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Sunday, October 23, 2005

chronicle of a war crime foretold

In Dexter Filkin’s depressing NYT Magazine piece about the murder of Zaydoon Fadhil – which thinks it is a depressing NYT Magazine piece about the downfall of Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman – there are several “admissions” about the way the war is being conducted in Iraq that are especially strange coming from a paper that routinely reports on the death of Iraqis just as the Pentagon labels them. If the Pentagon blows away 100 people on the Syrian border, then 100 insurgents are killed, and that is that. No hint of such things as this:

“On a mission in January 2004, a group of Sassaman's soldiers came to the house of an Iraqi man suspected of hijacking trucks. He wasn't there, but his wife and two other women answered the door. "You have 15 minutes to get your furniture out," First Sgt. Ghaleb Mikel said. The women wailed and shouted but ultimately complied, dragging their bed and couch and television set out the front door. Mikel's men then fired four antitank missiles into their house, blowing it to pieces and setting it afire. The women were left holding their belongings.
"It's called the 'leave no refuge' policy," Mikel later explained to Johan Spanner, a photographer working for The New York Times.

That same winter in Samarra, Sassaman's men moved through a hospital and pulled a suspected insurgent from his bed. When a doctor told the Americans to leave, a soldier spat in his face. Another time, an officer told Spanner, one of Sassaman's soldiers threw a wounded man into a cell and threatened to withhold treatment unless he told them everything he knew. "We've told him he's not getting medical attention unless he starts to talk," Capt. Karl Pfuetze told Spanner. The man's fate was unknown. (Pfuetze now denies the withholding of treatment. Sassaman insists he never condoned beatings or denial of medical treatment.)”

Filkins article actually surfaces some rare truths about guerilla warfare that have been pretty much sieved out of Times stories about Iraq. These truths have been obvious for some time – in fact, were obvious in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq.
From Filkins:

“But as a consequence of its overwhelming power and prowess, the American Army is not likely to face an enemy similar to itself. It is more likely to face guerrillas. Guerrilla wars typically begin when a smaller army is confronted by a larger one, forcing it to turn to the advantages it has: its ability to hide amid the population, its knowledge of the local terrain, its ability to mount quick and surprising attacks and then melt away before the larger army can strike back. This is more or less the case in Iraq, as it was in Vietnam, yet the leadership of the American Army is still wary of preparing the bulk of its troops to fight a guerrilla war. Most American soldiers are trained to use maximum force to destroy an easily identifiable enemy. Waging a counterinsurgency campaign, by contrast, often requires a soldier to do what might appear to be counterproductive: use the minimum amount of force, not the maximum, so as to reduce the risk of killing civilians or destroying property. Co-opt an enemy rather than kill him. If necessary, expose soldiers to higher risk. In the American Army, that sort of training is mostly relegated to forces like the Green Berets, who account for a small percentage of the Army's manpower.

"It's a chronic problem that runs deep in the DNA of the Army," says John Waghelstein, a retired colonel in the Special Forces who helped to conduct the American-backed counterinsurgency campaign in El Salvador. "The Army has never taken counterinsurgency seriously. The Army's doctrine hasn't changed since the 1840's." At the Army's Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., attended by all American officers hoping to rise above the rank of major, students must pass a rigorous program consisting of roughly 700 hours of instruction. Of that, not a single required course focuses on how to fight guerrilla wars.”

From LI, on Feb 13, 2003 – before the invasion:

“This American pattern is often ignored by American policy makers. The latest example is the kind of ambitious policy in the Middle East being promoted by the circle around Paul Wolfowitz. According to this circle, America is, in reality, an empire. So using that imperial power, we can remake social and political situations that we don't like in our image. The language of empire now fills our foreign policy journals, as well as conservative weeklies. The opposition to the Bush administration's aggressive plans in the Middle East has concentrated mainly on the cost of war in the narrow sense -- the cost, that is, of invading and defeating Iraq. However, the real question is about the cost of the war in the larger sense -- the cost of exposing an occupying force to the constant attrition of a guerilla war, and to the unexpected violence of factional conflict. This is where the imperial model has failed in the recent past, from Saigon to Somalia. Empires require some legitimation that goes beyond the mere aggrandizement of power. Americans have never accepted any legitimation, over the long run, except national defense. Neither glory nor ideology have garnered American support for a war.

