The Real War in Iraq, seldom mentioned (do not disturb the slumber of America)

One of the Iraq War’s many oddities is the near-total absence of discussion about the two poles around which everything else rotates:  the air war and our permanent bases.  The first is — far more than COIN — the primary expression of our power in Iraq, allowing us to dominate it with so few troops.  The second, although visible from the beginning, has emerged in the Status of Forces Agreement as a primary goal of our invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Yet the war revolves silently around these poles, so far as the American public knows.   The media seldom covers these things.  Nor are these things often mentioned in the vast numbers of web sites on which experts and faux-experts swap guesses about every trivial aspect of the war (usually ignoring these two centers of the war).

What little we know has been collected and reported by a few people, most notably Tom Engelhardt — whose work will, I suspect, figure more prominently in the War’s histories than most of the journalists and commentators today amous in the media and on the Internet.  Here is Engelhardt’s latest, as usual a must-read for anyone interested in our wars.

The Greatest Story Never Told, Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch (15 June 2008) — “Finally, the U.S. Mega-Bases in Iraq Make the News.”  Excerpt:

Think of this as the greatest American story of these years never told — or more accurately, since there have been a few reports on a couple of these mega-bases — never shown. After all, what an epic of construction this has been, as the Pentagon built a series of fortified American towns, each some 15 to 20 miles around, with many of the amenities of home, including big name fast-food franchises, PXes, and the like, in a hostile land in the midst of war and occupation. In terms of troops, the President may only have put his “surge” strategy into play in January 2007, but his Pentagon has been “surging” on base construction since April 2003.

… It has been, for instance, a commonplace of these years to see a TV correspondent reporting on the situation in Iraq, or what the American military had to say about Iraq, from Baghdad’s enormous Camp Victory. And yet, if you think about it, that camera, photographing ABC’s fine reporter Martha Raddatz or other reporters on similar stop-overs, never pans across the base itself. You don’t even get a glimpse, unless you have access to homemade G.I. videos or Pentagon-produced propaganda.

… Imagine if just about no one knew that the pyramids had been built. Ditto the Great Wall of China. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Coliseum. The Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. Or any other architectural wonder of the world you’d care to mention.

Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture — Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a GenerationHere are excerpts and reviews.

For more information about the Iraq War, see the “reference library” on the top of the right-hand menu bar.  The two following sections are from the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars – other valuable reports page.

I.  The Air War in Iraq

Our use of airpower is the great undercovered story of the Iraq War.  Tom Engelhardt has been one of the few covering this key aspect of the war.  A journalist — no military expert — he has told a story ignored by most warbloggers and military experts.  For example, look at the low volume of coverage of the air war at StrategyPage, the Small Wars Council, and by Stratfor.  Here are his major articles on the air war, essential reading for anyone seeking to understand our activities in Iraq.

  1. Incident on Haifa Street, TomDispatch (September 19, 2004)
  2. Dahr Jamail on Life under the Bombs in Iraq, TomDisatpch (February 2, 2005)
  3. Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq, TomDispatch (December 5, 2005)
  4. Michael Schwartz on Iraq as a Killing Ground, TomDispatch (January 10, 2006)
  5. Air War, Barbarity, and the Middle East, TomDispatch (July 28, 2006)
  6. Nick Turse on America’s Secret Air War in Iraq, TomDispatch (February 7, 2007)
  7. Nick Turse: The Air War in Iraq Uncovered, Tom Dispatch (May 24, 2007)
  8. Bombs Away Over Iraq, TomDispatch (29 January 2008)
  9. The Role of Airpower in the Iraq and Afghan Wars“, Anthony H. Cordesman, Center for Strategic adn International Studies (19 March 2008)
  10. Oops, Our Bad“, TomDispatch (10 April 2008)
  11. In Iraq, a Surge in U.S. Airstrikes“, Washington Post (23 may 2008) — “Military Says Attacks Save Troops’ Lives, but Civilian Casualties Elicit Criticism”

II.  Where to go for information about our bases in Iraq

  1. If the U.S. is ultimately leaving Iraq, why is the military building ‘permanent’ bases?, Friends Committee on National Legislation
  2. Iraq Facilities, Global Security.org
  3. A Permanent Basis for Withdrawal?, Tom Engelhardt  (14 February 2006)
  4. How Permanent Are Those Bases?, Tom Engelhardt  (7 June 2007)
  5. Baseless Considerations, Tom Engelhardt  (4 November 2007)
  6. A Basis for Enduring Relationships in Iraq, Tom Engelhardt (2 December 2007) 
  7. Stratfor’s analysis of US reasons for invading and occupying Iraq, FM site,  (4 March 2008)
  8. The Greatest Story Never Told, Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch (15 June 2008) — “Finally, the U.S. Mega-Bases in Iraq Make the News”

FYI — Tom’s Sources for his latest report, and further reading

  1. Patrick Cockburn has shown what a good journalist can still do for the rest of us.
  2. Juan Cole’s invaluable Informed Comment blog (which I visit daily without fail),
  3. Those splendid hunter-gatherers of the news at Antiwar.comand Cursor.org’s daily Media Patrol,
  4. Dan Froomkin’s superb White House Watch blog in the Washington Post, and
  5. Sharp-eyed Paul Woodward at his War in Context blog.
  6. For those of you who want to get a little more sense of the endless base-building activities of the Bush administration, check out the chatty newsletter(PDF file) of the Redhorse Association, “a group of past and present members of the U.S. Air Force Prime Beef and Red Horse combat engineer units.”

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

11 thoughts on “The Real War in Iraq, seldom mentioned (do not disturb the slumber of America)

  1. Like mentioned in several Tomdispatches it is obvious why the US media never mentions the building of bases: The USA never had an intention of leaving that poor, god-forsaken country. Which of course makes all that talk about leaving Iraq pure nonsens: The United States might – with time – leave the messy business of COIN to the Iraqi death squads and militia-men. But they will forever and ever retain bases as a deterrent against Iran (and to control the Saudis). With the price of oil approaching 140 dollar per barrel that control is more vital than ever.

    Regarding the use of air power I simply can’t get it: I hear so much talk about COIN and yet it seems like they Americans and their allies are more and more dependent on air power (and artillery for that matter). That is against anything written in COIN manuals as far as I know. Please notice that you can’t blame the Americans. The Danish military (a small force, but very active in Afghanistan) have killed something like 180 people from the air with just a couple of F16’s in 2002-2003. That is the officiel number mentioned by our small air force and please notice that this body count only include the bad guys (I suppose our bombs are somehow better than the yanks). The Danish army has also been very eager in calling in air support to suppres enemy attacks. During the siege of a Danish garrison in Musa Qala in Afghanistan in July-August 2006 they called in 78 air strikes against the Taleban. The fightings happened in a city with 12-15.000 inhabitants, but the army claims no civilians were killed by the air strikes despite reports claiming otherwise in the international media.

    It is not that I can blame a Danish force commander for protecting his soldiers. My problem is that the use of air power is A) a sign of desperation (to few boots on the ground) B) against all the golden rules of COIN C) probably kills a lot of civilians and push them forward to the Taleban. Even Hamid Karzai has made that clear.

    Besides that I also want to make another important point: It is not only the Americans who are making that mistake of relying to much on air power. America’s allies are making it too.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a valuable contribution –thanks!

  2. Airpower…simply OVERRATED. Just have to look back at WWII and Vietnam.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Overrated or not, it has kept us in the saddle in Iraq. Overrated or not, the dead remain in their graves.

  3. (1) Interesting to see that the pentagon has it’s very own real estate bubble.

    (2) And, of course, providing expensive government contracts, to the right districts, can certainly help to secure the approval of the congress.

    (3) “Camp Cupcake?” Hmmmm. Why not “Camp Ozymandius?

    (4) “A Forgotten Holocaust: US Bombing Strategy, the Destruction of Japanese Cities and the American Way of War from World War II to Iraq”, Mark Selton — Excerpt:

    “… for all the power unleashed by US bombers, for all the millions of victims, in the six decades since 1945, victory against successive, predominantly Asian foes, has proved extraordinary elusive for the United States.”

    Perhaps the real revolution in military affairs, is that anyone and everyone is now considered a potential combatant, or at least a potential victim.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I assume “Camp Ozymandius” references Shelly’s poem:

    OZYMANDIAS

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains: round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.[1]

  4. Not sure what is meant by “real war” — certainly things that go well don’t get attention, as there’s little need to fix them. The problem in Iraq has not been air power or permanent bases, hence lack of attention.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: (1) The bases in Iraq are a “problem”, perhaps a key aspect of the “problem.” Many of the insurgents believe that we intend to occupy Iraq for its oil and as an unsinkable aircraft carrier from which to project power throughout the region. For more on this see “Stratfor’s analysis of US reasons for invading and occupying Iraq.” Our focus on the oil legislation and massive investment in the bases both give the lie to our professed goals. The roar over our proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) shows the widespread concern in Iraq about this.

