Jessica's Well has turned up a January 1946 LIFE magazine devoted to the difficulties encountered in post-war Europe. The post has received a lot of attention at LGF and elsewhere, mainly because the pessimism about occupied Germany and its future, and the criticism of the Allies, remind many of current attitudes towards Iraq. There are without a doubt some rough parallels, but the comparison quickly breaks down - and leads to places that most people are reluctant to visit.
It is certainly conceivable that - like World War II and the reconstruction and Cold War that ensued - the Iraq operation and the larger War on Terror represent enterprises with the potential to re-make the world, but the LIFE articles should also remind us of the sheer unreality of so much current discussion. If we are doing world history here, we are doing it massively on the cheap - at least so far.
We are all rightly concerned about the deaths of American soldiers and of Iraqis, too, but this "war" would register approximately as an ancillary probing action in the World War II context. Reliable estimates put total direct World War II casualties, military and civilian, in the range of 60 million - including around 20 million Russians and 4 - 7 million Germans (depending on whether you count deaths that occurred during the immediate post-occupation period mainly in the Soviet sector). The 60 million figure may also be quite low, as there appear to be no reliable estimates of the numbers of deaths in many countries - especially China, whose civilian losses have been put by some observers in the range of 10 to 20 million. And there are other ways of considering the numbers: In a couple seconds at Hiroshima, probably on the order of 10 times as many people were killed as have been killed in the entire Iraq operation. In a minute of combat at Omaha Beach, the US lost more soldiers than have been lost in Iraq in seven months.
In terms of physical destruction, the devastation of Europe's cities and infrastructure defies description. Put in financial terms, paying for the war meant that many participants went far beyond bankruptcy into total financial breakdown and disconnection from the world economy. In the United States, financing the war led to budget deficits that regularly exceeded total receipts for the years 1942 - 1945, in peak war years by factors of two or more. In 1943, the government spent more than three times what it took in, and the resultant deficit represented approximately 30% of Gross Domestic Product. In present day terms, the numbers would equate with a budget deficit over 3 trillion dollars. By contrast, the budget deficit estimate for next year was recently revised downward to under 400 billion, which would be well under 4% of GDP in a 10 trillion dollar economy, and would stand within the normal range for the U.S. going all the way back to 1930.
If for many reasons Gulf War 2 resembles a battle, or a theater operation, more than a major war, and if the larger war is not yet really over, by far, then the situation in Iraq does not represent a true "post-war" situation at all. This possibility is more than just a debating point. Anti-American observers are fond of comparing the deaths at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to the numbers of Africans who die every day due to disease, famine, and war, or even to the numbers of motorists who die every year in auto accidents. The future may still yield easier comparisons - of the type that do not force the observer to explain symbology, contexts, and the realistic concern over possible repetition and escalation. Events may yet take a course that, like the events of our inexpressibly bloody past, make current controversies look ludicrously, or heartrendingly, naive. The overarching goal of current policy might even be summed up as an attempt to ensure they remain so - and thus to prevent World War II from ever becoming a very relevant point of reference.
If we consider human nature, this goal may begin too look more difficult than we would like to admit. If we fail, then the survivors may look back nostalgically to the days of Operation Iraqi Freedom and even 9/11 - perhaps recognizing them as milestones, but also seeing them as symbols of a time when the nation still enjoyed the luxury to anguish over just a couple of buildings, just a few hundred soldiers, just a few thousand innocents.