Bombing the prize

National Public Radio’s Morning Edition presented an interesting report today on the U.S. Army’s internal debate: “Army Focus on Counterinsurgency Debated Within.” NPR’s Guy Raz interviewed a series of leading military strategists to provide a useful description of this focus on counterinsurgency:

The counterinsurgency doctrine emphasizes the use of minimal force, with the intent of winning the hearts and minds of a civilian population. …

“I would say that Gen. Petraeus’ promotion is an affirmation of the fact that the counterinsurgency doctrine he wrote and the counterinsurgency strategy that he implemented in Iraq was successful,” says Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of the Army’s top experts on counterinsurgency doctrine.

… Nagl was based in Anbar province during a 2003-04 tour in Iraq, and he says it was there that he realized the U.S. Army had gotten itself tangled up in an insurgency.

…He began helping write the Army’s counterinsurgency handbook, better known as Field Manual 3-24. The manual is like a roadmap for officers: It emphasizes the use of minimal force. The idea in a counterinsurgency campaign, Nagl says, is to drive a wedge between the civilian population and insurgents who live among them.

… Col. Peter Mansoor, a top aide to Gen. Petraeus, also helped write the manual. Mansoor, who spoke from Baghdad, is part of Gen. Petraeus’ famed brain trust of advisers, a group of officers and civilians who live and breathe counterinsurgency doctrine. “The people are the prize in a counterinsurgency operation. They are the key terrain, if you will, on which victory or defeat rests.”

I appreciate this “the people are the prize” approach. It makes sense to me.

The problem for Mansoor and Nagl, however, is that this report aired on NPR following the morning’s main headlines. That included a report, also from Baghdad, on the fighting in that city’s largest slum, Sadr City.

That district is sometimes referred to as a “neighborhood,” which is misleading. The population of Sadr City is about the same as that of Brooklyn, jammed into an area less than a quarter as large. It’s home to 2.5 million people, including thousands of Shiite militiamen from a Shiite faction that U.S. forces have alternated between wooing and trying to crush (at the moment, they’re in trying-to-crush mode).

For the last nine days, NPR reported, the U.S. has been hitting Sadr City with airstrikes. “Airstrikes” implies a more targeted, more intentionally discriminate approach than crude carpet bombing, but how precisely discriminate can such strikes really be when directed at a densely populated slum that’s home to almost 1 of every 10 Iraqi civilians?

If “the people are the prize,” then we’re bombing the hell out of the prize. That seems unlikely to be an effective way to win hearts and minds or to drive a wedge between the civilian population and insurgents who live among them.

Imagine if the FBI announced a new strategy to combat the Brighton Beach-based Russian mafia. For the next nine days, they say, Brooklyn will be the focus of military airstrikes. Don’t worry about all the innocent New Yorkers, the FBI says, our missiles are really quite precise, the maps and intel guiding them are flawless, and compared to Sadr City, Brooklyn is sparsely populated. The off-chance of a bit of collateral damage couldn’t possibly outweigh Brooklynites’ gratitude for the attempt to liberate them from the lethal criminals living in their midst. Right?

The U.S. Army’s internal “debate” that NPR reports presents two competing philosophies. In old-fashioned, conventional war, the military conducts all-out conflict to destroy an enemy nation. To that end, it conducts airstrikes against popultion centers. In 21st-century counterinsurgencies, the military conducts wars of liberation to free oppressed people. To that end, it conducts airstrikes against popultion centers.

I suppose what we need to do now is to sit down with the 2.5 million residents of Baghdad’s most crowded district and explain to them this important philosophical distinction.

  • Ursula L

    The US didn’t seize production of the oil directly. But it did set things up so that the oil fields are run/controlled by the big oil companies directly, instead of the government running the oil fields, selling the oil to the oil companies, and using the oil for social and governmental programs, as is common in most of the major oil producing nations, and was the practice under Saddam. This, in turn is part of the reason why the social services such as medical facilities are so underfunded.
    It’s war for oil, but for the benefit of big oil, not the average person in the US.

  • http://doctorscience.blogspot.com Doctor Science

    Yes, exactly what Ursula said, with bonus military contractor kickbacks.

  • http://doctorscience.blogspot.com Doctor Science

    Yes, exactly what Ursula said, with bonus military contractor kickbacks.

  • SmithWigglesworth

    And when we sit these Iraqis down to explain it all to them, somebody needs to make sure we tell them Sunnis and Shiites to “cut this shit out!”
    “Everybody just needs to COOO-OOO-OOOOL OUT!”

  • SmithWigglesworth

    And when we sit these Iraqis down to explain it all to them, somebody needs to make sure we tell them Sunnis and Shiites to “cut this shit out!”
    “Everybody just needs to COOO-OOO-OOOOL OUT!”

  • Jeff

    This business in eastern Baghdad is not an instance of “Ignorant military foolishly trying to beat Sadr’s Freedom Fighters.” It’s the commanders doing the best they can with a flaming sack of dog s**t left on the front porch.
    This is fun, revisionist BS. We’ve been poking at Sadr and Sadr City since we lost the origianl bogey-man, Hussein. Pinning this on the Iraqis is like henry getting upset because the knights took “who will rid me of this man” at his word.
    In fact, in some cases the US military actually drops bombs made of concrete. Literally just a big rock, in order to destroy just a very small precise area.
    Wonderful. You just dropped a fragment bomb on a civilian population. You win the No Bell Prize.

  • Donald Johnson

    This is a fairly good book on the history of bombing civilians–
    http://www.alibris.com/booksearch?qwork=2935855&matches=25&author=Lindqvist%2C+Sven&browse=1&cm_sp=works*listing*title
    The one really annoying thing about it is that the pages aren’t in order. Or rather, IIRC, they’re in chronological order, but if you want to read the pages in, um, thematic order then you jump from page 1 to page 24 to page 3 to page 48, etc… It’s extremely annoying and I wanted to strangle the author. If you can get past that, though, it’s very interesting.

  • Donald Johnson

    Sorry. I thought this was one of those blogs where you just paste and the link appears. But you can cut and paste, or just google “Sven Lindquist”. He also wrote “Exterminate all the Brutes”, which as you could guess from the title is a history of the more murderous aspects of European colonialism.

  • Jeff
  • Jeff

    Oddly enough, the above comment triggered the CAPTCHA. I haven’t had one sprung on my in ages.

  • http://users.livejournal.com/_dahne_/ Dahne

    I suppose what we need to do now is to sit down with the 2.5 million residents of Baghdad’s most crowded district and explain to them this important philosophical distinction.
    Can’t. Fired all the translators for boy-kissing.

  • Hawker Hurricane

    Dahne: shouldn’t be a problem, the kissy-boy translators the Army fired were all hired by Blackwater who pays much better than the Army does and is glad to hire graduates of the Army language institute…

  • Tonio

    But it did set things up so that the oil fields are run/controlled by the big oil companies directly, instead of the government running the oil fields, selling the oil to the oil companies…
    It is certainly plausible that this was the motive all along, but is there any evidence to back it up? Was the nationalization of the oil industry a recent development, with American oil companies complaining about being evicted? There’s a history of American intervention in other nations where leaders sought to nationalize key industries, but this usually involved the CIA or other covert operations instead of outright military invasions.
    In the months before the invasion, I don’t remember anyone in Congress questioning the motive in oil terms – I only remember questioning about the wisdom of the invasion. Did they simply not consider the possibility of an oil motive, or did they worry about being slammed as Marxists?

  • Jeff

    did they worry about being slammed as Marxists
    Yes. Remenber when Murtha was slammed as a “coward”? Fun days, those. (NOT!)

  • Jeff

    did they worry about being slammed as Marxists
    Yes. Remenber when Murtha was slammed as a “coward”? Fun days, those. (NOT!)

  • Andrew R.

    Jeff,
    Have you followed *any* of what was going on between 2005 and March of 2008?

  • Andrew R.

    Jeff,
    Have you followed *any* of what was going on between 2005 and March of 2008?

  • http://doctorscience.blogspot.com Doctor Science

    I don’t remember anyone in Congress questioning the motive in oil terms – I only remember questioning about the wisdom of the invasion. Did they simply not consider the possibility of an oil motive, or did they worry about being slammed as Marxists?
    Congressmen are permitted — barely — to debate the wisdom of a particular war. They are not permitted to debate the wisdom of any US corporation getting as much money as possible by any means possible. They may, occasionally, propose to tax “windfall” profits, but they may not criticize “consistent and ongoing bloodsucking” profits.
    And oil companies don’t have to do anything as crass as *complain* to the Cheney/Bush administration. All they have to do is mumble, “will no one rid me of this troublesome regime?” Bush and Cheney didn’t have to be convinced to think about things from the oil companies’ POV, they were there already.

  • http://doctorscience.blogspot.com Doctor Science

    I don’t remember anyone in Congress questioning the motive in oil terms – I only remember questioning about the wisdom of the invasion. Did they simply not consider the possibility of an oil motive, or did they worry about being slammed as Marxists?
    Congressmen are permitted — barely — to debate the wisdom of a particular war. They are not permitted to debate the wisdom of any US corporation getting as much money as possible by any means possible. They may, occasionally, propose to tax “windfall” profits, but they may not criticize “consistent and ongoing bloodsucking” profits.
    And oil companies don’t have to do anything as crass as *complain* to the Cheney/Bush administration. All they have to do is mumble, “will no one rid me of this troublesome regime?” Bush and Cheney didn’t have to be convinced to think about things from the oil companies’ POV, they were there already.

  • Jeff

    Have you followed *any* of what was going on between 2005 and March of 2008?
    In vivid, horrid detail. Why do you ask? (When asked if Congressional Dems were worried “about being slammed as Marxists”, I said “Yes”. Does this make you think I’m somehow out of touch with current history?)

  • Tonio

    They are not permitted to debate the wisdom of any US corporation getting as much money as possible by any means possible. They may, occasionally, propose to tax “windfall” profits, but they may not criticize “consistent and ongoing bloodsucking” profits.
    That was part of my point about them afraid of being labeled as socialists. There’s a long tradition in American conservatism of playing the Marx card when they attack any federal government spending unrelated to national defense.
    Bush and Cheney didn’t have to be convinced to think about things from the oil companies’ POV, they were there already.
    Oh, absolutely. What I’m questioning is the cartoonish image of Bush and Chaney consciously conspiring with the oil executives – “Ha ha, we’ll knock over Saddam and then you can have the oil fields!” That’s too much like “Just get me elected and I’ll give you your damn war” from Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” I’m suggesting that the two merely shared the executives’ mindset that what was good for the American oil industry was good for America.

  • Tonio

    They are not permitted to debate the wisdom of any US corporation getting as much money as possible by any means possible. They may, occasionally, propose to tax “windfall” profits, but they may not criticize “consistent and ongoing bloodsucking” profits.
    That was part of my point about them afraid of being labeled as socialists. There’s a long tradition in American conservatism of playing the Marx card when they attack any federal government spending unrelated to national defense.
    Bush and Cheney didn’t have to be convinced to think about things from the oil companies’ POV, they were there already.
    Oh, absolutely. What I’m questioning is the cartoonish image of Bush and Chaney consciously conspiring with the oil executives – “Ha ha, we’ll knock over Saddam and then you can have the oil fields!” That’s too much like “Just get me elected and I’ll give you your damn war” from Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” I’m suggesting that the two merely shared the executives’ mindset that what was good for the American oil industry was good for America.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet.html J

    Don’t worry about all the innocent New Yorkers, the FBI says, our missiles are really quite precise, the maps and intel guiding them are flawless, and compared to Sadr City, Brooklyn is sparsely populated. The off-chance of a bit of collateral damage couldn’t possibly outweigh Brooklynites’ gratitude for the attempt to liberate them from the lethal criminals living in their midst. Right?
    This came up during the 2006 Israeli incursion into Lebanon. The logic that the Israelis and Americans both propounded was that bombing Beirut and environs to flush out Hezbollah would result in the non-Hezbollah Lebanese turning against them. It was expected that your average Lebanese Christian or Druze or Sunni would say to Hezbollah and say, “This is all your fault!”
    But of course, it wasn’t their fault. The Lebanese insisted, obstinate dopes, on blaming the people actually dropping the bombs for the fact that the bombs were dropping. What a fucking shocker.
    So I hope that’s in the Army’s precious new counterinsurgency field manual. “Chapter 271.01.05.0666: Aerial Bombardment”. If they’re smart it will be a chapter one word long, “Don’t.” And if qualification is at all necessary, then it will be about the fact that aerial bombs will never be accurate enough (especially if dropped from a Predator drone remote-controlled from CentCom in Nevada) and the people you are dropping bombs on will never have read enough issues of The New Republic to blame the terrorists you’re trying to hit and not, y’know, you.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet.html J

    Don’t worry about all the innocent New Yorkers, the FBI says, our missiles are really quite precise, the maps and intel guiding them are flawless, and compared to Sadr City, Brooklyn is sparsely populated. The off-chance of a bit of collateral damage couldn’t possibly outweigh Brooklynites’ gratitude for the attempt to liberate them from the lethal criminals living in their midst. Right?
    This came up during the 2006 Israeli incursion into Lebanon. The logic that the Israelis and Americans both propounded was that bombing Beirut and environs to flush out Hezbollah would result in the non-Hezbollah Lebanese turning against them. It was expected that your average Lebanese Christian or Druze or Sunni would say to Hezbollah and say, “This is all your fault!”
    But of course, it wasn’t their fault. The Lebanese insisted, obstinate dopes, on blaming the people actually dropping the bombs for the fact that the bombs were dropping. What a fucking shocker.
    So I hope that’s in the Army’s precious new counterinsurgency field manual. “Chapter 271.01.05.0666: Aerial Bombardment”. If they’re smart it will be a chapter one word long, “Don’t.” And if qualification is at all necessary, then it will be about the fact that aerial bombs will never be accurate enough (especially if dropped from a Predator drone remote-controlled from CentCom in Nevada) and the people you are dropping bombs on will never have read enough issues of The New Republic to blame the terrorists you’re trying to hit and not, y’know, you.


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