The world is still trying to digest the horrifying news from Paris of terrorist attacks by ISIS. We sympathize with all the victims of terrorism and other forms of violence, and we stand with France and its desire to bring the perpetrators and their accomplices to justice.
Yet we also must be careful not to overreact — not to play into the hands of ISIS and similar terrorist organizations.
French President François Hollande is already on the record as vowing, “We are going to lead a war [against ISIS] which will be pitiless.” But the answer to terrorism is not “pitiless” war. That’s exactly what terrorists want: they thrive on war and endless cycles of horrifying violence.
I understand Hollande’s rhetorical purpose. He’s saying: We’re united, we’re tough, we’ll avenge the murder of innocents. But pitiless war has been tried again and again in history — and it begets more atrocities and more war.
Terrorism is nothing new. What’s new is the way the West is elevating it into a generational war — another crusade. We must be very careful not to let the rhetoric of “generational” and “merciless” war become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We must also be careful not to overreact to the threat of terrorism. In spite of the latest horrifying attacks in Paris, the threat of terrorism remains remote for the vast majority of us. The answer to the terrorist threat is not more state surveillance, not more military reprisals, not more curtailments of individual freedoms in the false name of security.
What is the answer? Resolve. Patience. Cooperation (e.g. international police work, intelligence sharing, and so forth). And action. Anger and cries for revenge in the form of “pitiless” war are natural after a profound shock, but they are not smart policy. Injustices committed in the name of “pitiless” war will not bring justice to the victims of the Paris attacks.
Why, looky here, another article in the New York Times that examines the Republican “hawks” posturing for a presidential run in 2016. As the article blurb states, “Republicans are scrambling to outmuscle one another on national security issues.” It’s all about looking tough and calling for more boots on the ground in battles against ISIS and terror everywhere.
Here’s the money quote:
“There’s a lot of fear out there,” said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, noting that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had become a regular topic of discussion at his regular breakfast spot in Columbia, the Lizard’s Thicket. “The waitresses and managers and everybody there has a notion about ISIL. People understand who this group is now.”
I should think the waitresses at “Lizard’s Thicket” would be more fearful of paying their weekly and monthly bills, given the low wages earned by wait staff in America. Or that they and their customers would be more fearful of their sons and daughters in uniform being deployed to Iraq to showcase those “muscles” that Republican politicians are always trying to flex. (Don’t worry: No politicians, Republican or Democrat, are eager to send their own sons and daughters overseas to fight.)
Once again, Republican politicians are banging the drums of fear – and as my dad always said, the empty barrel makes the most noise. The music is as tragic as it is predictable: endless war in the name of looking tough and defeating terror. And anyone who dares to suggest the folly of this risks being tarred as an appeaser to ISIS and its ilk.
What burns my butt is that none of these blowhard politicians has any skin in the game. They risk nothing in bleating for war. It’s not their sons and daughters who are being deployed to the front lines.
The other day, I was talking to a young woman at my eye doctor’s office. Her brother is in the Army. She told me he’s an EOD, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist. A risky job, I said, to which she replied, “He volunteered for the extra money,” money that the Army has yet to pay him. He’s got a four-year commitment and is due to be deployed after his training is completed.
So, as they seek to “outmuscle” their political rivals, how many politicians’ sons are in the Army right now, training for EOD duty and risking their lives for the extra money that comes with this hazardous duty? My educated guess: none. Absolutely none.
It’s easy to flex (and to risk) the muscles of others, America. Stop listening to politicians and their fear-mongering. No foreign terrorist is coming to get you as you enjoy your coffee and hash browns at “Lizard’s Thicket.” No – the biggest risk is blowhard politicians who are so, so, eager to send your sons and daughters off to yet more wars in the cause of outmuscling their rivals for political office.
Like so many bloated Hollywood movies nowadays, America’s wars may bomb, but they always produce their own sequels.
Look at the latest news from Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars have persisted for more than a decade, with several re-releases to include “surges” and repeats. The latest from Iraq is preparations to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS, which promises a repeat of the level of destruction visited upon Fallujah in 2004. In this there are echoes of Vietnam: in Mosul, we may have to destroy the city to save it. Five Iraqi brigades, most likely supported by American airpower and some American troops on the ground (air controllers and Special Forces), are poised to strike as early as April. Doubtless they’ll prevail, at least for the moment, as the city and its civilians pay a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat. Mosul will be “liberated,” but just look what happened to Fallujah, which after the American “victory” in 2004 is now a devastated city retaken by elements of al-Qaeda in 2014.
(As an aside, it’s interesting that the New York Times uses the word “epic” to describe the Battle of Fallujah from 2004. Surely a better word is “catastrophic.” What is epic about a battle that destroys a city, a battle that is ultimately inconclusive? Check out Bing West’s book about Fallujah, whose title, “No True Glory,” captures the frustrations and contradictions of that battle, mainly from the American perspective.)
Moving to Afghanistan, the latest is that American troops may stay longer than expected (surprise!). Despite all the talk of “progress” in Afghanistan, the takeaway is the following section, from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s recent visit to Afghanistan:
“Despite the aid of American air power, 2014 was the deadliest year for Afghan forces since the start of the war in 2001, and many Afghan and Western officials in Kabul believe that 2015 will likely be worse, particularly with less support from Western allies. That has begun to change the conversation about the possibility of slowing down in the [American] withdrawal.”
In other words, expect more micro-surges of American troops and assets in the coming years, as well as more reports of “progress,” however temporary or illusory (at least America’s best and brightest learned from Vietnam not to talk of seeing light at the end of tunnels).
America’s wars are much like the “Transformers” franchise of movies: thrilling and seemingly conclusive at first, with much talk of missions being accomplished, followed by sequel after sequel of repetitive battles, increasingly loud and destructive, signifying vapidity and intellectual bankruptcy even as a few profit greatly from them.
And no one (certainly none of the producers at the Pentagon) seems to be able to pull the plug on green-lighting ever more sequels to these wars. Even when they bomb.
(For a different perspective on how recent Hollywood movies support American warmaking through myth-making, see Peter Van Buren’s insightful article “War Porn” at TomDispatch.com.)
Is the U.S. military doomed? I’d say yes. But it’s not because our troops are uncommitted, our weapons are bad, and our tactics are flawed. Rather it’s because of the conventional wisdom in Washington and the Pentagon that continues to commit our troops to unnecessary and unwinnable wars.
This conventional wisdom is perhaps best summed up in a speech by retired Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, the ex-chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). It’s worth reading the speech in full, not because it’s especially original or insightful, but because it’s so unreflective and representative of Washington’s collective wisdom.
Here are General Flynn’s main points as I see them:
1. The American public must be committed to an open-ended ideological war “for decades.”
2. That war is against “grotesque” Islamic extremists who “hate our ideals” and who are “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life.”
3. To win the war, America must be ready to use “overwhelming power” to defeat or deter the enemy, even if the U.S. must act alone.
4. Special Operations Forces (SOF) must be “well resourced” for this war, meaning they must be expanded even further and given even more money and latitude.
5. The model for this ideological war against extremist Islam is Ronald Reagan’s war against communism.
That is General Flynn’s strategic vision. It’s a vision widely shared within the Pentagon. And it’s a vision that dooms America to defeat.
Why? Mainly because radical Islam is a political/religious/social phenomenon. It is not amenable to military solutions. Indeed, the more America makes it into THE enemy, the more legitimacy organizations like ISIS gain within their communities and across the Muslim World.
Military force is a blunt instrument, even when it’s applied by the Special Ops community. Expanding the American SOF presence throughout the world is a recipe for more blowback, not more victories. Consider how well we’ve done so far in Afghanistan or Libya or Yemen. Or for that matter Iraq. Can anyone say that U.S. military intervention has produced stability in these countries? Has it contributed to the defeat of radical Islam? Indeed, in destabilizing Iraq and Libya and Yemen, has the U.S. not contributed to the spread of Islamic extremism?
Military professionals like General Flynn really know only one solution: “overwhelming power” applied “for decades.” And if you don’t accept their solution, they dismiss you as misguided (at best) or as arguing for “Retreat, retrenchment, and disarmament,” which “are historically a recipe for disaster,” according to General Flynn.
Well, I’m not aware of anyone seriously arguing for disarmament (fat chance of that happening in the USA!). I’m not aware of anyone arguing for “retreat,” as if this was the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War. I’m not aware of anyone seriously working toward “retrenchment”; indeed, the SOF community keeps expanding, already mounting operations in 105 countries around the world in FY2015 (i.e., since October 2014). It’s easy to bayonet a straw man, general.
I have a few words for the general: Committing the American military to an ideological war “for decades” against radical Islam is pure folly. Chances are you won’t hammer it into non-existence: your blows will just spread it further, while wasting the energies of America and the lives of its troops.
Stop looking to Reagan and the collapse of communism for lessons and start looking at the actual results over the last 20-30 years of American meddling in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. And tell me: Is this what “victory” looks like? You want to double down on “overwhelming power” applied “for decades” as defending American “ideals” and “way of life”?
Which “ideals” are those, exactly? A permanent state of war in which military men are deferred to as the heroes and sages of the moment?
In my latest article for TomDispatch, I examine why the Iraqi security forces that the U.S. trained and equipped at a cost of $25 billion performed so poorly when attacked by ISIS in June. Read on! And be sure to check out other articles at TomDispatch, a contrarian site edited by the inestimable (and indefatigable) Tom Engelhardt.
In June, tens of thousands of Iraqi Security Forces in Nineveh province north of Baghdad collapsed in the face of attacks from the militants of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), abandoning four major cities to that extremist movement. The collapse drew much notice in our media, but not much in the way of sustained analysis of the American role in it. To put it bluntly, when confronting IS and its band of lightly armed irregulars, a reputedly professional military, American-trained and -armed, discarded its weapons and equipment, cast its uniforms aside, and melted back into the populace. What this behavior couldn’t have made clearer was that U.S. efforts to create a new Iraqi army, much-touted and funded to the tune of $25 billion over the 10 years of the American occupation ($60 billion if you include other reconstruction costs), had failed miserably.
Though reasonable analyses of the factors behind that collapse exist, an investigation of why U.S. efforts to create a viable Iraqi army (and, by extension, viable security forces in Afghanistan) cratered so badly are lacking. To understand what really happened, a little history lesson is in order. You’d need to start in May 2003 with the decision of L. Paul Bremer III, America’s proconsul in occupied Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), to disband the battle-hardened Iraqi military. The Bush administration considered it far too tainted by Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party to be a trustworthy force.
Instead, Bremer and his team vowed to create a new Iraqi military from scratch. According to Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks in his bestselling book Fiasco, that force was initially conceived as a small constabulary of 30,000-40,000 men (with no air force at all, or rather with the U.S. Air Force for backing in a country U.S. officials expected to garrison for decades). Its main job would be to secure the country’s borders without posing a threat to Iraq’s neighbors or, it should be added, to U.S. interests.
Bremer’s decision essentially threw 400,000 Iraqis with military training, including a full officer corps, out onto the streets of its cities, jobless. It was a formula for creating an insurgency. Humiliated and embittered, some of those men would later join various resistance groups operating against the American military. More than a few of them later found their way into the ranks of ISIS, including at the highest levels of leadership. (The most notorious of these is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former general in Saddam’s army who was featured as the King of Clubs in the Bush administration’s deck of cards of Iraq’s most wanted figures. Al-Douri is now reportedlyhelping to coordinate IS attacks.)
IS has fought with considerable effectiveness, quickly turning captured American and Syrian weaponry, including artillery pieces, Humvees, and even a helicopter, on their enemies. Despite years of work by U.S. military advisers and all those billions of dollars invested in training and equipment, the Iraqi army has not fought well, or often at all. Nor, it seems, will it be ready to do so in the immediate future. Retired Marine Corps General John R. Allen, who played a key role in organizing, arming, and paying off Sunni tribal groups in Iraq the last time around during the “Anbar Awakening,” and who has been charged by President Obama with “coordinating” the latest American-led coalition to save Iraq, has alreadygone on record on the subject. By his calculations, even with extensive U.S. air support and fresh infusions of American advisers and equipment, it will take up to a year before that army is capable of launching a campaign to retake Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
What went wrong? The U.S. Army believes in putting the “bottom line up front,” so much so that they have even turned the phrase into an acronym: BLUF. The bottom line here is that, when it comes to military effectiveness, what ultimately matters is whether an army — any army — possesses spirit. Call it fire in the belly, a willingness to take the fight to the enemy. The Islamic State’s militants, at least for the moment, clearly have that will; Iraqi security forces, painstakingly trained and lavishly underwritten by the U.S. government, do not.
