‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’: The New Barbarossa?

25 March 2003

‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’: The New Barbarossa?

By Gwynne Dyer

Historical analogies are often misleading, but have you noticed that Saddam Hussein, in recent TV broadcasts, looks more and more like Joseph Stalin? That’s how he’s positioning himself politically, too. Like Stalin during the Second World War, he is effectively telling Iraqis to forget about the socialist ideology, the purges and all the rest, and unite against the foreign invader. As in the old Soviet Union, a lot of the citizens seems to be listening.

Stalin’s finest hour was in 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union with the confident expectation of destroying it in a matter of weeks. He had this brilliant new military technique, blitzkrieg, which allowed relatively small numbers of German troops to spread ‘shock and awe’ among the defenders (the phrase was first used in the Nazi magazine ‘Signal’) and achieve a rapid victory at low cost.

The blitzkrieg technique had beaten France in six weeks in 1940, and Hitler calculated that it ought to work even better against the Soviet Union because the vast majority of Soviet citizens hated Stalin and the Communist Party. Stalin’s secret police had murdered millions of people, and all the non-Russian citizens of the multi-national empire Soviet Union (essentially, the old Russian empire) hated Russian rule. So masses of Soviet troops would defect at the first opportunity, and the non-Russian half of the population would greet the Germans as liberators. Sound familiar?

In July of 1941 the German army launched its armoured columns into the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, and within weeks its tanks were many hundreds of kilometres (miles) inside the country. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were cut off and left behind as the tank spearheads raced for Moscow; points of resistance were bypassed in the interest of speed; ‘shock and awe’ was the essence of the strategy.

But the cut-off Soviet troops did not surrender, the garrisons of the bypassed towns attacked the German supply lines, and the people did not strew roses at the feet of the invaders. Most Soviet citizens remained loyal to their country despite the monstrous character of its ruler. The German spearheads ultimately got quite close to Moscow, but after such delays that winter closed their offensive down and the Soviet capital was never captured. Instead the war turned into a nightmare battle of attrition that eventually destroyed the German army.

This history offers some precedents that must be keeping the current commanders of the American forces in Iraq awake at night. This is not to imply that George W. Bush is like Adolf Hitler, or that the US government’s goals in Iraq resemble Nazi Germany’s in the Soviet Union. But American military strategy now does resemble German military strategy then, and there are equally close parallels between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Look at the US strategy in Iraq. It depends on ‘shock and awe’, mostly in the form of air power delivered right on target (Stukas then, cruise missiles and JDAMs now), to bewilder and demoralise the defenders. It bypasses points of resistance, ignores traditional military wisdom about securing your lines of supply, and heads straight for the capital. Above all, it depends on the assumption that the enemy state and ruling party are so rotten, the enemy’s ruler so universally hated, that the whole edifice will collapse at the first hard push. But it didn’t in the Soviet Union, and it hasn’t in Iraq.

Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule has always been essentially a Soviet-style state. Indeed, during the 1970s, before war and sanctions ruined Iraq’s economy, the ruling Arab Renaissance (Baath) Socialist Party used Iraq’s oil revenues to built a very impressive welfare state: free and universal education, free health care, subsidised housing, the lot. The wars were Saddam’s fault (though they were not simply cases of unbridled aggression) — but the reason he survived them is precisely because he is a mini-Stalin.

Joseph Stalin has been one of the Iraqi dictator’s heroes since he joined the Baath party almost fifty years ago, and by now he looms as large in the consciousness of most Iraqis as Stalin did in the minds of Soviet citizens towards the end of his life. The secret police, the party militia, the commissars, the personality cult — it’s all there, the whole apparatus of a classic Soviet regime, and combined with natural Iraqi patriotism it makes the country much more resistant to an unprovoked foreign invasion than the Pentagon ‘chicken-hawks’ thought it would be.

So is the US army in the same predicament before Baghdad that the German army was outside Moscow in 1941? Technically, yes: it’s 500 km. (300 miles) from its base of supply with unbroken enemy forces all along its lines of communications. But that’s as far as the analogy goes, because it is so overwhelmingly strong that it can make any number of mistakes and still win.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it was attacking a country with a bigger industrial base and twice as many people: there was no margin for error if the German blitzkrieg tactics didn’t produce a quick win. By contrast, Americans outnumber Iraqis twelve-to-one, and the US defence budget is 250 times bigger than Iraq’s. Defeating the Iraqis will take longer and cost more than US Defence Secretary Don Rumsfeld expected, but it would take a genius in the Pentagon to lose this war. He has the arrogance, but he’s no genius.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Iraq…would be”)