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 Ba'ath
Party that 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 was raging.
After initially resisting
democratic elections, American occupation administrators finally gave in to
the will of the leading Shi'ite clergyman, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and
agreed to sponsor them. In January 2005, these brought religious parties representing
a long-oppressed Shi'ite majority to power, parties that had largely been in
exile in neighboring Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite
slum "suburb" of eastern Baghdad, which houses perhaps two-and-a-half million
closely packed inhabitants. If freestanding, 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 Ba'athist government U.S. forces overthrew in 2003. Meanwhile, American
troops are fighting the Shi'ite militia of Moqtada 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 Shi'ite 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
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
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
the process this way: "We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count
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 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 percent 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 Lt. Gen. 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 20 evidently took
place in the ongoing battle for Sadr City or greater Baghdad. Among
them were young men from Portland,
Dam, and Fresno
(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,
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 air strikes 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 Shi'ite, not
Sunni) destroy whole buildings, even rows of buildings, even in one case recently
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
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
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 Shi'ite 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
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 Shi'ite 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
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
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' 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
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 percentof 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 12 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
[Note of thanks: Essays like this are only possible because I can
draw on the spadework work of other Web sites, especially, in this case (as
in so many others), of Juan Cole's Informed
Comment, Antiwar.com, Paul Woodward's
The War in Context, and Cursor.org.]
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt