Dardanelles Then, Afghanistan Now: Apples and Oranges

Dardanelles Then, Afghanistan Now: Apples and Oranges

Afghanistan
Dar­d­anelles and Gal­lipoli (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Writ­ing in the Los Ange­les Times, Pro­fes­sor Andrew J. Bace­vich con­sid­ered the war in Afghanistan against Churchill’s expe­ri­ence in World War I. Churchill, he says, looked for alter­na­tives to “send­ing our armies to chew barbed wire in Flan­ders.” Just so. And we should be look­ing for alter­na­tives to chew­ing dust in Afghanistan.

Bace­vich describes Churchill’s alter­na­tive as “an amphibi­ous assault against the Dar­d­anelles.” (That is a phys­i­cal impos­si­bil­i­ty.) Churchill cham­pi­oned a naval attack on the Dar­d­anelles, fol­lowed by an amphibi­ous assault on the Gal­lipoli Penin­su­la). Bace­vich adds that Churchill wished to “sup­port the infantry with tanks.” (I pre­sume he means sup­port­ing the infantry on the West­ern Front with tanks, since they were not a fac­tor on Gallipoli.)

But the Dardanelles/Gallipoli strat­e­gy, Bace­vich continues

only pro­longed the war and drove up its cost. Churchill and his Cab­i­net col­leagues had spent four years dodg­ing fun­da­men­tal ques­tions. Fix­at­ed with tac­ti­cal and oper­a­tional con­cerns, they ignored mat­ters of strat­e­gy and pol­i­tics. Britain’s true inter­est lay in end­ing the war, not in blind­ly see­ing it through to the bit­ter end. This, few British lead­ers pos­sessed the imag­i­na­tion to see. A com­pa­ra­ble fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion besets present-day Washington.

Why comparisons are inapt

Pro­fes­sor Bace­vich writes thought­ful­ly. At min­i­mum, a peo­ple that opt for war should pay the bills. They should not foist the debt onto their grand­chil­dren. But the Churchill exam­ples are not entire­ly appropriate.

1. To com­pare the butch­ery of World War I trench war­fare with the casu­al­ties of Iraq/Afghanistan is sil­ly. Every vil­lage in Britain, Alis­tair Cooke once remind­ed us, has its memo­r­i­al to the fall­en in the Great War. To say sol­diers were dec­i­mat­ed is per­haps an under­state­ment. At many times, trag­i­cal­ly, the loss­es were greater than one in ten.

2. Churchill’s Dar­d­anelles adven­ture was an attempt to end the stale­mate and slaugh­ter on the West­ern Front. A suc­cess would have pow­er­ful­ly con­tributed to the Allied war effort. The premise was that the Fleet would sail through the Dar­d­anelles and appear off Con­stan­tino­ple (Istan­bul). This would force Turkey’s sur­ren­der and relieve the bot­tled-up Rus­sians. That meant redou­bling the forces deployed against Ger­many and Aus­tria-Hun­gary. Churchill’s fault (as he lat­er admit­ted) was try­ing to dri­ve a car­di­nal oper­a­tion with­out author­i­ty to direct every aspect of it. It was some­thing he avoid­ed in World War II.

3. The tank (which Bace­vich right­ly iden­ti­fies as a Churchill con­cept) was nev­er a fac­tor ear­ly in World War I. Tanks were not used sig­nif­i­cant­ly until 1917, and then only briefly. They did ease the hor­rif­ic car­nage of “over the top” charges against entrenched artillery. That was salient fea­ture that made World War I much worse in terms of human loss­es than World War II.

A better source of Churchill comparisons

Churchill drew many appro­pri­ate lessons applic­a­ble to the present war in Afghanistan much ear­li­er. He wrote about the fea­tures of the ter­rain and the deter­mi­na­tion of the ene­my in his first book, The Sto­ry of the Malakand Field Force. He also wrote pre­scient­ly about the nature of Islam. No peo­ple, he con­clud­ed, were braver in bat­tle, nor more eas­i­ly mis­led by reli­gious fanat­ics. The Mid­dle East, he remarked in 1921, was

undu­ly stocked with pep­pery, pugna­cious, proud politi­cians and the­olo­gians, who hap­pen to be at the same time extreme­ly well armed and extreme­ly hard up.

2 thoughts on “Dardanelles Then, Afghanistan Now: Apples and Oranges

  1. The notion that “…Churchill’s Dar­d­anelles adven­ture was an attempt to end World War I—and might have, had it suc­ceed­ed.” was prob­a­bly the most ludi­crous thing I’ve ever read…

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