The US occupation of Japan was obviously a major historical model upon which Bush administration officials drew in planning for the invasion of Iraq. The United States' perceived success in bringing postwar order and democracy to Japan stood testimony, so our leaders thought, to the possibility of replicating that success in Iraq. Such logic failed to grasp the underlying historical dynamics at work in both mid-twentieth-century Japan and current-day Iraq. In essence, one may say that in 1945 and 2003 the US did approximately the same thing to two radically different societies, effecting, unsurprisingly, vastly different results in either case. Where the defeat and dissolution of the Japanese Imperial Army helped bring Japan back from the brink of self-destruction and set it once again on a progressive path, the dismantling of Saddam Hussein's military produced quite the opposite effect. Understanding why this is so is essential to grasping not only the ill wisdom of having invaded Iraq from the outset, but the few effective options that might produce positive results in Iraq moving forward.
Japan prospered so well after being defeated in World War II because the defeat itself rid Japan of the single most dysfunctional and malignant institution of twentieth-century Japanese society: the Japanese Imperial Army. Though the Army had played a somewhat progressive modernizing role in the early Meiji Era, with the acquisition of colonies in the wake of the first Sino-Japanese War of 1895 the Japanese military began to grow and evolve in ways that were destructive of Japanese social stability and prosperity. Serving under hardship conditions among hostile populations, constantly harassed by guerrillas and rebels, compelled to adopt ever-increasingly brutal tactics in the struggle to maintain imperial authority, the colonial garrisons of the Japanese military developed a world view that was at once clannish, belligerent, paranoid, expansionist, and utterly contemptuous of civilian political leadership.
Due to the perceived urgency of their mission, the proximity of Japan's colonies to the metropole, the influence of geopolitical forces (the spread of Eurasian communism, the Great Depression, etc.), and the lack of inhibiting checks and balances in the Meiji Constitution, the colonial garrisons steadily grew in scope of power and control. Each expansion of Japan's territorial domain brought more insecurity, the favored military remedy for which was always further aggression and expansion. This, in turn, drew more resources into the military and made its penetration into political and social life more total. Thus the militarization of Japanese state and society steadily accelerated over the first decades of the twentieth century, becoming incredibly rapid in the years between the Mukden Incident of 1931 and the final defeat of Japan in 1945. By 1945, ordinary Japanese citizens found themselves co-opted into doing things they would not have dreamed of scant years before. For example, the incredible speed with which the military expanded led to the creation of bizarre rituals for rapidly acclimating new personnel to the culture of the armed forces. New officers were asked to behead unarmed prisoners or participate in atrocities against civilians, so as to induce a sense of alienation from civilian life and forge a bond with the military unit through shared transgression.
Deeply malignant as it had become, the Japanese army was a conventional military and could be defeated through conventional strategic means. Deprived of the large capital assets that gave it structure and the state offices through which it was organized by a sustained campaign of positional warfare, the Japanese military could not retain institutional coherence. Free from the destructive influence of the military, Japanese society followed an intrinsic dynamism that quickly tended toward restored prosperity. In the absence of the army Japanese state and society still retained many other institutions and cultural resources that could serve as the matrix of restored civil order: the imperial throne, commonly revered Shinto and Buddhist religious establishments, a robust school system, a shared language and history, a tradition of representative government. Americans often point to constitutional innovations "imposed" upon Japan by the US occupation, but in the absence of fundamental indigenous social, cultural and political resources no new institutional structures would have sufficed to create civil order in Japan ex nihilo.
The historical situation of Iraq at the time of the US invasion in 2003 was vastly different than that of Japan. It would be wrong to call the Iraqi military a "benign" force, but it would be equally inaccurate to label it the most malignant and destructive influence on Iraqi state and society. The most destructive elements of the Iraqi state were affiliated with the Ba'ath Party and a narrow oligarchic clique centered around Saddam Hussein and his Tikriti kin. The military had been thoroughly co-opted to serve the oppressive ends of these malignant groups, but it was never the "hand at the switch" setting the policy of the Hussein regime. As complicit as the military was in the crimes of the Hussein regime, it did serve as an institution that could provisionally mediate between and somewhat ameliorate the ethnic and sectarian tensions of Iraqi society. Hussein himself exploited the "social coherence" potential of the military at the expense of the military's operational efficiency. Large units that were tactically non-functional were kept on the books as a way of "buying off" young men that would otherwise be unemployed, thus turning the military into an ad hoc social welfare program. The Iraqi military was not a force, like the Japanse Imperial Army, which generated its own doctrine and pursued its own initiatives, but was one that served the whims and agendas of agents independent of itself.
The swift destruction of the Iraqi army through the same kind of campaign of positional warfare that had brought down the Japanese military was not, therefore, an effectvie remedy for Iraq as the latter victory had proved to be for Japan. Since the forces that had oppressed Iraq had never wholly identified with the army, they were able to survive its collapse, and live on in the form of the insurgency that still persists today. Moreover, Iraqi state and society never possessed the kinds of resources that Japan could summon toward the restoration of civil order. Absent the military, Iraq was left without social or cultural structures that could create genuine community. There is no common Iraqi language or ethnicity and little shared sense of history. What cohesive institutions do remain, such as the Shi'ite clerical establishment, enjoy the allegiance of only part of the community and attract the violent enmity of the rest.
Where demilitarizing Japan had been the key solution to Japan's social and political problems, such is not the case for Iraq. By destroying the Iraqi military the US deprived Iraq of one of the only truly pan-communal institutions it possessed. To date, the US has yet to restore the Iraqi military to anything approaching its former potency. The Iraqi Army as it currently exists is only one of many armed factions, and absent the heavy weapons (tanks, planes, helicopters, artillery) that the Hussein-era military once possessed it remains suspended in a state of virtual parity with the various militias and insurgent groups that operate throughout Iraq, totally lacking in the prestige, authority, or raw combat power of a genuine sovereign military.
Until a viable and full-blooded Iraqi army exists once again there is no chance of building authoritative state and social institutions in Iraq, and until such institutions are built Iraq will know no stability or peace. Creating a fully-armed Iraqi military will create a power contest that may become very violent. The final outcome of that contest will be decided by Iraqi leaders, and because the US can not predict who those leaders will ultimately be or control what sort of institutional order they ultimately impose, America chooses not to entrust real power to its Iraqi partners. The risks of entrusting military power to Iraqis may be real, but if the US should refuse to trust Iraqis one is forced to ask why American soldiers should die to aid a people whom we hold in such contempt. Whatever US leaders decide to do the fact shall remain: though dismantling the Japanese military may have been an effective remedy for Japan, only fully rebuilding the Iraqi military will set Iraq back on the path to order and stability.