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Starting a War the Old Way
Published on Tuesday, June 21, 2005 by the Denver Post
By Ed Quillen
Some well-meaning people are expressing outrage at the Bush administration following the disclosure of previously secret British memoranda from 2002, the year before the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq.
It seems that President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were discussing ground battle plans, and for the immediate future, the U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force would increase their activity while patrolling a "no-fly zone" over Iraq. In March 2002, no bombs were dropped; in August, 14.1 metric tons fell on Iraq.
There were two reasons for this. One was to soften the Iraqi air defenses to make an invasion safer, should it come to that. The other was to provoke Saddam Hussein into retaliating against the British and American warplanes, thereby providing a rationale for an invasion.
In ways, it's too bad that Hussein didn't cooperate, for that is the American way of going to war: Goad the other guy into firing the first shot.
The tradition may have started in 1846. Texas had declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the Republic was annexed by the United States in 1845, despite announcements from Mexico that this would mean war.
There was also some disagreement as to the boundary of Texas. Everything east of the Nueces River was definitely Texas. Everything south or west of the Rio Grande was definitely Mexico. The land in between was in contention.
President James K. Polk wanted to get the land from Mexico, but it was not a good political move to invade Mexico without provocation. So he sent soldiers into the disputed territory past the Nueces. That was done "in order to force Mexico to initiate war," according to one of the soldiers, Lt. Ulysses S. Grant.
Eventually, the shots were fired, though it wasn't clear on just whose soil. One congressman from Illinois kept demanding to know the exact spot, and became known as "Spotty Lincoln" on that account. But once Abraham Lincoln became president, he also knew that it's important to maneuver the other guy into firing first.
Lincoln patiently avoided Confederate provocations, so that at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, the Confederate batteries in Charleston, S.C., fired the first shots of America's bloodiest war. The rebels had fired on the flag at Fort Sumter, and in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, there was "a whirlwind of patriotism." Volunteers flocked to recruiting offices.
If the other side doesn't fire first, there are ways to make it appear that way. In 1898, tensions were rising between the United States and Spain over Cuba, considerably abetted by lurid accounts of Spanish misrule in the American press. On Feb. 15, the USS Maine blew up while anchored in Havana harbor.
Recent dispassionate investigations blame the explosion on accumulated gas emanating from the coal in its bunkers, but at the time, the cause just had to be a Spanish mine or torpedo, and Congress soon declared war.
Woodrow Wilson, with whom Bush is often compared, began arming merchant ships in early 1917. That got the Germans to fire the first shots; the Kaiser's U-boats sank three merchant ships on March 18. Wilson summoned Congress to a special session, and got a declaration of war on April 2.
In more modern times, there was the Gulf of Tonkin incident. President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted some congressional support for American military operations in Vietnam. On Aug. 4, 1964, the USS Maddox might or might not have been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats when it may or may not have been in international waters.
Never mind those uncertainties; the Johnson administration presented it as an attack on our flag, and on Aug. 7, Congress overwhelmingly gave Johnson the authority to "take all necessary measures to repel armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."
So if President Bush was bombing Iraq in 2002, hoping to provoke Saddam Hussein into shooting at an American warplane so the public would support an invasion of Iraq - well, why should anyone be surprised? He was just following an American tradition.
Ed Quillen of Salida is a former newspaper editor.
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