    (2) Air power has not been a problem, much as the Magician’s pretty assistant is not a problem. Both serve to distract attention from the real action. If successful, it is a problem. Analysis of the Iraq campaign and its implications for military theory will be flawed, attributing to COIN results properly attributed to firepower.

  5. So someone really believes that garrison towns, complete with fast food restaurants, etc. will survive if the American force levels are reduced significantly? Who mans the McDonalds if the local populace turns anti-American? Would you like goat excrement on your Big Mac?Who stops the locals from firing shouldered AAMs against every plane that tries to fly in to break the blockade? When the pipelines get cut and troops must leave the bastion, what then?
    This is some pipedream straight out of 18th century colonialism. It didn’t work then, longterm. But it will work now, in a much more hostile environment?
    I have to ask, is the Pentagon to blame for this, or is this straight from neo-con cloud-cuckoo land?
    I also have to ask, what good has Iraqi oil done for us lately? Aside from the dollar being in the dumpster and the price of oil through the roof, how much oil is pumping and where is it going? My instinct says “not much” and “nowhere useful”

  6. “Who stops the locals from firing shouldered AAMs against every plane that tries to fly in to break the blockade? When the pipelines get cut and troops must leave the bastion, what then?
    This is some pipedream…”

    AAMs do cost money, and the locals don’t necessarily have infinitely large budgets.

    It is possible – I do not say easy, or likely – that if the garrisons were isolated, USA forces might be able to fight their way through the blockading forces to deliver vital supplies.

    Presumably the Pentagon is led by generals who believe that they will be able to stay in Iraq indefinitely, complete with such fighting re-supplies if necessary. It is indeed quite a pipedream, but pipedreams do sometimes come true.

  7. My concern is that the generals are following civil commanders who do not have a realistic view of the middle east.
    When those generals told the WH that larger force levels were needed to win the peace (told them so before the fight started) they were ignored or forced out. The generals will build what they are told to build, or get retired fast.

    It is our politicians who have told us that Iran is supplying arms to insurgents, including AAMs. While locals may not have the budget for missiles, it isn’t the locals but the imported fighters who will be the problem. Think about the tables being turned from Charlie Wilson’s War to the present. We supplied the missiles/explosives then, forces opposed to us may be supplying them now and in the future.
    Pipedreams do come true, but they don’t always have that happy ending. The current adventure is a case in point. We are not seeing a lot of purple thumbs on Iraqis now. When was the last election in their democracy?
    And who among us wants to send young Americans to hunker down and die in besieged fortress to try to protect oil company profits? If the best we can do is hold Iraq with hedgehog towns and await the next Dien Bein Phu, what is the point?

    Is this what we want for our soldiers?
    Think ahead 5 years and word substitute Jihadi for Viet Minh
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dien_Bien_Phu
    On May 8, the Viet Minh counted 11,721 prisoners, of whom 4,436 were wounded.[63] This was the greatest number the Viet Minh had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during the entire war. The prisoners were divided into groups. Able bodied soldiers were force-marched over 250 miles (400 km) to prison camps to the north and east,[64] where they were intermingled with Viet Minh soldiers to discourage French bombing runs.[65] Hundreds died of disease on the way. The wounded were given basic first aid until the Red Cross arrived, removed 838, and gave better aid to the remainder. The wounded who were not evacuated by the Red Cross were sent into detention.

    The prisoners, French survivors of the battle at Dien Bien Phu, were starved, beaten, and heaped with abuse, and many died.[66] Of 10,863 survivors held as prisoners, only 3,290 were repatriated four months later.[63] The fate of 3,013 prisoners of Indochinese origin is unknown.
    ————

    I am not saying this is inevitable or even likely.
    What I am saying is that a bad ending must be considered so as to avoid it. This is no worse than some of the outcomes postulated by William Lind in his On War series.
    To me the idea of building fortresses in the desert to try to have a permanent presence in the ME is very nearly akin to the thinking that made the French Foreign Legion a futile attempt at holding on to a colonial empire.

  8. To me the idea of building fortresses in the desert to try to have a permanent presence in the ME is very nearly akin to the thinking that made the French Foreign Legion a futile attempt at holding on to a colonial empire.

    And who among us wants to send young Americans to hunker down and die in besieged fortress to try to protect oil company profits? If the best we can do is hold Iraq with hedgehog towns and await the next Dien Bein Phu, what is the point?

    Think ahead 5 years and word substitute Jihadi for Viet Minh.

  9. “My concern is that the generals are following civil commanders who do not have a realistic view of the middle east.”

    Likewise I fear the civil commanders don’t have a realistic view of America. If they are born in gated communities, educated in exclusive prep schools, stamped with Ivy League credentials — have they ever lived in the real America?

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