Been there, done that

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[Suggestion box: Unfortunately, I can’t post images at my weblog, but here are three visual resources I recommend. Check out Josh Brown’s Life During Wartime site. Someone should do a little collection of his cartoon commentary; then view the brief video at, recommended by several readers, including two from military families; and finally, don’t miss Doonesbury these days. Gary Trudeau’s strip, focused on Iraq lately, has been both funny and unbelievably on target.]

Quote of the day (1):Our military operations have as their object the defeat of the enemy, and the driving of him from these territories. In order to complete this task, I am charged with absolute and supreme control of all regions in which American troops operate; but our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. Since the days of Halaka your city and your lands have been subject to the tyranny of strangers, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunk in desolation, and your forefathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage. Your sons have been carried off to wars not of your seeking, your wealth has been stripped from you by unjust men and squandered in distant places.” (Okay, okay, so you have to replace that “American” with “British,” but otherwise from a proclamation issued to the inhabitants of Baghdad issued on March 19, 1917, by Lieut. General Sir Stanley Maude, shortly after the occupation of the city by British forces and now posted at Harper’s Magazine on-line)

Quote of the day (2):‘You have to understand the Arab mind,’ Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. ‘The only thing they understand is force – force, pride and saving face.’” (This only sounds like it was spoken in 1917 from Dexter Filkins, Tough New Tactics by U.S. Tighten Grip on Iraq Towns, the New York Times)

The week that was

It was just another day, just another week in occupied Iraq. The U.S. military announced that attacks on our troops were down, thanks to our new offensive operations. However, an American soldier was killed and two wounded by a roadside bomb near Mosul on Sunday, as yesterday a soldier guarding a Mosul gas station was assassinated in a drive-by shooting; another helicopter went down today; a suicide car bomber struck at the front gate of an American base, wounding 58 Americans and three Iraqis, only four seriously; another Iraqi policeman was assassinated; Bangladesh withdrew its diplomats from the country, while 60 South Korean engineers seem to be in the process of withdrawing as well.

The Koreans were subcontracted to work for the U.S. government repairing the Iraqi electricity grid. This is, according to the Washington Post, “the largest known withdrawal of contractors over security issues and follows a week of confrontations between the workers and their managers that culminated with yelling and punches Sunday afternoon.” Evidently, others in the vast army of privateers that we’ve brought into Iraq to fix this, that, and the other thing, are also growing nervous (and unlike the military, as civilians, they need no exit strategy and no orders, should they decide to depart.)

And oh yes, not so surprisingly, electricity in Baghdad is again blinking off for hunks of the day, while those gas lines are once more stretching toward the horizon, partially because of constant sabotage of oil pipelines. The Japanese government announced that it would send 1,000 troops (though only for peacemaking operations). Meanwhile, in duty-free Iraq, goods are pouring into the country meant for the slice of Iraqis making money on the back of the occupation (though at least 60% of the country remains jobless). According to Rory McCarthy of the Guardian, reporting from the docks of Abu Flus (“the name means ‘Father of Money'”), $200 satellite dishes and TVs are now flowing in and a new black-market economy is forming (Making a killing in the new Iraq):

“Today few scenes in postwar Iraq capture so powerfully the exuberance and the lawlessness that has accompanied America’s invasion and its promises of free trade and open markets The vast influx of new satellite dishes, televisions, fridges and cookers on to the streets of Iraqi cities is one of the most visible signs of change since the war. But the corollary of these new-found economic freedoms is a wave of smuggling.”

Time magazine, on the basis of numerous meetings with the Iraqi insurgents (one of its journalists even seems to have gone out on an operation against an American base), reports on an increasingly well organized guerrilla movement into whose hands the military equivalent of all those TVs and refrigerators are pouring, and offers the following from an unnamed Pentagon official: “‘They know they can’t beat us militarily, but they think they might be able to defeat us politically.’ The guerrillas are trying to drive U.S. casualties so high that the American public turns against the war, he says, adding, ‘They could succeed.'”(Iraq Insurgents Show Off Firepower to Time)

And the Iraqi Governing Council is now seen by a large majority of Iraqis as an illegitimate body, the creature of the occupiers. According to Steven Komarow of USA Today (Iraq Governing Council in a ‘serious crisis’):

“A nationwide survey released on Monday by Oxford Research, a British consulting firm, found that nearly three-fourths of Iraqis had little or no confidence in the government led by U.S. administrator Paul Bremer and the Governing Council. Oxford said 3,244 Iraqis were surveyed from mid-October to mid-November.”

