[Marxism] Active duty GI's NY Times op-ed: "We are an army of occupation"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 19 10:17:09 MDT 2007

NY Times, August 19, 2007
Op-Ed Contributors
The War as We Saw It


VIEWED from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political 
debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by 
definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for 
the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with 
an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win 
over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is 
far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers 
with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical 
of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly 
manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and 
social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views 
and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in 
Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered 
framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset 
by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the 
same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do 
not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite 
militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more 
complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi 
police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United 
States taxpayers’ expense.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American 
soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal 
armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint 
and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American 
investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the 
triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their 
own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the 
incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would 
have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that 
a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be 
considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion 
commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the 
thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of 
command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed 
forces, now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit 
support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may have against 
Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own 
armed bands. We arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a 
counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies are loyal to the center 
that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become 
effective surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties 
would lie in our absence. The Iraqi government finds itself working at 
cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful 
that Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.

In short, we operate in a bewildering context of determined enemies and 
questionable allies, one where the balance of forces on the ground 
remains entirely unclear. (In the course of writing this article, this 
fact became all too clear: one of us, Staff Sergeant Murphy, an Army 
Ranger and reconnaissance team leader, was shot in the head during a 
“time-sensitive target acquisition mission” on Aug. 12; he is expected 
to survive and is being flown to a military hospital in the United 
States.) While we have the will and the resources to fight in this 
context, we are effectively hamstrung because realities on the ground 
require measures we will always refuse — namely, the widespread use of 
lethal and brutal force.

Given the situation, it is important not to assess security from an 
American-centered perspective. The ability of, say, American observers 
to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a 
resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the 
local citizenry and the future of our counterinsurgency. When we take 
this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly 
insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce 
normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we 
continue to arm each warring side.

Coupling our military strategy to an insistence that the Iraqis meet 
political benchmarks for reconciliation is also unhelpful. The morass in 
the government has fueled impatience and confusion while providing no 
semblance of security to average Iraqis. Leaders are far from arriving 
at a lasting political settlement. This should not be surprising, since 
a lasting political solution will not be possible while the military 
situation remains in constant flux.

The Iraqi government is run by the main coalition partners of the 
Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, with Kurds as minority members. 
The Shiite clerical establishment formed the alliance to make sure its 
people did not succumb to the same mistake as in 1920: rebelling against 
the occupying Western force (then the British) and losing what they 
believed was their inherent right to rule Iraq as the majority. The 
qualified and reluctant welcome we received from the Shiites since the 
invasion has to be seen in that historical context. They saw in us 
something useful for the moment.

Now that moment is passing, as the Shiites have achieved what they 
believe is rightfully theirs. Their next task is to figure out how best 
to consolidate the gains, because reconciliation without consolidation 
risks losing it all. Washington’s insistence that the Iraqis correct the 
three gravest mistakes we made — de-Baathification, the dismantling of 
the Iraqi Army and the creation of a loose federalist system of 
government — places us at cross purposes with the government we have 
committed to support.

Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence 
or in ways that meet our benchmarks. It will happen on Iraqi terms when 
the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political 
sphere. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party 
the way we expect, and there will be winners and losers. The choice we 
have left is to decide which side we will take. Trying to please every 
party in the conflict — as we do now — will only ensure we are hated by 
all in the long run.

At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, 
improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we 
have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in 
bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced 
and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, 
telephone services and sanitation. “Lucky” Iraqis live in gated 
communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with 
a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we 
would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging 
in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years 
into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have 
substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and 
criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is 
when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we 
hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep 
resignation, “We need security, not free food.”

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released 
Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of 
their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain 
dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force 
our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let 
Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced 
policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve 
their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be 
defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies 
to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.

We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see 
this mission through.

Buddhika Jayamaha is an Army specialist. Wesley D. Smith is a sergeant. 
Jeremy Roebuck is a sergeant. Omar Mora is a sergeant. Edward Sandmeier 
is a sergeant. Yance T. Gray is a staff sergeant. Jeremy A. Murphy is a 
staff sergeant.

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