Endless War

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The Last War and the Next One
Descending into Madness in Iraq — and Beyond
By Tom Engelhardt

The last war won’t end, but in the Pentagon they’re already arguing about the next one.

Let’s start with that “last war” and see if we can get things straight. Just over five years ago, American troops entered Baghdad in battle mode, felling the Sunni-dominated government of dictator Saddam Hussein and declaring Iraq “liberated.” In the wake of the city’s fall, after widespread looting, the new American administrators dismantled the remains of Saddam’s government in its hollowed out, trashed ministries; disassembled the Sunni-dominated Baathist Party which had ruled Iraq since the 1960s, sending its members home with news that there was no coming back; dismantled Saddam’s 400,000 man army; and began to denationalize the economy. Soon, an insurgency of outraged Sunnis was raging against the American occupation.

After initially resisting democratic elections, American occupation administrators finally gave in to the will of the leading Shiite clergyman, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and agreed to sponsor them. In January 2005, these brought religious parties representing a long-oppressed Shiite majority to power, parties which had largely been in exile in neighboring Shiite Iran for years.

Now, skip a few years, and U.S. troops have once again entered Baghdad in battle mode. This time, they’ve been moving into the vast Sadr City Shiite slum “suburb” of eastern Baghdad, which houses perhaps two-and-a-half million closely packed inhabitants. If free-standing, Sadr City would be the second largest city in Iraq after the capital. This time, the forces facing American troops haven’t put down their weapons, packed up, and gone home. This time, no one is talking about “liberation,” or “freedom,” or “democracy.” In fact, no one is talking about much of anything.

And no longer is the U.S. attacking Sunnis. In the wake of the President’s 2007 surge, the U.S. military is now officially allied with 90,000 Sunnis of the so-called Awakening Movement, mainly former insurgents, many of them undoubtedly once linked to the Baathist government U.S. forces overthrew in 2003. Meanwhile, American troops are fighting the Shiite militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric who seems now to be living in Iran, but whose spokesman in Najaf recently bitterly denounced that country for “seeking to share with the U.S. in influence over Iraq.” And they are fighting the Sadrist Mahdi Army militia in the name of an Iraqi government dominated by another Shiite militia, the Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose ties to Iran are even closer.

Ten thousand Badr Corps militia members were being inducted into the Iraqi army (just as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was demanding that the Mahdi Army militia disarm). This week, an official delegation from that government, which only recently received Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with high honors in Baghdad, took off for Tehran at American bidding to present “evidence” that the Iranians are arming their Sadrist enemies.

At the heart of this intra-sectarian struggle may be the fear that, in upcoming provincial elections, the Sadrists, increasingly popular for their resistance to the American occupation, might actually win. For the last few weeks, American troops have been moving deeper into Sadr City, implanting the reluctant security forces of the Maliki government 500-600 meters ahead of them. This is called “standing them up,” “part of a strategy to build up the capability of the Iraqi security forces by letting them operate semi-autonomously of the American troops.” It’s clear, however, that, if Maliki’s military were behind them, many might well disappear. (A number have already either put down their weapons, fled, or gone over to the Sadrists.)

How the Reverse Body Count Came — and Went

The fighting in the heavily populated urban slums of Sadr City has been fierce, murderous, and destructive. It has quieted most of the talk about the “lowering of casualties” and of “violence” that was the singular hallmark of the surge year in Iraq. Though never commented upon, that remarkable year-long emphasis on the ever lessening number of corpses actually represented the return, in perversely reverse form, of the Vietnam era “body count.”

In a guerrilla war situation in which there was no obvious territory to be taken and no clear way to establish what our previous Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, once called the “metrics” of victory or success, it was natural, as happened in Vietnam, to begin to count. If you couldn’t conquer a city or a country, then there was a certain logic to the thought that victory would come if, one by one, you could “obliterate” — to use a word suddenly back in the news — the enemy.

As the Vietnam conflict dragged on, however, as the counting of bodies continued and victory never materialized, that war gained the look of slaughter, and the body count (announced every day at a military press conference in Saigon that reporters labeled “the five o’clock follies”) came to be seen by increasing numbers of Americans as evidence of atrocity. It became the symbol of the descent into madness in Indochina. No wonder the Bush administration, imagining itself once again capturing territory, carefully organized its Iraq War so that it would lack such official counting. (The President later described the process this way: “We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team.”)

