Can we win?

Brad DeLong points us to a 1986 story by Robert X. Cringley that illustrates why the odds are against us when it comes to reshaping the Milddle East in our own image. It’s scary reading.

PBS | I, Cringely . Archived Column: I eventually finished the piece and decided to go see the war since I had been in Beirut and Angola, but had never seen trench warfare, which is what I was told they had going in Iran. So I took a taxi to the front, introduced myself to the local commander, who had gone, as I recall, to Iowa State, and spent a couple days waiting for the impending human wave attack. That attack was to be conducted primarily with 11-and 12-year-old boys as troops, nearly all of them unarmed. There were several thousand kids and their job was to rise out of the trench, praising Allah, run across No Man’s Land, be killed by the Iraqi machine gunners, then go directly to Paradise, do not pass GO, do not collect 200 dinars. And that’s exactly what happened in a battle lasting less than 10 minutes. None of the kids fired a shot or made it all the way to the other side. And when I asked the purpose of this exercise, I was told it was to demoralize the cowardly Iraqi soldiers.

It was the most horrific event I have ever seen, and I once covered a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh that killed 40,000 people.

Waiting those two nights for the attack was surreal. Some kids acted as though nothing was wrong while others cried and puked. But when the time came to praise Allah and enter Paradise, not a single boy tried to stay behind.

Now put this in a current context. What effective limit is there to the number of Islamic kids willing to blow themselves to bits? There is no limit, which means that a Bush Doctrine can’t really stand in that part of the world. But of course President Bush, who may think he pulled the switch on a couple hundred Death Row inmates in Texas, has probably never seen a combat death. He doesn’t get it and he’ll proudly NEVER get it.

Welcome to the New Morality.

What is our plan to win over there, in the face of a mentality that we can never fathom? Is it just to keep fighting until we wipe them all out? Is that what liberation’s all about? Bring ’em on, bush taunted, and he got what he asked for. And now our young soldiers get to pay for our president’s hubris.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

I challenge you to determine, to the best of your abilities, the objectives and the progress of the upcoming battle for Falluja.

I cannot believe that career commanders in the US Army and Marines are going into Falluja to be retards. Chances are, you won’t hear in any newspaper some accounting for the orders and progress against those order, rules of engagement or anything of the like. You won’t see a map or get any idea of the territory captured. All you’ll get are numbers of our soldiers killed. So I understand how, esepcially if you are a pacifist, you might think that all of this is fruitless. But do you really believe that the 40 year old colonels and career soldiers are sitting around on their asses waiting for their own men to get shot and bombed?

I’ve been listening to a lot of crap for a long time, and I understand where it’s coming from – but then people are off to a new tragedy. But get this, the Madhi Army has been disarmed. Al Sadr has given up militant action and now wants to be part of the political process. But people who only follow body counts don’t bother to dig that deep – the biggest militant radical has been beaten and the silence is deafening.

So long as people can call anyone they want ‘insurgents’ then they can claim that the insurgency continues and Iraq is inevitably headed to civil war. This is nonsense.

It has little to do with GWBush, it has to do with American commanders in the theatre of operations. Watch Falluja. The coalition will win, again.

November 7, 2004 @ 10:51 am | Comment

Cobb, they were retards up until now — why should we expect a sudden transformation? Why should I have any faith in a military that so misunderestimated the number of troops we needed to maintain law and order to a newly occupied iraq? Yes indeed, the coaltion will “win” in Fallujah, but watch carefully and see if that translates into the kind of victory we were promised by bush & co. — an Iraq thrilled and delighted with our benevolent presence, a shining beacon of democracy in the cesspool of Middle East tyrrany, etc. Meanwhile, there are fresh waves of violence across Iraq, from Fallujah to Karbala to Samara to Baghdad. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and I’ll wait and see before I call this operation a failure. And by failure, I don’t mean whether or not we’ll win this battle (we will), but whether it brings about a peaceful settlement and an end to the strife that’s ravaged Iraq for 18 months since we haughtily declared Mission Accomplsihed.

It’s quite late in the game to be deluding ourselves into believing our military is an infallible body that always knows what it’s doing. Winning the individuak battles is the easy part — we won every single battle we ever fought in Vietnam. It’s winning the peace that we’re so bad at, and Vietnam proves that our triumph in Iraq is anything but assured.

November 7, 2004 @ 11:49 am | Comment

Our military engages the rebels on behalf of a new government that everyone agrees is better than that of Saddam. It’s ridiculous to read more into ‘Mission Accomplished’ than that the dictator has been routed. Who pays attention to such theatrics anyhow?

Putting more Americans on the ground was not the miscalculation. That would have been the tragic miscalculation if Baghdad didn’t fall. The miscalculation was the deBaathification process and the complete dissolution of the Iraqi military – something all conventional wisdom said was necessary in light of the Kurds fate after the first Gulf War.

