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Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation.


Occupational Hazards:

Success and Failure in Military


by David M. Edelstein

Ithaca: Cornell University Press,


235 pp. $35.00

ISBN: 978-0-8014-4615-3

Like most wars, the global war on terror has generated its share of simplistic pronouncements. In 2003, it was common to hear partisans of the George W. Bush administration scoff at warnings that a successful occupation of Iraq would be difficult. Why, they replied, just look at the successful post-World War II occupations of Germany and Japan. Common nowadays are assertions that the key to an easy military occupation is to damage an enemy so heavily that he knows he has been beaten, or that a successful occupation is more likely to occur if the occupier employs a conciliatory policy or if several nations cooperate in a multilateral approach. David Edelstein's Occupational Hazards suggests that these pronouncements and assertions are largely misguided.

Edelstein, a political scientist, examines 26 military occupations since 1815. Of these, he targets nine for extended treatment based on "variation in key independent and dependent variables, historical interest, and relevance to contemporary policy challenges" (p. 19). By military occupation, Edelstein means "the temporary control of a territory by a state (or group of allied states) that makes no claim to permanent sovereignty over that territory." He uses the term in contradistinction to occupations intended to achieve colonization or annexation.

Unlike a colonial or annexationist power, the military occupier wants to get out of the occupation business--but only when a certain endstate is achieved. At a minimum, the occupied territory must no longer pose a threat to the occupying power or its interests. Ideally, it is transformed from an adversary into a reliable ally. But either way, it is a difficult task. Of the 26 occupations Edelstein examined, only 7 were fully successful, 5 were "mixed successes," and 14 (54 percent of the total sample) failed outright.

What do the successes have in common? The biggest single predictor turns out to be an external power that both the occupier and occupied view as a major threat. The external threat becomes a kind of partner to the occupier in the sense that it helps convince the occupied population that the occupier's presence is desirable or, at the very least, better than the alternative. Thus, the post-1945 occupations of Japan and Germany achieved success, in considerable measure, because their populations viewed the Soviet Union as a major external threat.

In contrast, in the post-1945 period, the Korean people did not view the Soviet Union as a major threat, and consequently the United States faced a difficult occupation. Liberated at last from decades of colonial administration by Japan, Koreans wanted complete independence from foreign rule. The United States did not wish to withdraw until a regime friendly to American interests was firmly in place, but it could neither establish stability nor find a strong, reliable leader to take the helm. By August 1948, when the United States formally concluded its occupation, not only had it largely failed to achieve these objectives, but a virtual civil war had begun as well. At best, the United States had achieved only a mixed success.

The American experience in postwar Korea illustrates a dilemma all too common for the military occupier. "To successfully withdraw," Edelstein writes, "occupying powers must accomplish two tasks. First, they must return sovereignty to a legitimate, indigenous, and reliable government, and second, they must ensure that the occupied territory will be secure and nonthreatening after the occupation concludes" (p. 155). In the absence of these conditions, the occupier faces a choice between leaving too early, which invites instability and later reoccupation; or staying too long, which leads to "opposition from the occupied population and dissatisfaction from the occupying power's population" (p. 155).

In a section on the post-September 11 occupations, Edelstein judges that both Iraq and Afghanistan present the challenge of achieving success in the absence of a perceived external threat on the part of the occupied populations. At the time the book entered production, the Afghanistan occupation seemed more likely to succeed, primarily because the United States had eschewed complete control of the country and had "implicitly abandoned its goal of achieving an effective central state" (p. 155). However, Edelstein warns that this approach "has avoided large-scale resistance in the short-term, but may pose long-term dangers"--dangers that in 2009 have clearly materialized.

Edelstein portrays Iraq as a failed occupation with the United States on the horns of the classic dilemma of leaving too soon or staying too long. Many would now regard that verdict as premature, yet it is interesting to note that the turnaround in Iraq involved the emergence of an admittedly unusual external threat--al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)--that spurred the so-called Anbar Awakening and similar events in which Sunni insurgents shifted to the American side because AQI was so ideologically fanatical and so murderously repressive as to make American forces seem comparatively benign. In this respect, the presence of AQI is analogous to North Korea's invasion of the South in 1950, which conjured an overwhelming external threat that made South Koreans belatedly view the United States as their protector.

Although Occupational Hazards is analytical rather than prescriptive, Edelstein does acknowledge some policy implications relevant to the present situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a low-externalthreat environment, and in such cases Edelstein finds coercion an essential requisite for successful occupation. In this respect, the Soviet occupation of northern Korea forms an interesting contrast to the U.S. occupation of southern Korea. The Soviets faced an identical situation--a Korean population desirous of independence and unconvinced of any major external threat--yet succeeded because they began with an initial program of vicious coercion, designed to underscore the lethal consequences of resistance, combined with subsequent accommodations that made their occupation palatable. The result was the establishment of a stable indigenous regime friendly to Soviet interests. It is doubtful that such a program is politically possible or morally acceptable to the United States and its allies. And in its absence, by Edelstein's analysis, the prognosis for a successful occupation of Afghanistan is not good.

Mark Grimsley is the Harold Keith Johnson Chair of Military History at the U.S. Army War College and an Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University.
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Author:Grimsley, Mark
Publication:Joint Force Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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