Dialogue About the War With a Worried Friend

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.

14 thoughts on “Dialogue About the War With a Worried Friend”

  1. I think it’s a bit much to pound our chest and say, “we hold all the cards”. We’re a player. A big player. But at the risk of stating the obvious, the Iraqi public is a far bigger player.
    The challenge is to contain the rebellion without alienating the Iraqi public. As I wrote three days ago:

    I think Fallujah needs to be handled with great care. There are two dangers in how we handle this rebellion:

    1. Leaving the impression that the rebels succeeded. That will only encourage more rebellion. In this sense, for political reasons, Muqtada must be taken into custody. He must be seen in handcuffs, as Ali said. That will be a powerful image.

    2. Over-doing the killing of Iraqis. Whatever the political/religious belief of Iraqis watching this from the outside, having their fellow countrymen massacred by the Americans is not something they want to see.

  2. This is interesting.

    I think we do hold most of the cards. Not only can we leave, we can also use more force than we have been using. We could have ended the “rebellion” in a day by bombing Falujah from the air. The only reason the fighting has lasted as long as it has is that we haven’t been willing to use such tactics. We are far, far from “massacring” Iraqis. If anything we may have erred on the side of using too little force.

  3. We are far, far from “massacring” Iraqis.

    I agree. You know that, I know that. But what’s important here is the *perception* of a massacre in the minds of average Iraqis who are being bombarded with that image by Arab media.

    I’m not implying we should run away. I’m saying we need to be very careful here. Iraq is balanced on a knife edge between chaos and calm. We are still very much ‘the outsider’ there. Iraqi nationalism is a force for chaos we don’t want to ignite against us. We need to be looking hard for ways to douse the flames, not throw fuel on the fire. We need to be looking for ways to get Iraqis back on the political track and off the military track.

    The sooner we can get a representative government in place, the better off we’ll be. The GC has no legitimacy with Iraqis. A parliament will. That’s the point we need to keep in mind. That’s the goal post. We need to keep Iraq calm to get there. Sufficient force is the key idea here. Use enough force to quell the fighting, then stop. Let Iraqis deal with their trouble makers. They can do it far more effectively than we can.

  4. I take your point about perception. However, some Arabs (Baathists, Hamas, Al Jazeera et al) and their western allies are going to oppose us no matter what we do, so we shouldn’t make the mistake of cutting back on necessary force in the hope that doing so will buy us something. We may as well use as much force as needed and ignore the inevitable criticism.

    Also, I don’t see what’s wrong with Iraqi nationalism, as long as we encourage its expression in a productive direction, like forming and protecting a democratic govt. That said, I think we made a mistake by not considering allowing Iraq to split into Sunni, Shiia and Kurdish entities. The essence of Iraq’s problems was that these three groups were forced into one political entity with a small Sunni elite controlling all resources. Such centralized control would not be possible if the country were split up, as Reuven Brenner and I’m sure other commentators have pointed out.

  5. Even after coalition troops leave Iraq, there will be trouble there. Iran and Syria are investing heavily in the Iraq troubles.
    In ten years, under the best of circumstances, there will still be bombings, kidnappings, and factional fighting in Iraq.
    Iraq is pivotal to the future of the muslim world, and the autocrats in the region realize it. They can’t afford a peaceful democratic Iraq.
    The best that america can do for the Iraqis is to prepare them for the troubles that are to come.

  6. “We may as well use as much force as needed and ignore the inevitable criticism.”

    I couldn’t agree more, and I fear, truly fear, Bush is largely silent on the subject because he’s lost the upper hand by playing like a gentleman in these standoffs. If he can’t explain it better, as VD Hanson said, finish it or forget it.

    Every player, from Iran to Sistani to the Baathists, is using our sensitivity to gain military and propaganda advantage. Bush or his government may be sacrificing a victory in the real war, which could be a glorious one, for the doomed dream of victory in the media war, which they will never win.

  7. Hmmm. When the only media that “gets it” is the Moscow Times, it may be time to update the assessment.

    As for speaking out, the problem is that Bush is worst at what is most needed : spontaneous, unscripted, open exchanges. The kind that can inspire much-needed confidence and resolve. Prepared speeches are necessary but not sufficient, especially in such matters. His latest press conference was, imho, striking in this respect. The speech was somber and overall pretty good, both in terms of substance and delivery (it is very rare for him to get both right, unfortunately). The Q&A was awful. Mumbling, rambling, repeating the same simple slogans, avoiding questions, hesitating. It was like the President had been followed on the podium by some boring mid-level official who didn’t want to be there. Except it was the same guy.

