Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Feeding the Cauldron by Chohong Choi

“And don't forget that we can't pull out of Iraq now because it would dishonor the troops who haven't died yet.”

-- William Blum

Remember the famous saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”? “Nonsense,” countered one of my history professors in one of my undergraduate courses. “Those who read up on history are still doomed to repeat it!” He must have foretold the actions of the current Bush Administration. Someone in it (probably not Bush himself) must have read up on history, but the ones who call the shots seemed to have conveniently picked out which parts they wanted to remember, and which to forget.

Desert Storm in 1991 was one part they wanted to remember. It was supposed to have laid the ghosts of Vietnam to rest. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was the last major commitment of the US Military and the last war that could be deemed even half a success. But another of my history professors disparaged it as “not a war, but an excursion,” and that was what Bush and his gang intended for their own Iraq war to be, and even go one better than their Desert Storm predecessors by finishing the job of deposing Saddam Hussein. This happened, and Saddam was left to swing (and tragically led a few kids to copy him). But this Iraq war has become more of an air ball than a slam-dunk. Yet, the White House plans to increase troop levels in Iraq by over 20,000. This is evidence of its failure to learn from the lessons presented by an even earlier war that took place in the Middle Eastern Desert.

During World War II, the Axis and Allies fought over North Africa from 1940-1943. The war there grew out of an ambitious desire by Italy to build a new Roman Empire to rival the one its fellow Axis power, Germany, was carving out in Europe. But the Italians were unprepared for a modern war and were soundly beaten by British and Commonwealth forces, losing most of the African colonies they already had in the process. Compelled to save his friend, Mussolini, from embarrassment, Hitler diverted resources -- namely a two-division unit called the Deutsches Afrika Korps under a general named Erwin Rommel -- to North Africa to take on the Allies.

With German assistance, the Axis began to beat back the Allies. But the purpose of Germany’s participation in the North African campaign was not simply to save Italy’s skin. World War II was the first major war for oil, and Hitler had his eye on the plentiful supply of it located in the Middle East and the Caucasus Mountains. The Germans would attempt to seize the Caucasus during their invasion of the Soviet Union with a further possibility of breaking through to Iraq and Iran, where they would link up with Rommel’s forces. Had they succeeded, they would have had access to all the oil they needed for their war. (The petroleum gods did not smile on the Axis, refusing to tell them about the large deposits of oil sitting underneath Italian-controlled Libya, which were not discovered until years after the war.)

Early in the war, both Iraq and Iran were pro-German. Although officially independent, they were under heavy British influence due to the presence of British military bases in the former and British control of the oil industry in both places. (Sound familiar?) In 1941, Britain invaded Iraq to install a pro-Allied government, and she cooperated with the Soviet Union to do the same to Iran later that year. That made the Middle East an Allied domain. [1] If the Axis wanted the oil here, they would have to fight their way through North Africa to get it, and that was what Rommel was on the verge of doing, despite being allotted inadequate resources. By Summer 1942, he was poised to break through to the Suez Canal and the oilfields beyond it. But his poor supply situation then manifested itself when the well-supplied British under their new commander, General Bernard Montgomery, counterattacked and forced him to retreat west, where another Allied force would land that fall to trap him. Rommel knew the game was up, and pleaded with Hitler to evacuate all Axis forces from North Africa so that they could fight another day (in other words, “cut and run”). Hitler was adamantly opposed to this idea, saying that, “North Africa, being the approach to Europe, must be held at all costs.” [2] (That is, we have to fight them there so we will not have to fight them at home.) Then he began to rush troops and materiel to the region (his own version of the “surge”).

It was a matter of too little, too late. Had Rommel received these resources earlier, he could very well have swept the Allies out of North Africa before they became too strong. But become too strong they did, and as a result, they won control of the Mediterranean and were able to disrupt Axis supply lines from Europe. This eventually choked off Axis reinforcements to North Africa and, more importantly, ensured that fewer Axis troops would escape when their leaders finally admitted that the situation there was lost.

