Monday, March 19, 2007

On War

Tomorrow marks the 4th anniversary of the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Four years and two days ago, I was in Haiti of all places, taking part in service project over spring break. I sat huddled around a radio in Phil and Lonnie Murphy's house, with a dozen other students, listening to President Bush address the nation (and in our case, the world). In that address he made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the United States was ready to invade Iraq in 48 hours unless Saddam Hussein left the country. He didn't. And three days later, while I was tagging along on a medical clinic somewhere in the Plaine de l'Artibonite east of Port-au-Prince, my nation attacked another nation. I missed the whole thing, until the very next day when we stumbled into the Hotel Montana (not kidding, it really exists) and caught the first images via CNN. We were at war.

It was surreal. I remember Phil being very concerned that Muslims worldwide would view the invasion as a holy war -- Christianity against Islam. I remember our group being divided, between our evangelical love of George W. Bush and our reticence to see America at war. Listening to the president on a transistor radio hundreds of miles from home, it almost felt like we were watching the whole thing from the outside. Viewing those first pictures of war four days later didn't do much to bridge the divide. While we were hanging out with orphans and missionary kids and AIDS patients, our country was blowing people up half a world away. On the flight back, we had to adjust to the fact that we were returning to a campus and a nation where we'd be completely out of the loop. We had to adjust to the fact that when we left, Iraq was just another pesky player in the Axis of Evil, but when we returned, we were bombing the shit out of 'em, throttles wide open, all the way to Baghdad.

I remember two conversations in particular between coming home and Bush's speech from the USS Abraham Lincoln in which he declared an "end of major combat." One with a friend of mine who was initially opposed to the invasion, but who couldn't help cheering along with the Iraqis as the tore down big fucking statues of Saddam Hussein. In those moments, he could see the good we were doing, even though he disagreed with the means whereby which we were doing it. And another conversation in the RichLynn library, with another friend who asked me what I thought of it all. And I, choosing my words oh-so-carefully, trying to express how even though I thought our eagerness to invade before all other avenues were exhausted was hubris in the first degree, I couldn't help feeling that the Iraqi people were better off with Saddam out of the way, ready to start a new life and a new country with freedoms they had only dreamed of.

Four years later I'm driving to Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers in Rutland, Vermont when I see a crowd of 30 or 40 people lined up along the highway, protesting that very same war. And it's so confusing. And maddening. Not to mention disheartening. And infuriating. At this point, I don't think most people even understand what the hell is going on in Iraq. The first war we fought was over by the end of 2003. Then the Insurgency -- but since the 2005 elections, even that has become overshadowed by something more insidious. No longer do terrorists, foreign or domestic, account for the majority of violence in Iraq. A recent Pentagon report puts most of the bloodshed firmly in the hands of sectarian violence, that is to say, acts of violence between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority who held power under Saddam. And all that stands between these two groups and all out civil war, the scale of which could lead to genocide not seen since Rwanda, is the U.S. military.

The fact of the matter is, we're no longer fighting for democracy or liberty or oil or freedom from the terrorists. We're holding back a torrent of violence that certain Sunnis and certain Shiites wish to unleash upon each other, regardless of our presence or non-presence. That's not to say that all Iraqis are ready for civil war. Many just want to provide for their families and live in peace. But I'm sure there were plenty of people who felt like that in Virginia and Illinois and Kansas come 1861.

However, once that kind of war starts, it's impossible to avoid picking sides.

So that's that. I have no great love for our current president or his administration. I have no respect for men who lead our nation to war based on fudged data, half-truths and outright lies. But this so-called "surge" is really our last hope. If it doesn't work, expect this country (Democrat and Republican) to resign itself to its fate, and leave the Iraqis to their own devices. But do not, under any circumstances, expect peace to follow. Expect the violence to continue. Expect the death-toll to rise. And expect us to watch in shame and horror, followed by a number of years of second-guessing and misplaced guilt.

What kind of peace is that?

This war was no Vietnam. But expect the aftermath, should we withdraw now, to be just as devastating.

