Americans in foreign lands, putting our knowledge of their cultures to work in war
Do Americans have the insight and sensitivity to successfully manipulate foreign peoples? This question is central to our wars in the Middle East. Even our best friends might question this assumption. Evidence to date suggests that the answer is “no.” Not just our fumbling attempts to find a coherent strategy. Or our more spectacular failures, such as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse incidents (see Wikipedia for the details, or the photos here and here).
Here we have another example: “Jesus killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military“, By Jeff Sharlet, Harper’s Magazine, May 2009 — Subscription only. This is just the opening of this fascinating article, which I recommend reading in full. The punch-line is at the end.
Update: Some folks believe this is a rare exception, atypical. Another example is given at the end.
When Sergeant Jeffery Humphrey and his squad of nine men, part of the 1/26 Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division, were assigned to a Special Forces compound in Samarra, he thought they had drawn a dream duty. “Guarding Special Forces, it was like Christmas,” he says. In fact, it was spring, 2004; and although Humphrey was a combat veteran of Kosovo and Iraq, the men to whom he was detailed, the 10th Special Forces Group, were not interested in grunts like him. They would not say what they were doing, and they used code names. They called themselves “the Faith element.” But they did not talk religion, which was fine with Humphrey.
An evenhanded Indianan with a precise turn of mind, Humphrey considered himself a no-nonsense soldier. His first duty that Easter Sunday was to make sure the roof watch was in place: a machine gunner, a man in a mortar pit, a soldier with a SAW (an automatic rifle on a bipod), and another with a submachine gun on loan from Special Forces. Together with two Bradley Fighting Vehicles on the ground and snipers on another roof, the watch covered the perimeter of the compound, a former elementary school overlooking the Tigris River.
Early that morning, a unit from the 109th National Guard Infantry dropped off their morning chow. With it came a holiday special–a video of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and a chaplain to sing the film’s praises, a gory cinematic sermon for an Easter at war. Humphrey ducked into the chow room to check it out. “It was the part where they’re killing Jesus, which is, I guess, pretty much the whole movie. Kind of turned my stomach.” He decided he’d rather burn trash.
He was returning from his first run to the garbage pit when the 109th came barreling back. Their five-ton–a supersized armored pickup–was rolling on rims, its tires flapping and spewing greasy black flames. “Came in on two wheels,” remembers one of Humphrey’s men, a machine gunner. On the ground behind it and in retreat before a furious crowd were more men from the 109th, laying down fire with their M-4s. Humphrey raced toward the five-ton as his roof shooters opened up, their big guns thumping above him. Later, when he climbed into the vehicle, the stink was overwhelming: of iron and gunpowder, blood and bullet casings. He reached down to grab a rifle, and his hand came up wet with brain.
Humphrey had been in Samarra for a month, and until that day his stay had been a quiet respite in one of the world’s oldest cities. Not long before, though, there had been a hint of trouble: a briefing in which his squad was warned that any soldier caught desecrating Islamic sites–Samarra is considered a holy city–would fall under “extreme penalty,” a category that can include a general court-martial and prison time. “I heard some guys were vandalizing mosques,” Humphrey says. “Spray-painting ’em with crosses.”
The rest of that Easter was spent under siege. Insurgents held off Bravo Company, which was called in to rescue the men in the compound. Ammunition ran low. A helicopter tried to drop more but missed. As dusk fell, the men prepared four Bradley Fighting Vehicles for a “run and gun” to draw fire away from the compound. Humphrey headed down from the roof to get a briefing. He found his lieutenant, John D. DeGiulio, with a couple of sergeants. They were snickering like schoolboys. They had commissioned the Special Forces interpreter, an Iraqi from Texas, to paint a legend across their Bradley’s armor, in giant red Arabic script.
“What’s it mean?” asked Humphrey.
“Jesus killed Mohammed,” one of the men told him. The soldiers guffawed. JESUS KILLED MOHAMMED was about to cruise into the Iraqi night.
The Bradley, a tracked “tank killer” armed with a cannon and missiles–to most eyes, indistinguishable from a tank itself–rolled out. The Iraqi interpreter took to the roof, bullhorn in hand. The sun was setting. Humphrey heard the keen of the call to prayer, then the crackle of the bullhorn with the interpreter answering–in Arabic, then in English for the troops, insulting the prophet. Humphrey’s men loved it. “They were young guys, you know?” says Humphrey . “They were scared.” A Special Forces officer stood next to the interpreter–“a big, tall, blond, grinning type,” says Humphrey.
“Jesus kill Mohammed!” chanted the interpreter. “Jesus kill Mohammed!”
A head emerged from a window to answer, somebody fired on the roof, and the Special Forces man directed a response from an MK-19 grenade launcher. “Boom,” remembers Humphrey. The head and the window and the wall around it disappeared.
