Suddenly Counting in Public

Tomgram: Having a Carnage Party: We Count, They Don’t
By Tom Engelhardt

Counting to Three

At least Caesar was just commenting on reality when he wrote that “all Gaul is divided into three parts.” Last week, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden attempted to create reality when an overwhelming majority of the U.S. Senate voted for his non-binding resolution to divide Iraq into three parts — Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish autonomous zones. Shailagh Murray of the Washington Post reported that the 75-23 Senate vote was “a significant milestone…, carving out common ground in a debate that has grown increasingly polarized and focused on military strategy.” Murray added, “The [tripartite] structure is spelled out in Iraq’s constitution, but Biden would initiate local and regional diplomatic efforts to hasten its evolution.”

In Iraq, the plan was termed a “disaster” by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki; a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called the Senate resolution “a step toward the breakup of Iraq.” He added, according to Juan Cole’s Informed Comment website, “It is a mistake to imagine that such a plan will lead to a reduction in chaos in Iraq; rather, on the contrary, it will lead to an increase in the butchery and a deepening of the crisis of this country, and the spreading of increased chaos, even to neighboring states.” In the meantime, Sunni clerics and various political parties joined in the denunciations. Only the Kurds, eager for an independent state, evidently welcomed the plan.

Cole caught the essence of this latest stratagem perfectly: First, he pointed out, the Senate “messed up Iraq by authorizing Terrible George to blow it up, now they want to further mess it up by dividing it.”

But here’s the most curious thing in this strange exercise in counting to three — simply that it happened in the United States. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the Iraqi Parliament had voted a non-binding resolution to grant congressional representation to Washington DC or to allow California’s electoral votes to be divided up by district. Or what if the Iranian parliament had just passed a non-binding resolution to divide the United States into semi-autonomous bio-regions?

Such acts would, of course, be considered not just outrageous and insulting, but quite mad and, on our one-way planet, they are indeed little short of unimaginable. But no one I noticed in the mainstream of political Washington or the media that covers it — whether agreeing with the proposal or not — seemed to find it even faintly odd for the U.S. Senate to count to three in support of a plan that, at best, would put an American stamp of approval on the continuing ethnic cleansing of Iraq.

No matter how meaningless Biden’s resolution may turn out to be as policy, it has the benefit of taking us directly to bedrock Washington belief systems — specifically, that it is America’s global duty to solve the crises of other nations (even the ones that we set off). We are, after all, the nation-building nation par excellence and, despite all evidence to the contrary in Iraq, it is still impossible for official Washington to imagine us as anything but part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

You can find this same thinking no less readily available in another counting exercise under way in Washington…

Counting to Five, to Ten, to Fifty

Right now, leading Democrats, as well as Republicans, are focused on counting to both five and ten, which turn out to be the same thing. In a recent debate among the Democratic candidates for the presidency, for instance, the top three (by media and polling agreement), Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards refused to commit to having all American troops out of Iraq by 2013, the end of a first term in office — five years from now, and 10 years from the March 2003 launching of the invasion.

Like much else of recent vintage, this 10-year count may have started with our surge commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, who, for some time, has been telling just about anyone willing to listen that counter-insurgency operations in Iraq could take “up to a decade.” (“In fact,” he told Fox News in June, “typically, I think historically, counter-insurgency operations have gone at least nine or 10 years.”) Now, it seems, his to-the-horizon-and-beyond Iraqi timetable has largely been subsumed into an inside-the-Beltway consensus that no one — not in this administration or the next, not a new president or a new Congress — will end our involvement in Iraq in the foreseeable future; that, in fact, we must stay in Iraq and that, the worse it gets, the more that becomes true — if only to protect the Iraqis (and our interests in the Middle East) from even worse.

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks put it this way on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: “[The Democrats in Congress are] not going to cut off funding, and we’ve seen and we saw in the debate this week, there are going to be probably U.S. troops in Iraq there 10 years, regardless who’s elected. So they’re not going to win on this.” Liberal warhawk George Packer in the New Yorker recently wrote a long article, “Planning for Defeat,” laying out many of the reasons why Iraq remains a disaster area and discussing various methods of withdrawal before plunking for a policy summed up in the suggestion of an anonymous Bush administration official, “Declare defeat and stay in.” Packer concluded: “Whenever this country decides that the bloody experience in Iraq requires the departure of American troops, complete disengagement will be neither desirable nor possible. We might want to be rid of Iraq, but Iraq won’t let it happen.”

Retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan, representing the military punditocracy, offered the following: “I don’t see us getting out of Iraq for a decade.” In fact, increasingly few in official Washington do. (An exception is presidential candidate Bill Richardson, who launched a web video this week from a total withdrawal position that began: “George Bush says the surge is working. Gen. Petraeus says it will take more time. Republican presidential candidates say stay as long as it takes. No surprises there. But, you might be surprised to learn that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards would all leave tens of thousands of troops in Iraq…”) Iraq is, of course, acknowledged to be the number-one issue in the upcoming presidential campaign; the ever growing unhappiness of Americans with our presence in that country is considered a fact of political life; and yet it’s becoming ever harder to imagine just what the future Iraq debate among presidential candidates will actually be about, if everyone agrees that we have at least five years to go with no end in sight.

