Mastering the languages, cultural nuances, beliefs and taboos that prevail in a theater of war, area of operations or tactical environment is vital to military success. It’s much easier to kill people you understand.
Beyond that, cultural insights ease routine operations and negotiations, the training of local forces and the development of intelligence. Environmental mastery helps us avoid making unnecessary enemies. But that is where the advantages end in conflicts of blood and faith: No amount of cultural sensitivity inculcated in U.S. troops will persuade fanatic believers to discard their religion, nor can any amount of American empathy change a foreign thug’s ethnic identity.
Frustrated with the difficulties facing us in Iraq after being denied both adequate troop strength and the authority to impose the rule of law in the initial days of our occupation, U.S. military commanders responded with a variety of improvisations, from skillful “kinetic ops” to patient dialogue. Nothing achieved enduring results — because we never had the resources or the fortitude to follow any effort through to the end, and our enemies had no incentive to quit, surrender or cooperate. We pacified cities with force but lacked the forces to keep them pacified. We rebuilt schools, but our enemies taught us how easy it was to kill teachers. Accepting that it was politically impossible on the home front, we never conducted the essential first step in fighting terrorists and insurgents: We failed to forge a long-term plan based on a long-term commitment. Instead, we sought to dissuade fanatics and undo ancient rivalries with stopgap measures, intermittent drizzles of money and rules of engagement tailored to suit the media, not military necessity.
It is astonishing that our efforts have gone as well as they have.
Yet no honest soldier or Marine would argue that we could not have done better — and should have done better. Setting aside, for now, the inept leadership from the Rumsfeld Pentagon and the fateful, if not fatal, lack of adequate troop strength, we’re left with one crippling deficiency on the part of our leadership: The unwillingness to recognize the nature of the various conflicts underway simultaneously in Iraq.
With an obtuseness worthy of the left’s caricatures of military officers, we drew the wrong lessons from the wrong historical examples, then did exactly the wrong things. Enmeshed in bitter conflicts over religion and ethnicity resurgent after decades of suppression, senior officers ignored myriad relevant historical examples and focused instead on the counterinsurgency campaigns with which they were comfortable — and that were as instructive as dismantling a toaster to learn how to fix a computer.
Reality’s delete key
Officers looked to operations in Malaya, Vietnam, Northern Ireland and, occasionally, Algeria for positive and negative examples. Yet not one of those political struggles is relevant to the situation in Iraq (or Afghanistan). As for the pertinent examples of insurgencies rooted in religious or ethnic fanaticism, such as the Moro Insurrection, Bloody Kansas, the Sepoy Mutiny, the Mahdist Wars, the various European Anabaptist risings, the Thirty Years’ War, the Armenian Genocide, Nagorno-Karabagh, the destruction of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Kashmir, the Pueblo Revolt, the Ghost-Dance Rebellion, 1,300 years of uninterrupted warfare between the Islamic and Judeo-Christian civilizations, and several thousand other examples dating back to the savagery chronicled in the Old Testament; well, the lessons they suggest are, to say the least, politically incorrect. So we hit the delete key on reality.
Our civilian and uniformed leaders have engaged in comforting fantasies about the multilayered conflicts we’re in, while speaking in numbing platitudes. Now we’re back to “winning hearts and minds.”
We can’t do it. Not in the Islamic world. Arabs — Sunni or Shiite, in Iraq and elsewhere — are so battered psychologically that many need to blame the West, Israel, unbelievers, Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and the ice-cream man for their failures. Any chance we had of winning the minds, if not the hearts, of the biddable minority in Iraq was thrown away when we failed to enforce the rule of law the moment Baghdad fell. Proclamations of American generosity fall short when you cannot walk your neighborhood streets without fear.
Even with the limited forces we had on hand three-and-a-half years ago, we could have done more. But the Bush administration and our military leaders had fallen into the politically correct trap that spares the murderer at the expense of his victims. We weren’t ready to kill enough of the right people. As a result, our enemies have been able to spend more than three years killing the people we meant to liberate. Our reluctance to kill evil men proved murderous to innocent men, women and children, and our unwillingness to do what needed to be done leaves us at least partly responsible for the thousands of Iraqis killed and maimed by acts of terrorism — as well as for our own unnecessary losses.
The law of war is immutable: Those unwilling to pay the butcher’s bill up front will pay it with compound interest in the end.
Mush, not rigor
The new counterinsurgency doctrine the Army and Marines are developing gets the language right initially, noting that no two insurgencies are identical and that each must be understood on its own terms. Then it veers into nonsense, typified by the insupportable claim that a defection is always better than a surrender, a surrender is always better than a capture and a capture is always better than a kill. That’s intellectual mush. And it’s just plain wrong.
It’s Malaya again, with doughty Brits hacking through the jungle to pip-pip-wot-ho those wily communists. It’s Kit Carson Scouts in Vietnam and faithful Montagnards. It’s the PX at Tan Son Nhut air base (oops, almost wrote “Balad”). It’s the nonveteran John Wayne starring in “The Green Berets” and proving beyond any doubt that all good Vietnamese instinctively loved Americans and dreamed of drinking Cokes in suburban freedom. It’s Mel Gibson reprising Pickett’s Charge in the Ia Drang valley — and winning this time!
The well-intentioned drafters of our counterinsurgency doctrine are mining what they’ve recently read without serious analysis. Do they really believe that a Sunni Arab insurgent in Kirkuk is going to see the light and declare that, from now on, he’s a Kurd? Or that a Shiite militiaman in the Mahdi Army is going to wake up and decide, “Twelfth Imam, Shmim-mam! I’m going to become a Sunni and move to Ramadi!”? Does anyone outside the nuthouse political left really believe that friendly persuasion will disarm al-Qaida in Iraq? Isn’t a crucial lesson of Guantanamo that irredeemable prisoners are a strategic liability?
Our doctrine writers are in danger of producing a tome on procreation that doesn’t mention sex.
We are in the middle of a multilayered, multisided struggle for supremacy between intolerant religious factions and age-old ethnic rivals. And we pretend that it’s just another political struggle amenable to a political solution — because it’s more pleasant to think so, because we believe we know what to do in such circumstances, because facing reality would force us to drastically change the way we behave in combat, and because acknowledging the truth about the situation in Iraq would demand that we question every goofball cliché about the human preference for peace that we’ve bought into for the past half-century.
Yet, unless we accept the truth about the kind of wars we’re in — and inevitably will face in the future — we’re going to continue to make a botch of things.
Blood ties, bloody gods
The political insurgencies of the last century were easy problems compared to this century’s renewed struggles of blood and belief. In political insurgencies, some of the actors can, indeed, be converted. A capture may be better than a kill. Compromise may be possible. Dialogue is sometimes a useful tool, although even political insurgencies are best resolved from a position of indisputable military strength. Men who believe, often hazily, in an ideology occasionally can be converted — or bought. The political beliefs of the masses are fickle. Defeats discourage those with mundane goals. And a political struggle within a population otherwise united by its history can end in reconciliation even after horrible bloodshed — as in the American Civil War, the Risorgimento, the gruesome Mexican revolutions of 1910-20 and the civil wars in Vietnam, Greece and many another gore-drenched, relatively homogeneous states.
Violence arising from differences of religious confession, race or ethnicity is profoundly different — and far more difficult to quell. Generally, such struggles are brought to an end only through a great deal of killing. One side — or all — must be bled out. Whether cast as divinely sanctioned liberation struggles or simply about one bloodline getting its own back from another, these conflicts over God’s will and ancestral wrongs are never amenable to reason. Self-righteous journalists love to claim that the first casualty of war is truth, but that’s a self-serving lie; the first casualty of any form of violence is reason, that weakest and most disappointing of learned human skills.
Our exclusive focus on recent political insurgencies misleads us, because wars over tribe and God are humankind’s oldest legacy, while the conflicts we choose to study all fall within a brief historical interval that stands as an aberration — the twilight decades of the Age of Ideology, which ran from 1775 to 1991, a blink in historical terms. Now we have reverted to the human norm of killing one another over interpretations of the divine will and ancient blood ties. We don’t have to like it — and we won’t — but we must recognize the reality confronting us. We have returned to the historical mainstream. The tribes want tribute. The gods want blood. And the killers are ready to help.
The road to Srebrenica was paved with pious platitudes, the path to 9/11 with wishful thinking. Presidents and generals may declare endlessly that we’re not engaged in a religious war or that ethnic factions can be reconciled, but the first claim is a lie and the second relies for its fulfillment on intrusive military power and a strength of will greater than that of the factions in question. We are, indeed, engaged in religious wars — because our enemies have determined that these are religious wars. Our own refusal to understand them as such is just one more debilitating asymmetry. As for ethnic reconciliation, call me when Kosovo’s Muslims and Serb Christians reintegrate their communities, form joint neighborhood-watch committees and vote for each other’s political candidates (and check the ingredients of the casserole that Ivo’s wife brought to the potluck, nonetheless).
Blood and budget deficits
If we want achievements commensurate with the risks we undergo and the costs we pay in blood and budget deficits, we must overcome our revulsion at the truth. Saying nice things about war to please the media or to placate noisome academics is useless, anyway, because they’ll always oppose what the U.S. government does — even when, as with a dictator’s overthrow and a war of liberation, our government implements the left’s long-standing agenda. We must stop belching out chipper slogans and fleeing to simplistic models for answers. We have to start thinking beyond our moral comfort zones. When generals lack intellectual integrity, privates die for nothing.