This represents a failure of the first order. So here’s the $60 billion question: Why did such sustained U.S. efforts bear such bitter fruit? The simple answer: for a foreign occupying force to create a unified and effective army from a disunified and disaffected populace was (and remains) a fool’s errand. In reality, U.S. intervention, now as then, will serve only to aggravate that disunity, no matter what new Anbar Awakenings are attempted.
In the military, it’s called an “after action report” or a “hotwash” — a review, that is, of what went wrong and what can be learned, so the same mistakes are not repeated. When it comes to America’s Iraq training mission, four lessons should top any “hotwash” list:
1. Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause. Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit. ISIS has fought with conviction. The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t. The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common. This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation.
2. Military training alone cannot produce loyalty to a dysfunctional and disunified government incapable of running the country effectively, which is a reasonable description of Iraq’s sectarian Shia government. So it should be no surprise that, as Andrew Bacevich has noted, its security forces won’t obey orders. Unlike Tennyson’s six hundred, the Iraqi army is unready to ride into any valley of death on orders from Baghdad. Of course, this problem might be solved through the formation of an Iraqi government that fairly represented all major parties in Iraqi society, not just the Shia majority. But that seems an unlikely possibility at this point. In the meantime, one solution the situation doesn’t call for is more U.S. airpower, weapons, advisers, and training. That’s already been tried — and it failed.
3. A corrupt and kleptocratic government produces a corrupt and kleptocratic army. On Transparency International’s 2013 corruption perceptions index, Iraq came in 171 among the 177 countries surveyed. And that rot can’t be overcome by American “can-do” military training, then or now. In fact, Iraqi security forces mirror the kleptocracy they serve, often existing largely on paper. For example, prior to the June ISIS offensive, as Patrick Cockburn has noted, the security forces in and around Mosul had a paper strength of 60,000, but only an estimated 20,000 of them were actually available for battle. As Cockburn writes, “A common source of additional income for officers is for soldiers to kickback half their salaries to their officers in return for staying at home or doing another job.”
When he asked a recently retired general why the country’s military pancaked in June, Cockburn got this answer:
“‘Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!’ [the general] replied: pervasive corruption had turned the [Iraqi] army into a racket and an investment opportunity in which every officer had to pay for his post. He said the opportunity to make big money in the Iraqi army goes back to the U.S. advisers who set it up ten years ago. The Americans insisted that food and other supplies should be outsourced to private businesses: this meant immense opportunities for graft. A battalion might have a nominal strength of six hundred men and its commanding officer would receive money from the budget to pay for their food, but in fact there were only two hundred men in the barracks so he could pocket the difference. In some cases there were ‘ghost battalions’ that didn’t exist at all but were being paid for just the same.”
Only in fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings do ghost battalions make a difference on the battlefield. Systemic graft and rampant corruption can be papered over in parliament, but not when bullets fly and blood flows, as events in June proved.
Such corruption is hardly new (or news). Back in 2005, in his article “Why Iraq Has No Army,” James Fallows noted that Iraqi weapons contracts valued at $1.3 billion shed $500 million for “payoffs, kickbacks, and fraud.” In the same year, Eliot Weinberger, writing in the London Review of Books, cited Sabah Hadum, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, as admitting, “We are paying about 135,000 [troop salaries], but that does not necessarily mean that 135,000 are actually working.” Already Weinberger saw evidence of up to 50,000 “ghost soldiers” or “invented names whose pay is collected by [Iraqi] officers or bureaucrats.” U.S. government hype to the contrary, little changed between initial training efforts in 2005 and the present day, as Kelley Vlahos noted recently in her article “The Iraqi Army Never Was.”
4. American ignorance of Iraqi culture and a widespread contempt for Iraqis compromised training results. Such ignorance was reflected in the commonplace use by U.S. troops of the term “hajji,” an honorific reserved for those who have made the journey (or hajj) to Mecca, for any Iraqi male; contempt in the use of terms such as “raghead,” in indiscriminate firing and overly aggressive behavior, and most notoriously in the events at Abu Ghraib prison. As Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, noted in December 2004, American generals and politicians “did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society. We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated. In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed, and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90 percent of whom were not the enemy. But they are now.”
Sharing that contempt was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who chose a metaphor of parent and child, teacher and neophyte, to describe the “progress” of the occupation. He spoke condescendingly of the need to take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike of state and let Iraqis pedal for themselves. A decade later, General Allen exhibited a similarly paternalistic attitude in an article he wrote calling for the destruction of the Islamic State. For him, the people of Iraq are “poor benighted” souls, who can nonetheless serve American power adequately as “boots on the ground.” In translation that means they can soak up bullets and become casualties, while the U.S. provides advice and air support. In the general’s vision — which had déjà vu all over again scrawled across it — U.S. advisers were to “orchestrate” future attacks on IS, while Iraq’s security forces learned how to obediently follow their American conductors.
The commonplace mixture of smugness and paternalism Allen revealedhardly bodes well for future operations against the Islamic State.
The grim wisdom of Private Hudson in the movie Aliens comes to mind: “Let’s just bug out and call it ‘even,’ OK? What are we talking about this for?”
Unfortunately, no one in the Obama administration is entertaining such sentiments at the moment, despite the fact that ISIS does not actually represent a clear and present danger to the “homeland.” The bugging-out option has, in fact, been tested and proven in Vietnam. After 1973, the U.S. finally walked away from its disastrous war there and, in 1975, South Vietnam fell to the enemy. It was messy and represented a genuine defeat — but no less so than if the U.S. military had intervened yet again in 1975 to “save” its South Vietnamese allies with more weaponry, money, troops, and carpet bombing. Since then, the Vietnamese have somehow managed to chart their own course without any of the above and almost 40 years later, the U.S. and Vietnam find themselves informally allied against China.
To many Americans, IS appears to be the latest Islamic version of the old communist threat — a bad crew who must be hunted down and destroyed. This, of course, is something the U.S. tried in the region first against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and again in 2003, then against various Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, and now against the Islamic State. Given the paradigm — a threat to our way of life — pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck. To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts. Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs? With, of course, the usual results.
One thing is clear: the foreign armies that the U.S. invests so much money, time, and effort in training and equipping don’t act as if America’s enemies are their enemies. Contrary to the behavior predicted by Donald Rumsfeld, when the U.S. removes those “training wheels” from its client militaries, they pedal furiously (when they pedal at all) in directions wholly unexpected by, and often undesirable to, their American paymasters.
And if that’s not a clear sign of the failure of U.S. foreign policy, I don’t know what is.
President Obama’s decision to deploy 3,000 troops to Liberia in Africa to assist in efforts to contain Ebola got me to thinking about the military as white blood cells. As a military officer, I took an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In a sense, I was vowing to defend the collective body politic just as white blood cells defend our individual bodies against “enemy” invaders.
But when was the last time the United States faced invaders who posed a virulent and direct threat to our existence? Invaders who directly attacked (or planned to attack) and utterly defeat our body politic? You’d have to go back to World War II and Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor; similarly, Nazi Germany did have plans (that were never implemented) to take its world war to U.S. shores once the Soviet Union and Britain were defeated. Fortunately, our body mobilized its “white blood cells” and defeated (with lots of help from our allies) these enemies before they could afflict our vitals here at home.
Jump ahead to 2001 and the al Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Yes, they were serious and shocking and traumatic. But compared to the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II (true cancers), al Qaeda was the equivalent to a 24-hour “bug,” violent in the extreme, but ultimately not a serious long-term threat to the health of America.
By calling 9/11 a “bug,” I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy of 9/11 for those who lost loved ones. It’s just that repeats of 9/11-like attacks were not possible: al Qaeda simply lacked the resources to sustain them. There was no “cancer” that could metastasize. So there was no need to deploy our white blood cells (our troops) in extended wars, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, the latter country of which had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11.
Now we have the President referring to the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) as a “cancer” that must be eradicated, even though that “cancer” has no means of attacking the body that is our country. Despite this fact, the U.S. is deploying its white blood cells yet again to quash a threat that for our nation simply doesn’t exist.
From medicine, we know that overactive white blood cells can be as dangerous as underactive ones. White blood cells are part of our immune systems; when these systems are overactive, they convert non-threats into threats. Sometimes that results in violent allergic reactions that can lead to death. Other times, one’s own immune system turns on healthy tissue within one’s body. The immune system itself becomes a cancer, eating away at the body in misdirected attempts to defend it.
Whenever the U.S. faces a “threat” nowadays, our leaders treat it aggressively as a “cancer” even when the threat poses no direct peril to us. American presidents, whether they’re named Bush or Obama, eagerly deploy America’s antibodies — the military — to search and destroy bad terrorist cells. But the USA is like a patient whose antibodies have run wild, a patient whose antibodies have turned on external threats even when they’re not threats, a patient whose antibodies are now attacking healthy tissue within the American body politic.
Consider the fact that U.S. presidents commit the troops — our nation’s antibodies — to wars against “cancers” without formal declarations of war by Congress. In the name of protecting America, they violate the Constitution that our troops are sworn to uphold. They fail to recognize it’s their actions that pose the true threat to the Constitution. It’s their actions that constitute the cancer.
The invasive “cure” of continuous military action without oversight exercised by the people is truly worse than the disease, for it’s a “cure” that violates our Constitution and weakens our body politic.
In April 2009, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com recounting Mary McCarthy’s critique of the American experience in Vietnam, and how her lessons applied to President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan. A central lesson cited by McCarthy was the American desire never to be labeled a loser. That desire explains, at least in part, the persistence of folly within the Obama Administration today, as Peter Van Buren explains in his latest article for TomDispatch, “Apocalypse Now, Iraq Edition: Fighting in Iraq Until Hell Freezes Over.”
Here’s what McCarthy had to say in 1968 about the American moment and the Vietnam War:
The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.
Obama campaigned in 2008 as a “hope” and “change” candidate who as president would end the war in Iraq (so he could prosecute the “better” war in Afghanistan). Yet the U.S. finds itself yet again bombing widely in Iraq (and now Syria) while deploying thousands of military “advisers” (combat troops in plain speak). And after six weeks of airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS, with indecisive results, how long before those U.S. “advisers” start taking the fight directly to the enemy on the ground?
The questions I posed for President Obama back in 2009 were these:
Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
Similar questions apply to our latest military operations in Iraq and Syria. Is the U.S. surging militarily just to avoid the label of “loser”? And even if the U.S. “wins” this latest round (whatever “win” means), won’t the price paid be indistinguishable from defeat?
In his article, Van Buren offers an excellent summary of the U.S. experience in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam in 2003. In his words:
The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.
According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.
Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.
The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.
And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared? They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.
And this is how Van Buren concludes his article:
We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.
As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.
That is indeed the question. As Mary McCarthy noted about the Vietnam War, “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Back to 2014 and the present moment: The more troops committed against ISIS, the more bombing raids made, the more money spent, the more prestige put on the line, the fewer the options the United States has in the Middle East. Indeed, the only option that remains is “to win,” since losing is unacceptable for the reason Mary McCarthy indicated.
But as Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran and regular contributor to this site, noted about Vietnam (citing Bernard Fall’s classic book, Street Without Joy), “You can’t do a wrong thing the right way,” and “We lose the day we start (these stupid imperial wars) and we win the day we stop.” Put differently, just as with Vietnam, the Middle East is not an incredibly complex puzzle for us to solve; it’s simply an impossible situation. Impossible for us. Until we admit this, the U.S. can never “win”; it can only lose.
The U.S. finally “won” in Vietnam when we admitted defeat and left. How long before we come to this realization in the Middle East? Tragically, the persistence of American hubris, amplified by resistance to the very idea of being labeled a “loser,” suggests yet another long, bloody, learning curve.