Considering the extent to which the current Iraqi forces are compromised the expectation that there might somehow be 200k more Iraqis available to fight with any more discipline and effectiveness than the militias in rebellion is probably a specious argument.

It makes no sense at this point to keep blaming Bush for not ‘putting enough troops in’ especially when you’re agreeing that more Iraqi soldiers should be trained. Understand that this is an admission that no greater coalition is to be had. Arab ‘brothers’ are betting against Iraqis in the same way they have bet against Palestinians. But none of them can take advantage of a weak Iraq because the US is there and will continue to be there.

In the meanwhile there is nobody who says ‘there should be / should have been more troops’ who is giving a definitive number or might bother to utter the words ‘crush the rebellion’. What else do you expect more troops do except to cause more death and destruction and make the cost of rebellion too high such that the rebels sue for peace.

In war, cities harboring the enemy are TAKEN until all the enemy troops come out of the smoking ruins of buildings with their hands up. What else are more troops, Iraqi or otherwise supposed to do – continue diplomatic relations with the likes of Muqtada Al Sadr?

Falluja will be taken and that’s how wars are won. It would be more honest if you said you didn’t want this war won than to suggest that ‘more troops’ would generate a different kind of war.

November 7, 2004 @ 1:15 pm | Comment

Sorry, but we’re going to have to disagree. Nearly all the analyses I’ve read indicate we lost control of the operation when the looting started and we couldn’t stop it — because we didn’t have the troops on the ground to maintain order. Not restoring electricity and drinking water — a problem that persists to this day — were ancillary effects of the root problem, lack of preparation and too few bodies to keep things under control. That’s when the joyful greeting turned to hatred. Why hadn’t we calculated this?

You have a lot of nerve to say I want our troops to fail. I think they’ll win the battle big-time, but I also think that due to no fault of their own we’ll lose the war. I was extremely excited and happy when Baghdad fell and I thought we had the whole thing buttoned down. The sensation I felt as things deteriorated and our death rates soared and the body populace turned against us was depression and disappointment, not glee or a smug “I told you so” attitude. I wanted the invasion at first, because I put too much faith in our “military inteligence” (a tragic oxymoron) and I learned the hard way that the best of intentions are meaningless without the resources and the preparation to carry them out. The eggshell has been broken into little pieces, and no single military operation can put it back together, I’m afraid. The war radicalized me as much as it did many of its victims — I can’t trust our military and our government as I once did. Why should I? How could I? Everything we were told turned out to be wrong, from the WMDs to the flowers and chocolates to the “cakewalk” promised by Tenet to the hollow promises of Chalabi to the “few bad apples” bullshit about Abu Ghraib. No, winning the battle in Fallujah is the easy part. The bigger question is whether it will turn the people more toward us or drive them further away. Judging by past experience, it has a good chance to make things much worse. It’s a huge gamble, and I hope we win it. But if we hadn’t hesitated and wavered and procrastinated back in April, we’d be having a far easier time of it now. No, everything we’ve done to date has been wrong, and I have a dread that it’s about to result in full-scale civil war (not that we’re far from that already). I’ve been wrong about some things before. I was wrong about Kerry winning the election. I was wrong about the US being able to turn Iraq into a democracy. And I may be wrong here, too. But right now, I see no reason for optimism. We’ll know soon enough, won’t we?

November 7, 2004 @ 1:36 pm | Comment

Please disaggregate ‘you’. I don’t mean you of course.

I see this current conflict in the context of everything that has happened since we told April Glaspie to tell Saddam that Kuwait was an ‘internal matter’. What has happened is that we goofed. And the goof that we have been goofing since the days of Carter was that we have had the CIA in the business of changing governments and propping up regimes and rebellions all over the world.

Instead of putting the fate of a nation squarely on the front burner of American geopolitical interests, we have used substitutes, spies, proxies, figureheads and everything except our own troops and reserves. Iraq represents in every way a break from that old bad way of doing things that resulted in people like the Shah of Iran and every other puppet.

What GWBush did was to say, we are going to put troops on the ground, and we are going to do so for the sake of democracy. We are putting our country’s reputation and skin in the game, rather than skulking around trying to put exploding cigars in the mouth of Castro. We’re asking everybody in the world to come in and help so we can all go back home. The world blinked.

So geopolitically this is a huge departure. For a country the size of Iraq it doesn’t happen in 2 years. But a failure in Iraq means that we go back to the old way, and we surely would have if Kerry were elected.

This is also a test to see whether or not the American people are willing to care enough about tyranny around the globe. The great failure would be that Iraq does not have elections on a regular basis, as it did not. We are a way from telling that.

But all the WMDs and chocolates and ‘precious artifacts’ and expectations of ticker tape parades are a distraction from this fundamental change. America is above ground in regime change.