“Jesus kill Mohammed!” Another head, another shot. Boom. “Jesus kill Mohammed!” Boom. In the distance, Humphrey heard the static of AK fire and the thud of RPGs. He saw a rolling rattle of light that looked like a firefight on wheels. “Each time I go into combat I get closer to God,” DeGiulio would later say.
The Bradley seemed to draw fire from every doorway . There couldn’t be that many insurgents in Samarra, Humphrey thought. Was this a city of terrorists? Humphrey heard Lieutenant DeGiulio reporting in from the Bradley’s cabin, opening up on all doorways that popped off a round, responding to rifle fire–each Iraqi household is allowed one gun–with 25mm shells powerful enough to smash straight through the front of a house and out the back wall.
Humphrey was stunned. He’d been blown off a tower in Kosovo and seen action in the drug war, but he’d never witnessed a maneuver so fundamentally stupid.
The men on the roof thought otherwise. They thought the lieutenant was a hero, a kamikaze on a suicide mission to bring Iraqis the American news:
عيسى قتل محمدا
JESUS KILLED MOHAMMED.
They must not have had a “strategic corporal”
“Fourth Generation war demands not only the strategic corporal, but the moral corporal as well, enlisted Marines who think about every action they take in terms of its moral effects.” (FMFM 1-A, Fourth Generation Warfare Seminar at the Marine Corps Base – Quantico, page 8).
This seems implausible given the age, experience, and training of the average US Marine corporal, now or in any likely future. The courts martial of NCOs for mistreatment of Iraq prisoners suggest that we need more hands-on lieutenants and less freedom of action for corporals.
We’ll be lucky to get an adequate number of First Lieutenants with such cross-cultural knowledge, capable of acting with such sophisticated strategic and moral reasoning.
This illustrates a difficulty of recommendations given in FMFM 1-A. All wargame scenarios have easy solutions if one can conjure up sufficient resources. FMFM 1-A aspires to a US Marine Corps with the training and attributes of our elite Special Ops units. With an army of such men we could pacify Iraq. Equally so, with the Battlestar Galactica or Starship Enterprise the Germans could have won WWII.
It’s not enough to dream of ways we can win. How can we evolve our current military apparatus to get there from here? Or should we work it the other way, focus on a defensive strategy — fighting wars we can win with the forces we actually have?
Update: this kind of thing is SOP
From McClatchy Newspapers, 15 March 2009 — Excerpt:
As the Pentagon eyes a bigger role in Mexico’s drug war, the military’s efforts to open the door to a new relationship with its southern neighbor risk alienating the Mexican military, which has long had a strained relationship with its counterpart, experts said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for improved relations with the Mexican military in response to escalating drug violence along the Mexican border and in Mexico. On “Meet the Press” earlier this month, the secretary said: “I think we are beginning to be in a position to help the Mexicans more than we have in the past. Some of the old biases against cooperation between our militaries and so on, I think, are being set aside.”
Comment by Fred Reed, “A User’s Guide to Thoroughly Stupid Foreign Policy“, 19 April 2009 — Excerpt:
Book me a ticket to Mars. The Pentagon is eyeing something, a sure recipe for disaster. Previously it has eyed Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and made a horrendous mess of each. Now the Five-Sided Sand Box is eyeing Mexico. Oh good. Let’s get involved in another third-world catastrophe by meddling in what we don’t understand.
… How stupid can you get? (The question is rhetorical. Pentagonal stupidity does not converge, but increases without limit.) To improve relations with the Mexican army, we rub its nose in having defeated them. “Haha, Pedro, you got a few of our guys, but we kicked your hindparts good, didn’t we?” The unspoken subtext to any Mexican being, “And we can do it again.”
Let me explain something. To Mexicans, the US is not a friendly nation. The reasons are countless, some valid and some not, but Mexicans do not see America as benign. They fear the US military, which they regard as out of control, invading country after country in pursuit of oil.
Mexico has oil. America lost control of it in 1938 when Lazaro Cardenas nationalized it. Mexicans believe, in dead seriousness, that the US would love a pretext for invading to get it back. A pretext such as coming in to help Mexico fight drugs, and just not leaving. Iraq comes instantly to their minds.
And so the good admiral and the SecDef come to pay homage to the American soldiers who conquered Mexico. What diplomatic genius. While they are at it, why not lay a wreath in Hiroshima to the brave American airmen who died over Japan? Or maybe erect a statue to Sherman in Atlanta? What if the Mexican army chief went to New York to commemorate the courageous freedom fighters who took down the towers?
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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
- about the Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – my articles
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Some posts on the FM site about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
- The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007
- Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007
- Kilcullen explains all you need to know about the Iraq War, 6 October 2007
- Surrender in Al Anbar province, 14 February 2008
- Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008
- Winning hearts and mind with artillery fire, 26 May 2008
- A NY Times reporter proves that we still do not understand Iraq, 31 May 2008
- About those expert-sounding discussions of Iraq politics by Americans…, 9 June 2008
- Slowly the new Iraq becomes visible, 18 July 2008
- Another example of winning hearts & minds with artillery, 29 May 2008