Contra Bellum

I said that I’d write about how I feel concerning our war with Iraq. Here it is.

I was against going to war. I thought–and still do–that this war was not necessary, and that we chose to go to war with Iraq because it was much tougher to conduct our war against al-Qaeda.

I also thought that, despite the fact that we didn’t need to go war with Iraq, some good might come of it. It is that thought that has motivated me all these months. I can only speak for myself, and not for any of my fellow soldiers.

I have now been in Iraq since April 15, 2003–a span of 10 months and 16 days. There’s a lot that’s wrong with Iraq still, and continues to be. There’s also a lot that is right, and continues to improve. The situation here in Iraq defies easy categorization, because for every single thing that is wrong, you can find something else that is right.

One of the reasons that I chose to start writing this blog–again–was because I was not happy with everything that was being said about our war in Iraq. I would read blogs on the right (like Steve den Beste’s and Glenn Reynolds) and be disgusted with their puffery of the Administration position–one that denies that anything is going wrong with Iraq. And I would read blogs on the left (like Atrios’ and Hesiod’s) and be impatient with their unwillingness to recognize that any good came out of our invasion.

So I thought that I would add my point of view, since I’m actually here, and I’m an eyewitness to everything that’s taking place.

So, 10 months, 16 days in–what do I think?

Our Tactics

As a soldier, I am a bit constrained about how much I can discuss regarding our tactics and strategy. But here’s what I can say.

I think that we would be better off emulating the British in terms of their tactics. We need to do a better job of engaging the population, and it’s difficult to do that if we are patrolling the streets in tanks, and we are wearing body armor, helmets, and sunglasses.

The British, in contrast, patrol the streets of their sector wearing their uniforms, without body armor, and feel free to converse with the locals at every opportunity. They do carry weapons, but the effect is a lot less intimidating, since it’s clear that you’re dealing with a fellow man.

Along with that, we need to be receptive to the needs of the local population. We have done a better job with that, having funneled millions of dollars to thousands of Iraqis in a quest to rapidly rebuild the infrastructure, and stimulate the local economies. But there’s still work to be done.

Some of that work, unfortunately, cannot be done without increasing the amount of people on the ground. I have thought–from the beginning–that not including the United Nations, or even other countries, in the reconstruction process needlessly hampered us.

For example, one of the biggest reasons that families aren’t allowed to see detainees is the lack of manpower. We have a myriad of missions–combat, reconstruction, maintenance–without having to
deal with a steady stream of visitors in our headquarters, all of whom have to be screened. You try running a business from your home, holding people in your backyard, and then, on top of that, try to host visitors for your backyard guests, and see how long you maintain your sanity. Oh, and then add random explosions which wake you up at odd hours of the night. It’s not a recipe for efficiency, and some things have to give.

Continuing on the detainee question–one mistake that people make (I include Dr. Dave Hilfiker of the CPT here) about the detainees is thinking that they are the equivalent of criminals back home. By and large, they are not. Most of them are insurgents, or participating in insurgent-related activities (a definition which is fairly elastic), and the reason we isolate them is in order to gain intelligence about the insurgency. If we don’t gain intelligence, our job (to restore security) becomes more difficult. This means that we can apply the Laws of War (as we refer to the Geneva Conventions) to them, since they are combatants.

We do not deal with common criminals. That’s what the Iraqi Police and, to a lesser degree, the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps is for. They are dealt with in the Iraqi court system (which is now beginning to be operational), and they are housed in Iraqi jails and prisons. I have no knowledge of conditions in those places.

I would say the detention process has helped–in our area, at least–in minimizing attacks. There are fewer attacks now than there were months ago, and it’s been a steady downward trend. Again, that’s in our area. But I believe that had we adopted British (and to a lesser degree, the Marines’ playbook from The Small Wars Manual) tactics from the start, we would have been better off.

So, why didn’t we? In short: force protection. It’s a vicious cycle. We don’t want to suffer casualties, so we’ve adopted tactics that only serve to inflame the local population, which causes attacks, which in turn causes casualties.

Hopefully, the arrival of the Marine Task Force in the Sunni Triangle will allow us to see how a different approach will work. I think it will, and I hope that its success will lead to a “kinder, gentler” military in terms of how we deal with foreign populations.


We have a real chance to change this country for the better. If we put in enough time and energy, we can help the Iraqi people establish a free country, where there hasn’t been one before. We have an opportunity to help them establish democracy and freedom, and we would be foolish to pass that up.

We also have to reconcile ourselves to the thought that once the Iraqis have established–with our help–a democratic society, they may choose differently. They may choose to have Islam at the basis of their society, and they may choose socialism, or any one of a number of different systems.

If they do, we have to respect their choice. But we have to insist on a fundamental level of human rights. Whatever government they choose, it has to respect the rights of all its citizens to certain inalienable rights–the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We cannot allow the horrors of Saddam’s regime to take place again. Our support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s will stand as a blot upon our national honor; one that can only be rectified by helping to rebuild Iraq as a peaceful nation.

Having spoken to many Iraqis in my time here, I can tell you one thing: opinions on the occupation are very mixed. Most supported the invasion, since it meant the fall of Saddam’s regime. Most are also resentful of our occupation, because we are foreigners–the same way we’d be a bit resentful if an occupying power showed up on the streets of Madison and Chapel Hill, even if it were the Canadians and the British were the occupiers. The Iraqis are a proud people, after all, and that’s something we need to recognize, as well.

But here’s the rub–even though they are resentful, they fear the departure of our forces, because, unfortunately, we are the barrier between order and disorder. If we were to leave tomorrow, Iraq would descend into chaos and anarchy. Believe me when I say this. If we were to leave, civil war would follow in short order. Think of the riots and chaos that wracked Baghdad (and its environs) after the immediate fall of Saddam, amplify them by a factor of five, and you’d have an idea of what I’m talking about. Our departure from Iraq would be the occassion to settle scores, and sift through the leadership. Only the strongest would survive. Any chance at a free, democratic society would die in the ashes.

We’ve pounded Iraq for the last twelve years. We’ve supported a beastly regime for the last thirty years. This is our chance to set things right. I am under no illusions that our current leadership will do the right thing, and that is why I am voting for someone–anyone else–this November. They seem to have decided to sacrifice a chance to ensure a republican future in Baghdad in order to make certain a Republican future in Washington. And that disgusts me to no end.

We can argue about whether or not the invasion of Iraq rose to the standard of a humanitarian intervention. We can argue about whether or not invading Iraq was the moral thing to do. But I happen to think that that’s now immaterial. The invasion has happened. It’s over. It’s done. There’s nothing–short of travelling through time–we can do about invading Iraq. I think arguing about it renders us irrelevant as an opposition. Why argue about something that’s already happened? I’d rather focus on what we can change.

We can, however, do everything in our power to ensure that the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq is done as well as possible. We can help to ensure that Iraq becomes a free country. I think that we have a moral responsibility to do so, because our counterparts on the right are not interested in Iraqi freedom and democracy, except as it impacts the natural resources.


2 responses to “Contra Bellum

  1. A thoughtful defense of hope. Stateside, the Iraq effort looks irretrievably screwed up and ill-conceived. You make me think there’s some possiblity Iraq can avoid a devastating civil war.

    But I have no faith in this administration to do anything but what is politically self-serving.

    Good writing, by the way. You’re bookmarked.

  2. I was one of those at Whiskey Bar who was suspicious of your anonymity, Mr Ark. Atrios’ anonymity made me suspicious of him at first, but he does a good job so I visit his blog pretty regular.

    We (you) are in Iraq and I’d like to see something good come out of what was a bad idea. Good luck.