Friday, May 26, 2006

The Iraq war troop level debate - Echoes of the Sicilian Expedition

It is common today to hear from many politicians, commentators, and members of the left that the major mistake of the invasion of Iraq was not sending enough troops. It's an easy charge to make that causes one who has no knowledge of history or military affairs feel like a modern day Napoleon. It is even brandied about by a few, mostly ex, generals. This post will focus on the historical arguments against invading Iraq with more troops than we did. The next one will look at the modern military arguments against sending more troops and why the few generals arguing otherwise were right to be ignored (odd that the left suddenly treats statements by generals as revealed truth, but anyways). The major source of comparison for the Iraq invasion is the Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415 BC during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. It is very similar to the Iraq war in many respects, save one, the Athenian people had more troops sent than planned. The effects of this decision doomed the campaign. The same would have likely happened today had we made the same decision.

The Sicilian Expedition occurred during the most destructive war in Greek history, the Peloponnesian War. By this point in the war the Athenians had been fighting the Spartans for 16 years with no major advantage accruing to either side. In 416 a couple of smaller cities in Sicily sent to Athens for help in their war against Syracuse, the island's most powerful city-state. The argument in favor of helping the cities was namely that it would prevent Syracuse from controlling Sicily. For if they gained control over the island, they would then use their wealth and power to assist their Dorian brothers, the Spartans, in their war against Athens. Should this happen, Athens would almost certainly have succumbed. Further the only effort asked of Athens was to dispatch a medium sized fleet and a few soldiers to Sicily. The rest would be done by the Sicilian cities allied against Syracuse. It would be a small affair that would prevent a major threat to Athens from developing but was not a major issue if it failed, given Athens few commitments.

The Athenian Assembly was mostly agreeable to this proposal until Nicias came forward to argue against it. The war was against Sparta, not Syracuse. Why make an enemy out of Syracuse by attacking her? Athens should secure her current empire before trying to create another. Further it would be better to have Syracuse run Sicily since fear of losing their empire would cause the Syracusans to keep the smaller cities of Sicily from attacking Athens singly. When the Athenians were still inclined to support the small expedition, Nicias changed tacks and argued that the expedition should be expanded to ensure its success. An expedition originally planned to consist of 60 triremes (the basic warship of ancient Greece) and less than 1,000 soldiers (around 12-13,000 men overall) would balloon to 134 triremes and over 7,000 soldiers (almost 35,000 men).

The impact of this decision was felt the moment the massive fleet arrived off the coast of southern Italy. Cities that were to provide supplies to the fleet instead shut out the Athenians. Athens' main Italian ally, and the planned base the expedition, Rhegium, declared neutrality in the affair. What caused the sudden change of heart? The simplest explanation is that these cities thought they were looking an army of conquest not an army of liberation. Why else would Athens commit so many men and ships to the operation if not to conquer and annex Sicily? Since the Sicilian cities were not even providing a minimal level of support to the Athenians it goes without saying that the guides and soldiers the Athenians expected did not materialize either.

Nevertheless, the Athenians decided to continue with their plan to defeat Syracuse. They would lose their entire force after a long siege due largely to their lack of Sicilian light troops and cavalry they had expected to help them. Even had the Athenians managed to defeat Syracuse it is unlikely that it would have lasted. The rest of Sicily would not welcome the prospect of an Athenian controlled Syracuse and Athens would not be able to maintain control over Sicily without leaving their entire massive force there; which they could not since it was needed in Greece. Eventually they would have had to leave behind a Syracuse that hated them and Sicily that was hostile.

The parallels to the modern debate are striking. Even the arguments pro and con are similar. The pro-invasion side was largely concerned with the likelihood of Iraq developing into a major threat to us by allying with our current enemies. The anti-invasion side argued we were at war with Al Qaeda not Iraq, that it would only cause Iraqis to ally with Al Qaeda, it was better to have Saddam run Iraq since he kept the muslims there under control, and lastly that we should finish our invasion of Afghanistan before embarking on another. The major differences were that the generals also won, and the invasion force was limited to only 150,000 troops (reduced to 115,000 by Turkey's refusal to allow us to invade from the north, thanks Powell) and that victory more important to us than to the Athenians.

So what if the critics won and we invaded with 300,000 troops? The invasion relied on the Shia and Kurds of Iraq supporting us. We needed them to provide intelligence and man the new Iraqi security forces. Had we invaded Iraq with 300,000 troops it would have looked like an army of conquest and not liberation. The Shia and Kurds would have been just as hesitant to support us as the Sicilians were to help the Athenian host. They were already reluctant to aid us because of our 1991 betrayal. Also, all the western leftists parading on every news channel proclaiming that America wanted to make Iraq into a colony and control its oil would seem truthful in light of our massive army of occupation. This makes it very probable that the Shia would never have come around to supporting us as they have in the last 18 months and the Kurds would have been neutral the whole time. Now that the Shia and Kurdish security forces are up and running, they will increasingly take over their own country as we increasingly step aside.

Just as the only way the Athenians would have been able to win in Sicily was with the aid of a majority of Sicilians, the only way we can win in Iraq and reform the country is with the help of the majority of Iraqis. To do that we need a medium sized force that is large enough to show our commitment and keep the bad guys from winning but not so large it appears that we are there to conquer the country. Had we listened to the critics and sent more troops we would have been left with the prospect the Athenians faced. We would have either had the defeat of withdrawing before we captured Saddam or the victory of capturing Saddam lost by the failure to set up an independent government causing a withdrawal that left behind Sunni hatred and Shia/Kurdish hostility. While we still face the prospect of defeat with a smaller army, at least we also enjoy the prospect of victory, should we earn it.

Primary Source: The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan


  1. there is no etical recourse for the war/invasion of iraq. Hence, it is not a legitimate discussion

  2. Too bad, I was so looking forward to a discussion with a closed mind. I guess the liberals in the chat rooms will have to suffice. It is cool I got a comment though.