I can’t see why this peace process has to be so much stranger than that in Palestine. The Arab populations just don’t get it so easily as we would have them. They don’t have the history. That’s obvious. But they will have to, just as they had no history in pumping oil. We have to be there and make them do it, because it’s in our interests and the interests of international peace and stability.

Better the Army than the CIA.

November 7, 2004 @ 1:58 pm | Comment

The world blinked because gwb gave WMDs as his reason for the invitation to join in the invasion. That was it; and by blinking at it, the other countries only displayed their prescience. They were right, we were wrong.

The Arab populations just don’t get it so easily as we would have them. They don’t have the history. That’s obvious. But they will have to, just as they had no history in pumping oil. We have to be there and make them do it, because it’s in our interests and the interests of international peace and stability.

We have to be there to make them do it” — now that’s where I get uncomfortable. Our way, or we’ll brutalize you. I’m sorry, I can’t buy it. I mean, it is their land, whether or not they deserve it. I can’t accept that we’ve the right to take whatever we need and subject the people to our whims just because we have the might to do it. As you said, we taught them to pump oil — but we also knew we had to respect their culture, whether we hate it or love it. That’s what separates us from the Nazis and the Soviets, a respect for liberty.

While I agree we need to win in Iraq — and I know Kerry believed the same — it depends on what your definition of “win” is. We can’t win if the goal is the neocon vision of the shining beacon of glorious democracy that will swing all the other Arab states in that direction. That’s out the window. I think the best we can do is restore order, hold elections and get out.

And the elections, too, could result in the opposite of our original goals. What if they vote in an Ayatolla Khomeini — it is not inconceivable considering how successful we’ve been in radicalizing a secular country and turning them into potential Moslem fundamentalists. Another Moslem theocracy — just what we need! And yet, it may well be what the people want after being (at least in their eyes) oppressed by the Americans almost to the degree they were under Saddam.

Anyway, time will soon tell. Let me know if you want to place bets on where things will end up.

November 7, 2004 @ 4:23 pm | Comment

I expect a nation with elections, less aggressive than Nigeria, less leftist than Venezuela and just about as boring in 5 years. I expect the French and the Russians to try to renew their claims at Majnoon and once we have done the heavy lifting, to take whatever profits they can.

I expect that the infrastructure will be rebuilt and academic exchange begun within 3 years.

I expect Iraq to be a friend of the United States allowing basing rights which takes most of the geopolitical pressure off Israel as regards military dependence and I expect markets and industries open to global investment.

I expect Egypt and Syria to stay where they are. I expect Saudi Arabia to freak.

If Iraq becomes less democratic than say Kuwait, I would consider it a loss. But I didn’t hear anyone against Bush in this election season bemoan America turning Iraq into a Kuwait. I mean, who really worries about Kuwait?

In the hands of a psychopath, an Xacto knife is a weapon, but I really don’t want to rehash any WMD arguments here. Bottom line, Human Rights Watch called the Anfal a genocide. Sensible people can justify military interventions without smoking nukes.

We already know there are no Khomeinis in the wings – that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis and even an majority of Shia find Al Sadr unpalatable.

November 7, 2004 @ 7:38 pm | Comment

This is what I like to call the “Culture of Life”


November 7, 2004 @ 10:08 pm | Comment

This brings to mind an interesting ethical question. Would you gun down several thousand 11-12 year old boy conscripts? Would it be an ethical thing to do? Would it be the American thing to do? Would it be the pragmatic thing to do? Its a tough question, sure those braggadocios over at the Free Republic and LFG squeal with delight that they would have no problem shooting terrorists “terrorists”, but killing a bunch of unarmed kids conscripted into a war just seems wrong. Actually, let me correct myself, it is wrong. But then again the Iraqies did it, it was war, it was either they or them, but it was still wrong. Blah I’m groggy this morning, this post may have had a moral question behind it, but I’m to sleepy to figure out what it was supposed to be.

November 8, 2004 @ 3:55 am | Comment

Interesting to hear your insightful analysis of the performance of the US military, Richard.

You served in which branch of the service?

You did your training at what military facility?

You received your commission when?

You’ve commanded how many men?

You fought in which conflict?

Just curious.

November 8, 2004 @ 11:13 pm | Comment

Conrad, you’re ridiculous.

Do you ever analyze the decisions of politicians in the federal government?

Have you ever served as a politician in the federal government?

Now, even if you have experience in these areas, I’m sure there are other areas you analyze that you have very little or no direct experience with.

Bottom line: you don’t have know the specific ins and outs of a given occupation or have previously worked in that area yourself to analyze the success of people in those occupations.

November 8, 2004 @ 11:29 pm | Comment

To answer your question, yes, I have served in two branches of the federal government.

