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The Mess We've Made
Or rather, unleashed, in Iraq. Seven American soldiers, now coming home, tell it the way they see it in The New York Times. From the bit at the end of the piece:

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.

They write:

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.

...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 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.

Any chance of that policy suggestion succeeding? Or any policy succeeding? Or, are these people going to keep killing each other until the end of time?

Posted by aalkon at August 19, 2007 11:52 AM


I'd say they are going to keep killing each other until the end of time. It is what economists call "perfection of markets", e.g. over time automakers build better cars, with increased labor force productivity. Over time, Iraqis get better at killing people, with more productivity.

The soldiers seem to have described the problems pretty well, but then they seem to drift off into the usual talking points:

"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."

Calling Oprah.

"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."

Soldiers wrote this? Strange.

"it would be prudent to...let...Iraqis take center stage..."

*let* them take center stage? We are dragging them to center stage, but they keep running away to plant some more IEDs.

Posted by: doombuggy at August 19, 2007 1:41 AM

The "self-respect" line bugged me, too.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 19, 2007 5:11 AM

> we have substituted Baath Party
> tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist,
> militia and criminal violence.

So Saddam's violence was to be preferred, because it was "legal"?

As always, the question about the Iraq invasion is compared to what?

The New York Times has the resources to find anyone who can say anything. They could find the one guy in a wheelchair who thinks the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was a scam, or the one autoworker who thought the Chrysler bailout was a mistake. Now, these opinions may even be representative of how most soldiers over there feel about things. But if the NYT wrote that the sun was going to rise over Baghdad tomorrow, I'd want independent confirmation.

Posted by: Crid at August 19, 2007 9:11 AM

I came home as a infantry sergeant from Vietnam. I had ideas about how the war was going and should have been fought. The difference was I would sit with my dad and uncles (WWII) and cousins (Korea) and discuss how the war should have been fought to win after dinner at my Grandmother's dinner table. It was different then.

Posted by: Dave at August 19, 2007 9:27 AM

So Saddam's violence was to be preferred, because it was "legal"?
Saddam's violence was better because it was rational, a thing that could not be said about religious fanatics (i.e. "fledgling democracy") that are now in charge of the country.

Posted by: Nikolay at August 19, 2007 9:34 AM

Call me a wimpy niggler, but I think watching someone get tossed into a plastic shredder would put me into a condition of deep irrationality.

Posted by: Crid at August 19, 2007 10:19 AM

Sure it was rational. They only raped women. On second thought, I am not sure that is a true statement. I need some examples as to how Saddam's violence was rational.

Posted by: Dave at August 19, 2007 10:25 AM

Unfortunately for George Bush we will never really know if he did the right thing in bringing down Saddam's regime. There is enough evidence to prove that Saddam was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons (with the help of France and Russia) that to deny it is to make yourself look ignorant. Could he have been trusted with nuclear arms? Could his sons? Doubtful. The really sobering thought about all this is that Iran is close to their goal of being a nuclear power (with the help of Russia). And think about Pakistan's nukes that will eventually fall into the hands of nuts when the Mullas depose Pervez Musharraf.
It's a hard future we face.

Posted by: steve at August 19, 2007 11:13 AM

Compared to what?

Saddamn's terror was not better. But it's not clear that it was worse.

So what have we actually done for the Iraqis? And what have we done for us or the rest of the world in the meantime?

Opportunity Costs.

Compared to Afghanistan done right, or Afghanistan and Darfur done right, what we have is Afghanistan and Iraq done wrong and Darfur ignored.

Compared to that.

Posted by: jerry at August 19, 2007 3:27 PM

> it's not clear that
> it was worse.

Well, no for us, you mean.

> Compared to that.

Oh, don't be so bashful. Flesh it out for us... Weave a tale, go nuts. What would have been Afghanistan and Iraq done right? You so clearly have something in mind.

Posted by: Crid at August 19, 2007 3:56 PM

It's not clear that it was any worse for the Iraqis. Death by Saddam at Abu Ghraib, or death in the market by suicide bomber -- you're both dead, and in pretty close to the same amounts of dead by many measurements. At least the markets had food, it was relatively safe to shop, Iraqis had more electricity, there was relative peace between religions, and there people could get an education.

Afghanistan done right? Well, we would not have withdrawn our troops and left Bin Laden to escape, we would not have withdrawn our troops and let the Taliban come back, we would have done the nation building that was required (and probably asked Nike, the Gap, and other maquiladora type enterprises to help out) and I think that with jobs, money, and Starbucks, it would have been a little smoother than what we see today.

You'll note that I actually didn't include Iraq done right. Iraq wasn't a threat to us.

And with the world acclaim for having captured Bin Laden and created a more of a free market democracy of some sort in Afghanistan, we probably would have had an easier time of dealing with both Pakistan and India and found it easier to find UN or NATO allies to help out in Darfur and found it easier to bluff Iran, North Korea, and Russia, all of whom know we aren't packing much in our pants these days.