With the coming of the surge strategy in 2007, frustration over the President’s unaccomplished mission and his constant talk of victory meant that some other “metric,” some other “benchmark,” for success had to be established, and it proved to be the reverse body count. Over the last year, in fact, just about the only measure of success regularly trumpeted in the mainstream media has been that lowering of the death count. In reverse form, however, it still held some of the same dangers for the administration as its Vietnamese cousin.

As of April, bodies, in ever rising numbers, American and Iraqi, have been forcing their way back into the news as symbols not of success, but of failure. More than 1,000 Iraqis have, by semi-official estimate, died just in the last month (and experts know that these monstrous monthly totals of Iraqi dead are usually dramatic undercounts). Four hundred Iraqis, reportedly only 10% militia fighters, are estimated to have died in the onslaught on Sadr City alone.

American soldiers are also dying in and around Baghdad in elevated numbers. U.S. military spokesmen claim that none of this represents a weakening of the post-surge security situation. As Lieutenant General Carter Ham, Joint Staff director for operations at the Pentagon, put the matter: “While it is sad to see an increase in casualties, I don’t think it is necessarily indicative of a major change in the operating environment. When the level of fighting increases, then sadly the number of casualties does tend to rise.” This is, of course, unmitigated nonsense.

In April, of the 51 American deaths in Iraq, more than twenty evidently took place in the ongoing battle for Sadr City or greater Baghdad. Among them were young men from Portland, Mesquite, Buchanan Dam, and Fresno (Texas), Billings (Montana), Fountain (Colorado), Bakersfield (California), Mount Airy (North Carolina), and Zephyrhills (Florida) — all thousands of miles from home. And many of them have died under the circumstances most feared by American commanders (and thought for a time to have been avoided) before the invasion of Iraq — in block to block, house to house fighting in the warren of streets in one of this planet’s many slum cities.

For the Iraqis of Sadr City, of course, this is a living hell. (“Sadr City right now is like a city of ghosts,” Abu Haider al-Bahadili, a Mahdi Army fighter told Amit R. Paley of the Washington Post. “It has turned from a city into a field of battle.”) As in all colonial wars, all wars on the peripheries, the “natives” always die in staggeringly higher numbers than the far better armed occupation or expeditionary forces.

This is no less true now, especially since the U.S. military has wheeled in its Abrams tanks, brought out its 200-pound guided rockets, and called in air power in a major way. Planes, helicopters, and Hellfire-missile-armed drones are now all regularly firing into the heavily populated urban neighborhoods of the east Baghdad slum. As Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times wrote recently, “With many of Sadr City’s main roads peppered with roadside bombs and its side streets too narrow for U.S. tanks or other heavy vehicles to navigate, U.S. forces often call in airstrikes or use guided rockets to hit their targets.”

Buried in a number of news stories from Sadr City are reports in which attacks on “insurgents,” “criminals,” or “known criminal elements” (now Shiite, not Sunni) destroy whole buildings, even rows of buildings, even in one case recently damaging a hospital and destroying ambulances. Every day now, civilians die and children are pulled from the rubble. This is brutal indeed.

And it no longer makes any particular sense, even by the standards of the Bush administration; nor, in the post-surge atmosphere, is anybody trying to make much sense of it. That rising body count has, after all, taken away the last metric by which to measure “success” in Iraq. Even the small explanations (and, these days, those are just about the only ones left) seem increasingly bizarre.
Take, for instance, the convoluted explanation of who exactly is responsible for the devastation in Sadr City. Here’s how military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Stover put it recently:

“‘The sole burden of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the militants who care nothing for the Iraqi people’ He said the militiamen purposely attack from buildings and alleyways in densely populated areas, hoping to protect themselves by hiding among civilians. ‘What does that say about the enemy?… He is heartless and evil.'”

Mind you, this comes from the representative of a military that now claims to grasp the true nature of counterinsurgency warfare (and so of a guerrilla war); and you’re talking about a militia largely from Sadr City, fighting “a war of survival” for its own families, its own people, against foreign soldiers who have hopped continents to attack them. The Sadrist militiamen are defending their homes and, of course, with Predator drones and American helicopters constantly over their neighborhoods, it’s quite obvious what would happen to them if they “came out and fought” like typical good-hearted types. They would simply be blown away. (Out of curiosity, what descriptive adjectives would Lt. Col. Stover use to capture the style of fighting of the Predator pilots who “fly” their drones from an air base outside of Las Vegas?)