Second, tactical military advice from someone with no military training and/or education is entirely worthless.

Military command – unlike general govt. policy — is a techincal profession calling upon specific expertise. Richard’s opinons on the subject are of no more value than my opinions on heart surgery.

November 9, 2004 @ 2:31 am | Comment

“I cannot believe that career commanders in the US Army and Marines are going into Falluja to be retards.”

I wouldn’t say that all US officers are thick as foundation blocks, they are good at what they were trained to do, which unfortunately was not to fight urban wars where most of the population hates you or at least wants you out as soon as is practical.

Urban warfare with civilians still in place is a nightmare in any book, especially when the civilians are hostile to you as well. What makes it worse though is that US soldiers are not trained to handle this kind of situation. Give them a firing range and a clear cut battle and they work well, but throw in a suprise like a car full of women or a civilian suspect and they treat it like it was a military situation, they blow up the car and the beat the cilivian up in front of his family before hauling him off.

when stripped of their technology, American GI’s are at least as good as cadets in most other countries but when stripped of clear cut military situations, they just can’t cope.

US GIs and Marines aren’t trained to think on their feet, or to be adaptable, if they were then they’d get the same kind of training as a swot officer does, but Iraq requires you to think on your feet and not to act like a blunt object.

You need to be able to look at a situation from a persuasive standing as well as a military one.

November 9, 2004 @ 2:53 am | Comment

US GIs and Marines aren’t trained to think on their feet, or to be adaptable, if they were then they’d get the same kind of training as a swot officer does, but Iraq requires you to think on your feet and not to act like a blunt object.

Not just wrong but hilariously ignorant. The freat strength of the US military, virtually throughout its history has been precisely the opposite, i.e., the ability of the American soldier and NCO to act on his own intiative.

when stripped of their technology, American GI’s are at least as good as cadets in most other countries but when stripped of clear cut military situations, they just can’t cope

The US all voluteer militray is, man-for-man, the best in the world. About the only others in the same league are the British and Israelis.

The difficulties in Iraq have been political not military and the performance of the US and US/British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq were — to anyone who acually knows anything about the military (which clearly excludes ACB who on this subject — as in all others on which he’s ever commented — has shit for brains) was astoundingly good.

November 9, 2004 @ 5:19 am | Comment

Conrad, I’ve never claimed to be an expert in the military — at least not more than most average bloggers. I have, however, watched our operations in Iraq very carefully. I saw us retreat from Fallujah, I saw us lose to Muqtada al-Sadr (which we did, no matter how Rummy spins it), I watched us declare a great victory in Samara only to watch the city re-erupt in flames this past week. I’ve also studied several other wars in great detail, so I think I’m qualified to offer an amateur observer’s comment, as long as I make no pretense to being a military genius.

November 9, 2004 @ 7:06 am | Comment

It has been widely reported (or at least on NPR twice in as many days) that the first retreat from Falluja was a political decision that had everything to do with countering the perception that Americans were there to slaughter civilians. The commander of that mission has been quoted as saying that if he had another week there would be no rebels in Falluja today.

This pullback emboldened the rebels and it was reported in every Mosque. So when the US military TOOK Najaf, WITHOUT doing damage to the holy shrine – even when the rebels hid out inside, instead of being a confirmation of our finesse, it made the myth of Falluja even greater.

I have to laugh when I hear the radio interviews of actual US commanders they play late at night, where the commanders tell reporters bluntly that their speculation is meaningless. Apparently the difficulty is not so much convincing Iraqis to ‘accept Democracy’ as it is convincing some American journalists and their audiences that we know what we’re doing over there.

I’m listening to Allawi every chance I get. He says to send the terrorists to Hell.

November 9, 2004 @ 11:10 am | Comment

Cobb, I’m glad you’re having a good laugh. But the reporters have every right to think this way, based on what our original goals and promises were and where we stand today.

If you believe the elections as planned will in any way, shape or form resemble a real deomcracy, I think you’ll be in for a brutal surprise. Precious few Iraqis in their wildest dreams would choose former CIA man Allawi to be their leader. It’s going to be an election for America’s handpicked choices, and the real leader, as we all know, will be Negroponte.

November 9, 2004 @ 11:16 am | Comment

I don’t really think this is a laughing matter, but to each is his own.

I could be laughing now because Bush claimed there would be essentially no casualties, that we would be welcomed as liberators not occupiers, and that facing the Republican Guard was going to be the largest obstacle.

All of which have been wrong.

But its war, Americans my age (I’m 21) are dying daily, and thousands of innocent Iraqis have either died or had their lives screwed up because of this war.

I don’t really find mistakes (even from politicians I can’t stand, like Bush) that result in this kind of destruction humorous. I view them as tragic.

November 9, 2004 @ 12:13 pm | Comment

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October 18, 2006 @ 5:39 am | Comment

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