November 20, 2006

Sitting On Bayonets?

A gambit being bruited about the Pentagon these days, if the Gray Lady is accurate, is increasing the number of our troops in Iraq by another 20,000 men. What it is proposed to do with them is less clear. Some say increase the number of trainers of Iraqi forces, others devote them to policing insecure areas such as Baghdad.

It is Talleyrand, Napoleon's foreign minister, credited as he is with many an aphorism, who is supposed to have said, "You can do anything with bayonets, except sit on them." Another way of putting it is that armies are good at breaking things, but not at conserving or repairing them.

The problem in Iraq is that the sects and factions are killing one another, partly out of sheer orneriness and partly to position themselves for our departure, and there is no one, even a thug like Saddam, enough above the fray to prevent it. Like Yugoslavia, Iraq is an artificial creation, having its origin in the post-Versailles era, held together by a forceful dictatorship. Once the dictator, Tito in Yugoslavia, Saddam in Iraq, is gone, centrifugal forces grow, and there is nothing to hold the country together.

Were there a nest of rebels to uproot, more troops would have a mission. Just policing Baghdad more effectively will achieve little. The notion that GIs can effectively police an ancient megalopolis inhabited by Arabs is pie in the sky.

Perhaps if we trebled our army and sent half a millon troops to Iraq with orders to break things without hesitation, something could be achieved. Alas, I fear that although like awkward children we can be quite destructive, we are incompetent colonialists (visit Manila if you doubt it), and even tripling our force would prove itself futile. The lawyers, our press, and our consciences will not let us do what would be needed to prevail. If the French could not let General Massu prevail in Algiers, so much less will we do what would be needed to crush the opposition.

In Pontecorvo's film, The Battle of Algiers, there is a press conference. A reporter questions Colonel Matthieu (the Massu character) about the use of torture against FLN members. The colonel responds: "I’ll ask you a question myself: Should France stay in Algeria? If the answer is still yes, you’ll have to accept all the necessary consequences." Will we accept the "necessary consequences" of staying in Iraq?

If not, and in the absence of a clear military objective and a strategy for achieving it, sending in more GIs seems beside the point. On the other hand, there are military officers, no doubt, both braver and smarter than I am.

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