Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Unwarlike Warriors

“You can all understand what the performance in war will be of a nation suffering from terror and despair”.
Osama Bin Laden, 28/09/2001[i]

Could it be that the formidable military strength of the United States is no more than a myth? The invasion and ensuing military occupation of Mesopotamia provides the ideal background against which the capability of the US army to act as an instrument for imperial expansion and domination can be measured. It may be stated with some certainty that the US army has proven unequal to the task of bringing about a restoration of law and order in post-war Iraqi society and has been largely ineffective in its efforts to suppress the native movement of armed resistance, both in terms of diminishing the latter’s operational capability and of eliminating its political appeal. Yet, the obvious deficiency of the US military apparatus lies not in its practical failures concerning the pacification of a subjugated nation, nor should it be associated with its incapacity of establishing a regime of strict military control over the vast mass of land which is Iraq. Such a range of difficulties was to be expected provided the absence of any significant post-war planning by Pentagon officials and the gross underestimation of the number of troops that would be needed for establishing control over the conquered territory.
Yet couldn’t this lack of foresight be the byproduct precisely of a patently false notion entertained by US political officials and decision-makers regarding the fighting ability of their armed forces and the quality of their performance in active duty? Indeed, would one be mistaken if he was to attribute such oversights not simply to the incompetence of the Pentagon civilians, but to an overestimation of the US army as a fighting force along with a parallel depreciation of the Iraqi people, of their consciousness as a nation,[ii] of their resolve to oppose the conqueror and their willingness to cooperate and coordinate their efforts so as to attain precisely this end?
Keep in mind, that in the case of Kosovo where the mobilization of the US military apparatus is deemed to have been exemplary in fulfilling its military and strategic objectives, no large-scale ground invasion of Serbian territory was undertaken, nor was there a protracted military occupation of hostile lands. It follows, that prior to the establishment of an American military presence in Iraq, the US army had remained virtually untested to the impact and pressure of actual combat conditions and therefore, it is through its manner of conduct of the Iraqi occupation that we may acquire some useful insights concerning its quality as a fighting force. Mind you, the purpose of the above suppositions is by no means to cast doubt on the technological supremacy of the US army, or on the advanced nature of its mechanical equipment. Rather, our objective is to point out the inefficiency of the human factor, or more appropriately, the deficit of proportionality which exists between the formidable technological capability of the US army and the military competence and skill of the human element (namely, GIs and elite forces) which operates and administers those technical paraphernalia of war in the battlefield. In fact, the case may very well be that it is due to the questionable reliability of US service-members as individual combatants, that the US military industry was obliged to invest so much in the development of an array of highly sophisticated weaponry and cutting-edge military hardware, most of which serve the purpose of eliminating, or severely limiting, the direct contact which takes place between two warring parties in the course of combat. One has only to recall the veritable terror which overcame US strategists when confronted with the possibility of having to launch a ground invasion against Serbia in the event that the air-strikes should prove insufficient to induce Milosevic’s government to relinquish Kosovo and their outright dismissal of such an eventuality as a largely untenable scenario. Once again, I have no intention of doubting the quality of training that US troops receive. However, I am quite convinced of their lack of resolve to fight, which is not necessarily connected with the level and effectiveness of a soldier’s training, their excessive sensitivity to the hardships of war and their unbefitting mindset which does not allow them to function properly during situations which are highly confrontational and expose them to serious and constant threats of physical injury. In fact, it seems to me that the US maintains a showcase army, a force to be admired from afar but never to be put into actual use.
The defects of character of the US military personnel are most in evidence in the proliferation of psychological disturbances and stress related disorders among the soldiers currently serving in Iraq. US soldiers have exhibited a surprising inability to cope with the pressures involved in their role as an occupying army functioning within an unfriendly environment. Few of those well-trained marines have proved capable of withstanding or absorbing the emotional hardships of uninterrupted surrogate warfare, which also entail the taxing impact of bearing witness to the passing away of comrades in arms, and have had recourse to army psychologists in order to obtain some measure of comfort and psychological support. Yet the insurgency in Iraq has shown no signs of subsiding and those troops who are experiencing emotional difficulties have hardly had the opportunity to take repose or abstain from the fighting, even though such a period of inaction and relaxation might be necessary for the restoration of their mental health and the preservation of their worth as fighting men. Needless to say, that such erosion from within might cost dearly to the occupiers, for it might lead to a general collapse of army morale, to the proliferation of phenomena of insubordination and lawlessness in the troops’ conduct (mutiny, application of excessive force, war crimes), finally to the deprivation of their ability to carry out orders in a composed and orderly fashion. In other words, the army’s ability to function properly would be impaired, which would cause it rapidly to disintegrate into a broken force.
To the above we should add that the abject psychological circumstances of US servicemen have not their root cause in a deteriorating military situation,[iii] nor can they be ascribed to a shifting balance of power between the indigenous resistance movement and the occupiers. Even if we accept that the resistance nuclei incorporate no less than 40,000 well-trained, active fighters, the established military ascendancy of the occupying army remains largely undisputed and its defeat or expulsion from Iraq cannot be accomplished by way of direct military confrontation alone. Furthermore, I suspect that an army sustaining casualties at the rate of two (marines) a day, may have reason to be annoyed or exasperated even by the constant harassment, yet it need not worry about losing a war. Particularly when, in a manner which is profoundly ruthless and cynical, it routinely uses its immensely superior firepower to inflict hundredfold casualties among the enemy and the civilian population in the course of reprisals and various military actions of pacification.[iv] It follows, that the source of anguish for US soldiers is not so much the course of the military situation itself, as it is their, most unwarlike, revulsion to the vicissitudes and strains associated with their engagement in a dirty and prolonged campaign of guerilla warfare.
The mental preparation which US forces underwent pending their military expedition in Iraq is yet another factor that might serve to illuminate the causes for their professionally reprehensible conduct in the battlefield. It seems that once the ideological myth of Iraqi “liberation” was emphatically dispelled in the minds of US troops by the hostile reception which they got upon entering the towns and villages of occupied Iraq, individual soldiers were no longer able to morally justify their intrusion of Iraqi sovereignty, except by unconsciously employing a psychological device of vilification of the local population, a vindictive mental disposition towards an ungrateful people who have no understanding of the US service member’s noble intent. The erection of such a fictitious mental construct represents an effort to reconcile the disagreeable nature of empirical reality with the propagandist notions imputed on the collective psyche of US soldiers by virtue of their prewar indoctrination with regard to the political objective of their invasion of Iraq. It is an unconscious function of the human brain which is necessary if the soldier is to retain his morale and, consequently, his ability to wage war effectively. However, to entertain such a distorted view of reality is tantamount to affording oneself a psychological warrant for applying heavy-handed tactics and for committing atrocities against an enemy who is no longer merely an official military rival, but instead has increasingly assumed the status and characteristics of a personalized foe. An added implication is that the distinction between armed combatants and unarmed civilians becomes one which the soldier no longer cares to make, if only for the reason that he chooses to perceive all members of the subjugated population through the self-constructed emotional narrative of betrayal which we discussed above.[v]
It would seem then that the fighting-spirit of US troops depends on the prior cultivation of a paradoxical feeling of acceptance by the very population whom they set out to conquer. Hardly a suitable motivation one might say, for an institution which, in the words of Michael Sawyer, purports to be the “Sword and Shield” of the rising Empire. Furthermore, as such ideological fictions continue to disintegrate, as they surely will, in the face of the army’s perpetual involvement in wars of aggression and imperial campaigns of military conquest and expansion, we may expect them to be substituted by a covertly racist mindset which will provide the necessary theoretical justification for the exercise of oppressive imperial rule over subject nations. In the case of the Arabs, this brand of racism might contain elements and connotations from the traditional doctrines of the biological racism of old. Yet, as far as the “official” doctrine of imperial expansion is concerned, the supremacist cultural trend which is currently emerging within the ranks of US statesmen and military functionaries, can be more accurately referred to as “constitutional racism”, or as “constitutional supremacism”[vi]. A supremacy that is, which does not derive from factors associated with race, natural selection, or even superior cultural standing, but from a nation’s constitutional form of government.

