June 9, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Historical Precedents: The War on Terrorism Does Echo WW2

The 60th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy gave President Bush an opportunity to draw parallels between World War II, on the one hand, and the war in Iraq and the broader global conflict, on the other. Astonishingly, this proved controversial.

“Many here … emphatically reject Bush's repeated comparison,” the Washington Post's Keith B. Richburg wrote from France. Richburg quoted Helene Luc “a Communist Party senator,” who insisted that “the American army must leave Iraq,” and Abu Mohammed, a Moroccan immigrant who asserted that “there is a big difference” between the liberation of France in 1944 and the liberation of Iraq in 2003.

The Italian Catholic newspaper, Famiglia Cristiana, said Bush was trying to “establish a moral connection” even though the American occupation of Iraq “has nothing moral about it.” 

The BBC aired a more nuanced debate. I was pleased to participate but shocked by my French colleague's comparison of suicide bombers in Iraq with the French resistance — whose members never targeted civilians.

More insightful comments on the links between World War II and the War on Terrorism – including the Iraqi theater – might have been found had the media asked some real experts. 

The British historian Michael Burleigh, in his massive study of the Third Reich, defines Nazism as a “political religion” manifesting itself as a “cult of violence and destruction.”

Could there be a better description of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athism?

Nor is that mere coincidence. Ba'athism is the direct ideological descendant of Nazism. Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis points out that in 1940, the French government surrendered to Hitler “and a collaborationist regime was established in Vichy. The rulers of the French colonial empire had to decide whether they would stay with Vichy, or rally to De Gaulle. … Syria and Lebanon were at that time under French mandate, and these French officials stayed with Vichy, so Syria and Lebanon became a center of Axis propaganda in the Middle East. That was when real Fascist ideas began to penetrate. There were many translations and adaptations of Nazi material into Arabic. The Ba'ath party, which dates from a little after that period, came in as a sort of Middle Eastern clone of the Nazi party and, a little later, the Communist party.”

Communism, Nazism and Ba'athism are all totalitarian ideologies–aggressive, violent and expansionist. All seek the destruction of democratic societies. Nazism and Ba'athism are radically anti-Semitic; Communism, in its Stalinist expression, is at least Judeo-phobic. 

The key distinction is that the Nazis claimed that the “Aryan race” was entitled to rule the world. Communists wanted the proletariat as the ruling class, a role Ba'athism reserves for Arabs.

Ralph Peters, a military strategist, observes that Saddam embodies “the European tradition of a tyrant sustained by a bureaucracy of terror. Europeans pioneered the methods. Saddam is merely an imitator.”

Peters has called the war in Iraq “the most important ‘hot' war America and Britain have waged since World War II.” 

Of course, Nazism was not the only aggressive totalitarian ideology against which the Allies struggled. There also was Japanese Militarism and Italian Fascism.

Similarly, Ba'athism is not the only ideology against which America, Britain and the other coalition nations are today fighting – there also is Radical Islamism. 

That ideology, too, is aggressive, violent and totalitarian. It seeks a world dominated not by Aryans, proletarians or Arabs but by extremist Muslim fanatics. Lewis maintains that while bin Laden's ideology contradicts basic Islamic teachings, it does arise “from within Muslim civilization, just as Hitler and the Nazis arose from within Christian civilization.”  

Other historians would argue that Hitler represented an older, neo-pagan and anti-Christian impulse.

The British historian Andrew Roberts calls Osama bin Laden's style “essentially Hitlerian in its vernacular and antecedents.” Robert concludes: “Might not the War against Terror be legitimately seen as a re-fighting of the Second World War by proxy? I believe it can be.”

Paul Johnson, another esteemed British historian, observes that, “Geopolitics is like a game of chess: You have to think a dozen moves ahead. This is as true today as in 1944-45. When President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair decided to destroy Saddam Hussein's military power, they took a risk that was abundantly justified both geopolitically and morally.” 

Johnson does scold Bush and Blair for not being adequately prepared for the public relations problems that must be expected when fighting a chronic insurgency in the age of 24-hour television news, an era when journalists “have their own opinions and agendas and feel under no obligation to pursue the war (and peace) aims of the allied commanders.”

The military historian John Keegan adds that “the serried ranks of self-appointed strategic commentators who currently dominate the written and visual media's treatment of the Iraq story have a duty to stop indulging their emotions and start remembering a bit of … history.” 

In other words, quite a few experts would disagree with the Communist Senator Helene Luc and Moroccan immigrant Abu Mohammed — quite a few scholars would say that the struggle we are engaged in today against a lethal brand of totalitarianism is very much like the struggle against a lethal brand of totalitarianism that was fought in the last century. What's different, it seems, are the media.

Or maybe not. Throughout the 1930s, there was only one prominent voice warning of a gathering storm, urging that steps be taken to stop Hitler before it was too late. That voice was Winston Churchill's – and the prestigious Times of London was among those in the elite media who denounced him as a “war-monger.” 

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.