Before this happened, Rommel gave his superiors one last chance to reconsider their decision to stand fast in North Africa by buying some time after whipping the newbie Americans at Kasserine Pass. But because his superiors and associates engaged in petty politics, he could not expand his victory. Eventually, he had to turn around and face the stronger British, lost, and was pulled from North Africa by Hitler. When Axis resistance there ended in May 1943, 275,000 prisoners -- over half of them German -- passed into Allied hands. [3] This was a bigger haul of German prisoners than the number bagged after the Soviet victory at Stalingrad earlier in the year -- prompting some of Hitler’s generals to label it “Tunisgrad” (after the city of Tunis in Tunisia, where the Axis made one of their last stands) behind his back. Hitler’s stubbornness left him with over a quarter million fewer men to help defend Festung Europa when the Allies went to invade it.


US forces in Iraq today are not in danger of being annihilated like the Axis in North Africa, but their hold on the country is hardly solid. While the insurgents have no way of interdicting US supply lines into Iraq, that does not mean American troops have been adequately equipped to deal with the insurgency. [4] The well-publicized shortage of up-armored Humvees and the most modern body armor, along with Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of such shortages in his “You go to war with the army you have” line have already become embarrassments to the world’s only superpower. Even though the War in Iraq has become one of America’s most expensive wars, the White House has shortchanged the troops by not providing them with the proper gear.

“獅子搏兔, 全力以赴.”

“A lion uses all its strength to subdue a rabbit,” goes the above Chinese proverb. But the nature of the War in Iraq after “Mission Accomplished” has often forced the US to pit rabbit against rabbit, and sometimes the “wrong” rabbit (or its frequent substitute, the IED) wins. [5] Most of the high-priced, heavy ordnance in the US arsenal have found little application in Iraq after “Shock and Awe” because it has reverted to a relatively low grade, low intensity conflict. When they are used, they inevitably end up killing civilians, which intensifies Iraqi anger at the US and fuels support for the insurgency. The White House ridiculed the estimates of its own military advisors, who stated that 300,000 troops would be needed to keep Iraq pacified and stable. Had it made this number of troops available in 2003, Iraq might be more firmly under the American thumb today. But that time has long passed, and given the growing strength of the insurgency, it is likely that an additional 200,000 troops would not be enough to stabilize Iraq right now.

To make up for its own insufficient troop numbers, the US has recruited Iraqis to form a new Iraqi Army. These should have been the friendly homegrown rabbits that would supplement and hopefully take over from the overextended American breed to combat the rogue homegrown variety. But these friendly rabbits have been dubiously reliable at best (as the Italians had been for the Germans during World War II), while many have turned into weasels, as their ranks have been largely filled by members of militias that are unfriendly to the US A few have gone as far as shooting their American allies in the back. It is much harder to fight, much less win, a war when those who are supposed to be on your side pull an Order 66 on you.

The fact that they could be attacked from any angle in Iraq will make at least some American troops extremely trigger happy. In recent years, there have been a few studies in several medical journals that have found the percentage of troops who have discharged their weapons at the enemy to be as high as 86 percent. [6] This high end figure is comparable to that from Vietnam (95 percent), another war in which there were few front lines, but is a lot higher than that from World War II, in which only about a quarter of all American ground troops fired their own weapons. [7] The recent incident involving English-speaking insurgents dressed as American soldiers driving American vehicles to enter a government facility outside of Baghdad, passing three checkpoints to do so, before killing one American soldier, wounding three, and kidnapping four other soldiers (whom they later executed) is a sign of the insurgents’ growing sophistication, and will only exacerbate the fears of surviving American soldiers by making them even more likely to shoot first before asking questions [8], which is counterproductive because it will create new insurgents faster than they can be killed. (They keep popping up like . . . rabbits.)

So this is the kind of environment to which the Bush Administration wants to commit another 20,000-plus American soldiers. Even in the age of remote controlled, push button weapons systems, war remains a bloody business that still very much depends on the actions of the humble footslogger, and the US does not have enough of these right now to fulfill all of its leaders’ bellicose ambitions. It has suffered over 3,100 killed in Iraq thus far, a figure that may seem light after almost four years of war, especially when compared to a bloodbath like Gettysburg during the Civil War, in which the Union Army sustained over 3,100 dead in just three days. But being picked off one by one is hardly a better fate than dying en masse. If anything, it prolongs the agony.

The 3,100-plus dead in Iraq today are likely spread unevenly among the troops. Also known as the “sharp end,” frontline combat personnel in Iraq today comprise less than a quarter of all troops there, and this is consistent with the American practice of having a strong support network for frontline troops, who do most of the fighting and suffer a disproportionate percentage of the casualties. [9] There was never any question that ounce for ounce, gram for gram, or whatever unit of weight measurement you use, the average American soldier is superior to the average Iraqi insurgent in terms of his/her level of training and equipment (the obsolescent body armor notwithstanding). But this edge comes at a price. It takes many months to train an American soldier (and years for those in the elite units), while it may only take days to train an insurgent, which makes it harder for the US to replenish its losses in the long run. Also, a new insurgent has likely experienced the ravages of war (courtesy of the US) before taking up arms, while the average new American soldier sent to Iraq has not.

But in Iraq, where there are no front lines, even support personnel are vulnerable to insurgent attacks. In one case, an army surgeon in one of its invaluable medical units was killed in an RPG attack just four days before he was scheduled to return home in March 2004. He was one of the healthcare professionals in Iraq who have been providing life-saving medical care for US Military personnel there. This has helped pare down the percentage of soldiers who died from their wounds to less than 12 percent in Iraq, compared to 30 percent during World War II, 25 percent during the Korean War, and 24 percent during Vietnam and Desert Storm. [10] Surgeons are even harder to replace than soldiers.

While medical advances have allowed more soldiers to survive their wounds, they are still subtracted from the order of battle, even if only temporarily, and that is something a stretched-out (and stressed-out) occupation force can ill afford. [11] Those who have been permanently disabled by their injuries and/or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other psychological effects, have found the healthcare system back home for veterans to be inadequate. Physical wounds heal; mental scars remain for a long time, perhaps forever.

But Iraqi physicians and other healthcare workers are suffering even more. According to Iraqi sources, which are not complete, 720 physicians and other healthcare professionals were killed from April 2003 to June 2006. Another 300 physicians had been kidnapped up to April 2005, and 2,000 were estimated to have fled Iraq. [12] Other members of Iraq’s intelligentsia have also been targeted for beatings and assassinations -- and not just by the insurgency, but by the occupiers and their Iraqi subordinates as well. Given their limited numbers within the general population, it is probably, if not definitely, more dangerous to be an advanced degree holder in Iraq than to be a combatant on either side.

“The military values victory. It does not value prolonging,” said the influential military theorist, Sun Tzu. “There has never been a military prolonging that has brought advantage to the state.” [13] General Sun, who lived during the 6th Century BC and had never so much as heard of America, described its present day plight succinctly and accurately. As China, Sun’s native country and ostensible ally in the War on Terror, upgrades its military, makes economic alliances around the world with comparative ease, and helps fund the war, it is most probably witnessing the blunting of American war making potential with a mixture of curiosity and concealed delight. This could be a long term problem for the US, and one that could worsen the longer it remains stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Make no bones about it; the world’s most powerful military is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its troops are bearing the brunt of this morass. They have grown increasingly tired of being in a foreign land where most of the locals want them out and support attacks on them, while their adversaries are not going anywhere anytime soon. The White House gambled on a quick victory that would allow it to shift troops elsewhere in its War on Terror, but its plans have been swallowed up by the quicksand of Iraq. Like Hitler, the US has opened up too many fronts in this war, and has been unable to win on any of them. Even worse, its troops have the added duty of maintaining order amid increasing sectarian violence in Iraq, and given its less than stellar history of getting involved in other countries’ civil wars, this is one thankless task.

The argument that the troops must remain in Iraq to effect its transition to a functioning country rings hollow to some frontline American soldiers. "There is no doubt in my mind that when the coalition does leave that this situation will get resolved within a fairly short period of time. These people will figure it out. It may be ugly. It may be very ugly. But they will figure it out," commented an officer who has to train and prepare Iraqi troops to take over the defense of their own country, but has discovered that the Iraqis want to do things their own way.

In that case, there is no purpose in having American soldiers remain in Iraq, much less sending more of them there. Iraqis have to decide what is best for themselves without the interference of any outsiders. Such a process will be chaotic, even brutal, and there is no guarantee that it will succeed, but at least the Iraqis will get to succeed or fail on their own terms. Americans wanted the same thing after they won their independence and later fought their own internal conflict, and it would be folly for us to believe that allegedly sovereign people elsewhere would demand to be treated differently.

Democracy’s Burden

Civilian control of the military was supposed to be the panacea that would rectify those wrongs committed by countries whose governments have been run by the military throughout history because such countries seemed to have a knack for getting into wars. But what Nazi Germany and the US today have shown us is that civilian leaders (despite their uniforms, Hitler and the Nazis were civilians who made every German soldier swear an oath of loyalty to them, not to the army or to Germany) are just as capable as any junta of leading their people into costly wars and mismanaging them so that they become unwinnable. The fact that none of the principal players in the Bush Administration has military experience (after Colin Powell resigned) has created a rift between it and certain members of the military’s top brass -- a rift that was covered up when times were good, but which has been inconveniently exposed as the military situation in Iraq continues to unravel.

Congress, now (nominally) controlled by the Democrats, is showing signs of resistance to Bush’s plan, but he has vowed to proceed with it. “You cannot run a war by committee,” said Vice President Dick Cheney. Hitler would have agreed, and he and Cheney would be wrong. Cheney ought to refresh himself on his own country’s history because war by committee was a big reason why the Allies were victorious in World War II. The then-new Joint Chiefs of Staff were given more latitude by the White House to plan and execute the war, and, despite the usual inter-service rivalries and clash of egos, were able to cooperate well enough among themselves and then with their British counterparts (as the Combined Chiefs of Staff) to forge what was arguably the most successful military coalition in history.

In case World War II seems too much like forgotten antiquity for Cheney, he could simply look back to his time as Secretary of Defense under Bush’s father during Desert Storm. He and his subordinates worked as a team (see picture), and they were quite effective, even if the objectives of that war were different from the ones in the current war. It also helped that Desert Storm was a quick war, although it left Saddam Hussein in power, and the gathering of nations to evict Iraq from Kuwait actually resembled a coalition. After all, the rest of the countries in the coalition, not the US, paid for most of the costs of that war. Aside from almost 15,000 Coalition troops (almost half of them British) and the suspect new Iraqi Army, the US is essentially going it alone in Iraq today. As the current war continues without any sign of victory on the horizon, few countries are willing to hop on the US bandwagon, while many have actually hopped off. In a way, Cheney got what he wanted, but whether he wants what he has gotten is another story.

Sorry, Dick, but that looks like a committee to me. (Dept. of Defense photo)

Or perhaps Bush and Cheney already know that the war is lost, and their proposed troop increase is intended to show that they still support the troops, which would allow them to cast those who question this plan as anti-military, as one columnist suggested. Whatever the reason, American troops in Iraq will continue to be exposed to insurgent bullets and bombs, as well as other hazards, which will ensure that more of them will return home horizontally instead of vertically. The ranks of those who return in a state that is somewhere in between will also swell, and, as mentioned earlier, they will require medical and social attention their country may not be able to give as their leaders continue to devote resources in pursuit of that elusive victory.

The same professor of mine who called Desert Storm an excursion was unequivocal about his opinion of the German people during World War II: “There were very few good Germans.” All the crimes the Nazis committed were done in the name of the German people. Similarly, how many people in Iraq and elsewhere are today saying, “There are very few good Americans”? The transgressions our government has committed in Iraq have been done in our name. While there are a number of similarities between Germany’s military situation during World War II and America’s military situation in Iraq today, there is one crucial item that ordinary Germans lacked back then, but which Americans today still have: a voice. Germans at the time had very little experience with democracy, while Americans today have had it for over two centuries. But in recent decades, most of us seemed to have forgotten our responsibilities as citizens. [14]

Belatedly, however, people across the political spectrum are rediscovering their right to at least raise doubts about their government’s decisions. Freedom of speech is a powerful tool, and one that did not happen easily, so obediently not exercising it when a government official tells us to “watch what we say” is no different from not having it at all. Whether or not the US loses this war, and it looks more like “when” rather than “whether” with each passing day, its leaders, barring impeachment or indictment for war crimes, can simply return home and live out the rest of their days on their stock holdings and public pensions once their terms end in January 2009. We the People will be known as the ones who let them get away with it, and we cannot blame our inaction on some totalitarian government that has terrified most of us into silence. Many of us voted for this government -- not once, but twice -- so the blood is on our hands too. Standing up for your country by putting your life on the line for it takes courage, but so does admitting when something has gone wrong and then cutting your losses instead of letting yourself sink deeper into the hole.

History has repeated itself, but it has not repeated itself in exactly the same way. The situation in Iraq is different in some aspects from that in Vietnam. For one thing, Vietnam did not have large oil deposits, so the US cut and ran from there relatively easily. The oil of the Middle East is a big reason why American leaders will not leave the region without a fight, even if that means sacrificing tens of thousands of our troops. Also, despite their increasing skill, the insurgents are still little more than partisans, whereas the North Vietnamese had an organized army and even a small air force and navy. While the insurgents are probably too strong to defeat militarily, they are still not strong enough to evict the US from Iraq through force.

But like Vietnam, they can make the war so unpopular at home that more and more Americans will demand a political solution to it, and by the looks of it, they are succeeding. The 2006 midterm elections have been the strongest censure by the American people of their country’s war policy thus far, but simply voting is not enough. Now is the time to follow up on our votes by demanding that our (s)elected representatives do everything they can to stop the bleeding. Cutting and running will be humiliating, no doubt, but this war was fought under false pretenses, and we are better off admitting defeat and returning home to lick our wounds. We Americans may think that our brand of democracy is the world’s premier form of government, so now the world is watching us, waiting to see how well we can back up our talk.

Too many of us have instilled in our democracy the same kind of legend with which we have surrounded Thanksgiving. We think that we could just set aside two days every November to observe both, while paying lip service to the former and engaging in something that resembles “Thanks-taking” the rest of the year. But democracy is potentially the weakest of all forms of government because its power could only be upheld through the active and constant participation in all its processes by as many concerned citizens as possible. That is the “unused democratic capacity” Ralph Nader wrote about recently, and few would know better than he. Democracy is about scrutiny, agitation, and plenty of infighting, which is why it can be messy and annoying to some people. But it is a right that otherwise powerless people still have in America, and we have to use it to try to find a better solution to the Iraq dilemma. It is one thing if we try to do something about it, late as it is, and fail, but quite another if we abandon the effort to do anything at all.

Chohong Choi has lived in Hong Kong and New York, and can be reached at: a9591321@graduate.hku.hk.

Other Articles by Chohong Choi

* The Gilded Folly of This Land
* The US is Not the Only Place With an Appetite for Energy Consumption
* Hong Kong’s “Free Market”: Someone Pays
* Revenge of the Shift Worker

[1]Robert Leckie, Delivered from Evil: the Saga of World War II (New York: HarperPerennial, 1987), p.232-233.

[2] Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: the War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002), p.164.

[3] Leckie, p.519.

[4] I should make a note about the use of the terms “insurgent” and “insurgency”. They have been used so often to describe the armed resistance to the American occupation that they have become generic, although they could be deemed pejorative to the resistance.

[5] I was reminded of this proverb by Leckie, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, in Delivered from Evil, p.423. Also, thanks to my colleague, Kelvin Wong, for making the effort to search for the appropriate translation for me.

[6] Charles W. Hoge, et al., “Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mental Health Problems, and Barriers to Care,” New England Journal of Medicine 2004 Jul 1; 351 (1): 13-22. I should point out that the troops surveyed in this article served in the war’s early stages, when they still confronted a conventional enemy and the insurgency had not yet taken shape. The article also indicated that 77-87 percent of these troops shot at or directed fire at the enemy, although no more than 22 percent of them had engaged in hand-to-hand (close quarters) combat. The practice of directing fire involved ordering others to fire their personal weapons and probably included calling down artillery or air strikes, the latter of which are more effective against enemies like the old Iraqi Army, but less so against insurgents. In a 2006 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Hoge and others, after surveying a much larger sample (222,620) of troops who returned from Iraq, reported that only 17.8 percent of them discharged their weapons at the enemy, although Hoge confirmed to me by e-mail that this figure included service personnel. See Hoge, et al., “Mental Health Problems, Use of Mental Health Services, and Attrition from Military Service after Returning from Deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan,” JAMA, March 1, 2006, Vol.295, No.9, p.1023-1032. In a 2006 American Journal of Psychiatry article, Hoge continued his work on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with others. They surveyed a very small sample (613) of Iraq War veterans (all from the Army) who were all wounded in combat, and 57.1 percent of them reported having shot or directed fire at the enemy. Follow-up surveys at three-month intervals conducted with a portion (243) of this group revealed that 55.1 percent of them had shot or directed fire at the enemy. See Thomas A. Grieger, et al., “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Depression in Battle-Injured Soldiers,” AJP 2006 Oct; 163:1777-1783.

[7] Jane Lampman, “Is Anyone Ever Truly Prepared to Kill?” Christian Science Monitor (rpt. Commondreams.org), September 29, 2004; Michael C.C. Adams, The Best War Ever: America and World War II (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), p.96. Lampman’s article gave a figure of 15-20 percent of all American infantry firing their weapons, while Adams’ book gave a figure of at least 25 percent.

[8] This has been going on for some time. For example, see Richard Paddock, “Shots to the Heart of Iraq,” Los Angeles Times (rpt. Commondreams.org), July 25, 2005.

[9] During World War II, only 14 percent of all U.S. Army personnel were frontline combat personnel (infantry). But they suffered 70 percent of all battle casualties. (See Roger J. Spiller, “My Guns,” American Heritage, December 1991, Vol.42, No.8.) However, WWII was a still largely a war of front lines, whereas Iraq is not, so the percentage of casualties suffered by “rear area” personnel in Iraq is probably higher than in WWII, although frontline combat troops have still likely suffered the majority of American casualties in Iraq.

[10] Atul Gawande, “Notes of a Surgeon: Casualties of War – Military Care for the Wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan,” NEJM 2004 Dec 9; 351 (24): 2471-2475. This is how I arrived at the fatality rate for the current war: I took the latest casualty counts I could find online from Iraq Coalition Casualties (or simply iCasualties.org) and Antiwar.com, as well as from the Department of Defense. As of February 13, 2007, the U.S. Military had suffered 26,656 casualties, which breaks down to 3,126 killed (according to iCasualties.org and Antiwar.com) and 23,530 wounded (according to the DoD, which updates its casualty count more slowly than the other two sites). Therefore, 3,126 out of 26,656 means a fatality rate of 11.7 percent. The casualty figure does not include PTSD cases.

[11] According to iCasualties.org, the ratio of American soldiers in Iraq who were wounded, but returned to duty within three days (72 hours), to those who were out longer was about 1.25:1 for the entire war up to and including February 7, 2007.

[12] Adam Piore, “Historian Finally Forced to Flee Baghdad's Ruins,” SCMP, February 11, 2007, p.A11.

[13] Sun Tzu, The Art of War: A New Translation/Translations, Essays and Commentary by the Denma Translation Group (Boston: Shambhala, 2001), p.7-8, 136, 139.

[14] The Nation editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wrote a nice, little article late last year about actor Richard Dreyfuss’ concern over the lack of civics education in the U.S. See “Citizen Dreyfuss,” The Nation (rpt. Commondreams.org), December 15, 2006.