Dangers of a Drawn-out War

By Martin Van Creveld

Published April 11, 2003, issue of April 11, 2003.
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Sixty-two years ago this week, on April 6, 1941, Germany went to war against Yugoslavia.

Then, as now in Iraq, a small country served as a vital source of raw materials — in the case of Yugoslavia, nonferrous metals — to a much larger and more powerful one. Then, as now, that country refused to follow the great power’s rules. Hitler’s decision to invade Yugoslavia was taken on March 27, 1941, hours after Belgrade, following a military coup, took itself out of the Tripartite Pact with Germany, Italy and Japan, which it had joined just two days earlier.

Then, as now, the great power in question did not go to war alone but drew to its side various dubious allies who, like jackals scenting blood, fell on their prey and tore off pieces of flesh. Then, as now, the military balance was as a hundred to one. Unlike today’s Pentagon, the German High Command only took one week to redeploy its forces; during that time it brought up another 11 divisions to back up the 18 it already had in the Balkans. In the ensuing battle, the Stuka dive bombers and Panzers rained down destruction on a mostly pre-industrial infantry force — one whose principal means of transportation, incidentally, was the ox-cart.

Then, as now, the offensive started with a ferocious bombardment of the enemy capital, paralyzing the government, destroying the infrastructure — including, famously, the zoo — and leaving much of the city in ruins. Then, as now, the attack was launched from several different directions simultaneously. It met with a hopelessly over-stretched enemy and, as a result, made extremely rapid progress at very low cost to the aggressor.

To continue the story, the entire campaign only lasted two weeks. Incidentally, Belgrade — like Baghdad — is built on a river and the German lieutenant who was the first to swim across it was decorated. By the time it ended the million-strong Yugoslav army had been smashed, the Yugoslav government had fled and the country had been occupied by the Germans and their allies.

The old Yugoslavia had an area of 255,809 square kilometers, about 60% of that of Iraq. Like today’s Iraq, it was not a unified country but a state made up of different nationalities, the most important of which were the Serbs and the Croats. As in today’s Iraq, some of those nationalities had been joined together against their will and, as a result, could be held together only by force.

Had the Germans wanted to, they never could have built a government to rule the entire country for them. Instead, having given their allies their due in the form of slices of territory, they divided it into two. The northern part, Croatia, became an “independent” state under close German and, to some extent, Italian control; of all the Axis-ruled states, incidentally, this one had an anti-Jewish record second to none. The southern part, Serbia, was placed under direct German military rule.

Terrorism started within a matter of months, leading to savage reprisals that, in turn, led to more terrorism. Sixty years later a former German Wehrmacht employee, Ilse Schmidt, still remembered the gray faces of the first people she saw hanging in Belgrade’s central square.

Within less than two years — the same amount of time in which the Bush administration hopes to set up a government and leave Iraq — the country was awash with guerrilla warfare. German rule was effectively limited to the towns, and that during daytime only; elsewhere movement was possible only in convoys, and only under heavy escort. At peak no fewer than 27 Axis divisions were tied down, vainly trying to suppress the revolt. From time to time they launched large-scale operations. The operations carried such interesting names as “Rosselsprung (“Knight’s Move”) and “Kugelblitz” (“Hail of Bullets”) and were often conducted with the aid of spotter planes, fighters, artillery and tanks.

From time to time the Wehrmacht’s officers — including one Kurt Waldheim, who later claimed he had been just a translator — met with Marshall Tito’s representatives and tried to negotiate cease-fires, but these always broke down almost before they took hold. In the end the Germans were forced to withdraw. By the time they did so in 1945, an estimated 800,000 Yugoslavs had died, many of them at the hands of one another.

Should the Americans and their allies bring the campaign in Iraq to a rapid close, set up a government and get out, then presumably all will be well — except, of course, for Saddam Hussein, his clique and those killed or wounded in the war. If not, then the fat will be in the frying pan.

A long war will inevitably lead to the loss of public support, particularly if it proves expensive in lives and particularly if it drains the U.S. Treasury. Unrest in the neighboring Arab countries will grow, perhaps leading to the overthrow of one or more governments that are now friendly to the United States. A prolonged war of Arab against American, American against Arab, and Arab against Arab will ensue. To secure their own objectives, Turks and Iranians will mix in, supporting now this side, now another. Such a scenario can have but one outcome.

In the end the Americans, having killed countless people and wrought vast destruction, will withdraw to their global island, perhaps at the cost of their entire position in the Middle East. Whereas the Arabs, having been killed in great numbers but being natives to the area, will stay.

Martin van Creveld of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem is Israel’s most prominent military historian. His most recent book is “The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israel Defense Force” (Public Affairs, 2002). He is the only non-American author on the U.S. Army’s required reading list for officers.

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