Iraq Is No Vietnam, But It May Be Poland

A nascent empire falls in love with its “liberating” political and economic state system and decides it is time to export its domestic model to other countries by means of war, of course. Liberation to all is the ultimate goal. No, it is not early 21st century, the leader is not George W. Bush, the empire in question is not the U.S., and the export commodities are not democracy and free market economy. It is August 1920, Vladimir I. Lenin is the leader, Soviet Russia’s invasion of Poland is the event, and the goal is inflaming the world with socialist revolution bringing about global unification and true liberation of mankind.

The theory of “revolution export,” in Lenin’s words, is this: “We have never concealed the fact that our revolution is only the beginning, that it will arrive at a successful conclusion only when we inflame the entire world with such a revolution.” And the gain for everybody is this: “Only the Russian Socialist Republic has raised the banner of true freedom, and throughout the world sympathy is moving in its favor.”

Exporting revolution to all, in particular Europe, Lenin thought, is the way to bring true freedom to everyone. But, an all-European revolution was not to be. Lenin never did figure out why Europe had not followed Russia’s lead to revolution. However, in 1920 Lenin was presented with an opportunity to test his theories with a bayonet. He could not pass up the chance to push European workers with the Russian soldier’s rifle butt to the glory of liberation.

The Poles had penetrated far into the Ukraine. The Red Army repulsed them quickly, and in June 1920 it stood on the old Polish frontier. This raised the question: What is to be done? Lenin’s judgment was that Poland too was ready for revolution. When the Red Army drove the Polish army out of Ukraine, Lenin favored hot pursuit into Poland and through Poland on to Germany, giving the proletariat there the impetus to rise up. Other Bolshevik leaders warned against the invasion. Stalin, Rudek, and Trotsky were aware of military difficulties ahead and the low likelihood of revolution in Poland (and beyond).

So why, then, did Lenin order the Soviet invasion of Poland? The answer, in a nutshell, is: for domestic reasons. He knew that the Russian revolution was quickly fizzling away; the “perversion” of capitalism was yet to be eradicated from millions of peasant heads. Bolshevism was not delivering at home. Only a foreign “success” – revolution by invasion – could provide a positive ideological and economic infusion at home. By setting Poland aflame, the fire may spread further to the rest of capitalist Europe thereby saving the Russian revolution from the economic attrition that was already almost there.

At first Poland reeled under a double onslaught: westward was pushing General Mikhail Tukhachevsky advancing at an astonishing rate of twelve miles per day while General A. I. Yegorov and Stalin slashed southwest into eastern Galicia. Lenin expected his armies’ rapid advance to delight the Poles who would welcome the troops as liberators showering them with flowers. Stunned Lenin watched the Poles’ actual response: instead of gratitude, jubilation, and revolutionary spirit, the Soviet armies inspired Polish nationalism bent on fighting the intruders to death. The export of revolution was in danger. Tukhachevsky had traveled too fast and too far, and when he stood at the Vistula in early August eager to take Warsaw the Poles made a stand. The Russian armies had to withdraw to the homeland. Lenin’s attempt to kindle revolution in Europe had ended in total disaster.

Lenin reflected on the failure blaming the Poles who in the Red Army “saw enemies, not brothers and liberators. They felt, thought and acted not in a social, revolutionary way, but as nationalists, as imperialists. The revolution in Poland on which we counted did not take place. The workers and peasants…defended their class enemy, let our brave Red soldiers starve, ambushed them and beat them to death.”

One may question the wisdom of expecting that an army dependent for food on confiscation from hostile peasants could have been quickly vanquished and then held down twelve million angry adult enemies. The Russian armies almost accomplished the former task but then became the exposed target of resolute armed resistance. For Lenin this constituted a crime and treason by Polish workers and peasants who “defended their class enemy” by defending “their country against an invader, class notwithstanding,” all of this in defiance of The Communist Manifesto according to which “the working men have no country.” The Russian defeat at Warsaw was caused, Lenin explains, by an atavistic phenomenon: “the patriotic upsurge.”

Lenin obviously overestimated the lure of revolution.

But, what are the lessons of this historic episode for the current U.S. Iraq adventure? Similarities abound. Let us start with a Lenin-like “theoretical” statement by Bush: “We believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history. We believe that human fulfillment and excellence come in the responsible exercise of liberty. And we believe that freedom – the freedom we prize – is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind.”

The main export items of Lenin and Bush, revolution and democracy respectively, therefore, are equated with freedom or liberty. Freedom is something per their assumption that everybody wants and is not only entitled to but the iron laws of history inevitably (with little help from big human casualties of the right kind) would bring about. So, given the opportunity that Iraq presented, Bush too would test his doctrine, not with bayonet, but with an arsenal of awesomely destructive weapons calculated to produce a "shock and awe" effect. What is unique about Lenin and Bush in human history is that they are the only top decision makers who thought that when their military attacks a state the population of that country, due to the natural pull of the love for liberty, would instantly join forces with the attackers in permanently bringing down the legal and political status quo ante. This did not happen in Poland and is not happening in Iraq.

