There’s a wonderful children’s story by Roald Dahl titled Fantastic Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox is a wily fellow whose record of chicken theft has driven three local farmers to the point of madness. Using stealth and a big gun, one of them manages to shoot off his tail, but Mr. Fox escapes. Night after night, the farmers maintain their vigil just outside his hole; as their frustration grows they employ more and more extreme methods to force him out–they dig, first with shovels, then bulldozers, driving Mr. Fox and his family ever deeper underground. Over time the farmers move from mere frustration to all-out obsession. With unbounded determination, they devote themselves full time to upending the entire hillside. This quest succeeds in constraining not just Mr. Fox but terrifying all the creatures in the forest–the badgers, the moles, the rabbits, the harmless creatures whose habitats are destroyed in the relentless pursuit. Mr. Fox, meanwhile, becomes more heroically Robin Hood-ish with each upward ratcheting of the assault. He sets up court deep beneath the farmers’ own homes, stealing directly from the chicken coop, the cider cellar and the smokehouse. The story ends with Mr. Fox’s having established a comfortable underground protectorate for all the animals. The farmers spend their days, their nights and a never-ending stream of their resources bulldozing the wilderness into oblivion.
Our adventure in Iraq reminds me of Roald Dahl’s three determined farmers. The public discourse even sounds like a kiddy cartoon: We have captured “a rat” and assorted varmints but not the fox, Osama bin Laden. As I write, the Army has announced plans to train troops in tactics better suited to modern urban war than World War II-style battle. They are beefing up skills like sniping; they will conduct more house-to-house searches; they will learn the rather subtle art of how to pick an insurgent out of a crowd of civilians.
I am hardly a military strategist, but let me offer my ongoing concern that our leaders are dealing with Iraq in very much the way domestic police forces have too frequently mishandled crime in American inner cities, where wrongheaded tactics like careless profiling have repeatedly fueled community resentment and even riots in areas that had once begged for police presence. The missteps have generally involved a terrible dualism: overreaction to so much as a false twitch of a hand with a wallet in it, yet underreaction to large, complex problems like crack houses and drug lords. I can’t help thinking about what happened in 1985, when the police decided to pre-emptively act against the MOVE house in Philadelphia. John Africa and his followers were foul and lawless, to be sure, but instead of traditional means, the police chief and the mayor came up with the bright idea of firebombing the building, killing all the occupants, including five children. That they also accidentally ignited the adjacent row houses and ended up burning down the entire neighborhood was an unfortunate bit of collateral damage. A similar thing happened when the ATF and the FBI surrounded David Koresh’s compound in Waco, Texas. Rather than wait them out–which might have taken months–they decided to push the siege to an end that resulted in that other notorious inferno.
Although both John Africa and David Koresh were so eccentric that their little bands were barely large enough to qualify as cults, the violence of their demise cost the involved law-enforcement officials their reputation as protectors of broad public interest. These two events galvanized a left-leaning resentment in the name of MOVE and an even more powerful right-leaning resentment in the name of Waco.
When I look back over the past year, I am glad that Saddam Hussein has been deposed, but I think we must also confront the longer sequence of devastation incurred in the name of his capture. In the first days of the war, a busy restaurant in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood was bombed, with heavy loss of civilian life, because Saddam Hussein was supposedly within. Palaces, mosques and historical sites were destroyed based on alleged sightings. And there have been firefights in crowded streets and marketplaces; homes riddled with bullets; and villages turned inside out.
Certainly there are models of urban crisis management here and abroad that have succeeded in restoring order, but they tend to rely on close community relations, officers who know a little something about the neighborhood (which surely assumes speaking the language) and some measure of police-citizen trust. I wonder if that is possible in Iraq given the cultural barriers, and particularly when our intrepid military leaders keep stating that humiliation educates, pain deters, fear brings peace, so bring ’em on, good riddance, it’s our life versus theirs.
When I consider the new year, I wonder first about what will happen when our sharpshooting, traumatized urban warriors return home. We are still healing Vietnam vets, whose numbers are so disproportionate among the homeless and drug-addicted. Today, the military provides much more aggressive psychological diagnosis and support for veterans, but I can’t help thinking about John Muhammad, the alleged Washington sniper, whose skills as a marksman were honed in the Army. War inevitably breaks minds as well as bodies.
Second, I worry that those Iraqis in the position of Roald Dahl’s rabbits and badgers will become increasingly galvanized around the collateral losses we may be inflicting. I fear not only the coolly calculating Mr. Foxes of the world but those whose homes have been burned by accident, whose wives have been caught in the crossfire, whose children have been run over by tanks, whose husbands and brothers have been imprisoned or disappeared. Distraught kin do not necessarily care whether such loss is precautionary or whether our sins are fewer than those of the Baathists. They will be the ones most visibly insurgent and uncontrollably angry; they will be the ones, too, whose vanquishing will be all too easy. We must not mistake that for victory. Dragnetting the land for every creature that twitches the wrong way may indeed catch us a fox or two, but let us not be surprised if we eventually awaken a bear.