A View From The Handbasket

Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Iraq: Fighting badly? Out of our league?
Posted by Tyrone at 6:56 PM
Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly asks regarding the execution of the war: "Either we're fighting this war very badly, in which case our military leadership deserves criticism, or else the kind of large-scale counterinsurgency we're fighting in Iraq is simply impossible for a country like the United States to win. Which is it?"

Good question, and certainly not one you hear very often [or at all]. Two comments, both by Stefan, go a long way in answering Drum's question [which can be best answered with "c. Both."] The first comment:

There are several forces at work here:

(1) Ideological. Radical Republican ideology demands that any talk of a "rebellion" or "insurgency" be downplayed -- remember that it took Rumsfeld months to even acknowledge that we were in a guerilla war. Officers who fail to toe the White House line on this have their careers destroyed, a la Shinseki.

(2) Structural. The US Army is not set up to fight insurgencies. Its force structure, revolving around heavily armed and armored units, is designed to smash and shock the enemy as fast as possible, not to fight a long, grinding guerilla campaign. In boxing terms, we're the big bruising heavyweight, when what is needed is a spry and agile flyweight.

(3) Careerism. Officers don't get promoted for counter-insurgency work. Ever since Kennedy instituted Special Forces as a separate unit within the military, the conventional officer corps has had a disdain for the snake eaters. You get promoted for commanding a tank brigade, or an artillery unit, not for slogging it out in jungles or deserts where no one can see you. It's not a glamour job.

(4) Military procurement. The Pentagon works hand in glove with deep pocket defense contractors. Defense contractors, by the nature of their work, would rather sell the military fancy jets and tanks and weapons systems rather than the low-tech gear needed to fight an insurgency. This also encourages officers who want a career with the contractors after they leave the military to encourage those sorts of purchases in order to endear themselves to their future employers.

(5) Culture. To fight an insurgency well, you have to be able to live among the people, to get to know their language and customs, as Lawrence did, for example. The British and French, when fighting their colonial campaigns, had the advantage that most of their forces involved in those campaigns were already living full time in the colonies, knew the culture and language and history. US forces, by contrast, generally are ignorant of this.

The second:

Another factor at work is that US commanders are (rightly so, partially) committed to force protection, i.e. to reducing their casualties to an absolute minimum. So US troops ride around in heavily armored vehicles, wear body armor and helmets, intimidate shoot at any Iraqi that comes close to them, etc. This does a fantastic job of keeping American soldiers alive, but a terrible job of endearing them to the local populace. Insurgencies are beaten with information, but the scowling, heavily armored American pointing a rifle at your family is not the sort of figure most Iraqis want to walk up to and chat with.

The British, by contrast, who have much more experience at fighting insurgencies than we do, think this is approach is insane. They generally patrol on foot, wear berets instead of helmets, shun sunglasses so they can actually make eye contact, etc. Their calculus is that by making themselves more vulnerable in the short run they'll be safer in the long-run because the local populace will befriend and help them.

It's national character, partly. Americans want to eliminate all possibility of risk, even if it turns out to be ultimately more dangerous. Think of it this way: Americans would rather ride in the big SUV which, while it's more far more likely to get in an accident, offers more protection when the accident happens. The British, on the other hand, would rather ride in the agile little sports car which, while offering less protection, is less likely to crash at all because it has better handling.

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