By the way, the last time such street fighting was seen, in the first six months of 2007, the U.S. military was clearing insurgents (“al-Qaeda”) out of Sunni neighborhoods of the capital, which were then being further cleansed by Shiite militias (including the Sadrists).

So, to sum up, let me see if I have this straight: The Bush administration liberated Iraq in order to send U.S. troops against a ragtag militia that has nothing whatsoever to do with Saddam Hussein’s former government (and many of whose members were, in fact, oppressed by it, as were its leaders) in the name of another group of Iraqis, who have long been backed by Iran, and uh

Hmmm, let’s try that again or, like the Bush administration, let’s not and pretend we did.

In the meantime, the U.S. military has tried to partially “seal off” Sadr City and, in the neighborhoods that they have partially occupied with their attendant Iraqi troops, they are building the usual vast, concrete walls, cordoning off the area. This is being done, so American spokespeople say, to keep the Sadrist militia fighters out and to clear the way for government hearts-and-minds “reconstruction” projects that everyone knows are unlikely to happen.

Soon enough, if the previous pattern in Sunni neighborhoods is applied, they and/or their Iraqi cohorts will start going door to door doing weapons searches. As a result, the American and Iraqi prisons now supposedly being substantially emptied — part of a program of “national reconciliation” — of many of the tens of thousands of Sunni prisoners swept up in raids in Sunni neighborhoods, are likely to be refilled with Shiite prisoners swept up in a similar way. Call it grim irony — or call it a meaningless nightmare from which no one can awaken. Just don’t claim it makes much sense.

As in Vietnam, so four decades later, we are observing a full-scale descent into madness and, undoubtedly, into atrocity. At least in 2003, American troops were heading for Baghdad. They thought they had a goal, a city to take. Now, they are heading for nowhere, for the heart of a slum city which they cannot hold in a guerrilla war where the taking of territory and the occupying of neighborhoods is essentially beside the point. They are heading for oblivion, while trying to win hearts and minds by shooting missiles into homes and enclosing people in giant walls which break families and communities apart, while destroying livelihoods.

Oh, and while we’re at it, welcome to “the next war,” the war in the slum cities of the planet.

“There Are No Exit Strategies”

Remember when the globe’s imperial policeman, its New Rome, was going to wield its unsurpassed military power by moving from country to country, using lightning strikes and shock-and-awe tactics? We’re talking about the now-unimaginably distant past of perhaps 2002-2003. Afghanistan had been “liberated” in a matter of weeks; “regime change” in Iraq was going to be a “cakewalk,” and it would be followed by the reordering of what the neoconservatives liked to refer to as “the Greater Middle East.” No one who mattered was talking about protracted guerrilla warfare; nor was there anything being said about counterinsurgency (nor, as in the Powell Doctrine, about exits either). The U.S. military was going to go into Iraq fast and hard, be victorious in short order, and then, of course, we would stay. We would, in fact, be welcomed with open arms by natives so eternally grateful that they would practically beg us to garrison their countries.

Every one of those assumptions about the new American way of war was absurd, even then. At the very least, the problem should have been obvious once American generals reached Baghdad and sat down at a marble table in one of Saddam Hussein’s overwrought palaces, grinning for a victory snapshot — without any evidence of a defeated enemy on the other side of the table to sign a set of surrender documents. If this were a normal campaign and an obvious imperial triumph, then where was the other side? Where were those we had defeated? The next thing you knew, the Americans were printing up packs of cards with the faces of most of Saddam’s missing cronies on them.

Well, that was then. By now, fierce versions of guerrilla war have migrated to the narrow streets of the poorest districts of Baghdad and, in Afghanistan, are moving ever closer to the Afghan capital, Kabul. And even though the “last war” in Iraq won’t end (so that troops can be transferred to the even older war in Afghanistan that is, now, spiraling out of control), inside the Pentagon some are thinking not about how to get out, but about how to get in. They are pondering “the next war.”

