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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The birth of the spirit of the American military

My friend Paul at Fragmenta Philosophica pinned me, the other day, for willful exaggeration. I had written a War Crime alert about Ramadi – but as I had to admit to Paul, I don’t honestly think the U.S. is going to do to Ramadi what it did to Falluja.

However, there was a deeper level to our debate on his site. The deeper level had to do with what kind of war is happening in Iraq. LI often tries to penetrate the American veil of ignorance and discover an Iraqi perspective to the war, since it is mainly an Iraqi war. This post will be dedicated to another task: what kind of war is it from the American perspective?

Before the war began, back in 2002, we wrote a post about the spirit of the American military. Our idea back then was this: the American military style emerged from two conflicting ideals. On the one hand, there is the Grant style of fullscale assault. On the other hand, there is the McClellan style, of the maximum preservation of American life. The Grant style is especially adapted to assaultive wars. These wars are characterized by the fact that the enemy is large and, roughly, technologically equivalent to the U.S., and the American losses are politically acceptable. World War I and II are classic instances of this. Usually, though, American aggressions fall outside of this orbit. In order to poetically conciliate both the spirits of Grant and McClellan, the U.S. has developed its incredible military technology – to which it has devoted an extraordinary amount of resources. (The poetry of the state, you might say, is war. Which is why LI prefers the prose of the state – which is social welfare). It might be that the American imperium will be known, long after it disappears, for its weapons mania, a thing that, like the Great Wall of China, will puzzle succeeding generations.

A good example of the conciliation of Grant and McClellan was the dropping of the atom bomb, which is regularly defended as a way of saving American lives. We won’t get into that controversy now, except to say that other military regimes – say Napoleon’s – did not put such a premium on saving the lives of their soldiers.

So much for assaultive wars. Unfortunately for the American foreign policy elite, most American wars are not assaultive. And the war in Iraq is no exception to that rule.

What happens when a guerilla war is fought with assualtive methods?

In another period, the peak of the colonial/racist era in 1900, the Philippines war was fought in exactly that manner, with the rounding up and internment of the native population, random massacres of Filipinos, etc., etc., all in order to produce a direct protectorate in the Philippines. Even so, it was an unpopular war in the U.S. More popular have been the countless interventions in Central America and the Caribbean, the scale of which has been minimized due to the fact that a native praetorian force is on hand to take over necessary repressive tasks.

Iraq, in contrast to the Philippines, is an almost perfect example of the misapplication of assaultive methods in a guerrilla war. The political principle behind the war has been simple: a non-sacrificial jingoism. The Bush administration calculated that war would be politically advantageous as long as the spirit of McClellan was honored, as it was in Desert Storm. That calculation was right, domestically. Although the public is always saying it supports its troops, there is a range of casualties that the public will simply forget. If three to five soldiers die per day in Iraq, the public won’t wink – it won’t even care if the army those soldiers fight in gets its medical benefits cut, or is grossly chiseled by military contractors, etc., etc. But this calculation also hems in the range of military strategies deployable in Iraq. This means that, in effect, any counter-insurgency strategy that dramatically increases the number of American deaths will be politically aborted, even if this turns out to be the only strategy that will ‘win” the war.

So much, then, for background. Now, Falluja. The battle in Falluja was fought as though Falluja were Stalingrad, except that the Americans had that technological domination of the air, and that firepower, to truly decimate the enemy and preserve their own. One problem, though: when the enemy is so mixed in with the civilian population, decimating the enemy means creating vast number of collateral casualties. Vast numbers of collateral casualties –by which I mean refugees as well as injured and killed – supply an insurgent force with exactly what it needs to remain viable – a large, mobile, hostile group that scales across the country, which can support its daily operation and supply its manpower.

If Falluja had been fought in such a way as to lower the collateral casualties – if Falluja, in other words, hadn’t been knocked down – the Americans could have killed as many insurgents, but they would have had to pay a very high price in their own ranks. Ironically, however, they would truly, then, have achieved something closer to a strategic victory. The residents of Falluja wouldn’t, then, have been dispersed. The scenes coming from Falluja would have been of fighters dying, on both sides, rather than of fighters and babies and old men dying, on one side. In our opinion, the spike in violence after Falluja, and the collapse of the election throughout the Sunni areas of Iraq, could well have been avoided if the U.S. had abandoned both Grant and McClellan and fought the guerillas without their usual maximal regard for American life.

Domestically, however, that would have been impossible. If a thousand Americans had died in retaking Falluja, Bush would not be having a jolly time asset stripping social security; he would be trying to find another secretary of defense. A thousand American deaths would have been considered a disaster in this country.

This is the push-pull that leads the Americans to fight the way they do, and leads, in turn, to the idea, on the Arab ‘street’, that America is as criminal as Al Qaeda. It is also why Americans should get out of Iraq now, with a set date, period.

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