To explain the paradox of American power -- that combination of a high level of military spending with a low level of acceptable risk -- I believe this, it is useful to use McClellan and Grant to represent the two poles of the American dialectic. Both McClellan and Grant started from the same premise: the prerequisite to fighting a war was amassing a force disproportionately greater than the enemy's. However, while the strategic premise was the same, the tactics were much different. McClellan Civil War career has become infamous for the chances he refused to take. He was tender for the lives of his men. It was a this caution that doomed his Virginia campaign of 1862. As one private wrote, "We are at a loss to imagine whether this is strategy or defeat." (Gallagher)

Grant's tactics were very different. He used the advantage of a more numerous army to raise the level of casualties he would accept. This made it possible to continue inflicting casualties on the enemy in a more prolonged way than was ever seen before, in the campaign. The general stress broke the army of Northern Virginia. It is easy to forget that Grant's ultimate success was preceded by general shock at the the bloodletting he was prepared to countenance -- a shock that so shook the Union side that Lincoln, in the middle of the election campaign of 1864, thought he was going to lose. Grant's position was made plain in a telegram Sherman, with whom he was in perfect agreement, sent to Halleck, one of the incompetent Union commanders, after Vicksburg:

``War is upon us, none can deny it. It is not the choice of the Government of the United States, but of a faction; the Government was forced to accept the issue, or to submit to a degradation fatal and disgraceful to all the inhabitants. In accepting war, it should be `pure and simple' as applied to the belligerents. I would keep it so, till all traces of the war are effaced; till those who appealed to it are sick and tired of it, and come to the emblem of our nation, and sue for peace. I would not coax them, or even meet them half-way, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it....

This is the kind of language spoken by legendary American commanders, like Sherman, Grant, Patton and Macarthur. The words are stirring. We shouldn't be deluded, however, into thinking that the feelings are typical. McClellan's caution has never been submerged by Grant's boldness in the mix of American foreign policy and military strategy. In fact, it is the McClellan pole that drives the fundamental US military strategy of the moment: replacing the manpower of battle with military technology. The goal is to achieve Grant's objective with McClellan's tenderness for American life. This works in the case of those military engagements that can be decided solely by weaponry. However, occupation is, by definition, not one of those strategies. In fact, by raising the optimistic vision of a bloodless (at least for our side) war, it prepares the guerillas advantage -- blows struck against the occupying forces will be illogically magnified because they are judged against the background of a military technical utopia.

The best argument against the imperial design of the Wolfowitzes is to appeal to the reality of this American pattern, in which the cost of an enterprise is judged rigidly against the benefit it brings. The benefit brought by regime change in Iraq is obvious -- but the benefit wrought by invading and occupying Iraq is not. The landscape, as it appears to D.C. foreign policy honchos, is one of overwhelming American power. But the landscape since 9/11 has changed. Guerillas may not possess nuclear missiles, but they can forge the weapons of mass destruction out of boxcutters and American airliners. in treating Iraq as though it were merely a problem amenable to a Grant-like solution, we are putting ourselves into a situation in which all alternatives are impalatable. Assuming that 9/11, and the suicide bombers in Israel, are omens of things to come, the occupying U.S. forces in Iraq will be subject to the constant low attrition of guerilla warfare, with its morale breaking concomitants: a desire to strike blows against a dispersed enemy driving general dispersed acts of mayhem against the native population, which in turn creates mutual distrust between American forces and the native population, which in turn creates a gap between the ostensible reasons for the American presence (that they somehow 'represent' the aspirations of the native people) and the reality of it. Bush is edging into a situation in which the choices will be an unacceptable withdrawal from Iraq, and an unacceptable occupation of Iraq.

This situation should look familiar. It is Vietnam.”

But there is another reason American commanders shy from using violence on civilians: the effects it has on their own men. Pittard, the American commander in Baquba, says that he was careful not to give his men too much leeway in using nonlethal force. It wasn't just that he regarded harsh tactics as self-defeating. He feared his men could get out of control. "We were not into reprisals," Pittard says. "It's a fine line. If you are not careful, your discipline will break down."

In most of the 20th century's guerrilla wars, the armies of the countries battling the insurgents have suffered serious breakdowns in discipline. This was true of the Americans in Vietnam, the French in Algeria and the Soviets in Afghanistan. Martin van Creveld, a historian at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says that soldiers in the dominant army often became demoralized by the frustrations of trying to defeat guerrillas. Nearly every major counterinsurgency in the 20th century failed. "The soldiers fighting the insurgents became demoralized because they were the strong fighting the weak," van Creveld says. "Everything they did seemed to be wrong. If they let the weaker army kill them, they were idiots. If they attacked the smaller army, they were seen as killers. The effect, in nearly every case, is demoralization and breakdowns of discipline."

We will end this long, long post with the suggestion that you LI’s post on The Making of the Enemy.

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