« Taking Stock: Never a Believer | Main | The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit »

In February's Harper's

Now that the White House and the Pentagon are pushing for a "surge" of additional American troops in Iraq, it may be too late to mastermind a massive redistribution of Edward N Luttwak's "Dead End: Counterinsurgency Warfare as Military Malpractice," which appears in the February issue of Harper's.* Before reading this article, my resistance to the Iraqi misadventure was strong but intuitive. Taking the tack of failing to see any good reason for invading the country spared me the obligation to analyse my conviction that the invasion couldn't succeed - not in the long term. The dots were all there in my head, but I didn't bother to connect them.

Mr Luttwak has connected them for me, however, and now I know why I believe that our military undertaking in Iraq can never succeed - not, that is, so long as we remain a modern Western democracy. Our national commitment to humanitarianism means that we cannot continue to save villages in the only way that we know - by destroying them. We have tied one hand behind our back, and I am fairly certain that any attempt, by the president or anyone else, to untie that hand would rouse very considerable public outrage.

Forty years ago, we were naive enough to think that it might be all right to kill Vietnamese in order to halt the spread of communism. If I have not heard anyone suggest that we are killing Iraqis in order to stop terrorism, that's probably because we're not doing most of the killing. As Mr Luttwak shows, however, we would have to start doing a lot more killing in order to quell the insurgency. We would have to exterminate the inhabitants of entire towns, or shoot randomly chosen children until their elders gave up insurgents. In short, we would have to out-terrorize the terrorists.

That is how the Ottoman Empire could control entire provinces with a few feared janissaries and a squadron or two of cavalry. The Turks were simply too few to hunt down hidden rebels, but they did not have to: they went to the village chiefs and the town notables instead, to demand their surrender, or else. A massacre once in a while remained an effective warning for decades. So it was mostly by social pressure rather than brute force that the Ottomans preserved their rule: it was the leaders of each ethnic or religious group inclined to rebellion that did their best to keep things quiet, and if they failed, they were quite likely to tell the Turks where to find the rebels before more harm was done.

The Turkish blueprint for empire is obviously out of the question for Americans, but the Administration has given parts of it a try, at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Such attempts, however hateful, have been furtive and almost half-hearted. We're not Turks; our digestions are far too delicate. 

After close study of FM 3-24 DRAFT, the "counterinsurgency" manual recently revised under the aegis of, among others, General David H Petraeus, Mr Luttwak finds an unrealistic dependence upon intelligence and counterintelligence. Weapons can't be used until we know where to shoot. Where is this information to come from? As Mr Luttwak knows, ordinary Iraqis have no reason to provide it, and many reasons to withhold it.

These reasons ought to be familiar to anyone who has seen a gangland film, where nobody cooperates with the police if he wants to keep his business and his family intact. The only thing going for the police is gang rivalry: the bad guys kill one another off. There's plenty of savage rivalry in Iraq, too, as the Shiite majority avenges itself on the Sunni minority that, propped up by the Turks, cornered most of the available goodies, giving it the head start that it needed to continue to oppress Shiites after Iraq's severance from the Ottoman Empire. But it would be hard to say that this rivalry is working to our advantage. The civil war that our leaders predicted would begin upon premature troop withdrawal is already under way, erasing the only plausible reason for maintaining any military presence in Iraq.

*Not, as of this writing, the "current" issue. Online, we're still in January.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.portifex.com/movabletype/mt-tb.cgi/1351

I am a kottke.org micropatron

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2