The conflict raging in Iraq has been compared to many earlier wars, but the best historical comparison has been largely overlooked. Identifying the right analog is important, because it can help U.S. government and military leaders anticipate what may come next in Iraq and make better judgments about what actions to take.
When the U.S.-led invasion was supposed to herald the dawning of freedom and democracy in Iraq and the Middle East, some supporters touted the American Revolution as its model. When nation-building became the optic, references were made to the reconstructions of Germany and Japan after World War II.
Then as terrorism, insurgency and sectarian warfare took hold in Iraq, parallels were drawn to past strife in Algeria, the Balkans, Malaya, Northern Ireland, the Philippines and Vietnam.
It is curious — but understandable — that civil war analogies have been avoided in discussions about Iraq. The U.S. military has established doctrines for dealing with terrorism and insurgency, as well as for conventional war. But there is no doctrine for getting involved in civil wars. America tries to steer clear of such messy internal wars as a matter of policy.
The civil war that is the most fitting historical reference point to Iraq today is the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). That war revolved around two main sides: one pro-democracy, the other pro-fascist. Neither side was particularly cohesive or well-organized. Both consisted of fractious coalitions of diverse organizations and agendas, many based on personality. It often looked more like a war of fragmented tribes and clans than modern organizations.
As the Spanish Civil War ground on, a culture of death took hold. More than 1 million people died, perhaps half of them innocent non-combatants. Atrocities were committed on all sides, often in the name of God (or opposition to the Church). Civilians, even clerics and schoolteachers, were deliberately targeted. Each side yearned to slaughter the other.
Propaganda played a keen role. Some battles were mounted more for their psychological than their military effects. Rousing cultural tropes about dignity, pride, honor, respect and glory, along with revenge and retribution, figured in speeches and pamphlets on all sides.
Much of this sounds as familiar as today's newspaper stories about the fighting in Iraq. And the parallels continue.
The Spanish Civil War became an arena for great-power competition; only two (America and Japan) remained aloof. Outside governments maneuvered overtly and covertly to reshape the dynamics within each side, including through infiltration and betrayal.
States were not the only outsiders to join the fray in Spain. Loose groups of foreign fighters volunteered to assist the pro-democracy side, often with irregular partisan warfare tactics. All told, the Spanish Civil War still ranks as one of the most globalized internal conflicts in world history.
In the beginning, the civil war in Spain seemed to pose a choice between democracy and dictatorship. But as it wore on, the real choice for most people became starker: dictatorship or death.
And in the end, dictatorship won in Spain, partly because its vision of restoring an authoritarian past provided unifying glue for its forces. The pro-democracy side tried to rally around a utopian vision of the future, but it was not well-defined and provoked internal argument far more than solidarity.
The parallels to Iraq are imprecise. This time the United States has intervened in favor of democracy, while the foreign volunteers have rallied to the dictatorial cause of forming a new caliphate. Furthermore, this historical case does not lead to clear lessons for deciding whether to extend or curtail U.S. involvement in Iraq — the main concern of most Americans.
But imprecision is the case with all the historical models that have figured in discussions about Iraq. So long as such analogs are going to keep coming up, the Spanish Civil War is as relevant and instructive as any other. It should have been broached more widely already, in light of the eerie parallels we note.
The Spanish model serves to confirm that Iraq is indeed undergoing a civil war. It speaks to man's continuing capacity for reverting to a savage tribalism while taking God's name in vain. It shows how the ensuing destruction can lead people to prefer order over liberty. It augurs ill for a flowering of democracy in Iraq. It compounds doubts that much if any good at all can or will come of this conflict.
Two implications merit further remark, though neither is exactly grounds for hope. First, it may be advisable to pull back from pressing for an American-style democracy in Iraq. Ending the Spanish Civil War resulted in the installation of a dictatorship for 40 years before Spain eventually transitioned into a liberal democracy.
Second, the Iraq conflict, like the Spanish one, is revealing how America's enemies aim to fight us in wars to come — by developing loose-jointed attack networks whose small cells can swarm at us from multiple directions. The United States must figure out how to adapt and respond without squandering American power.
© 2007 United Press International.
John Arquilla is professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. David Ronfeldt is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp., a non-profit research organization. They co-authored “Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terrorism, Crime, and Militancy."
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on August 24, 2007. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.