Posted by: jerry at August 19, 2007 5:42 PM

> Iraq wasn't a threat to us.

> there people could get
> an education.

Are you fucking with me?

> we would not have withdrawn
> our troops and left Bin Laden
> to escape

Tell us more about how that was supposed to go. Exactly which mountain road did he cross out through? (Answer softly! The walls have ears!)

You are so wrong about all this.

Posted by: Crid at August 19, 2007 7:14 PM

Bin what's his name is dead. Let the Marines fight like Marines and the rest will be dead. The Army will clean up the rest of mess. Sashimi was very good at Yuki Hana tonight. So was the Saki.

Posted by: Dave at August 19, 2007 8:52 PM

If you must do sushi by airmail, Tsunami is better.

Also, they had the most beautiful waitress I've ever seen in a Japanese restaurant. Her cheekbones were majestic, authoritarian, rosy peaks over a polished, taught chin. Her eyes, two coy, teasing almonds... Her shoulders were almost masculine in their sturdiness, but melded girlishly across her deeply bosomed torso and theatrically swelling hips... Legs, laughing up to there with their athleticism and hairless wonder.

And then she spoke.

And she had the voice of a fuckin' railyard worker, and I was reminded that this was the Windy City.

Did you wanna get some fuckin' sake, or what? Naw... We doe validate parking here. Sorry.

Posted by: Crid at August 19, 2007 10:02 PM

What Saddam had was not rationality, but order. I'd hesitate to call it law-and-order because I think he ruled by decree, but he did impose public order. That's what the man is referring to when he says “We need security, not free food.” And that's the main thing that's missing right now. This is not an argument for keeping Saddam. It's an argument for not taking him out and then sitting around twiddling your thumbs while the various factions arm themselves and move into the vacuum. Though who's to say it would have made any difference: there's so many old scores to settle, some of them going back centuries or millennia.

Posted by: Norman at August 20, 2007 12:23 AM

“We need security, not free food.” Good old Maslow hits the spot again.

Posted by: norman at August 20, 2007 12:27 AM

> Though who's to say it would
> have made any difference:

Goddamit Norman, you are. Pick a team: What do you want?

I'll never understand how people can stare absetnly into a misty middle distance of uncertainty and timeless mystery and then, in the next breath, speak with absolute certainty about the wrongness of the invasion.

Posted by: Crid at August 20, 2007 8:38 AM

Crid - I've said before, the main thing wrong with the invasion is that it was 12 years later than it need have been. We desperately need to learn how to deal with people like Saddam, who currently hide behind national sovreignty.

Iraq has not been a great success so far. We should learn from it and do the next one better.

Posted by: Norman at August 20, 2007 11:59 PM

Where were the anthropologists when this war was being planned? Not the PC cultural relativists but people who really know this region and don't have a political ax to grind. Are there any? What are our colleges turning out these days? The default major is social science. There must be a lot of them running around looking for work somewhere besides Mickey D's.

Government at all levels calls in experts to make up for the ignorance of elected officials whose only strength is their ability to hire other experts to get or keep them in public office, why not get some advice on this war before stirring up a hornets nest?

In spite of our good intentions there is often a reason why 'brutal' dictators are in place, to keep the savages they rule under control.

Knowledgeable citizens in such countries realize that they face a difficult choice, supporting a tyrant or chaos. Without a process for orderly change of government and tolerance of a loyal opposition, the biggest benefits of a working democracy, not just the right to vote, said tyrant has to ride the tiger or be eaten by it.

Our efforts to spread democracy have succeeded in taking the lid off the pot and let it boil over. Unlike tyranny, democracy can't be imposed from without. Let the people get their own act together and kick their oppressors out, if they want democracy. That will mean they will have to put aside their differences and work together for a change. That might be a good start toward future self-government.

Democracy isn't for everyone, only for those who are able to handle it. I have severe doubts about the USA in that department. Look at the people we have elected to run the country. The Democrats pander to the 'have not's', they are even proud of the fact. Do those people who can't even succeed in running their own lives know what is good for the country? Heck, no, they just want entitlement programs and welfare checks, public housing and free health care. Free, that is as long as there are working people to pay for it, and for their own while they subsidize the indigent who are collection-proof. And the Republicans have sold out to the belief crowd. Without them, though, who would counter the legions of those who fail to thrive on their own.

The only thing we can still do freely is criticize our government. How much longer will that last?

Posted by: Jim H. at August 28, 2007 6:38 PM

The anthropologists are out there. I don't know the ones who work on Iraq, but I know many. The thing is, they can't just ring The White House and march on over. Their input has to be wanted by those who are going in, and I'm guessing they wanted nothing but high fives for their plans.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 28, 2007 8:15 PM

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