    I am worried. I just have this nagging feeling that once again, we have Daniel Ellsbergs and John Paul Vanns out there, people with first-rate knowledge acquired the hard way in the field, yet they are not being listened to because they are bearing bad news at the wrong time and would make a lot of bureaucrats and other individuals look pretty bad, starting with the CPA itself.

    As for leadership, the Churchills of the world, those who will dare to be honest and promise endless blood and tears, are more likely to be followed by their people through war and turmoil than those who deny and claim to be in control of events despite mounting evidence to the contrary. It is as if the latter did not want to realize that lost credibility eventually turns into lost power.

    Right now, I cannot trust the media. It did a terrible job reporting the war – although not anywhere near as bad as their European colleagues – and there is no evidence to suggest it is any more reliable today. But it has become rather difficult to trust the Administration. Never mind the electoral distortions and cross-current.

  8. I’ve spent time in the Gulf, and to me, the situation in Iraq looks like it is spinning out of control. I think it’s time to reassess our entire “plan,” such as it is. Iraq is basically a failed state made up of three peoples who hate each other–the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. The problem is, the Sunnis and Shiites hate us even more than they hate each other. So the longer we stay, the worse it is going to get. The proper analogy isn’t Vietnam; it’s Lebanon under Israeli occupation. By staying, we are weakening the hands of those Iraqi Arabs who are more or less friendly to us and strengthening the hands of the radicals, like Sadr. Iraq is not going to become a liberal democracy in any of our lifetimes, but only an elected government will have any legitimacy. We need to hold elections immediately, hand the keys over to the winners (whoever they may be, including Sadr), leave and hope for the best. If we’re lucky, the next coup will produce a dictator more like Pinochet and less like Saddam.

  9. I tend to agree with Sylvain, in a general way. I think the administration has decided to economize on the truth for what it believes to be tactically sound reasons. For example, it tolerates the ourtrageous lies about Pakistan, to keep Musharraf happy, since if he gets killed we have an Islamic fundamentalist state with nuclear weapons on our hands. Or, we tolerate and perpetuate the outrageous ignoring of the fact that Saudi Arabia is the core of the problem, and the major financier, since if the current regime goes down we have an Islamic fundamentalist state which is openly hostile with its hands around the throat of the world economy. And we tolerate the or downplay the open involvement of Iran and Syria in the current warfare because … I’m not sure. Probably because Bush does not want to “widen the war” at least before the election. I don’t think Bush is good at this kind of lying by omission. And I don’t think it is in our long-run interest to do it. But that is the way they have chosen to conduct the war. And the Democrats are so out of it that they cannot get any traction, since they cannot propose any coherent alternative.

  10. . . .if the current regime goes down we have an Islamic fundamentalist state which is openly hostile with its hands around the throat of the world economy.

    Our belief in this falsehood has hobbled us politically since the 1970s. In reality we have nothing to worry about WRT oil. SA has a one-product economy. If the regime falls, its successor, no differently than the current government, will have to sell oil to maintain its power. (That’s what Saddam Hussein did.) Oil is fungible, so we will benefit from such sales even if they are made exclusively to France, China and Russia.

    Too bad Henry Kissinger didn’t understand this in 1973. My harsh interpretation of our actions then is that, by not allowing Israel to defeat Egypt decisively, we repeated our enormous blunder of 1956 in which U.S. intervention to stop the fighting before a decisive Arab defeat tacitly rewarded aggression by Arab nationalists — the political precursors of today’s jihadists.

    That said, Lex, the rest of your comment is on target.

  11. Dave, I don’t think we had a plan, per se. It was clearly assumed the post-war period would mostly be peacekeeping. And to some extent, I don’t think they could or should have had a plan, anymore than the US had one for Germany or Japan before the war. You can’t plan the post-war period independently of the war. The latter drives the former. You might as well try to assess consequences independently of their causes. You can try but it’s a waste of time.

    As far as getting out, there is the eternal problem of doing it without losing face. Many in the Republican Party, especially in the White House, thought that pulling out of Somalia was a huge mistake because it made us look weak and invited attacks. If that’s true, imagine what pulling out of Iraq would look like. What politician want to make that call before opinion polls show a strong constituency supporting it ? That is also why the Vietnam fiasco lasted for so long : at some point, you get into a large-scale moral hazard situation, where the whole project is too big to fail. Right now, this endeavor of ours is politically and militarily already too big to fail. Especially in an election year. You are not going to see any pull-out this year. But count on reinforcements.

    As far as things getting worse by us staying there, I disagree. Given the current mess the place is in, leaving now could result in such a mess we’d have to go back in to sort it out within a year or two.

    The WSJ had a very good column yesterday about the litany of small mistakes we made. From letting looting happen – which virtually destroyed entire chunks of civilian infrastructure and made a lot of Iraqis wonder what we really cared about – to purposely sidelining Sadr instead of involving him in government. Which, now, makes him look like a ‘resistant’ of the first hour in the eyes of many. He’s listened to because untainted.

    Expensive mistakes but it’s OK as long as you can admit them, learn from them and move on. My worry is that we’re not. On the ground and tactically, the grunts and their officers learn and adapt. They have to, they don’t have a choice. But some of the decision makers above them are not. Bremer is a flip-flopping suit who spends most of his time doing damage control. He tells everybody what they want to hear if he can get away with it. That’s the nature of his thankless job.

    So the choice is between Republicans who don’t quite know how to execute this kind of complex, dangerous work – the devil is in the details and these are overwhelming parts of the system right now – and Democrats who don’t know what else to do. To the Republicans’ credit, this is probably the most unforgiving part of the world for this kind of operation. But that also multiplies the consequences of the smallest error. It can be done. But I’m afraid we’re not anywhere near the level of political, military and economic commitment required.

    In his last press conference, the President repeated ad nauseam that it was all about “changing the world”. Well, yeah, but that’s going to take more than 100,000 guys a a hundred billion dollars or two. It is a massive effort and all we are talking about is cutting corners here and there, never mind the artificial bullshit deadlines like June 30.

  12. Sylvain, I largely agree with you. I think it would be disastrous for us to quit Iraq now. One of the lessons of two other disasters — our abandoning of Vietnam and Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon — is that you can’t just leave, even if doing so appears to suit your country’s purposes. Our leaving Iraq, under the current circumstances, might suit our immediate purposes, but it also would make clear to the other side that attacking us is profitable. This is the worst possible message that we could transmit.

    BTW, I haven’t yet read the WSJ article, but the point about looting is well taken. I assumed at the time that we were too short-handed to handle looting, because it’s obvious in such a situation that looting is terribly destructive. (It’s no different than domestic situations like the LA riots, where police inattention to looting signalled official indifference and effectively fanned the initial violent incidents into a city-wide conflagration. See Eugene Methvin’s subsequent article in National Review.) If we tolerated looting in Iraq, out of some discredited “let’s not be mean” theory, it suggests that our people in charge were not up to the task, and were not properly supervised by higher-ups in the Bush administration, who should have known better.

  13. Sylvain, I basically agree with you too. However, while we could not have planned out the entire occupation, we certainly could have used better assumptions going in. The worst mistake we made was going in with too small a force. As you note, 100,000 troops was and remains far too small a force to control Iraq on the ground, and we have been paying a heavy price for that error ever since (as you note, great article in the WSJ on this point and others). If Rumsfeld had any sense of honor, he would have resigned months ago. However, I still think we will have to pull out, the sooner the better. I agree that with a significantly larger force we could succeed, but I do not believe that Americans are willing to commit more troops and money. We’re going to have to come up with another plan. For example, partitioning Iraq is starting to sound pretty sensible. We could maintain a U.S. force in the north, and perhaps help organize some sort of pan-Arab force (probably largely Egyptian) to occupy the Arab south. If we pulled out, I think Arab governments could justify their entry on Arab nationalist and humanitarian grounds. It could represent a huge propaganda coup for these governments, which have been pretty beaten up in the press, both by us and the Islamists. It would also give them a chance to demonstrate to their populations that they have influence over U.S. actions, which would help them shore up their own positions at home.

    Another reason we need to pull out is that our military at this point is exhausted. Our forces are not structured to carry out a large scale occupation (again, something that Rumsfeld certainly knew before we went in). Our entire post-Cold War military strategy has been to build a force composed of smaller numbers of troops that relies heavily on technology to be its “force multiplier”, in military-speak. It works well during a war, but that high-tech edge does little for us in carrying out an occupation. This is why the DOD is continually extending deployments in Iraq. There aren’t enough troops to go around. If Korea explodes or China attacks Taiwan tomorrow, what are we going to do?

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