An expensive way to learn elementary-school civics

The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece the other day, called The Lessons of Iraq, by one Erik Swabb, who, according to the journal, “served in Iraq as a Marine infantry officer.” Here’s the lede:

While the improved security situation in Iraq is changing views about the chances for success there, one common belief has remained unchanged: that the war is eroding U.S. military capabilities.

It is true that repeated deployments have caused considerable strain on service members, equipment and our ability to respond to other contingencies. These problems, however, only tell half the story. The Iraq war is also dramatically improving the military’s understanding, training and capabilities in irregular warfare. Since this is the preferred method of Islamic extremists, the experience in Iraq is transforming the military into the force required to help win the Long War.”

The article goes on to make the case that the war is not all bad for the fighting forces, because now they really “get it” that they’re not in a big war against Soviet armoured divisions on the plains of northern Europe.

As a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I find this embarassingly thin gruel. In fact, it borders on noxious.

Swabb’s argument is that the Iraq war has served as great training ground upon which the U.S. military can try out and improve its strategy and tactics, in particular, it counterinsurgency techniques. Basically he says that whereas in the earlier period of the war, our fighting forces just went in and just blew shit up, often alienating the locals even when they were fighting and dying on their behalf, recently our side has learned that they have to establish a meaningful & trusting relationship with the people they’re trying to liberate. In learning how to do this, the U.S. military has become adept at techniques of “asymetrical warfare,” aka “the way we fight now.”

I’m all for building trust, but when I hear reasoning like that, that war is good because it upgrades our army’s skill set, I think of Mussolini’s using the Abyssinian war to improve the Italian Fascists’ army, and of Hitler’s use of the Spanish Civil War for the same purposes. Which is not, obviously, to equate the US in Iraq with Nazis. I’m just saying that some of the implications have a nasty stench.

Moreover, the neologism “the Long War” sounds propagandistic, if not overtly Maoist, and the opening paragraph seems both facile and straw-manish: the security situation in Iraq is improved? Says who, and compared to what? The improving situation is changing views? Whose views? According to whom? I’m not saying he’s wrong, but asserting something is true doesn’t make it so.

But these are quibbles. I’m not going to begrudge a guy who has done military service in a combat zone his own take on the war; he’s entitled. Hell, I know Marines who are are in Iraq right now, including former Boy Scouts from the Troop of which I was assistant scoutmaster. If they disagree with me about the legitimacy and benefit of the war, I’ll bite my tongue. What bothers me about Swabb’s article is the naivtee it evinces; in fact if Swabb’s thinking is typical of Marine officers’ thinking generally, then they’re more ignorant and less skilled than I had thought they were.

Swabb says:

“Commanders, from the small-unit level to the general ranks,
increasingly understand that population security, political
reconciliation and economic development create legitimate government,
which saps insurgents’ strength.”

Well, duh. In other news, water is wet.

Or, as I learned from the Declaration of Independence when I was in 4th grade,

“to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Cheesus K. Reist, this is a big breakthrough? That the United States military shows glimmerings of understanding the most elemental principle of the Declaration of Independence? It makes one want to beat one’s head against the wall, it does.

I’m not saying that all the various militias, mafias, tribes, committees, factions and cults that have been fighting us and each other since 2003 are Jeffersonian idealists. Mafias and militias don’t derive their powers from the consent of the governed, they derive their powers from kalashnikovs and AK-47’s. But I am saying that in the absence of any legitimate government presence, the people will organize themselves in ways “as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”. Operative word, “them”. The people will not necessarily organize themselves in ways that shall seem to the local US military commanders most likely to effect their safety and happiness. So, if you think you have something to contribute to their discussion, think you have some insight, are willing to give your life, even, to help them along, then you’re going to have to identify yourself in some ways with the people, become them. This is basic counterinsurgency doctrine.

This is also basic Peace Corps philosophy. It’s also common sense.

After a costly learning process, the military increasingly “gets it” when it comes to irregular warfare. The Army and Marine Corps published a new counterinsurgency manual that legitimized the radically different strategy that the Iraq War required. Pre-deployment training now includes realistic scenarios that test units’ ability to build relationships with local leaders and partner with host-nation forces.

It may have been a costly learning process, but the Army and Marine brass who are responsible for training our troops don’t get any sympathy from me. Nor do the politicians who sent them. This was a mess that any reasonable person could see coming a hundred miles away, and millions did see coming. Including, for example, George H.W. Bush. Including me.

“It remains to be seen”, Swabb continues, “whether the new counterinsurgency strategy will lead to a peaceful, democratic Iraq. Success ultimately depends on the ability of Sunnis and Shiites to overcome decades of mistrust and antagonism.”

This Sunni-Shia “decades of mistrust” sleight-of-hand also really bugs me. So OK, the Sunni and Shia in Iraq, despite decades of more-or-less getting along in many quarters until we showed up, have had some issues with each other for a long time. But to blame the current state of sectarian strife in Iraq on “decades of mistrust” is to conveniently ignore the fact that the US went into Iraq, blew up lots of stuff, killed lots of people, and dismantled a functioning state. It was a horrible state in many ways, of course. But it was functioning. There was electricity. There were schools. There were museums and shops. There were no car bombs. When you go into a place and totally fuck things up, bad shit happens.

Where does the decimation of the educated classes of Iraq fit into Swabb’s model? The doctors have fled, the professors have fled, the poets and filmmakers have fled. Riverbend has fled. If Swabb wants to chalk up “improved counterinsurgency capability” on the plus side of this war’s ledger, shouldn’t he mention some of the offsetting costs?

Well, I guess it’s a good thing that the Army and Marines are attempting to move beyond the old Viet Nam saw “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”, but I can’t say that it seems to me to be much to crow about.

One Comment

  1. I am fascinated with the polls that say a third of Americans still support the war and/or Bush. Many of those folks are actually pretty smart and sane, and yet the view they hold is really not rational.

    You and I both know how stress can make you do stupid things. I can appreciate the lengths that a person will go to in order to defend their own bad decision or one they acquiesced to. Now add to that the pressure of having your own life at risk and the absurdity of trying to justify your own killing of others.

    So I’m not surprised at Swabb’s statements, and I think it’s great that he can voice them.

    But that doesn’t make it right.

    I don’t know how to fix the problem on the ground, and I don’t know how to fix the problem of ignorance and willfulness in America. I feel like I’m just dismissing Swabb as understandably deranged, and that’s not really fair or helpful either.

    (Call me a liberal…)

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