A Menagerie of Outspoken Opinions on Science, World Politics, and Geek Culture

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Making The Job Harder

Imagine that you're one of Saddam's loyalists. A little over a year ago you got your ass handed to you by the US military. What was once the greatest Arab army in the world was reduced, in about a month, to a shattered wreck of burned-out armor and fleeing conscripts. The only soldiers who manned their posts as the Americans entered Baghdad were the foreign "fighters", men so desperate and hateful even Saddam would have killed them just a year ago. They die by the dozens, by the score, by the hundreds; once in awhile they get lucky and blow up an American APC or a tank, but for the most part they just die. Eventually even these men give up and fade into the slums and alleys of the Sunni Triangle. You've lost the war. Time to go underground.

An insurgency is a tough road. Supplies are scarce - especially after the Americans capture Saddam and his bounty on American soldiers dries up - and though your "troops" often get away with killing a GI or two they always lose the fight if they try to make any kind of stand at all. You're no longer a warrior, you're a criminal. The black market is your supply line, the drug dealer your ally, and the thief your quartermaster. It's a losing battle from the get-go ... death or capture is just a matter of time. The Americans will eventually succeed in creating a western-style Democracy in Iraq; you can only hope to make it as long and painful a process as possible.

One thing you would really like to do is turn the civilian population against the Americans. But hatefully, most of them are glad Saddam is gone. About half actually like the Americans, who keep building schools and power plants and don't seem to be stealing oil like everyone expected. The Americans have their bad days and you rejoice when they do, but they're slowly bringing order and prosperity. Two years from now it will be all but impossible to recruit gunmen, to say nothing of suicide bombers.

And now imagine that an American soldier walks up to you and says "Hey there, my Baathist chum, what can I do to help out your cause? How can I help you win the civilian population back to your side? If there is any single thing I could possibly do to enrage public opinion against me, garner support for my enemy, and endanger the lives of my fellow Americans, what would it be?"

If you're a smart Saddam loyalist (and we all know how common those are) your answer might well be "Well, you could torture and humiliate some helpless Iraqis, take pictures of it, and then make sure that Al Jazera and The Washington Post get the most lurid and incriminating evidence possible."

Now let me be very clear: I'm not actually saying these stupid, thuggish MPs actually did what they did in order to help the enemy. What I am saying is that they couldn't have given that enemy a better gift if they'd been asked. Winning the war is a matter of military prowess, and we have that in spades. But winning the peace is a matter of trust, and that we do not have. At least, not enough of it. And now we have even less.

The men and women who tortured those Iraqi prisoners - and whoever, if anyone, gave them the order to do so - are lowly brutal scum. They should not only be court-martialed and sent to Ft. Leavenworth, they should be stripped of American citizenship too. They are the dishonorable of the dishonorable, thugs better than Saddam's men only in that they didn't actually hook the wires up to a battery. I despise them, I'm embarrassed to call them my countrymen, and I'd love to give each a swift kick in the jaw. They are military police going to a military prison, though, and from what I hear around the 'net they are going to have a very bad time of it when they finally get there. Good enough.

But the US Armed Forces, and to a lesser degree every American on the planet, are now left with the backlash. We now look just as bad as our worst detractors have always said we were. Bullies, not saviors. Conquerors, not liberators. Brutal torturers no better than Saddam. Forget that we know it isn't true; it doesn't matter that 90% of us are every bit as appalled as the Iraqis are. To the average Iraqi, teetering between gratitude to a liberator and hatred of an occupier, it looks like the Baathists and Islamists were right all along. It looks like bin Laden was right all along.


Americans are going to die because of this. Not just Marines and Soldiers - which is awful enough - but women and kids and old people. For awhile, at least, the terrorist's ranks are going to swell with new recruits, and they'll bomb tanks in Iraq and embassies in Africa and maybe buildings in New York, too. We're all going to pay the price for this. Half of the Americans who die in terrorist-related activity over the next few years will have the MPs of the Abu Ghraib prison to blame for it ... or rather, their families will.