Asking the 'Old Hands'
The utility and futility of looking to 'Gray Beards'
In late 2006, the Los Angeles Times spent four weeks consulting history to better understand the Iraq War. The editors asked a simple, powerful question—“How would four of the greatest war leaders in human history have handled Iraq?”
None were available for comment. But four eminent historians spoke for these greats.
Adrian Goldsworthy was sure that Caesar would “win,” but that “how he would do it is harder to say.” He compared Caesar’s great campaign in Gaul (modern France and Belgium) during the first century BC to contemporary Iraq. In so doing, Goldsworthy acknowledged that the lack of communications technology gave Caesar complete campaign control (both political and military). Caesar also didn’t have to deal with pesky counter-narratives—he was able to dominate the strategic storytelling that came of the campaigns.
Jack Weatherford noted that Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu expanded the Mongol empire by sacking Baghdad in 1258. This success was aided because the Mongols “immediately executed the caliph and his sons.” They also “killed most members of the court and administration,” and “executed swiftly” the “soldiers of the defeated army.” Ruthless.
George Washington, according to Joseph J. Ellis, was an insurgent. Washington grasped that “he did not have to win the war,” and “time and space were on his side.” Even if the British won battles, as long as they didn’t “sustain control over the countryside,” the rebellion would eventually succeed. Tie goes to the insurgent.
Historian Harold Holzer looked to Abraham Lincoln and advised this was a domestic war over a divisive political issue—slavery. The two warring sides were well-known to the other, as they are in most, if not all, civil wars.
Let’s review. Caesar: Complete command and control, even over the narrative. The Khans: Brutal killing the entire opposition, to include any and all potential future opposition. Washington: An insurgent perspective. And Lincoln: Deep understanding of and cultural similarity with the adversary.
These are the historical experiences we were to consult to inform US thought on the Iraq War in 2006?
Even one of these writers, Joseph Ellis, acknowledged as much when he called it “ridiculous” to assert that George Washington could tell us anything about Iraq. “He would be utterly lost” in the modern world, Ellis wrote, “simply unavailable for a conversation about Iraq.”