Archive for March, 2012

Modern Military Atrocity: The Case of Sgt. Bales

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, U.S. military manpower, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , on March 25, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The alleged rampage of Sgt. Robert Bales in an Afghan village that ended with 17 dead Afghan civilians has caught the public attention because the acts atrributed to the 38-year-old father of two were so brutal, ghastly, and repulsive. They are a textbook case of war crimes–more specifically crimes against humanity–and are, as such reprehensible and intolerable. Whether Sgt. Bales is the perpetrator (which seems fairly well established) and whether there are special mitigating circumstances such as mental condition are properly the province of the military court that will try him, and there is no intent here to prejudge or predict the outcomes of that process. There is, however, reason to ask how such a tragedy could have occurred, at least partly to try to be sure it does not recur.

Let me begin with what may be a controversial proposition: the massacre in which Sgt. Bales allegedly engaged is probably not as unusual as some would have it. I operate on the assumption that such incidents, while not common, probably occur in most conflicts. In some cases, they become known in more or less detail–the My Lai incident in Vietnam, Wounded Knee during the western Indian wars, and the Bataan death march, for instances, are all examples, and I suspect that virtually all wars of any duration produce such incidents. This dores not condone them; it simply acknowledges that nasty things happen from time to time in war. What distinguishes the current episode is how quickly, how widely, and in what detail its has become known. The question is whether episodes like this one, including the publicity it engenders, are simply a part of modern warfare. For essentially three reasons, I think the answer is yes!

I present these factors in no particular order of importance. The first is the impact of the electronic revolution, and more specifically, the loss of private behavior that is a consequence of the electronic revolution in communications. Unlike previous periods of time, there is essentially no private behavior in public places any longer: somebody is going to see, record, and transmit accounts of any bad behavior in which essentially anyone engages–or at least anyone engaging in or contemplating untoward behavior has to assume that is the case. This realization has multiple implications for a wide variety of formerly private behaviors, but in war, it means that anything one does may well–probably will–become public. Since war is about violence often committed in highly emotional situations, one must assume that stress-caused actions, some of which are not glorious or praiseworthy, are going to be recorded somewhere by someone. That is just a fact of the modern world, and all soldiers need to be drilled very thoroughly in that reality, if they are not already. This phenomenon is neither good nor bad, although it can be both in different circumstances. But one cannot deny that it exists. In some earlier, unmediated times, the Afghan incident might have gone unreported and blame unassigned. No longer!

Second, the nature of modern warfare may make incidents like what happened in Afghanistan more likely than before. Modern war, particularly the kinds in which the United States has engaged in the past half-century, has two salient characteristics that reinforce the point. The first is that these wars are asymmetrical. This means, among other things, that the enemy does not fight under established rules of warfare. often does not wear uniforms that distinguish it from the general population and often uses youths as fighters, for instance, and this means that the American soldier entering hostile territory does not necessarily know whether he is among friends or foes. This knowledge has to be enormously stressful for the individual soldier, and probably inevitably, some will snap. The fact that most wars are in developing world countries where American forces are physically distinctive, are sometimes viewed as unwelcome intruders, and where the interests being served may be ambiguous makes dealing with these kinds of war zones even more difficult. It is frightening enough when one faces a hostile but distinguishable army; it is an additional source of difficulty when trying to attain abstract goals in a very foreign and hostile environment.

Third, an possibly most controversially, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fairly clearly demonstrated the limits of the all-volunteer force (AVF) concept. The problem of such forces, of courses, is that they will inevitably be comparatively small and expensive, and they cannot easily be expanded except by recourse to outside contractors who are simultaneously more expensive and less reliable (certainly less controllable). the current force was not built for all-out employment over a decade of continuous employment–no military force is. Because ut cannot easily be expanded (more people won’t volunteer), the only way to handle the burden is to recycle the existing force through multiple deployments in the kinds of hostile, stressful environments described above.  Sgt. Bales, after all, was in his fourth deployment when he allegedly attacked the Afghan village, and his history is not unusual. There are physical and, we are increasingly learning, psychological limits to the amount of combat stress that humans reasonably can be expected to endure. 

These three factors are neither a full explanation of the Afghan incident nor do they offer an ecuse for its occurrence or Sgt. Bales’ alleged role. Rather, they are some of the factors that affect modern warfare and which will, almost inevitably, lead to future instances that are not dissimilar to that in Afghanistan this time. None of them is easily solvable, if they can be solved at all. The genie is out of the bottle in the electronic revolution, and it seems obvious that the only way to ensure that vivid reportage of atrocities like this one does not appear is to insure the instances don’t happen in the first place. The nature of modern war, however, virtually ensures that people will come under stress and behave badly in the future and that whatever they do will become publicly available for all to see. The overuse of an overextended military probably in turn makes the likelihood of regrettable behavior all the more probable. Until someone can devise a way to keep the chain of factors from being engaged, one can, regrettably, only expect more of the same. 