I don't like this war. I don't like how we were mislead in March of 2003. I don't like how it's been handled ever since. I don't like having my high school friends fight it while I hang out with elementary kids in Vermont. I don't like how a generation of our best and brightest are sacrificing their lives for aims that are about as clear as mud. But we're the bull. And we leveled the china shop. And if don't pick up the pieces, who the hell will?


Jeff BBz said...

While I appreciate you honesty and refusal to fall into easy categorization, nor blindly accept the nonsense coming from all sides in the war debacle, I believe that you are missing the point with coming at the issue from this angle. However, for some reason, I am going to ignore the underlying rationale behind our opposing viewpoints and talk surface level differences.

(ie, the hell place does a christian have doing anything that looks like supporting, even exasperatedly and with lots of justifications, an organization whose purpose and mode of operation are so completely opposite of anything jesus ever talked about)(that organization being both the Military, and this ol' USA!)

I can agree with some of this. The majority of the people protesting are not protesting the act of war, the illegality of this particular war, the stupidity with which it has been carried out, the lack of understanding of Islam, Iraqi Islam, Iraqi history, politics, and culture, nor the idea that military power is a an actual way to solve anything.

No people are protesting fatigue, that things didn't go as fast as we wanted and that some of our friends and family members died. People are protesting that now we look bad to most of the world, and why couldn't we have just done it quickly and nicely.

This kind of protest, shows a shallow understanding of war, nation building, international affairs, etc...and is not the kind of protesting I am interested in.

If anything this war should illustrate the poor idea that war is in general, but instead people just view it as another war which was messed up, instead of the supposedly nice, neat, and orderly wars we could be having. Thus we are not concerned, as usual, with "the other," but rather with how our mishandling of bombing the fuck out of their kids and grandparents effects and reflects upon us.

And thus all sides drink a hearty glass of isolationism and xenophobia. "Get the troops out of there," from most people means "lets take care of ours, to hell with that mess we just made."

But I have some problems with some of resignations. First of all, you seem to be basing your opinion on this new pentagon report. Before doing such things you may want to remember who the pentagon is, who they are connected with, and what their aims may be. Yeah, its us. and their assumptions are going to be highly colored by that. Their assumptions are also a little bit offbase. Is it surprising to you that the Pentagon, the PENTAGON, would frame the war this way, would say we are on the verge of civil war and the only thing holding it back is the us? Come on...

1. It's ridiculous to say that it is a completely internal conflict. Almost no war or conflict, especially in the last century has been an completely internal conflict. It is also impossible to say because as long as we are there, there is an outside force, one that is the source of a lot of problems and on that is the target of a lot of animosity. That's just common sense. (and also makes confusing that build up on the Iranian border that we said is just to keep Iran from "intervening"?)

2. This idea of the internal civil war is not without credence as there is a practical civil war raging throughout the country. However, where we go quite wrong is our instance that this was something boiling underneath the surface and that we merely opened up a can of worms. NO! A lot of this thought is based upon a book by Peter Galbraith, The end of Iraq, who is meddling about saying that this battle between Shia and Sunni has been raging for thousands of years. He is also responsible for the idea that we ought to cut up Iraq (an idea inconceivable to most iraqis) into parts because thats the only way it can have peace. This is simply not the case. Most of the problems have been, as they are now the case of outside forces, or Saddam Hussien with the assistance of outside forces, causing huge messes, without consideration of who will clean up later. What is happening is not a massive almost civil war between groups that were merely forced to live together under Saddam and now are in a struggle for power. It's much more complicated than that and most of it is related to the USA and what we are doing and not doing.

3. What we are doing and not doing. The reason this whole mess of bullshit keeps going on and on and getting worse and worse is because we refuse to admit our mistakes and continue to work in insane and counter productive ways, and in ways which the Iraqi people on both sides don't want and in ways that exasperate and make larger this conflict between Shia and Sunni. So what are we doing now? Instead of reassessing, instead of listening to people in the actual places, instead of listening to outside voices, instead of changing course or exploring new routes, instead of saying sorry we fucked up and fucked up bad, WE CONTINUE FUCKING UP! How can you say that the last hope for Iraq is us sending more soldiers to do the same damn thing they have always been doing, causing only further damage to the messed up situation?

4. What's really insidious is our continued arrogance to know what is best for the Iraqis and think we are the only ones who are helping them and can help them in the future. Most Iraqis want us to leave. Even the Iraqis that don't hate us have continually asked us to leave. Why is that? Either they must want to die in the outbreak of an insane civil war, or they must know something we don't. One thing is for sure, doing the same damn thing we have always done is not going to fix, solve, or end anything. There are loads of policy analysts, activists, and just folks, suggesting all kinds of rational and reasonable ways in which we are messing up and continue to do so, and how we can change that. This is the main problem. The Iraqis are people, If we change our course now, and we really work toward unifying them instead of just killing them and locking them in detention centers and writing phony constitutions and handing out sweet contracts to our rich american company buddies, there is still room for change. The problem is that we are so arrogant we won't do that and we will continue to plow ahead doing whatever we are doing.

5. Finally, what do you mean we have no other way? Do you honestly believe that even if this verge of civil war between religious groups story was the only truth, that the US army is the only thing that could stop it or make it better? Really?

jonny said...

(And now we have a response to a response that’s seven hundred times longer than the original post.)

I appreciate your thoughts, Paco. I need to be pressed when I write from the hip like this, and I'm glad I have friends to do that pressing. I don't think it comes as any shock to people who know me that I have a bad case of "fix-it-itis”. When I see things that are broken, even if I have only a cursory knowledge of the thing in question, I want to fix the hell out of it. Sometimes, it's a good thing. But when I start applying it to everything around me I can turn into a douche real fast.

That being said, let's do some responding.

(As a pre-response, let me say that I will definitely pick up that Christians and the military debate in a future post; I just don't have much of it worked out right now.)

"Get the troops out of there," from most people means "lets take care of ours, to hell with that mess we just made."

This where my fix-it-it is comes in. You're right; we want "clean" wars, like the First Gulf War. And maybe that conflict spoiled us. Since then, we've had a "dirty" war in Somalia, a long "are-we-at-war or aren't-we?" in the Balkans, and a war in Afghanistan we thought was "clean" but turned out not to be. And even though this war in Iraq has gotten far dirtier than we ever imagined it would, I still feel like we should (as arrogant as it sounds) clean up our mess.

The point of my post was to basically challenge people's idea of what "peace" in Iraq might really look like. I'll say more in a moment, but I feel like too many Americans still believe that if we leave, the fighting will stop. And maybe at some point that was true. Now, however, it seems far too myopic a view to hold on to. There are areas of Iraq that are secure and peaceful and being rebuilt. But a conflict in and around Baghdad seems sure to spread should we leave with Iraqi police and security forces not yet ready (or willing) to handle the problem. And (at least in my mind) their problem is our problem, because we’re the ones who tore down their country, and disbanded their army, and overestimated their affection for us, and underestimated the insurgents resolve, and etc., etc., etc.

As for the Pentagon report, here’s why I think it’s reliable. One, it’s not the first we’ve heard this. The media -- and by the media, I really mean The New York Times, the Washington Post, AP, Reuters and NPR, because they’re the only ones with full time correspondents in Iraq these days -- the media have been reporting this for weeks. The Pentagon report only confirms what reporters have been saying for while now: that violence in provinces like Baghdad and Anbar is mostly sectarian in nature. On top of that, the DOD and the White House have been trying to deny this civil war angle for weeks now. In light of that, I’m inclined to believe the Pentagon report. Will removing troops from dangerous areas solve anything? Especially when there are Iraqis who can’t wait for the power vacuum that would follow? I don’t see how “redeployment” solves the problem of Shia militias (or even Sunni insurgents who don’t recognize the current government). I don’t see how a surge necessarily solves it either, but on that, I’m deferring to the generals on the ground. Do I have too much faith in the military here? Perhaps. But at this point, I really don’t know who else to trust.

1 & 2 I honestly don’t think that this is a completely internal conflict. We created many of the problems we’re facing right now, but not all of them. I can’t say as I know whether this conflict goes back centuries, but there was most certainly a time under Hussein when the Sunni minority was a cause of terror to the Shia majority (and the Kurds as well). Now that the Shiites have more say and control in the governing process, they are taking actions to marginalize the Sunnis in whatever way they can. Furthermore, within the Shia majority, they are elements who wish great harm upon their Sunni countrymen. Outside of a military presence, whether it’s American troops or an equipped and trained Iraqi Army, there is no one to protect that minority. Lawlessness in this case could very quickly lead to genocide. That’s what I fear here. Hence, the post.

3. On this I almost completely agree, except for one point. This “surge” is something new. It’s not just more boots on the ground; it’s part of a concerted effort to secure provinces like Anbar and Baghdad by doing things a new way. By having soldiers mingle with Iraqis, by using more foot patrols, less motoring from FOB to FOB in armored convoys, by learning the area, befriending the locals, acting more like police and less like military thugs. There’s a great audio piece from NPR’s Marketplace about this new counter-insurgency tactic that scares the crap out of me. It’s dangerous. It’s not he standard “hunker down in the FOB until there’s a problem” way of doing things. Will it work? I have no idea. But like I said earlier, the guys with the stars on their shoulders think it will, so for the moment, I’ll continue to defer to them.

Recent Day-to-Day interview with Maj. Gen. William Caldwell.

4. I do think you’re right in saying that most Iraqis want us to leave. In a recent poll, ABC News found that 51% of Iraqis polled thought it was “acceptable to take violent action against U.S. and coalition forces.” But what about the Kurds, who make up nearly 20% of the population? They want the Americans in Iraq, at the very least in northern Iraq to protect them should civil war erupt. And what about those Sunnis not involved in the insurgency, who realize that the only thing standing between them and Shia militants is the American military? And what about the more secular Shia Arabs, who only hold power in the current government because of the military backing of the American forces? While there are plenty of Iraqis who want us out, there are plenty more who want us to stay. There’s a minority (made up of millions of people), from north to south, that rely on the American military for protection until Iraqi security forces are ready and equipped to take over.

Do you honestly believe that even if this verge of civil war between religious groups story was the only truth, that the US army is the only thing that could stop it or make it better?

5. Make it better? No. Stop it? I don’t see any other way. There are Arabs who want other Arabs dead. Arabs that want Kurds dead. And maybe even a few Persians who want a buddy country of fellow Shiites in Sunni-dominated Middle East. I don’t have many things to compare this to. All I can say is that if I see two people on the street about to get into a fist fight, and their fight is going to hurt some innocent people standing around them, I’m going to jump in the middle and stop it however I can. Especially if the reason for their argument is due to some fault of mine. I don’t know. Maybe this is a stupid question. But what else can we do to quell the violence? To disarm the insurgents and militias? To stop Iraqis from killing other Iraqis? Short of some massive spiritual awakening? Which brings us back to the point that we were trying not to discuss above: Can military might, whatever its evils, be used to save lives when all other options seem to include other more violent evils? Not just do the ends justify the means, but are these ends better ends than possibly letting millions of Arabs die because we fucked up and left a shitty situation even worse than when we found it?

Jeff BBz said...

First off, sorry for writing such a long comment on a short post. My response was pretty fast, but I didn't mean to come off like some kind of fists of Fury. I don't think you are douche or that you are merely shooting your mouth off, and even if you were that wouldn't matter to me. Secondly, I'm certainly not an expert in the matter, and so am also basically just shooting my mouth off. The most important part is that i know we both do actually care about the lives of Iraqi people, which is more than seems to be what most people in America are interested in doing. So that's nice.

I will try to respond to some of your points tommorow. I am going to bed now.

Jeff BBz said...

dang it. now I remember why i hate responding to posts in blogs. cause you have to write. Well, this will have to be delayed again as I have been on the move between states and am now not going to be computer access free until sunday. By which time i will have forgotten why i cared about responding in the first place. Talking is so much better. damn

jonny said...

talking is better. and with more buttery flavor.