And let’s remember that behind the five and ten counts lurks a count to 50 and beyond; the number of years, that is, that American troops have been garrisoned in South Korea since the Korean War ended in stalemate in 1953. Visitors to the White House have long reported that President Bush was intrigued with the “Korea model.” As David Sanger of the New York Times’ wrote recently: “Many times over the past six months, he has told visitors to the White House that he needs to get to the Korea model — a politically sustainable U.S. deployment to keep the lid on the Middle East.” (Keep in mind, however, that, when the Bush administration rumbled into Baghdad on their tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles in April 2003, it was the Korea model they had in mind — though they weren’t calling it that at the time.)

This is the model that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also seems to have put his money on — a drawn-down American force garrisoned in giant, semi-permanent bases in a “stabilized” Iraq for eons to come. The Congressional Budget Office has already crunched numbers on what such a model would likely cost.

Behind all these counting exercises lies the belief that wherever we land and whatever we do, we are, in the end, the anointed bringers of something called “stability” and if we have to count to 50, 500, 50,000, or 500,000 and do it in the currency of corpses, sooner or later it will be so.

Counting Bodies

Everyone remembers when the Vietnam-era body count was banished from the Global War on Terror. Tommy Franks, the general who led American forces into Afghanistan (and later Iraq), bluntly stated: “We don’t do body counts.” And then, jumping ahead a few years, there was the President plaintively blurting out his pain to a coffee klatch of empathetic conservative journalists in October 2006: “We don’t get to say that — a thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was. It’s happening. You just don’t know it…. We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team.”

Well, tell that to the troops on the ground. There, it’s evidently been déjà vu all over again for a while.

The recent murder trial of an American sniper from an elite sniper scout platoon operating in Iskandariya, a Sunni area in the “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad, has been filled with revelations. Among them, that the Pentagon has a program to put “bait” out like “detonation cords, plastic explosives and ammunition” to draw unwary insurgents into sniper scopes; this, in a land with perhaps 50% unemployment, where anything salvageable will be scavenged by civilians. (“In a country that is awash in armaments and magazines and implements of war, if every time somebody picked up something that was potentially useful as a weapon, you might as well ask every Iraqi to walk around with a target on his back,” comments Eugene Fidell of the National Institute of Military Justice.) As it turns out, the snipers seem to have misunderstood the use of these “bait” items — or to have understood all too well their real use — and instead placed them on unarmed Iraqis they had already killed in order to create instant “insurgent” bodies appropriate for the body count that wasn’t supposed to be.

As Private David C. Petta, told the court, according to the Washington Post, “he believed the classified items were for dropping on people the unit had killed, ‘to enforce if we killed somebody that we knew was a bad guy but we didn’t have the evidence to show for it.'” (The weaponizing of the dead was, by the way, a commonplace of the Vietnam War as well.) According to court testimony, the specialists from this sniper squad, “described how their teams were pushed beyond limits by battalion commanders eager to raise their kill ratio against a ruthless enemy…. During a separate hearing here in July, Sgt. Anthony G. Murphy said he and other First Battalion snipers felt ‘an underlying tone’ of disappointment from field commanders seeking higher enemy body counts. ‘It just kind of felt like, “What are you guys doing wrong out there?”‘”)

And little wonder, given what was at stake. This was, of course, standard operating procedure in Vietnam too — and for the same reasons. Lieutenant General Julian J. Ewell, for instance, had his own codified kill ratios of “allied to enemy dead” for his units in Vietnam. These ranged from 1:50, which qualified as “highly skilled U.S. unit” to 1:10, “historical U.S. average.” And woe be to those who were just average. Units will be “pushed beyond limits” any time “victory” or “success” or “progress” becomes nothing but a body-counting game, as is happening again.

Once progress in a frustrating counter-guerrilla war is pegged to those endlessly toted up corpses, the counting process itself naturally becomes a crucial measure of success (in lieu of actual success), unit by unit — which means it also becomes a key measure of performance, and performance is, of course, the measure of military advancement. So, the pressure to be that “highly skilled unit” translates into pressure for more bodies to report as signs of success. Sooner or later, if you just report actual enemy killed, your stats sheet begins to look lousy — especially if others are inflating their figures, as they will do. And then the pressure only builds.

Every bit of this should ring a grim bell or two; but, as New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh commented recently in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, from Vietnam to today there’s been “no learning curve.” “You’d think,” he said, “that in this country with so many smart people, that we can’t possibly do the same dumb thing again…. [but] everything is tabula rasa.”

Read the rest here.

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