Case Study: The Death of Two Husseins

On the 21st of July, 2003, a significant contingent of US troops surrounded a two-story villa in the city of Mosul, following intelligence that Qusay and Uday Hussein, sons of the deposed dictator of Iraq, had found refuge in the building along with a small band of armed bodyguards. Despite the fact that only minor resistance was expected during the execution of the operation, the military unit assigned with the task received tactical support from a mechanized unit of armed vehicles as well as air-cover by offensive Apache helicopters. The disproportionate force applied by the US military for accomplishing the relatively modest objective of apprehending two fugitives protected by only a few loyal gunmen, might enable us to draw some useful inferences with regard to the US military presence in Iraq.
The deployment of such overwhelming firepower can only correspond to the fulfillment of one tactical objective, which is the avoidance of physical injury and loss of life on the part of the US troops participating in the operation. This mentality should not be confused with the rational calculus to which all military planners engage while planning an operation for the purpose of carrying out an assignment with the loss of as few men as possible, for in this case, the secondary tactical objective appears to override the primary, strategic one. That is, the concern of US military field commanders for the welfare and safety of their troops seems to take precedence over the successful execution of any combat operation which, in the incident under examination, was the extraction and detainment of the two sons of Saddam Hussein. The result of this approach was that the apprehension of the targets failed to materialize and the two fugitives were shot and killed in the process of their extraction. This is indicative of two more general trends which dominate the formulation of US military strategy in Iraq and elsewhere:
Firstly, US generals are acutely aware of the finiteness of the human resources at their disposal. Shortages of military personnel should be attributed primarily to the relatively small overall size of the US armed forces (a numerical shortcoming which is supposedly overcome by the excellent fighting skills of individual soldiers), their proliferation in military bases and installations all over the globe and the inefficiency of the system which the US army has in place for attracting fresh recruits to replenish its dwindling ranks of active fighters. The absence of a stable pool of reliable reservists which may be called upon to replace the existing divisions already stationed in Iraq, has caused American military commanders to be particularly apprehensive of the possibility of sustaining heavy casualties in the course of battle and to regard the preservation of the initial numerical size of their forces as their top priority, even at the expense of their tactical performance and effectiveness. This, in turn, has dire consequences so far as the formulation of a comprehensive strategy for defeating the ongoing insurgency is concerned, creating additional complications in terms of the US military’s relationship to the local population, which increases the hazards for American troops. For instance, had the purpose of the battle of Falluja simply been the capture and pacification of the city, instead of accomplishing these same ends in a way that would strictly minimize human losses on the American side of the conflict, the complete destruction of the city through constant and heavy bombardment could have been avoided and civilian casualties could have been kept at a low level. Furthermore, were we to take American claims about the formidable fighting skills of the individual US trooper at face value, we might expect that even a much smaller expeditionary force of infantry men along with support units for the provision of air cover, could have carried out the operation successfully and without running the risk of losing many men. Could it be then, that even US generals harbor doubts about the quality and effectiveness of the forces under their command?
Another consideration is the risk-averse nature of the personnel itself, which derives partly from military necessity as we have already pointed out, and partly from political considerations regarding the limited willingness of public opinion in the US to accept large-scale casualties among American soldiers as the inescapable consequence of any war effort. Unfortunately, wars can seldom be fought and won in accordance with the aim of upholding the rules of political correctness and avoiding to upset the humanistic sensibilities of the common man. Therefore, American generals tend to use two methods in their effort to reconcile two contradictory objectives, namely win the war in Iraq without provoking a public outcry and the concern of the citizenry at home. The first technique relies upon managing and controlling the flow of information from the front which are to reach the American public. Vigilant censorship, secrecy and a campaign of extensive disinformation, prevent US citizens from obtaining access to the facts and forming an independent perception of the conflict.[vii] These practices do not have the effect of familiarizing the American public with the harsh realities of war and prepare them for the possibility of future military campaigns. On the contrary, they are meant to prevent the conflict from disrupting in any way the daily lives of Americans, to immunize them against the negative effects of war, in short, to render the more destructive, emotionally taxing and unsettling aspects of the war effort ‘invisible’ to the wider American public.
Secondly, the application of the most barbaric counterinsurgency tactics which aim to shorten the time-span of the rebellion, by breaking the morale of the local population and causing disillusionment among ordinary Iraqis concerning the very purpose, viability and indeed desirability of the resistance movement. In other words, by increasing the costs of support towards the resistance, the forces of occupation aim at creating a rift between the local sympathizers and the militants, which eventually might serve to isolate the insurgents from the main body of Iraqi society.
All this considering, it is my view that the US occupying force has now entered the initial stages of moral and material disintegration. The symptoms are hard to miss. Mental and psychological exhaustion of the troops, unlawful and inhuman behavior towards POWs and enemy fighters and the conceptual failure of US policymakers to comprehend the nature of the enemy confronting them in Iraq, evincing from their ill-conceived designation of a broad nationalist uprising as a ‘terrorist’ campaign.

[i] From Anonymous, Imperial Hubris (Livani Publishing House, Athens), p.298.
[ii] The inability of Donald Rumsfeld to admit that not only there exists a nationalist element within the underground forces which compose the Iraqi resistance movement, but it also seems to be prevalent in terms of its active membership and the degree of popular support which it enjoys is particular instructive in this respect. It almost amounts to a denunciation or a denial to come to terms with the fact that there is such a thing as an Iraqi national consciousness, which has been severely traumatized by the occupation, at the same time as its energies were being animated by the presence of a foreign army on Iraqi soil and directed towards the end of its expulsion.
[iii] As was the case in Vietnam.
[iv] In the battle for control of Falluja for instance, the final count of American losses did not exceed the number of ten, while enemy fighters and the civilians who had elected to remain in the besieged city were subjected to an indiscriminate massacre by US troops and their native Kurdish auxiliaries.
[v] These rudimentary psychological remarks are drawn from the content of interviews with the US troops serving at the Iraqi frontline presented in Michael Moore’s powerful documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11”.
[vi] The reader should understand this concept as representing the exclusionary counterpart of the inclusive notion of constitutional patriotism.
[vii] Consider for example, the prohibition imposed by the Pentagon to live coverage by TV networks of the coffins of dead US soldiers returning from Iraq. Instead, of being honored as fallen war heroes, the deaths of these men are treated as an embarrassment to the Administration and as an undesirable, ugly reminder of the fact that there is a war going on. An overseas distant war it may be, but a war nonetheless.

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