Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Biggest Gang

[posted by Callimachus]

Somewhere recently I read a quote from U.S. soldier on patrol in Mosul: "This is like a gang war, and we are the biggest gang."

Ah, bingo. That's more insight than the Baker Commission, among others, has on the thing. But then nothing propinks like propinquity, as George Ball used to say.

That's what happens when X invades Y with intent to remain but too little authority to rule. Especially if "Y" is the Middle East. That's how the Crusader states ended up: Just another tribe playing the power game. The Crusaders and the Assassins (Shi'a fanatics) formed a pretty effective informal alliance for a while against the Sunnis.

Nor ought this kind of insurgency-cum-civil-war to be anything new or incomprehensible to Americans. Forget Vietnam: We fought it (from the other side) for long stretches over much of the continent during the Revolution. We fought similar fights in the Indian wars, during Reconstruction, during the colonization of the Philippines.

Never terribly well. Which ought to surprise no one, either. Whenever America sallies forth into the world it does so with a great deal of ignorant good will, with a limited attention span, with a complete lack of planning and an unconscious belief in the ability to fix things on the fly. World War II was the great exception, and that required a herculean effort by Washington and Hollywood and the editorial boards of the newspapers to keep the country on task.

If Churchill didn't say "You can count on America to do the right thing -- after everything else has been tried," he ought to have. Inevitably, after the thing got all bollixed up, the public ran out of patience. Usually someone rose to the top -- a Grant or a Reagan -- who had the vision and the cold-heartedness to push the thing through to conclusion.

We keep making movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I'm convinced the world was much closer to nuclear holocaust in certain months of 1983 and 1985 than it ever was in 1962. Reagan took some amazing risks.

But these long, low-level wars wear us out quickly. They always have. We have cut-and-run wired into us. Meade, the victor of Gettysburg, wrote of the vexing business of being an army of occupation in the South after Appomattox in terms that might ring true to a modern lieutenant in Iraq: "you have not only to be a soldier, but must play the politician, a part ... not only difficult but disagreeable."

As for the Old West, the parallel is even closer. The Indian Wars were brief and sporadic episodes; the usual role of the U.S. Army on the frontier was to try vainly keep the peace between the aggressive settlers and the resentful Indians.

This isn't the classical Hollywood view, of course, in which the blue coats are always trading fire with the savages. There was a good deal of sympathy among the soldiers for the tribes. The men in uniform saw first-hand the venality of many of the settlers and the corruption of the government agencies that oversaw the reservations. Gen. George Crook, addressing West Point's graduates in 1884, told them protecting Indian rights "will frequently require all your intelligence, courage, and energy."

Th officers had no way of knowing where the settlers would press next, or how the Indians would react to it, especially as the U.S., with its paranoia about large standing armies, always had too few troops to be truly effective. [And, like today, they were disproportionately recruited from immigrants -- 46 percent of the U.S. Army was foreign-born in 1870, as opposed to 14 percent of the general population.]

There was a definite aura of quagmire about the whole enterprise. Sherman, during his tenure as the army's commanding general in the early 1880s, told Congress, "The Army cannot foresee or prevent these wars. All it can do is, after the Indians break out, steal, plunder, and kill some harmless farmers, to pursue, scatter, and capture them in detail after infinite toll; then conduct them back to their reservations and turn them loose to repeat the same game ad infinitum."

This is not a new kind of war. It is a very old one. We just keep forgetting.

But we're not just the biggest gang. And this may be our saving grace: We're the most honorable. A recent Los Angeles Times story seems to me to get it right:

Asked how he felt about a proposal to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, Kamil Nasser described a recent encounter with the Americans.

Along with a contingent of Iraqi troops, U.S. forces raided his home just before dawn, he said. They broke down the door, damaged furniture and bound the hands of everyone in the house. They arrested his brother, Hassan, suspecting him of being a member of a violent Shiite Muslim militia.

But the next day the Americans let Hassan go unharmed. They had the wrong guy, they acknowledged. The Americans even apologized.

Nasser shudders to think what would have happened if Iraqi forces alone had nabbed his brother.

"Although I cannot say I like Americans, I do believe it would have been much worse if it were only Iraqis arresting my brother," the 32-year-old real estate broker said. He might never have seen his brother alive again.

Iraqis are staunch nationalists and viscerally oppose the idea of foreign troops occupying their soil. After news of the possible troop increase spread here, many said they want fewer, not more, U.S. forces in Iraq. But scratch at the surface, and a more pragmatic view emerged.

Many Iraqis see the U.S. troops as more honest brokers than Iraqi security forces, which are believed to be corrupt, incompetent and heavily infiltrated by militiamen bearing sectarian grudges.