Do any of these factors exonerate Sgt. Robert Bales. That is a judgment for others to make based on the real evidence in this trial. What it does suggest, however, is that Sgt. Bales or whoever killed those 17 innocent civilians was subject to forces that he or they probably did not recognize or understand and that, moreover, this is not the last time it will happen.

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Stupidity, Brutality, and the Failure of Military Occupations

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2012 by whatafteriraq

In the past decade, the United States has engaged in the military occupations: one (Iraq) that was the result of an American invasion and conquest, the other (Afghanistan) as part of a coalition of states seeking to rid the occupied state of the remnants of Al Qaeda. To put the matter mildly, neither excursion has been an unambiguous success.

There are, of course, numerous reasons why these occupations have not yielded the results the United States set out to accomplish in both of these adventures, including the adoption of unattainable objectives (e.g. representative democracy in countries with no tradition of democracy as we think of it), the lack of clear interests that are supposedly served, misstatement of the conditions being rectified, dealing with allies whose primary interest was in getting rid of us, and a host of others (e.g. a botched occupation administration in Iraq). Some or all of these no doubt have played a role. Let me suggest that there is another reason both have failed (technically, Afghanistan has not failed yet, but will): it is simply impossible to run an effective occupation of a hostile country in the modern electronic world in which we live.  

The problem of running an occupation is that those occupied generally do not want to be occupied and thus resent whoever is doing the occupying. This revelation is, of course, a classic BFO (blinding flash of the obvious) that American leaders never seem to grasp. Just last week, General Allen (the comander of American forces in Afghanistan) tried to buck up the troops after the murder of several American soldiers by reminding them of our mission there: to help out our “friends.” Hello, General! Very few Afghans think we are their “friends”; most of them think we are foreign occupiers, a genre to whom the Afghans have never especially warmed. To make matters worse, they are apostates (as the Quran burning episode demonstrated), a further source of disfavor. To the vast majority of Afghans, I would submit, the friendliest thing the United States can do is to go home (preferably leaving several large suitcases of money behind when we do).

That occupations are resented is no revelation. That they are opposed is further no more than a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious): that we do not understand this simple truth is beyond my personal comprehension. But why? Are we just that dumb?

I  can think of three possible reasons for this self-delusion. One is that we do not see ourselves as occupiers, but rather as liberators freeing first the Iraqis and now the Afghans from vile oppression. That is a much happier role, and one that fits our self-image much better (especially if you are a neo-conservative). Everybody likes liberators, after all. Well, everybody (except the former oppressors) like the liberators when they are being freed; it is when the liberators stick around and become occupiers that their initial action loses acceptance. Just ask the citizens of the Philippines, whose 1898 “liberation” from Spain lasted until 1946.

A second explanation is that occupations can be benign and poular with the subject population. The post-WW II occupations of Germany and Japan are always cited in this regard: it worked there, so why not other places? The answer, of course, is that other places are not like Germany and Japan (absolutely defeated western-style countries) who were essentially bribed into embracing the occupation with generous dollops of reconstruction assistance. There is no equivalent transfer of resources to Iraq and Afghanistan, which the American people whould not accept.

Self-image (we are not really occupiers) and faulty analogies (with Germany and Japan) help explain why we are blind to why those we occupy don’t appreciate our effort and thus oppose us, but that is only part of the problem. The crux of the problem (and the third explanation for why our occupations fail) is the dynamics of occupation in the modern world. Historically, the principal dynamic of successful occupations has been their brutal suppression of dissidents. Occupied populations can be won over by bribing them or by the departure of the occupiers, but if the occupying force stays–especially in a long, open-ended tenure–it will be opposed. If one wants to maintain an occupation, the only way to do so is to eliminate the opposition–the more brutally, the better. The Nazis understood this, Genghis Khan understood it, and so have countless others.

The problem is that the kind of ruthless brutality necessary to cow a population into submission just does not work in the modern electronic world, because there is no longer any fully private behavior. The Syrians are today’s best example of slow learning on this point, but it is becoming universal. To repeat, the only ways to have any chance to run an occupation that has any chance of success is to egregiously bribe the entire population into accepting it or to engage in massive and ruthless violent suppression that will inevitably be on the six o’clock news “in living color” that will outrage everybody. If one is willing to do either of those two things, occupation has a chance. If not, forget it!

The United States is unwilling to do either of these things in Iraq or Afghanistan. Massive economic assistance (bribery) has no domestic constituency and its simple advocacy would be political suicide in today’s fiscally restrained environment. Overt brutality broadcast on worldwide cable television is similarly unacceptable. So that leaves the United States with a series of half-efforts that don’t work. The drinking water of anyone to whom any of this is a surprise should probably be tested for hallucigens.

Oh yes, there is one foolproof method to avoid these dilemmas, and that is not to go around invading, conquering, and occupying places where you are unwilling either to bribe or slaughter the population. Too bad no one thought of that in 2001.