Containment (Israeli-style)

When you get desperate and panic — and the Bush administration was as unprepared for a world out of control as the Pentagon was for what actually happened in post-war Iraq — it’s natural to think short-term and fall back on well-worn methods of acting. In a pinch, some essential part of your being, whether as an individual or an administration, tends to emerge. Hence, faced with looming disaster and driven by a need to get Iraq off front pages long before November 2004, the Bush men seem to be falling back on two things: force (hence Operation Iron Hammer and its trappings) and Daddy (hence the return of the “realists” to Washington). This administration’s message of the week (as interpreted by me): I’ll stomp you, now bail me out.

When you see Bush fixer James Baker returning to the fray, you know you’ve hit a hairy moment. When the Sunni triangle is simply written off in “hearts and minds” terms and then occupied in an especially brutal and humiliating way, you know you’re witnessing the writing off of those dreams of a “democratic,” compliant Iraq.

John Barry and Evan Thomas of Newsweek offer this pungent quote (Dissent in the Bunker): “‘This is what Westmoreland was doing in Vietnam,’ says a top Special Forces commander, referring to the firepower-heavy tactics favored by the military’s senior commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, who lost sight of America’s essential mission in that lost war: winning the hearts and minds of the people.”

Vietnam is once again (or maybe, once again, again, again) on Washington’s mind. For example, Newt Gingrich, who sits on the Defense Policy Board, just a couple of seats down from Richard Perle, and has long had the Pentagon’s ear, jumped in this week with a Newsweek interview in which he said,

“‘The military has the money and the daily contact with the locals. But it’s using the same tactics in a guerrilla struggle that led to defeat in Vietnam. The Army’s reaction to Vietnam was not to think about it’ Rather than absorb the lessons of counterinsurgency, Gingrich says, the Army adopted ‘a deliberate strategy of amnesia because people didn’t want to ever do it again.’ The Army rebuilt a superb fighting force for waging a conventional war. “I am very proud of what [Operation Iraqi Freedom commander Gen.] Tommy Franks did-up to the moment of deciding how to transfer power to the Iraqis. Then,” said Gingrich, “we go off a cliff.”

At the invaluable Common Dreams website, Ira Chernus suggests another, if allied image. America’s Iraq policy, he comments in an essay included below, is vanishing down the rabbit hole. He considers a different quote from the Filkins New York Times piece: An American Colonel Sassaman says: “With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.” Chernus then reminds us of the infamous statement by an American officer in Vietnam that we had to destroy a town in order to “save it,” and invokes the full weight of colonial history that lies behind the imperial desire to “save” societies. He writes:

“Now the U.S. has taken up where the Europeans left off. The Americans cannot admit that domination is their goal. They must believe they are there only to help. They must convince themselves that Iraq is a backward nation, unfamiliar with and incapable of the ways of the modern world. Then they can picture themselves as educators and saviors, taking up the old white man’s burden

“When the debacle comes in Iraq, as it surely will, let us hear no talk of ‘the Arab mind.’ Let us remember who showed the real irrationality in this war. Let us remember Colonel Sassaman and all the others who thought that fear and violence would convince the Iraqis we were there to help them.”

And yet, let it never be said that Washington has simply fallen back on old Vietnam reflexes (though it has). On the ground these last weeks, the military has been hard at work updating its historical analogies — though some might say it was a case of out-of-the-analogous-frying-pan-into-the-analogous-fire. The update has evidently taken the form of moving from liberationist fantasies to Vietnam memories to the Israeli model for dealing with its occupied Palestinian territories — where, obviously, there is no liberatory urge at all. If the President’s secretive landing at Baghdad International Airport told us a great deal about the administration’s real assessment of Iraqi security, so the adoption of an Israeli model tells us all too much about how the military is reimagining its job in the Sunni areas of the country — as a brutal occupation. It’s like an admission of political defeat in the pursuit of military success.

The front-page Filkins piece on Sunday described this vividly. Much of the resistant Sunni triangle is being wrapped in barbed wire, enclosed and contained, West Bank-style.

“As the guerrilla war against Iraqi insurgents intensifies, American soldiers have begun wrapping entire villages in barbed wire. In selective cases, American soldiers are demolishing buildings thought to be used by Iraqi attackers. They have begun imprisoning the relatives of suspected guerrillas, in hopes of pressing the insurgents to turn themselves inThe response they chose is beginning to echo the Israeli counterinsurgency campaign in the occupied territories

“American officials say they are not purposefully mimicking Israeli tactics, but they acknowledge that they have studied closely the Israeli experience in urban fighting. Ahead of the war, Israeli defense experts briefed American commanders on their experience in guerrilla and urban warfare. The Americans say there are no Israeli military advisers helping the Americans in Iraq.”

Filkins may be correct on this. Perhaps at this very moment there are no Israeli advisors there, but consider Julian Borger of the Guardian on the subject (Israel trains U.S. assassination squads in Iraq):

“Israeli advisers are helping train US special forces in aggressive counter-insurgency operations in Iraq, including the use of assassination squads against guerrilla leaders, US intelligence and military sources said yesterday. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has sent urban warfare specialists to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the home of US special forces, and according to two sources, Israeli military ‘consultants’ have also visited Iraq

“US special forces teams are already behind the lines inside Syria attempting to kill foreign jihadists before they cross the border, and a group focused on the ‘neutralisation’ of guerrilla leaders is being set up, according to sources familiar with the operations.’This is basically an assassination programme This is a hunter-killer team,’ said a former senior US intelligence official, who added that he feared the new tactics and enhanced cooperation with Israel would only inflame a volatile situation in the Middle East. ‘It is bonkers, insane. Here we are — we’re already being compared to Sharon in the Arab world, and we’ve just confirmed it by bringing in the Israelis and setting up assassination teams.”

Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker claims (Moving Targets):

“Israeli commandos are expected to serve as ad-hoc advisers-again, in secret-when full-field operations [for these hunter-killer teams] begin There is much debate about whether targeting a large number of individuals is a practical-or politically effective-way to bring about stability in Iraq, especially given the frequent failure of American forces to obtain consistent and reliable information there.

“Americans in the field are trying to solve that problem by developing a new source of information: they plan to assemble teams drawn from the upper ranks of the old Iraqi intelligence services and train them to penetrate the insurgency A former C.I.A. station chief described the strategy in simple terms: ‘U.S. shooters and Iraqi intelligence…’

“But many of the officials I spoke to were skeptical of the Administration’s plans. Many of them fear that the proposed operation-called ‘preemptive manhunting’ by one Pentagon adviser-has the potential to turn into another Phoenix Program.”

This was, of course, the CIA assassination program that resulted in the deaths of somewhere between 20,000-40,000 Vietnamese, depending on whether you believe American or South Vietnamese figures, and was a pottage of corruption, war crimes, and settled scores.

Today, Dan Williams of Reuters added to the story (US Eyeing Israeli Tactics for Iraq Insurgents): “Mass assaults by covert squads of soldiers to confound guerrillas and swoops by troops posing as Arabs are among Israeli tactics U.S. forces are studying for use in Iraq, Israeli security sources said Tuesday ” He quotes a Senior Israeli Intelligence official as saying, “Israel has been providing advice on how to shift from a reliance on heavy, armored occupation troops to mobile forces that are more effective in quelling urban resistance and cause less friction with the general populace.” Of course, if our army is buying the idea that the Israelis can teach us how to do an occupation with “less friction” — maybe that’s a misprint for “fiction” — then do I have a bombed-out bridge to sell you!

And let’s not forget about those Sharonista-style targeted assassinations from the air about which this administration is most enthusiastic and of which we’ve just had a horrifying Afghan example. An assassination strike to assassinate a low-level Taliban official netted nine dead children, the wrong man, and the wrong house destroyed; to be followed, of course, by one of those hopeless “investigations,” which like others of its kind will undoubtedly quietly disappear beneath the waves.

Paul Woodward, who runs, wrote a brief, striking description of the shameful way CNN, as opposed to the BBC, reported this botched Afghan mission (Freedom from guilt doesn’t imply freedom from blame). He ends his report (which should be read in full) this way: “The bottom line: If an American bomb falls on your house, be assured, it was dropped with the best of intentions.”

