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Liberation vs. Survival in Iraq

“These people are all
about surviving.”

On the surface, it is a neutral statement
of fact describing the attitude of any civilian population caught
up in any armed conflict. But neutrality it is not, for a population
cooperates only to the extent necessary and for the duration
that one side maintains its troops in a village, a town, or even
a region. This was the reality experienced in Vietnam (more on
this later); it is the reality in Iraq today.

In the context of today’s U.S.
presence in Iraq, the words express widespread frustration among
U.S. troops about the “lack of cooperation” by Iraqis
in rooting out the insurgents operating against coalition troops.
As already alluded to, this frustration is neither unique to
U.S. soldiers in Iraq nor new in the history of war and occupation.
Yet it seems as if it has been forgotten by another U.S. administration
­ if not intentionally dismissed by it on the presumption
that the benefits of democracy and the allure of freedom will
always triumph over tyranny and oppression.

In the long run, this may be
true, but one must survive the short- and medium-term first.
It’s a package deal played out in each and every moment for everyone
in the war zone; it is also a deal that can end at any moment
from a bullet at a checkpoint or a vehicle mounted improvised
explosive device.

Clearly missing in the rhetoric
emanating from Bush administration and Pentagon stalwarts is
any sense that they comprehend the nature of this context or
“package.” Perhaps they are too deeply enthralled
in the events that created and sustain the current context. Whatever
the cause, this inability to surmount its own orthodoxy undoubtedly
contributes to the growing U.S. public’s incredulity about the
Iraq occupation ­ not to mention Iraqi incredulity about
U.S. intentions vis-à-vis their country.

For example, White House optimism
about events unfolding in Iraq’s political transition are moving
so far beyond “spin” that they remind one of the infamous
“five-o’clock follies” briefings conducted by Military
Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) representatives. Since at least
the start of 2005, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
General Richard Myers and top U.S. field commanders continue
to describe every upsurge of violence as a sign of growing desperation
in the ranks of armed groups fighting occupation forces and Iraqi
“collaborators.”

Below the top echelons, however, there are occasional signs of
frustration bordering on disquiet. In a mid-May background briefing,
a senior U.S. officer in Baghdad was quoted as saying: “We
believe in the mission that we’ve got. We believe in it because
we’re in it, and if we let go of the insurgency and take our
foot off its throat, then this country could fail and go back
into civil war and chaos.”

Even in the relative safety
of Washington, DC as compared to the “Green Zone” in
Baghdad, this officer’s statement imparts a determination that
is so overtly desperate it immediately conjures an image of tense
muscles, jutting jaw, and a “devil take the hindmost”
approach.

At the White House and Pentagon,
the tenor of press briefings over the next dozen days did not
waver. Came May 30, which this year just happened to be Memorial
Day, CNN’s “Larry King Live” guests were Vice-President
and Mrs. Cheney (interviewed actually the preceding Friday).
During the discussion, the Vice-President said; “I think
the level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint,
I think will clearly decline. I think they’re in the last throes,
if you will, of the insurgency.”

In a rare press conference
held the next day, President Bush implicitly endorsed this position:
“I not only see the benefits of democracy, but so do the
terrorists. And that’s why they want to blow people up, indiscriminately
kill, in order to shake the will of the Iraqis, or perhaps create
a civil war, or to get us to withdraw early.”

Two days later, on radio and
in print, Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide
Terrorism at the University of Chicago, noted that democracy
as such is completely irrelevant to the insurgent’s goal of forcing
U.S. troops out of Iraq: “[E]very group mounting a suicide
campaign over the last two decades has had a major objective
­ or as its central objective ­ coercing a foreign state
that has military forces in what the terrorists see as their
homeland to take those forces out.”

This objective draws added
support ­ and detracts from any sympathy for the current
Iraqi transitional administration or willingness to support even
Iraqi security forces ­ from tactics by U.S. troops who expected
to be regarded as liberators. After all, knocking down gates
with armored vehicles; cutting open sacks and spilling flour,
wheat, sugar, and other foodstuffs; and strewing cloths and kitchen
utensils on the floor provides a parallel context of resentment
and hatred of foreign occupiers that is stronger than the context
of gratitude for the downfall of a brutal dictator.

The frustration on the part
of the soldiers on the ground in Iraq is reflected in a more
sinister attitude: because troops cannot get timely information
on the when and where of attacks, they come to regard every Iraqi
as suspect and untrustworthy. Such a psychological mindset was
widespread in Vietnam, where it played out in many gradations
ranging from murderous massacres like My Lai (1968), Thanh Phong
(1969) and Quang Ngai and Quang Nam in the Central Highlands
(1967) through the abuse, torture, and murder of prisoners.

Compounding the frustration
of U.S. officers operating on the ground is a shortage of forces.
For some six months starting in October 2004, 400 troops from
the 25th Infantry Division (Tropic Lightning) were suppose to
patrol and cut off infiltration routes in a 10,000 square mile
area stretching from the Syrian-Iraq border through Haditha,
Hit, Ramadi, and Fallujah to Baghdad. Twice since the start of
May, 1,000 or more Marines conducted sweeps in this vast region,
claiming 125 insurgents killed. U.S. troop totals now are actually
lower than in May 2004 (New York Times, June 3, 2005).
This is tantamount to issuing an invitation to anyone opposed
to the U.S. occupation of Iraq to use this vast area as a route
from a “safe” area (Syria) to the Iraqi capital.

If the Pentagon were more attuned
to disquieting contexts, it might consider pulling out records
and maps of Vietnam. The 25th Infantry Division occupied a base
camp at Cu Chi, a district headquarters in Hau Nghia province,
where I served from 1968-69. Hau Nghia was created in the 1960s
from other provinces in an attempt to thwart infiltration from
the North via Cambodia’s “Parrot’s Beak” (which was
aimed at Saigon like an arrow) across the Mekong River to the
Capital Region and Saigon. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese
units avoided combat as much as possible because the province
was an important transit route to which they did not want to
draw constant attention and large U.S. troop concentrations.
And while tunnels and Viet Cong underground living quarters would
be uncovered, the Viet Cong insurgency in the province was never
controlled.

The 25th Division soldiers
then were frustrated just as much as 25th Division Soldiers are
today. Then the U.S. saw itself as the bastion against communism
and wars of liberation and protector of South Vietnam. Today
the White House proclaims the U.S. the bastion against terror
and the liberator of an oppressed people and protector of Iraq.

Iraqis, for their part, might
prefer less liberation and less protection. Survival could be
easier.

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam
veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends
Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public
interest and a commentator for Foreign
Policy in Focus
. He can be reached at: dan@fcnl.org

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