February 10, 2007

A Brutal and Immoral Policy, Doomed to Horrifying Failure

I've received some inquiries about the source of a quote in my essay, "Triumph of the Monsters." The quote in question is attributed to an American military commander, and appears in this passage concerning John Kerry's remark that "we haven't gotten tough enough" in Iraq:
Let me repeat the only fundamental point that matters here: we have no right to be in Iraq in the first place. Since we have no right to be there at all, by what damnable "right" are we entitled to get "tougher" with the Iraqis? Endless violence, instantaneous death or dismemberment, the inability to live any kind of normal existence, and the destruction of an entire country are the "gifts" we have brought to Iraq. And now we're going to get "tougher"? To call this sickening does not even begin to capture the degree of immorality and dishonesty involved.

Kerry's approach [in his NYT op-ed article] thus veers perilously and disgustingly close to the American military commander who said toward the end of 2003: "You have to understand the Arab mind. ... The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face."
The military commander's statement originally appeared in a New York Times story by Dexter Filkins, dated December 7, 2003. The story's title was: "A Region Inflamed: Strategy; Tough New Tactics by U.S. Tighten Grip on Iraq Towns."

Some of you may not be able to access the article. Because these "tough new tactics" were implemented toward the end of 2003, over three years ago, I think it is more than worth offering a few lengthier excerpts here. Anyone who was paying attention knew almost immediately after the U.S. occupation began that this "mission" was doomed to failure of a particularly horrifying kind. See my essay from October 2003 reprinted in the second half of this post. Additionally, some of us were fully aware, certainly in general terms, of the ultimate outcome before the invasion began; a knowledge of history beyond the fifth-grade level would have told anyone that "success" was always impossible. That, plus the foundational fact that Iraq had not attacked us and did not seriously threaten us, made this expedition both immoral and impractical. That these irrefutable arguments did not halt these plans before they seriously got underway is a testament to the profound, deliberately chosen and cultivated ignorance, as well as the determination to impose our will on the world in defiance of all available evidence, that prevails among the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

From the NYT article of December 7, 2003:
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 in.

The Americans embarked on their get-tough strategy in early November, goaded by what proved to be the deadliest month yet for American forces in Iraq, with 81 soldiers killed by hostile fire. The response they chose is beginning to echo the Israeli counterinsurgency campaign in the occupied territories.

So far, the new approach appears to be succeeding in diminishing the threat to American soldiers. But it appears to be coming at the cost of alienating many of the people the Americans are trying to win over. Abu Hishma is quiet now, but it is angry, too.

In Abu Hishma, encased in a razor-wire fence after repeated attacks on American troops, Iraqi civilians line up to go in and out, filing through an American-guarded checkpoint, each carrying an identification card printed in English only.

"If you have one of these cards, you can come and go," coaxed Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, the battalion commander whose men oversee the village, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. "If you don't have one of these cards, you can't."

The Iraqis nodded and edged their cars through the line. Over to one side, an Iraqi man named Tariq muttered in anger.

"I see no difference between us and the Palestinians," he said. "We didn't expect anything like this after Saddam fell."


American officers here say their new hard-nosed approach reflects a more realistic appreciation of the military and political realities faced by soldiers in the so-called Sunni triangle, the area north and west of Baghdad that is generating the most violence against the Americans.

Underlying the new strategy, the Americans say, is the conviction that only a tougher approach will quell the insurgency and that the new strategy must punish not only the guerrillas but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating.

"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."


The problems in Abu Hishma, a town of 7,000, began in October, when the American military across the Sunni triangle decided to ease off on their military operations to coincide with the onset of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.


The last straw for the Americans came on Nov. 17, when a group of guerrillas fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the front of a Bradley armored personnel carrier. The grenade, with an armored piercing tip, punched through the Bradley's shell and killed Staff Sgt. Dale Panchot, one of its crewmen.

The grenade went straight into the sergeant's chest. With the Bradley still smoldering, the soldiers of the First Battalion, Eighth Infantry, part of the Fourth Infantry Division, surrounded Abu Hishma and searched for the guerrillas. Soldiers began encasing the town in razor wire.

The next day, an American jet dropped a 500-bomb on the house that had been used to attack them. The Americans arrested eight sheiks, the mayor, the police chief and most members of the city council. "We really hammered the place," Maj. Darron Wright said.

Two and a half weeks later, the town of Abu Hishma is enclosed in a barbed-wire fence that stretches for five miles. Men ages 18 to 65 have been ordered to get identification cards. There is only way into the town and one way out.

"This fence is here for your protection," reads the sign posted in front of the barbed-wire fence. "Do not approach or try to cross, or you will be shot."

American forces have used the tactic in other cities, including Awja, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. American forces also sealed off three towns in western Iraq for several days.

"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," Colonel Sassaman said.


In Abu Hishma, residents complain that the village is locked down for 15 hours a day, meaning that they are unable to go to the mosque for morning and evening prayers. They say the curfew does not allow them time to stand in the daylong lines for gasoline and get home before the gate closes for the night.

But mostly, it is a loss of dignity that the villagers talk about. For each identification card, every Iraqi man is assigned a number, which he must hold up when he poses for his mug shot. The card identifies his age and type of car. It is all in English.

"This is absolutely humiliating," said Yasin Mustafa, a 39-year-old primary school teacher. "We are like birds in a cage."
I often feel that words simply cannot convey the true horror of what we have done. That tactics of this kind would inevitably lead to the further horrors that we have seen since, and that we see today, was completely clear to all those who acknowledged the reality of what was happening, and who were honest about what it meant.

Tragically for us, and much more tragically for the Iraqis, that description applies to almost no one in our governing class or in the foreign policy establishment.