The end of World War II found more than seven million American servicemen and women overseas. Most longed to get home immediately, but many instead became occupation troops in Europe or Asia, staying put for weeks, months, or even years. These oft-disgruntled “after-armies” were tasked with bringing order and justice to societies ravaged by war, performing the work of guards, judges, educators, and welfare workers. How did these profoundly dissatisfied troops, these homesick pleasure seekers more concerned with “liquor, lust, and loot” than with policing the wrenching aftermath of catastrophe, come to be regarded as the sequel to America’s “good war”? In The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace, historian Susan Carruthers explores “the alchemy that transformed the base metal of lived experience after World War II into the golden stuff of national legend,” a story that helps also to explain how the U.S. acquired its postwar “empire of bases” across Europe and Asia. Below, Carruthers recounts how the rhetoric of America’s toppling of Saddam Hussein inspired her look back.
For six months before the launch of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in March 2003, President George W. Bush, his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and other key advocates of a war to topple Saddam Hussein made repeated references to postwar Germany and Japan. Their intention was to reassure doubters about the wisdom of a war in Iraq with a reminder that, nearly sixty years earlier, American forces had managed to transform two of the most noxious and fanatical foes into peaceful, prosperous allies. If the Axis powers could be completely remodeled thanks to the United States’ military power and financial largesse, how much simpler to oust Saddam and make over Iraq as a democratic state? Summoning images of V-E Day euphoria, advocates of Iraq’s invasion went so far as to suggest that American troops entering Baghdad would be greeted with “sweets and flowers.”
As a professional historian, I paid close attention to this mobilization of the past. For one thing, the analogy didn’t seem to fit. An invaded country would surely not submit to the presence of foreign troops in the same way as exhaustively defeated enemies had done decades ago. Prominent scholars, most notably John Dower, author of a Pulitzer-winning book on the occupation of Japan, Embracing Defeat, made the same point. Iraq in 2003 did not, and would not, resemble either Germany or Japan in 1945. Subsequent events proved the point.