Containment (American-style)

Say whatever you want, you are what you do. If we destroy the houses of “suspects,” enclose towns (remember the “strategic hamlets” of Vietnam?), arrest relatives of wanted insurgents, recruit Saddam’s feared former intelligence officers for “manhunts” (as Donald Rumsfeld evidently loves to call them), and turn our military into so many air and land-based assassination squads, you tell me what we are. Colonial-style occupations and colonial-style suppressions of rebellions tend to be brutal affairs. But as happens sometimes, the policies you pursue have a way of pursuing you. We’ve clearly made the decision to contain “them,” but in the process we’re not only forcing whole communities into the arms of the Iraqi resistance, we’ve enclosed ourselves.

There’s usually something touching about the deep but modest desire of those uprooted from their surroundings to recreate home, or some small hint of home, elsewhere. But as in Vietnam, where extravagant Little Americas were created on military bases, those gripped by an imperial urge do nothing with modesty.
Recently, Ariana Eunjung Cha wrote a vivid description in the Washington Post of life not just inside Baghdad’s Green Zone where, “to reach someone, even just a few miles away in Baghdad, you call an upstate New York area code,” but in the little green zones all around the country, which sound distinctly like old colonial compounds. In the Fallujah compound, for instance, food “is served by waiters in white shirts, black pants and black bow ties.” She begins (Baghdad’s U.S. Zone A Stand-in For Home):

“In Elzain Elzain’s Baghdad, they serve peanut butter, lobster and ice cream. The cell phones have a 914 area code. The television sets show Monday Night Football. The people speak English. And the strictly enforced speed limit is 35 mph. ‘It’s like I never left America,’ said Elzain, an artist from [Washington] who works as an interpreter for the U.S.-led occupation government

“The cafeteria [in the Republican Palace], run by U.S. contractor KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Inc., has retro silver tables that look like part of a ‘Happy Days’ set Near the swimming pool in the back is a giant television screen, which usually is showing sports events. On the rare occasions when people are able to break away from work, they come out here, often in shorts and T-shirts. There’s a new gym with free weights and yoga classes.”

But the people inside the Green Zone, who are, of course, supposed to be running Iraq, are completely isolated. Simply to leave the Zone “is not just a chore, it’s a feat. Forms must be filled out explaining the reason for the outing, requesting transportation and a protective detail.” Read the whole piece and then imagine running a country and a counterinsurgency like this. We’ve provisionally imported the West Bank model for the Sunni areas of Iraq and the Gated Community model for our own ruling enclaves (bit they are also taking on a tinge of that other very American model of our time, the prison).

Digging Junior out of ditch

Meanwhile in Washington, the B1-Team (for Bush the Father) seems to be returning to the White House, empowered to search not for weapons of mass destruction but for an exit strategy that won’t explode in the face of Bush the Son. With them, it seems, may come an older policy, the one that led us to support Saddam as Iraq’s strongman back in the good old 1980s. (You know, back when we really understood how that Arab mind works and all). In Rupert Murdoch’s flagship Australian paper, Simon Jenkins points out in a piece included below that Baghdad has now seen three regime changes within a year — Saddam’s overthrow, followed by that of the first American viceroy Jay Garner and now (so he claims anyway), L. Paul Bremer.

“[A strongman] strategy is now being rammed down the throat of the US administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, by George W. Bush’s new ‘realist’, Deputy National Security Adviser Bob Blackwill. He answers to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, not US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and is the new boss of Iraq.

“The Pentagon, Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, architects of the old ‘idealist’ strategy, are in retreat. The Iraqi Governing Council, which Bremer reluctantly created, will be disbanded. Washington must find someone with whom it can do business, someone who can deliver order in return for power. That search is Blackwill’s job.”

While they’ve set Blackwill above the stinking heap of Iraq policy (as they once did Bremer), they’ve also loosed former Secretary of State James Baker, the Bush family fixer and Carlyle Group stalwart, on the world. Officially, he is to help mold an international agreement on restructuring Iraq’s massive debt, but as the man who pulled the Florida election out of the fire for Junior, he seems to have shouldered the task of taking the Iraq war off the table before the next election. Here’s the polite way Mark Matthews of the Baltimore Sun puts the matter (Bush family ally drafted to help Iraq):

“The dispatching of Baker, who will be assigned a U.S. government plane, is the latest move in a strategy that the Bush administration hopes will provide a smooth transition to self-rule and enable the United States to reduce its role in Iraq substantially.”

