Posted by Lexington Green on April 14th, 2004 (All posts by Lexington Green)
A friend wrote to me recently, upset about the TV images of the war. He noted that the people fighting us seem to have “twisted thinking,” and concluded by saying “we seem to be trapped without options.” I took issue with all that, more or less as follows:
We are not trapped without options. The whole thing is optional. We could pick some guy in a khaki uniform and hand him the keys. Not that we’d ever do that.
In Falujah, they took us on, and our Marines invaded the city, which was prepared for us, and full of armed men. At the cost of fewer than 100 (last I checked) casualties, the Marines inflicted well over 1,000, occupied 3/4 of the city, and despite our enemies’ efforts to use their own women and children as human shields, killed very few civilians. Remember, the whole thing about going into cities? Remember Mogadishu? Grozny? Supposedly a death trap for a modern army? Wrong. We won a crushing victory in Falujah. The Russian news media gets it. Read this.
Of course the Iraqi resistance has twisted thinking. They grew up under an Arab Stalin. They were the beneficiaries of the fallen regime. They are terrified of being left in an Iraq with an Iraqi government which they don’t control It is going to take a generation for Iraq to get anywhere near where we’d like it to be, if ever.
Don’t doubt it: America holds ALL the cards to win a counterinsurgency war in Iraq. The only way we lose is if the American public gives up. And the weakest link as far as I can see is that the Bush administration is either (1) unsure of what to do, or almost as bad (2) unwilling or unable to articulate what we are doing now and will do next. But, that has been Bush’s style, he does minimal amounts of public speaking and tub-thumping. He should do more. In a war, you need active leadership.
But I’m not too worried about all this. If these people come out in the open, our soldiers can kill them. Better now than later. It is, after all, a war.
My friend wrote back, noting that he is somewhat encouraged by more recent news. He mentioned that Bush’s speech and press conference were effective, but wished Bush were a more forceful and convincing speaker, noting that we need someone like Churchill, but noting to Bush’s credit that Bush does exude “implacability.” He also worried that the Iraqis simply do not have the cultural wherewithal for democracy, despite Bush’s reiterated position that people have a God-given desire for freedom. He concluded by noting that he was upset at the poor performance of the Iraqi security forces in the recent fighting, and thought this showed that the Iraqis might never be able to impose domestic order and police themselves. I responded more or less as follows:
I agree with your basic point about democracy and culture. But the question should be framed on a continuum not on a binary democracy/not-democracy basis. Can the Iraqis do better than they have been doing? Can they adopt some of the practices and institutions of civil society? Can a process be set in place which will lead to a better future for Iraq and the region? I think so. I tend to think that Bush is almost utopian in his universalism, which is clearly based on his religious convictions. My pessimism is based on religion, too — an awareness of the pervasiveness of original sin. Still, I think a reasonably orderly society can be erected in Iraq. Or so I hope. If not, we will need to be much, much harsher in the year ahead. Bush, to his credit, wants to avoid that.
As to your comment that: “it’s extremely disheartening to me that Iraqi security forces would not fight against renegade Iraqis. That bodes very ill for the future.” While it is certainly not good news, we need to be patient. Building armies is hard. Building effective armies takes time. Armies are a reflection of their society, and Iraq’s society is sick and damaged, in addition to having the problems of an inherited tribalism, etc. Still, American (and British) trainers have created decent militaries out of varied populations all over the world, given time and resources. I am reading William Slim’s memoir of commanding the British Army in Burma in WWII. He had to rebuild his army — British, Indian (Gurkha, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim), Burmese, African — from scratch after the Japanese ran them out of Burma. Even then he took months to rebuild and he undertook numerous minor operations where the British heavily outnumbered the enemy, to build confidence. Those poor Iraqis have been at it for a very short time and they were put into extremely intense and stressful combat. I don’t hold it against them that they performed poorly.
