David Brooks: Savagery’s Stranglehold

Savagery in Iraq is the theme of both neo-con Brooks and liberal Herbert (below). The juxtaposition of these two articles is intriguing, because it’s obvious that at this point even Brooks sees the situation as hopeless. The theme he keeps returning to is the triumph in Iraq of savagery over decency He points out how the bad guys – both the insurgents and our “allies,” the Shia militias – now hold all the cards, and we hold none. Brooks paints a picture almost as bleak as Herbert’s, and then, inexplicably, ends it with his usual “let’s stay the course” canned message:

A dissenting minority is furious that so many Americans are willing to betray the decent Iraqi majority in order to preserve some parlor purity. And the terrorists no doubt look at our qualms not as a sign of virtue but of weakness, and as evidence that savagery will lead to victory again and again.

Dave, you just spent 90 percent of your colum presenting Iraq’s situation as nothing short of apocalyptic. And then you chide those who, in essence, are saying the same thing as you, except for their conclusion that we’ve gotta get out of there. What’s the point of reciting tales of the insurgents sawing off fingers and gaining the upper hand, if you’re going to conclude we should just keep at it, offering no thoughts on how we might actually win? Whether you know it or not, this column can only serve to underscore the contention of many (and increasingly, most) Americans that there can be no victory, because no one can define what victory is and how it can be attained. not even a die-hard neo-con like David brooks.

Savagery’s Stranglehold

Published: June 8, 2006

We have all been raised on stories in which good triumphs over evil, and in these stories good does not triumph by chance. It triumphs because honesty, virtue and decency pay off in the long run. Evil, meanwhile, contains the seeds of its own destruction. Those who lie, torture and kill eventually become entrapped by their own sins.

In Iraq at the moment, however, savagery seems to be triumphing over decency. The insurgents and the militias — who kill and maim with abandon — appear to be wearing away the morale of those who seek a decent, democratic nation.

Moreover, they are winning precisely because they are savage, and are proud to do things their enemies are ashamed to do. In Iraq right now, virtue seems to be a handicap and barbarism an empowering force.

The insurgents’ first advantage is that not only are they cruel, they are absolutely cruel. The defining feature of their violence is not merely that they murder, but that they torture those they are about to kill. Shiite militias use drills to bore holes into their victims’ heads. Sunni insurgents saw off fingers and toes. Jihadists partially behead their victims and then stomp on their torsos to create gushes of blood before finishing the job. Videos of such acts are posted on the Internet or sold in the markets of towns like Haditha.

Atrocities on this scale look less like war than like blood madness. Iraq becomes less like a battle zone than a formless pit of horror. Far from motivating most Americans to fight harder, cruelty on this scale is unnerving. Most Americans simply want to get away. The lesson is that if you are willing to defy all norms and codes of morality, you can undermine your enemy’s willingness to fight.

The insurgents’ second great advantage is that they seem able to create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent.

All wars are savage. And guerrilla wars are particularly savage. (See the successful American counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines just over a century ago.) But the Iraqi insurgents have been able to create a climate of special treachery, in which every approaching civilian is a possible suicide bomber and every bedroom a potential terrorist haven.

“When you have to deal with barbarians, you must behave like a barbarian yourself,” a Greek officer in the Balkan wars of 1912-13 declared. But Americans, to their credit, have been unwilling to rationalize barbaric action so easily. Because American troops come from the culture they do, they have not become the sort of people they would have to be to defeat the insurgents at their own game.

Indeed, the people who are most furious about what happened at Haditha are those marines who have been in similarly awful circumstances but who have not snapped, and who fear that their heroic restraint will be tainted or overshadowed by comrades who behave despicably.

Similarly, in our debates at home we are searching for ways to exercise enough power to defeat the insurgents while still behaving in accordance with our national conscience. We are seeking a sweet spot that satisfies both the demands of power and of principle. But it could be that given the circumstances we have allowed the insurgents to create, that sweet spot no longer exists.

The insurgents’ third malicious advantage is that they have no agenda. This has always been regarded as a big disadvantage. But it turns out to be an advantage because they are not confronted with the difficult task of building anything. All they have to do is destroy, and every day that they spread mayhem is a victory.

One of the paradoxes of this war is that when U.S. forces commit atrocities, we regard it as a defeat for us because we have betrayed our ideals. When insurgents commit atrocities, it is also a defeat for us because of our ineffectiveness in the face of the enemy. Either way, morale suffers and the fighting spirit withers away.

And so the hunger to leave Iraq grows. A dissenting minority is furious that so many Americans are willing to betray the decent Iraqi majority in order to preserve some parlor purity. And the terrorists no doubt look at our qualms not as a sign of virtue but of weakness, and as evidence that savagery will lead to victory again and again.

The Discussion: 2 Comments

Successful counterinsurgency program in the Philippines? That’s where we tortured and killed our way across the Philippines to suppress an independent state so we could colonize it? Jesus….

June 8, 2006 @ 8:29 am | Comment

C’mon, Michael – he’s a neo-con.

June 8, 2006 @ 8:38 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.