World War I: Still Ending

It was hot on July 20, 1944, at Hitler's headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia, so his meeting with staff was moved out of the underground bunker, which would have contained the explosion's force, to a flimsy cabin that did not. The briefcase carrying the bomb was placed under the table Hitler leaned over when examining maps, and behind one of the table's supports, which deflected the blast. Hitler survived. The war continued.

If Hitler had died, the Third Reich, a mare's nest of rival power centers, might have quickly become ungovernable, and the Wehrmacht' s officer corps, which knew what was happening in France and Russia, and which feared a Soviet conquest of Germany, would have liquidated the war by unconditional surrender.

It would be heartening to believe that the splendid killing of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi will have a similarly shattering effect on the insurgency in Iraq. It will not. The decapitation of a regime--especially one run on the Führerprinzip (the principle that the leader's word is law)--can have large and instant consequences. There is no such imaginable single stroke for crippling an insurgency, especially one that is a boiling bouillabaisse of often uncoordinated and incompatible elements.

When the current war began, the U.S. military studied the movie "The Battle of Algiers," a drama about the Algerian insurgency against French rule from 1954 to 1957. The French defeated that insurgency. Then it revived. The French left Algeria in 1962. See the film now, as an antidote to excessive euphoria about the limited damage that can be done to a decentralized uprising by the killing of even an important operative.

The insurgency in Iraq began as U.S. forces arrived . In "Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq," Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor report that Marine Lt. Therral (Shane) Childers of Mississippi seems to have been the first U.S. combat fatality:

"A tan Toyota pickup truck began to approach Childers' platoon. The Marines were not sure how to respond. They had been primed to take on Iraqi T-72s, T-55s, and Soviet-designed armored personnel carriers called BMPs--not a lone civilian vehicle. The truck picked up speed until it was bouncing across the desert at seventy miles per hour. As it flew by the platoon, civilian-clad Iraqis in the cab and bed of the truck raised AK-47s and sprayed the Marines with automatic weapons fire."

The insurgency had begun. "The Marines were not sure how to respond"? In the late 1990s, when Gen. Charles Krulak, then commandant of the Marine Corps, was asked to describe the future conflicts for which Marines were training, he answered with one word: "Chechnya." He meant urban conflict in a caldron of ethnic and religious animosities. But no training could have anticipated today's Iraq.

In January 1991, when Desert Storm began, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf said, "The Iraqis just had no concept whatsoever they were getting involved with." Twelve years later, neither did we.

Today we are involved in nurturing Iraq's civil society. One assumption is that elections are, more often than not, and in the long run, inherently conducive to civility. But to get to the long run we must pass through the present. And in a book coming next month, "The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End," Peter W. Galbraith, who has worked for the government of Iraq's almost-autonomous Kurdish region, notes that two elections that have taken place in the Middle East since the U.S. invasion of Iraq have not been helpful. Iranian voters replaced a modern, reformist president with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies that the Holocaust occurred and vows to complete it. And Palestinian parliamentary elections were won by the radical Islamic terrorist organization Hamas.

Among last week's developments in Iraq, the killing of Zarqawi probably was less important than the naming--a disgraceful six months after the elections, and almost three weeks after the rest of the government was sworn in--of the two most important ministers, those of Defense and Interior. But a development 1,500 miles northwest of Baghdad, one almost lost in the welter of last week's news, deserves contemplation: Montenegro completed its dissolution of the union with Serbia. With that, the last bit of Yugoslavia was gone.

Yugoslavia and Iraq were created at the same time, in the aftermath of World War I, and for the same reason--to cope with that war's destruction of empires. Yugoslavia was assembled from shards of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Iraq was carved from the old Ottoman Empire. Both were artifacts held together always largely, and often only, by force.

As the sad and often bloody story of Yugoslavia comes to a close, the question of whether Iraq has a future as a single entity, let alone as a democratic one, remains open. But last week the chances became a little bit better because a sociopath has died, and other sociopaths have been given reason to wonder whether taking his place would be a prudent career move.