Behind such language can’t you just hear the strangled cry, “Get me out of here!”

And only months ago their dreams were so filled with primal greed. It must be painful even to contemplate departure. Yesterday in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, John Dower, historian of America’s post-World War II occupation of Japan, dismantled the President’s recent claim that this occupation was “proceeding faster” than the Japanese one did. In the process, he made the following comparison (History in the Remaking):

“In 1945, no one dreamed that a small, makeshift team of civil-affairs specialists could just march into a complex, ravaged land with a few changes of clothing and install a government of handpicked favorites. Japan was also spared egregious incompetence, blind hubris and blatant war profiteering on the part of the occupiers. No one went into defeated Japan thinking of it as a new Gold Rush. Although the nation lay in ruins in 1945, it was essentially taken for granted that the Japanese government and private sector, working together, should assume primary responsibility for economic reconstruction

“Here is the one area in which U.S. policy in occupied Iraq has unquestionably ‘proceeded faster’ than in Germany and Japan after World War II. It has done so, however, by promoting policies and priorities that were simply unthinkable then. Reconstruction has been turned over to foreign corporations led by American firms, and sweeping ‘privatization’ measures have been proposed that call for placing the entire economy – except for oil – up for sale Viewed in a cold light, almost everything that abetted stability and serious reform in postwar Japan is conspicuously absent in the case of Iraq.”

Remarkably enough, it looks like we may actually be in the process of losing our various wars — in Iraq, in Afghanistan (though in both places there are likely to be few winners), and in that famed “war on terror” as well. We have targeted assassinations that wipe out the innocent, but completely untargeted wars. Force has simply been released into the world as a first principle. Of course, what should have been “targeted” wasn’t even that vague bogeyman, “terrorism,” but one particular group of dangerous and criminal terrorists (much favored by us when they were still conveniently fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). Instead, as the diplomatic editor for the British Guardian Ewen MacAskill suggests in a dispiriting piece toting up the damage from our President’s policies (Jihad has worked – the world is now split in two):

“Osama bin Laden, two years and three months after the New York and Washington attacks that were part of his jihad against America, appears to be winning. He has lost his base in Afghanistan, as well as many colleagues and fighters, and his communications and finances have been disrupted. He may be buried under rubble in Afghanistan or, as Washington and London assume, be hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But from Kandahar to Baghdad, from Istanbul to Riyadh, blood is being shed in the name of Bin Laden’s jihad

“There is a tendency in the west to play down – or ignore – the extent of Bin Laden’s success. The US and UK governments regard mentioning it as disloyal or heretical. But look back on interviews by Bin Laden in the 1990s to see what he has achieved. He can tick off one of the four objectives he set himself, and, arguably, a second.”

Containment in its post-cold war incarnation is already in tatters. Tom

U.S. Policy in Iraq Vanishing Down the Rabbit Hole
By Ira Chernus
December 8, 2003

The U.S. war against Iraq has found its own Lewis Carroll, its true poet and genius of the absurd: Lt. Colonel Nathan Sassaman. He commands a battalion that controls the Iraqi town of Abu Hishma. The other day, he told a New York Times reporter: “With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.”

A heavy dose of fear and violence can convince these people we are here to help them. Colonel Sassaman’s Alice-in-Wonderland illogic pierces to the heart of the insanity of war. He ranks right up there with officer in Vietnam who had to destroy the village to save it. His comment should go down in history as the epitome of U.S. policy in Iraq. Every American should be required to memorize it and repeat it every day, while watching the news on television.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. [email protected]

To read more Chernus click here

Needed: Iraqi boss with mo’
By Simon Jenkins, The Times
The Australian
December 8, 2003

Those who try to do the undoable must also think the unthinkable. US strategists in Iraq are contemplating what they have always denied, the search for a “strong man with a moustache” to stop the present rot. If the result is not democracy, so be it.

If the result is the dismemberment of Iraq, so be it. Iraq has become a mess. There is only one priority: to “get out with dignity”.

To read more Jenkins click here