Above all, we must regain our perspective on what truly matters. We must get over our impossible dream of being loved as a nation, of winning hearts and minds in Iraq or elsewhere. If we can make ourselves liked through our successes, that’s well and good. But the essential requirements for the security of the U.S. are that our nation is respected and our military is feared. Our lack of resolve and mental rigor has brought us close to sacrificing both of these advantages. And a nation that is not respected encourages foreign chicanery, while a military that is not feared invites attack.
The Marine Corps entered Iraq with a motto that captured the essence of what our efforts should have involved: “No better friend, no worse enemy.” That restatement of the carrot-and-stick approach to military operations expressed in simple terms how to fight just about any kind of enemy — including insurgents and terrorists. The problem is that no American leader, in uniform or in a $3,000 suit, lived up to the maxim consistently. Instead, we applied it in fits and starts as we tried to make friends with our enemies. In the clinch, we defaulted to the carrot.
Consider how many potential turning points we missed: We failed to enforce the rule of law while all Iraq was terrified of us and anxious for clear orders. We failed to occupy the predictable trouble spots early on and in force. We failed to display sufficient imagination and courage to break up the artificial country we inherited from Saddam Hussein and a pack of Europeans at Versailles. With our typical dread of short-term costs, we passed up repeated and justified chances to kill Muqtada al-Sadr, inflating his image in the process — and paying a far higher price in the long term than we would have paid had we acted resolutely and promptly. We needed Henry V and got Hamlet. Our leaders fled from victory in the First Battle of Fallujah. Now an administration with a flagging will is determined to withdraw our troops prematurely — Mission Accomplished, Act II. And all the while our soldiers and Marines have paid the price — while re-enlisting to pay it again and again.
Our men and women in uniform deserve better. They’re dying not only of roadside bombs but of phony morality imposed by those who face no risks themselves. Spare a terrorist, kill a soldier. Spare a terrorist leader, kill our soldiers by the hundreds.
We want to treat a country torn by rival visions of a punitive god and drenched in ethnic bloodshed as if it needs only a bit of political tinkering. We’re not looking for exit strategies, just exit excuses.
The longer we wait to study and learn from the relevant conflicts of the past, the more American blood we’ll squander. We have to be tough on ourselves, forcing each other to think beyond the deadly platitudes of the campus, the campaign trail and the press briefing. Begin by listing the number of religion-fueled uprisings throughout history that were quenched by reason and compromise — call me collect if you find a single one. Then list the ethnic civil wars that were solved by sensible treaties without significant bloodshed. Next, start asking the really ugly questions, such as: Hasn’t ethnic cleansing led to more durable conditions of peace than any more humane approach to settling power relations between bloodlines? Monstrous as it appears, might not the current neighborhood-by-neighborhood ethnic and confessional cleansing in Iraq make that country more, rather than less, likely to survive as a confederation? Shouldn’t we be glad when fanatics kill fanatics? Are all successes in the war on terrorism merely provisional? Is this a struggle that unquestionably must be fought by us but that began long before our country existed and will continue for centuries to come? Is there a historical precedent for coping with violent religious fanatics that does not include bloodshed to the point of extermination?
Even beyond these military and strategic issues, deeper questions about humanity — the individual and the mass — await serious minds. The one useful result of the coming generations of fanaticism will be to rid our own cultural bloodstream of the poison of political correctness, white lies that lead to black results. Why does humankind love war? And yes, the word is “love.” Does religious competition have biological roots? Is the assertion of ethnic supremacy as natural as the changing of the seasons? Is genocide in our genes? We do not have to celebrate unpleasant answers, but, if humanity is ever to make the least progress in reducing mass violence, we need to face those answers honestly.
The American military knew how to deal with conflicts of blood and faith. But we do not study our own history when the lessons make us uneasy. During the Moro Insurrection, the U.S. Army lived up to the Marine Corps’ motto for Operation Iraqi Freedom. For the peaceful inhabitants of the southern Philippines, our soldiers and administrators were benefactors. For the Moro warriors, they were the worst enemies those fanatics had ever faced. Of course, we didn’t have CNN filming our Gatling guns at work, but, then, we may need to banish the media from future battlefields, anyway. Our brutal response to the brutality of Muslim fanatics kept the peace until the Japanese invasion four decades later. And no peace lasts forever — four decades qualifies as a big, big win.
The religious movement that fired the Boxer Rebellion could only be put down through massacre. The same need to rip the heart out of violent millenarian movements, enabling societies to regain their balance, applied from 1520s Germany and 1840s China through the 19th-century Yucatan and the Sudan, down to the Islamist counterrevolution today. Only massive killing brought peace. Only extensive killing will bring peace.
We need to grasp the basic truth that the path to winning the hearts and minds of the masses leads over the corpses of the violent minority. As for humanitarianism, the most humane thing we can do is to win our long struggle against fanaticism and terrorism. That means killing terrorists and fanatics.