victories: including Gens. Wavell, Dill, Auchinleck, Ritchie, Norrie, Brooke-Popham, Messervy and Corbett — among others.

Finally he found a general who could win — Bernard Law Montgomery. And at the second battle of El Alamein in October and November 1942, Montgomery beat Rommel and started the drive west across the rim of Africa — finally driving Rommel and his Afrika Corp clear off the continent. Both for Churchills’ government and the eventual victory in WWII, El Alamein was the "hinge of fate." As Chuchill said: "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat."

I wonder whether, perhaps, in Gen. Petraeus President Bush has finally found his Gen. Montgomery. And whether Petraeus’s new strategy and success at beating Al Qaeda in Iraq and growing success against the Mahdi Army — may be his El Alamein.

Wars are curious things. Certainly, as President Bush and many of his supporters have cruelly learned, victories cannot reliably be predicted. But as Sen. Harry Reid, the congressional Democrats (and a growing number of Republicans) may soon learn — neither can one reliably predict defeat.

Of course, there are vast differences between WWII and the current Iraq Theatre of the War on Terror (ITWOT). For one thing, in 1942, the British Parliamentarians were not proposing bringing the British troops home and surrendering to Hitler and the Japanese. They merely thought another leader (perhaps Sir Stafford Cripps) might better lead Britain to victory.

Were they more patriotic than the current defeatists in Washington? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was just that they understood (at least by that terrible summer of 1942) that for England, it was victory or death — while for many of the Washington defeatists in this dismal summer of ’07 they are under the delusion that America in all its might and glory can simply surrender to al Qaeda without potentially mortal consequences.

And there is another difference between this war and most previous ones. Despite the great advances in telecommunications in the last 70 years, it is much harder today to actually know what is happening in Iraq — and the significance of what we do know.

When the British public learned that Singapore had fallen and 25,000 troops were taken prisoner — that was unambiguously a bad defeat. Britain had no significant position left in East Asia. The opposite was the case when it was clear that Rommel was in retreat. Then my parents and their fellow countrymen knew that Suez was safe — and the oil and troops would still flow from Britain’s Middle East and South Asian Empire.

But what are we to make of a suicide bomb going off in Baghdad? Or what are we to make of a report that our troops have re-taken (perhaps just for the moment) some dusty desert village from the insurgents or terrorists? Does the former put us materially closer to defeat, or does the latter make us materially closer to victory? As this is a battle for hearts and minds rather than geographic spots or organized troops, it is hard to take the measure of such news as seeps out of Iraq.

Thus for both the defeatists and the war hawks, we tend to bring our hopes or fears (and for some their partisan hopes) to the analysis of events — rather than rational assessment of objective war facts.

So this week’s New York Times article by Brookings Institute experts arguing that we may yet be able to win the war has sent a tidal wave of hope through the pro-war camp and a chill down the backs of the Democratic Party defeatist. If it’s true, the hinge of fate unexpectedly may be swinging — knocking over many in its great arc.