Like the Red Army in Poland, the U.S. forces obviously will have had much easier time vanquishing Saddam Hussein’s army than controlling the occupied territories by holding down millions of angry adult (and youth) enemies. There is also this similarity. The speed of Tukhachevsky’s march is reminiscent of the frantic pace at which the U.S. forces advanced on Baghdad from the Kuwaiti border, creating the longest supply line in history of warfare that stretched for hundreds of miles. This made the troops significantly vulnerable to attacks that would prove to be only sporadic, however. Obviously, the real resistance of the Iraqis was reserved for the occupation period thus avoiding direct confrontation with an overwhelming opponent.

The initial military mission, quickly accomplished, in fact only created conditions under which the troops became the exposed target of resolute armed resistance. Now we hear the media daily echoing Lenin’s own complaint against the Poles who “let our brave Red soldiers starve, ambushed them and beat them to death” as it applies to the Iraq situation. This implies that something else was anticipated. Yet, one should question the wisdom of expecting that an army whose Rule of Engagement (ROE) “is such that the US soldiers are to consider buildings, homes, cars to be hostile if enemy fire is received from them (regardless of who else is inside)” can successfully hold down what can only be a rapidly growing number of enemies. These enemies are now variously referred to as terrorists, rebels, guerrilla, but for Lenin they would have been guilty of “crime and treason.” And sure enough, Human Rights Watch recently followed in those Leninesque footsteps calling them “war criminals,” and there is little doubt they are also considered traitors of the wellbeing of their country. Whatever should be the proper characterization of the individuals fighting occupation, it remains the fact that many in Iraq don’t exactly see the unfolding drama as liberation.

It would be a mistake, however, and this is a small digression, to think that expectations of Lenin and Bush went wrong because of some principled obstacle. They thought that because there is something special about their export product (essentially “liberty” in different conceptual incarnations) and their armies charged with the delivery, people who find themselves under attack would join in this attack. Namely, they did not go wrong in judging Poland and Iraq because this sort of thing never happens. Consider, for example, Encyclopedia Americana, edition 1993, Volume 29, page 443, entry that reads:

…April 10. On that day, the Croat troops in the Yugoslav Fourth and Seventh armies, stationed on the northern frontier, mutinied, and by nightfall both armies had been dissolved. On the afternoon of April 10, Second [German] Army troops entered Zagreb, where a newly created Croat government welcomed them as liberators.

The Croatian people welcomed the Nazi occupation as liberation, and so did the Catholic clergy in Croatia of 1941. The exuberance of the latter group was immortalized in the words of a pastor from Udbina, Mate Mogus: Until now we have worked for the Catholic faith with the prayer book and with the cross. Now the time has come to work with rifle and revolver. This goes to show that a rifle or a cluster bomb (maybe even a “tactical” nuclear weapon) combine very well with firm conviction in whatever one’s ideology may be.

Now, we saw that Lenin decided to invade Poland against almost everybody’s advice and did so primarily for domestic reasons. Similarly, Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was made despite opposition of the whole world (except for the U.K. and perhaps Spain). Was Bush’s decision to export democracy to Iraq (and beyond) also primarily driven for domestic reasons? Well, a faltering, job-evaporating economy, and prolonged near-recession offer no fertile ground for reelection!

Although Bush is the one ultimately responsible for bringing war to Iraq, the usual accounts of how this could have happened in terms of the neo-conservatives’ rise to power represent a dangerous oversimplification. For, in U.S. politics and popular culture currently there are in place plenty of ideological elements that could just as well have “justified” the war on Iraq. What is more, these various ideological elements are all fully supported across the entire political spectrum from the left to the right and opposed perhaps only by libertarians. In other words, a war against Iraq would have been possible even had a Democrat or a more moderate (less-oil-interest-connected) Republican occupied the White House. The idea that democracy is so great that America should export it was around before George Bush "took" Florida, most prominently in the form of the so called “democratic peace theory“: since democratic states do not go to war against each other, it is all right to spread democracy by war. Also around was the ideal of promoting human rights around the world in the form of “humanitarian intervention” – an excuse President Bill Clinton used for his bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. To these, Bush and the neo-cons simply added their policy of “preemptive war,” which is just the latest of ideologems that all lead to the same destination. These “doctrines” negate the nation-state, subvert international law, and provide the ever-present alibi for perpetual war in the same catastrophic ways that some past ideologies did.

However, just as Lenin overestimated the lure of revolution, the Iraq experience may show what it is like when the lure of democracy is overestimated.