With that in mind, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently gave two sharp-edged speeches, one at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, the other at West Point, each expressing his frustration with the slowness of the armed services to adapt to a counterinsurgency planet and to plan for the next war.

Now, there’s obviously nothing illogical about a country’s military preparing for future wars. That’s what it’s there for and every country has the right to defend itself. But it’s a different matter when you’re preparing for future “wars of choice” (which used to be called wars of aggression) — for the next war(s) on what our secretary of defense now calls the “the 21st century’s global commons.” By that, he means not just planet Earth in its entirety, but “space and cyberspace” as well. For the American military, it turns out, planning for a future “defense” of the United States means planning for planet-wide, over-the-horizon counterinsurgency. It will, of course, be done better, with a military that, as Gates put it, will no longer be “a smaller version of the Fulda Gap force.” (It was at the Fulda Gap, a German plain, that the U.S. military once expected to meet Soviet forces invading Europe in full-scale battle.)

So the secretary of defense is calling for more foreign-language training, a better “expeditionary culture,” and more nation building — you know, all that “hearts and minds” stuff. In essence, he accepts that the future of American war will, indeed, be in the Sadr Cities and Afghan backlands of the planet; or, as he says, that “the asymmetric battlefields of the 21st century” will be “the dominant combat environment in the decades to come.” And the American response will be high-tech indeed — all those unmanned aerial vehicles that he can’t stop talking about.

Gates describes our war-fighting future in this way: “What has been called the ‘Long War’ [i.e. Bush’s War on Terror, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq] is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies.”

“There are no exit strategies.” That’s a line to roll around on your tongue for a while. It’s a fancy way of saying that the U.S. military is likely to be in one, two, many Sadr Cities for a long time to come. This is Gates’s ultimate insight as secretary of defense, and his response is to urge the military to plan for more and better of the same. For this we give the Pentagon almost a trillion dollars a year.

The irony is that, in both speeches, Gates praises outside-the-box thinking in the military and calls upon the armed services to “think unconventionally.” Yet his own thoughts couldn’t be more conventional, imperial, or potentially disastrous. Put in a nutshell: If the mission is heading into madness, then double the mission. Bring in yet more of those drones whose missiles are already so popular in Sadr City. This is brilliantly prosaic thinking, based on the assumption that the “global commons” should be ours and that the “next war” will be ours, and the one after that, and so on.

But I wouldn’t bet on it. John McCain got a lot of flak for saying that, as far as he was concerned, American troops could stay in Iraq for “100 years… as long as Americans are not being injured, harmed or killed.” Our present secretary of defense, a “realist” in an administration of bizarre dreamers and inept gamblers, has just cast his vote for more and better Sadr Cities. In a Pentagon version of an old Maoist slogan: Let a hundred slum guerrilla struggles bloom!

It’s a recipe for being bogged down in such wars for 100 years — with the piles of dead rising ever higher. No wonder some of the top military brass, whom he criticizes for their bureaucratic inertia, have been unenthusiastic. They don’t want to spend the rest of their careers fighting hopeless wars in Sadr City or its equivalent. Who would?

The rest of us should feel the same way. Every time you hear the phrase “the next war” — and journalists already love it — you should wince. It means endless war, eternal war, and it’s the path to madness.

Vietnam Iraq Afghanistan Don’t we already have enough examples of American counterinsurgency operations under our belt? The American people evidently think so. For some time now, significant majorities have wanted out of Baghdad, out of Iraq. All the way out. In a major survey just released by the influential journal Foreign Affairs, similar majorities have, in essence, “voted” for demilitarizing U.S. foreign policy. In their responses, they offer quite a different approach to how the United States should operate in the world. According to journalist Jim Lobe, 69% of respondents believe “the U.S. government should put more emphasis on diplomatic and economic foreign policy tools in fighting terrorism,” not “military efforts.” (Sixty-five percent believe the U.S. should withdraw all its troops from Iraq either “immediately” or “over the next twelve months.”) But, of course, no one who matters listens to them.

And yet, the path to Sadr City is one that even an imperialist should want to turn back from. It’s the road to Hell and it’s paved with the worst of intentions.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

[Note of thanks: Essays like this are only possible because I can draw on the spadework of other websites, especially, in this case (as in so many others), of Juan Cole’s Informed Comment,, Paul Woodward’s The War in Context, and]

Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt