Jonathan Schell, Down the Iraqi Rabbit Hole

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[Note: I couldn’t resist interrupting my “Best of Tomdispatch” series — there are still two to go — to bring you the latest Jonathan Schell “Letter from Ground Zero” columns from the upcoming issue of the Nation magazine whose editors have been kind enough, as ever, to let me post it.]

Welcome to Iraq but call it Vietnam.

If we haven’t all gone down the rabbit hole in Baghdad and come out in the Saigon of another era, you can’t prove it by recent news from catastrophic Iraq. Eerie doesn’t do it justice. In Washington, our leaders plead for patience; they insist, as they’ve been doing for a year or more, as the President has done recently, that this — the latest bad news, whatever it may be, from the urban battlefields and bomb-implanted highways of Iraq — is “progress.” They swear that the most recent upsurge in violence and death (49 dead American soldiers in the first 14 days of this month and scores upon scores of dead Iraqis) represents, in Dick Cheney’s recent phrase, “the last throes” of the insurgency which will, the Vice President predicted, end within the President’s second term in office.

Think “light at the end of the tunnel.” Think the era of Lyndon Johnson. Think of that flood of positive numbers — the “metrics” of victory — that came pouring out of Vietnam and now, in the form of numbers of troops armed and trained for the new Iraqi Army, police, and security forces, is flooding out of Iraq. Top generals back in Washington all lend a helpful hand. (Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers: “Well, first of all, the number of incidents is actually down 25 percent since the highs of last November, during the election period. So, overall, numbers of incidents are down. Lethality, as you mentioned, is up. . . . I think what’s causing it is a realization that Iraq is marching inevitably toward democracy.”) Hang in there, Condoleezza Rice similarly assured Charlie Rose just the other night, it’s like the period after World War II when we occupied Germany and Japan; it takes patience and time to implant democracy in a defeated country. The growing strength of the insurgency, Washington officialdom has been officially saying this last month in all sorts of ways, is but proof of the progress we’re making. It’s just the “last gasp” of a dying movement.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the American officers fighting the war and their troops tell another story to reporters. Senior officials now claim not-so-privately “that there is no long-term military solution to an insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis and more than 1,300 U.S. troops during the past two years.” Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, commented to reporter Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder, “I think the more accurate way to approach this right now is to concede that … this insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations.” Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, who works with the task force overseeing the training of Iraqi security troops, told Lasseter (a fine reporter, by the way) that “the insurgency doesn’t seem to be running out of new recruits, a dynamic fueled by tribal members seeking revenge for relatives killed in fighting. ‘We can’t kill them all,’ Wellman said. ‘When I kill one I create three.'” Gen. George W. Casey, top U.S. commander in Iraq, “called the military’s efforts ‘the Pillsbury Doughboy idea’ — pressing the insurgency in one area only causes it to rise elsewhere.

Down even closer to the ground, American soldiers are blunter yet:

“‘I know the party line. You know, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, five-star generals, four-star generals, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld: The Iraqis will be ready in whatever time period,’ said 1st Lt. Kenrick Cato, 34, of Long Island, N.Y ‘But from the ground, I can say with certainty they won’t be ready before I leave. And I know I’ll be back in Iraq, probably in three or four years. And I don’t think they’ll be ready then.'”

“‘I know the party line. You know, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, five-star generals, four-star generals, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld: The Iraqis will be ready in whatever time period,’ said 1st Lt. Kenrick Cato, 34, of Long Island, N.Y ‘But from the ground, I can say with certainty they won’t be ready before I leave. And I know I’ll be back in Iraq, probably in three or four years. And I don’t think they’ll be ready then.'”

“‘I just wish [the Iraqi troops would] start to pull their own weight without us having to come out and baby-sit them all the time,’ said Sgt. Joshua Lower, a scout in the Third Brigade of the First Armored Division who has worked with the Iraqis. ‘Some Iraqi special forces really know what they are doing, but there are some units that scatter like cockroaches with the lights on when there’s an attack.'”

And in the meantime, in the opinion polls, slowly but inexorably, public support for the war continues to erode. As Susan Page of USA Today reports in a piece ominously headlined, Poll: USA Is Losing Patience on Iraq, “Nearly six in 10 Americans say the United States should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq, a new Gallup Poll finds, the most downbeat view of the war since it began in 2003.”

Does no one remember when this was the story of Vietnam? The desperately rosy statements from top officials, military and civilian, in Washington; the grim, earthy statements from U.S. officers and troops in the field in Vietnam; the eroding public support at home; the growth of the famed “credibility gap” between what the government claimed and what was increasingly obvious to all; the first hints of changing minds and mounting opposition to the war in Congress and the first calls for timetables for withdrawal?

Excuse me if I’m confused, but didn’t the men (and one key woman) of the Bush administration pride themselves in having learned “the lessons of Vietnam” (which, as it happens, they played like an opposites game until the pressure began to build when they suddenly began acting and sounding just like Vietnam clones)? Isn’t our President the very son of the man who, when himself President and involved in another war in the Gulf, claimed exuberantly, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all”? Well, here’s a news flash then. In Washington today, they’re mainlining Vietnam.

Maybe we should really be examining the later history of the Vietnam War for hints of what to expect next? Certainly, as in Vietnam, we can look forward to withdrawal strategies that don’t actually involve leaving Iraq. In Vietnam, “withdrawal” involved endless departure-like maneuvers that only intensified the war — bombing “pauses” that led to fiercer bombing campaigns, negotiation offers never meant to be taken up. Or how about ever more intense and fear-inducing discussions of the bloodbaths to come in Iraq, should we ever leave? For years in Vietnam, the bloodbath that was Vietnam was partly supplanted by a “bloodbath” the enemy was certain to commence upon as soon as the United States withdrew. This future bloodbath of the imagination appeared in innumerable official speeches and accounts as an explanation for why the United States couldn’t consider leaving. In public discourse, this not-yet-atrocity often superseded the only real bloodbath and was an obsessive focus of attention even for some of the war’s opponents. In the meantime, the bloodbath that was Vietnam continued week after week, month after month, year after year in all its gore. Or how about the development of right-wing theories that the war in Iraq was won on the battlefield but lost on the home front; that, as in Vietnam, we were militarily victorious but betrayed by a weak American public and stabbed in the back by the liberal media? Watch for all of these, they’re soon to come to your TV set.

Oh, and speaking about Vietnam-era parallels, how about this one: It turns out there are two different races of Iraqis. There are their Iraqis — jihadis, Baathist bitter-enders, terrorists, Sunni fanatics, and even, as Major General Joseph Taluto, head of the US 42nd Infantry Division, admitted the other day, “good, honest” Iraqis, “offended by our presence.” The thing about all of them is, without thousands of foreign military advisors, or a $5.7 billion American-financed program to train and equip their forces, or endless time to get up to speed, they take their rocket-propelled grenades, their IEDs, their mortars, their bomb-laden cars, and they fight. Regularly, fiercely, often well, and no less often to the death. They aren’t known for running away, except in the way that guerrillas, faced with overwhelming force, disband and slip off to fight another day.

American military men, whatever they call these insurgents, have a sneaking respect for them. You can hear it in many of the reports from Iraq. They are — a typical word used by military officers there — “resilient.” No matter what we throw at them, they come back again. All on their own they develop sophisticated new tactics. Facing terrible odds, when it comes to firepower, they are clever, dangerous, resourceful opponents. The adjectives, even when they go with labels like “terrorists,” are strangely respectful.

Then there’s this other race of Iraqis, as if from another planet — our Iraqis, the ones who scatter “like cockroaches.” They are, as several recent articles on the desperately disappointing experience of training an Iraqi Army reveal, not resilient, not resourceful, not up to snuff, not willing to fight, all too ready to flee, and, in the eyes of American military men on the scene, frustrating, cowardly, child-like, and contemptible.

Compare that, for instance, to the following comment on the enemy: “The ability of the [insurgents] to rebuild their units and to make good their losses is one of the mysteries of this guerrilla war Not only do [their] units have the recuperative powers of the phoenix, but they have an amazing ability to maintain morale.” Oh sorry, that wasn’t Iraq at all. That was actually Gen. Maxwell Taylor, American ambassador to South Vietnam, in November 1964.

Let’s face it. This is déjà vu all over again. In Vietnam, their Vietnamese regularly proved so much more admirable — in the eyes of American military officers — than ours. America’s Vietnamese often seemed like the sorts of thugs white adventurers in Hollywood films had once defeated single-handedly. They were corrupt, cowardly, greedy, and rapacious in relation to their own people, and regularly amazingly unwilling to fight their own war. The enemy, on the other hand, often seemed like “our kind of people.” They were courageous, disciplined, willing to endure terrible hardships, and capable of mobilizing genuine support among other Vietnamese. Major Charles Beckwith, the chief American adviser to the Special Forces camp at Plei Me, was not atypical in his reported comment after a siege of the camp was broken, “I’d give anything to have two hundred VC [Vietcong] under my command. They’re the finest, most dedicated soldiers I’ve ever seen I’d rather not comment on the performance of my Vietnamese forces.”

Below, Jonathan Schell takes a single, remarkable news article, Building Iraq’s Army: Mission Improbable by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru on the disastrous state of our effort to create an Iraqi military and follows it where it leads — to the catastrophic endpoint we can all see coming somewhere, sometime down the line. As Schell in his reporting from Vietnam and his more recent writings — including his insightful book about our violent last three centuries, The Unconquerable World — has made so clear, there was really only one lesson, only one genuine lesson anyway, to be learned from Vietnam: Don’t do it. Tom

The Exception Is the Rule
By Jonathan Schell

Sometimes the truth of a large, confusing historical enterprise can be glimpsed in a single news report. Such is the case in regard to the Iraq War, it seems to me, with the recent story in the Washington Post by Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru called “Building Iraq’s Army: Mission Improbable.” Shadid and Fainaru did something that is rarely done: spend several days with a unit of Iraq’s new, American-trained forces. (The typical treatment of the topic consists of a few interviews with American officers in the Green Zone in Baghdad, leading to some estimation of how long it will take to complete the job.) The Post story starts with the lyrics of a song the soldiers of the unit, called Charlie Company, were singing out of earshot of their American overseers. It was a ballad to Saddam Hussein, and it ran:

We have lived in humiliation since you left

We had hoped to spend our life with you

The American press often discusses the political makeup of the insurgency, but no one until now has suggested that some of the very forces being trained by the United States might be longing for the return of Saddam. To the extent that this is the case — or that these forces are otherwise opposed to the occupation — the United States, far from improving “security,” is now training the future resistance to itself. Indeed, the soldiers of Charlie Company told Shadid and Fainaru that seventeen of them had quit in recent days. They added that every one of them planned to do the same as soon as possible. Their reasons were simple. They were bitter at the United States. “Look at the homes of the Iraqis,” one soldier remarked. “The people have been destroyed.” When asked by whom, he answered, “Them” — and pointed to the Americans leading the patrol. The Iraqis had enlisted in the new army only for the salary — $340 per month, an enviable sum in today’s ruined Iraq. But the money had come at the price of self-respect. The new recruits had been bought off and hated themselves for it. One said that after they had all quit, “We’ll live by God, but we’ll have our respect.”

One might wonder whether the reporters had deliberately or unknowingly picked an exceptionally rebellious unit. But in fact, Charlie Company was selected by the U.S. Army itself, presumably eager to put its best foot forward.

The American officers’ response to their sullen recruits is of a piece with the entire American effort in Iraq. The officers treat their charges as if, owing to certain mysterious personal defects, they somehow are not quite up to the job they have been given. After a typical episode in which the unit was attacked and ran away (four hailed taxis to make their escape), Sgt. Rick McGovern, who leads the unit, dressed them down. “You are all cowards,” he informed them. He went on, “My soldiers are over here, away from our families for a year. We are willing to die for you to have freedom. You should be willing to die for your own freedom.” The tongue-lashing assumed that the Iraqis and the American shared a cause that, as the story shows, was actually 100 percent missing. Iraqi men who hate the American occupation are not cowards if they decline to shoot other men who are fighting the occupation. On the contrary, the more courage they had, the less they would engage in such a fight. The men of Charlie Company do indeed lack courage — courage to turn down the money they accept for pretending to fight for a cause they despise. Their most cowardly moment, given their beliefs, was when they sat still while Sergeant McGovern called them cowards. One soldier, Amar Mana, explained the situation in the clearest terms: “We don’t want to take responsibility,” he said. “The way the situation is, we wouldn’t be ready to take responsibility for a thousand years.”

And so the Americans and the Iraqis of Charlie Company, like the United States and Iraq in general today, are led, by choice on the one side and by bribery and compulsion on the other, to play roles in a script that has little or nothing to do with the situation they are actually in. In this situation, it is not necessary to form a whole sentence to tell a lie. Use of single words or phrases — “Iraqi sovereignty,” “freedom,” “election,” “security,” “democracy,” “anti-Iraqi forces,” even “courage” and “cowardice” — involve the speaker in deception, for they are the constitutive elements of a framework of thought and belief that is itself a fabrication.

The American occupation of Iraq is something new, but the fundamental error of the United States has a long pedigree. It is the imprisonment of the human mind in ideology backed by violence. The classic example is Stalin’s Russia, under which decades of misrule were rationalized as a “stage” on the way to the radiant future of true communism. As for the miserable present, it was amusingly called “actually existing communism.” The future, when it came, of course was not communism at all but the disintegration of the whole enterprise. All the “stages”
turned out to lead nowhere.

Once the mind is in the grip of such a system, every “actually existing” horror can be seen as a mere imperfection in a beautiful larger picture, every defeat a stage on the way to the glorious future. The simpler and more coherent an ideology, the better it can withstand the assault of fact. So today in Iraq, every act of torture, every flattened city, every gushing sewer, every car-bombing and beheading, is presented as a bump on the road to “freedom” for Iraq, or for the Middle East, or even for the whole world, in which our President has promised an “end to tyranny.” (It’s apparently a rule of ideology that the more sordid the reality, the more grandiosely splendid the eventual goal must be.)

But a moment comes — perhaps it is a sudden defeat, or perhaps it is merely reading a story like Shadid and Fainaru’s — when the fantasy dissolves, and then one is left face to face with the factual truth. All the “exceptions” turn out to be the rule. When that happens with respect to Iraq, America’s grotesque misadventure there — born of lies, sustained by lies and productive of more lies every day it continues — will be brought to a close.

Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World, is the Nation Institute’s Harold Willens Peace Fellow. The Jonathan Schell Reader was recently published by Nation Books.

Copyright 2005 Jonathan Schell

This article will appear in the forthcoming issue of The Nation Magazine.