Bush isn’t Churchill. It is always good to have the eloquence of a Churchill or even a Jack Kennedy. We don’t, but we’ll work with what we’ve got. Bush clearly conveyed that he is not giving up, not admitting defeat (which would be wrong and stupid) and not abandoning the basic nature of the mission.
Speaking of Churchill, and Westerners occupying Muslim countries and trying to create armies out of their poor and degraded populations, I attach an excerpt from Churchill’s The River War, which describes the creation, under British guidance, of an Egyptian Army. Note how hard it was, and how unpromising the recruits were, and how long it took and how it gained experience and confidence by small operations over a long period of time. There is nothing new under the sun.
Also, one cannot read these few stirring pages and not lust to read the rest of the book.
Excerpt from Churchill’s The River War
The regeneration of Egypt is not a theme which would fall within the
limits of this account, even if it had not been fully dealt with by Sir
Alfred Milner. But the reorganization of the Egyptian army, the forging of
the weapon of reconquest, is an essential feature. On the 20th of December,
1882, the old Egyptian army–or, rather, such parts as had escaped
destruction–was disbanded by a single sentence of a British decree,
and it was evident that some military body must replace that which had
been swept away. All sorts of schemes for the employment of foreign legions
or Turkish janissaries were devised. But Lord Dufferin adhered firmly to
the principle of entrusting the defence of a country to its inhabitants,
and it was determined to form a new Egyptian army. The poverty of the
government, no less than the apparent folly of the experiment, demanded
that the new army should be small. The force was intended only for the
preservation of internal order and the defence of the southern and western
frontiers of Egypt against the Bedouin Arabs. The Soudan still slumbered
out its long nightmare. Six thousand men was the number originally drawn
by conscription–for there are no volunteers in Egypt–from a population
of more than 6,000,000. Twenty-six British officers–either poor men
attracted by the high rates of pay, or ambitious allured by the increased
authority–and a score of excellent drill-sergeants undertook the duty of
teaching the recruits to fight. Sir Evelyn Wood directed the enterprise,
and became the first British Sirdar of the Egyptian army. The work began
and immediately prospered. Within three months of its formation the army
had its first review. The whole 6,000 paraded in their battalions and
marched past the Khedive and their country’s flag. Their bearing and their
drill extorted the half-contemptuous praise of the indifferent spectators.
Experienced soldiers noticed other points. Indeed, the new army differed
greatly from the old. In the first place, it was paid. The recruits were
treated with justice. Their rations were not stolen by the officers.
The men were given leave to go to their villages from time to time. When
they fell sick, they were sent to hospital instead of being flogged.
In short, the European system was substituted for the Oriental.
It was hardly possible that the fertile soil and enervating climate of
the Delta would have evolved a warrior race. Ages of oppression and
poverty rarely produce proud and warlike spirits. Patriotism does not grow
under the ‘Kourbash.’ The fellah soldier lacks the desire to kill. Even the
Mohammedan religion has failed to excite his ferocity. He may be cruel.
He is never fierce. Yet he is not without courage–a courage which bears
pain and hardship in patience, which confronts ill-fortune with
indifference, and which looks on death with apathetic composure. It is the
courage of down-trodden peoples, and one which stronger breeds may often
envy, though they can scarcely be expected to admire. He has other military
virtues. He is obedient, honest, sober, well-behaved, quick to learn, and,
above all, physically strong. Generations of toiling ancestors, though they
could not brace his nerves, have braced his muscles. Under the pressure of
local circumstances there has been developed a creature who can work with
little food, with little incentive, very hard for long hours under a
merciless sun. Throughout the river campaigns, if the intellect of the
army, if the spirit of the troops, have come from without, Egypt herself
has provided the sinews of war.
Such was the material out of which the British officers have formed
the new Egyptian army. At first, indeed, their task was embittered by the
ridicule of their comrades in the British and Indian Services; but as the
drill and bearing of the force improved, the thoughtless scorn would have
been diverted from the Englishmen to fall only upon the Egyptian soldiers.
But this was not allowed. The British officers identified themselves with
their men. Those who abused the fellah soldier were reminded that they
insulted English gentlemen. Thus a strange bond of union was established
between the officers and soldiers of the Egyptian Service; and although
material forces may have accomplished much, without this moral factor the
extraordinary results would never have been achieved.
It was not long before the new military organisation was exposed to
the stern test of war. The army that was raised to preserve internal order
was soon called upon to guard the frontier. The revolt in the Soudan,
which in its earlier stages seemed the least of the Egyptian difficulties,
speedily dwarfed all the rest. The value of the new force was soon
recognised. In June 1883 we find General Hicks, then preparing for his
fatal march, writing to Sir Evelyn Wood: ‘Send me four battalions of your
new army, and I shall be content.’ But fortune protected the infant
organisation from such a disastrous beginning. The ‘new army’ remained
for a space in Cairo; and although during the Nile expedition of 1884-85
the Egyptians were employed guarding the lines of communication, it was
not until the British troops had been withdrawn from Dongola that they
received at Ginniss their baptism of fire. Henceforth their place was on
the frontier, and from 1886 onward the Egyptian troops proved equal to the
task of resisting the northward pressure of the Dervishes.
The numbers of the army grew with its responsibilities. Up to the end
of 1883 the infantry still consisted of eight fellahin battalions. In 1884
the first Soudanese battalion was raised. The black soldier was of a very
different type from the fellahin. The Egyptian was strong, patient,
healthy, and docile. The negro was in all these respects his inferior.
His delicate lungs, slim legs, and loosely knit figure contrasted
unfavourably with the massive frame and iron constitution of the peasant
of the Delta. Always excitable and often insubordinate, he required the
strictest discipline. At once slovenly and uxorious, he detested his
drills and loved his wives with equal earnestness; and altogether
‘Sambo’–for such is the Soudanese equivalent of ‘Tommy’–was a lazy,
fierce, disreputable child. But he possessed two tremendous military
virtues. To the faithful loyalty of a dog he added the heart of a lion.
He loved his officer, and feared nothing in the world. With the
introduction of this element the Egyptian army became a formidable
military machine. Chance or design has placed the blacks ever in the
forefront of the battle, and in Lord Kitchener’s campaigns on the Nile the
losses in the six Soudanese battalions have exceeded the aggregate of the
whole of the rest of the army.
It was well that the Egyptian troops were strengthened by these valiant
auxiliaries, for years of weary war lay before them. Sir Reginald Wingate,
in his exhaustive account of the struggle of Egypt with the Mahdist power,
[MAHDISM AND THE EGYPTIAN SOUDAN, Sir Reginald Wingate] has described
the successive actions which accompanied the defence of the Wady Halfa
frontier and of Suakin.
The ten years that elapsed between Ginniss and the first movements of
the expedition of re-conquest were the dreary years of the Egyptian army.
The service was hard and continual. Though the operations were petty, an
untiring vigilance was imperative. The public eye was averted. A pitiless
economy was everywhere enforced. The British officer was deprived of his
leave and the Egyptian private of his rations, that a few pounds might be
saved to the Egyptian Treasury. The clothing of the battalions wore thin
and threadbare, and sometimes their boots were so bad that the soldiers’
feet bled from the cutting edges of the rocks, and the convoy escorts left
their trails behind them. But preparation was ever going forward. The army
improved in efficiency, and the constant warfare began to produce,
even among the fellahin infantry, experienced soldiers. The officers,
sweltering at weary Wady Halfa and Suakin, looked at the gathering
resources of Egypt and out into the deserts of the declining Dervish
Empire and knew that some day their turn would come. The sword of
re-conquest which Evelyn Wood had forged, and Grenfell had tested,
was gradually sharpened; and when the process was almost complete,
the man who was to wield it presented himself.