I was rather shocked today to find a column on CSM from a former managing editor arguing that the reason the US is struggling in Iraq (and didn't win in Korea and Vietnam) is our unwillingness to engage in total war. And what, exactly, does John Dillin mean by total war? The complete destruction of an enemy nation, including massive civilian casualties. As examples he cites the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sherman ravaging the American South. There's certainly a compelling argument that such tactics should never be acceptable (particularly compelling with respect to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for which there is compelling evidence to suggest the bombings were completely unnecessary to prompt Japanese surrender and had far more to do with the Cold War than WWII). But even accepting the premise that such attacks can sometimes be permissible, there's a pretty major difference between those situations and Iraq: in each of those conflicts the US faced an active state opponent, with troops in the field and territory under its control.
The idea of waging such a war in Iraq is not only absurd, but morally reprehensible in the extreme. We don't face state opposition. The Iraq government is our putative ally. We control the entirety of Iraq. For us to target Iraqi population centers for indiscriminate bombing wouldn't be waging war, but rather an exercise in genocide. At least in WWII there was always a means for our opponents to end the slaughter: unconditional surrender. What would signal a stopping point in Iraq? The Iraqi state has already conceded. It would simply be a gratuitous massacre lasting until our bloodlust had been sated.
But would it work? Perhaps if we slaughtered millions of Iraqis the insurgents would throw in the towel (although a couple million dead Vietnamese argue to the contrary). But even if they did, and even if we weren't troubled by the morality of it, where would this leave us internationally? Could anyone ever again regard us as a force for good in the world? Would our standing in the conflict with Al Qaeda and political extremism be improved? It would be an umitigated disaster.
Dillin's argument strikes me as another reflection of the general frustration that our military opponents have evolved and adapted in the days since WWII. The tactics we used there cannot work anymore, and that's no accident. It is precisely because the US military is amazingly proficient at total war that no enemy will ever allow us to bring that proficiency to bear. They know that for all our might in defeating armies and conquering territory, when it comes to holding territory over the long term, we are merely human. They can concede the field then engage us in a knife fight. And in doing so they gain the added benefit of transforming a military conflict into a political one, happily revealing our serious deficiencies in that arena. Our enemies have learned from the wars of the last century and moved on. Maybe it's time we did the same.