The Banality of Occupation

Recently, the online site known as Wikileaks (which frequently publishes documents from government and corporate think tanks not meant to be seen by the general public) released a Rand Corporation report on Iraq and Afghanistan counterinsurgency operations titled Intelligence Operations and Metrics in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although unclassified, the document is marked “For Official Use Only” and was distributed to various high officials in the United States and other “Coalition” governments. In one respect, it can be argued that this paper, along with a series of three or four other Rand reports, could be considered in the same vein as the Pentagon Papers on their release in 1971. A more accurate appraisal, however, would characterize this 318 page report as a summation of what the US military and intelligence agencies could have done more effectively.

This report is essentially an analyst’s blueprint for perfecting the occupation of a country with the idea that the eventual result will be domination of the locals’ minds, culture and economy, with the domination of the geography of secondary consideration or of no consideration at all. Like the television show Numbers that features a mathematician who works with the FBI by providing mathematical thinking to human endeavors like serial killing, drug smuggling, etc., the RAND study ignores the human and creative face of resistance by reducing ever element to a quantitative possibility with only so many possible outcomes. The numbers it quotes and the classifications it makes hide the true intent and outcome of the imperial military’s actions much like the statistical sheets maintained by men like Adolf Eichmann hid the true nature of the crimes against humanity perpetrated in the removal of Jewish Germans from the fatherland. The report draws from counterinsurgency experiences in Vietnam,Northern Ireland, Malaya, and of course, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The contradiction rampant throughout the report can be best phrased in the words of US Army Major Justin Featherstone who told the report’s writers after his extensive work with the urban population in southeastern Iraq: “Humanity is what it’s about, a genuine desire to do good by the good people, which can sit side-by-side with killing the people [whom you’re there to kill].” In other words, the task is to kill those who don’t want you there and convince the others that they are either better off with the occupier or at least not as bad off as they would be without them. Despite the constant warnings throughout the report’s recommendations to avoid killing noncombatants (without every providing a single definition of who composes this element), the report ultimately returns to this statement:

War, however, is the realm of destruction. Here will be instances in which these men and women will have to put innocents and their property at risk. In such cases, there may be no good outcome, no alternative that promises to benefit all desired ends, but rather one only less undesirable than its alternatives. A pilot might select the alternative of engaging only a few rooms instead of destroying an entire building, with the appropriate airframe and munitions being called on for the task. In lieu of devastating a town, a ground-force commander could find that a limited number of enemy concentrations provide the opportunity to wreak destruction over only a few blocks.

In other words, the occupier’s job remains one that depends on its overwhelming force. Even if the suggestions and lessons learned that are described in this report were to be put into place, the deciding factor in favor of the US occupying forces is their ability to kill with overwhelming force. Naturally, the indigenous population is aware of this–a fact which causes many to go along with the occupier merely as a means to survive. This is not a report about operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and their often bloody results so much as it is a review of the perceived success or failure of those operations. The primary intent of the report is to repeat already familiar lessons about how to construct and maintain an occupation of a country that minimizes the occupiers casualties, maintains domination via fear, cajolery, and manipulation of the personal and tribal relationships of the occupied while simultaneously convincing at least a sizable minority of the population of the occupying nation that their military (in league with the occupier) is working in their interest.

Written in what can best be described as something akin to a technical writing assignment, the report echoes the recent statements from US generals in the Iraq/Afghan theaters and is reflected in the recent decision by Barack Obama to reduce the numbers of US troops in Iraq to 50,000 over the next 16 months and escalate the battle to subdue Afghanistan. If there is one thing that this document makes clear, it is that the Pentagon and its civilian enablers have no intention of leaving Iraq or Afghanistan on their own. Furthermore, it is their intention to take the lessons they believe they have learned in those two countries and apply them to Pakistan and wherever else their manifest destiny compels them to subdue.

This is not the Pentagon Papers of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations/wars. It is a document that hides the nature of the US operations in those countries behind an emasculated technospeak, rendering the true nature of the killing and destruction done in the name of the people of the US and the west. The contemporary version of the policy discussions that were revealed in the Pentagon Papers about the US operation in Vietnam are not here. Nor are the cables and directives that sent men off to kill and die. Those documents have yet to be uncovered. The usefulness of this report is in its look into the mindset of a modern imperial machine: a machine that never questions its mission or the human misery it causes but keeps its mind trained only on how to carry out that mission as efficiently as possible. The banality of the evil of modern warfare is contained in every neutered sentence of this document and the thousands of others like them. It is repeated in the newspeak of government officials and the sycophantic media that reports their words without challenging their consequences. The circle of complicity is completed when the public accepts the arguments made by those officials and media as being the only argument that exists.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at:



Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: