Remember when the globe’s imperial policeman, its New Rome, was going to wield its unsurpassed military power by moving from country to country, using lightning strikes and shock-and-awe tactics? We’re talking about the now-unimaginably distant past of perhaps 2002-2003. Afghanistan had been "liberated" in a matter of weeks; "regime change" in Iraq was going to be a "cakewalk," and it would be followed by the reordering of what the neoconservatives liked to refer to as "the Greater Middle East." No one who mattered was talking about protracted guerrilla warfare; nor was there anything being said about counterinsurgency (nor, as in the Powell Doctrine, about exits either). The U.S. military was going to go into Iraq fast and hard, be victorious in short order, and then, of course, we would stay. We would, in fact, be welcomed with open arms by natives so eternally grateful that they would practically beg us to garrison their countries.
Every one of those assumptions about the new American way of war was absurd, even then. At the very least, the problem should have been obvious once American generals reached Baghdad and sat down at a marble table in one of Saddam Hussein’s overwrought palaces, grinning for a victory snapshot — without any evidence of a defeated enemy on the other side of the table to sign a set of surrender documents. If this were a normal campaign and an obvious imperial triumph, then where was the other side? Where were those we had defeated? The next thing you knew, the Americans were printing up packs of cards with the faces of most of Saddam’s missing cronies on them.
Well, that was then. By now, fierce versions of guerrilla war have migrated to the narrow streets of the poorest districts of Baghdad and, in Afghanistan, are moving ever closer to the Afghan capital, Kabul. U.S. troops are, at present, in block by block fighting in Baghdad’s vast Shiite Sadr City slum and they’re wheeling in the Abrams tanks and calling in helicopters, Hellfire-missile-armed drones, and jets for help in brutal urban warfare as the bodies pile higher.
As in Vietnam, so four decades later, we are observing a full-scale descent into madness and, undoubtedly, into atrocity. In 2003, American troops were heading for Baghdad. They thought they had a goal, a city to take. Now, five years later, they are heading for the heart of a slum city, which they cannot hold, in a guerrilla war where the taking of territory and the occupying of neighborhoods is essentially beside the point. They are heading for oblivion, while trying to win hearts and minds by shooting missiles into homes and enclosing neighborhoods in giant walls which break families and communities apart, while destroying livelihoods. No matter what the Bush administration has tried to do (including the already long-dead-and-gone "surge strategy," the last war, the one in Iraq, won’t end (so that troops can be transferred to the even older war in Afghanistan that is, now, spiraling out of control). And oh, while we’re at it, welcome to future wars in the slum cities of the planet. Inside the Pentagon, some are thinking not about how to get out of Sadr City, but about how to fight Sadr City wars more effectively. They are pondering "the next war."
With that in mind, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently gave two sharp-edged speeches, one at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, the other at West Point, each expressing his frustration with the slowness of the armed services to adapt to a counterinsurgency planet and to plan for the next war.
Now, there’s obviously nothing illogical about a country’s military preparing for future wars. That’s what it’s there for and every country has the right to defend itself. But it’s a different matter when you’re preparing for future "wars of choice" (which used to be called wars of aggression) — for the next war(s) on what our secretary of defense now calls the "the 21st century’s global commons." By that, he means not just planet Earth in its entirety, but "space and cyberspace" as well. For the American military, it turns out, planning for a future "defense" of the United States means planning for planet-wide, over-the-horizon counterinsurgency. It will, of course, be done better, with a military that, as Gates put it, will no longer be "a smaller version of the Fulda Gap force." (It was at the Fulda Gap, a German plain, that the US military once expected to meet Soviet forces invading Europe in full-scale battle.)
So the secretary of defense is calling for more foreign-language training, a better "expeditionary culture," and more nation building — you know, all that "hearts and minds" stuff. In essence, he accepts that the future of American war will, indeed, be in the Sadr Cities and Afghan backlands of the planet; or, as he says, that "the asymmetric battlefields of the 21st century" will be "the dominant combat environment in the decades to come." And the American response will be high-tech indeed — all those unmanned aerial vehicles that he can’t stop talking about.
Gates describes our war-fighting future in this way: "What has been called the ‘Long War’ [i.e. Bush’s War on Terror, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq] is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies."
"There are no exit strategies." That’s a line to roll around on your tongue for a while. It’s a fancy way of saying that the U.S. military is likely to be in one, two, many Sadr Cities for a long time to come. This is Gates’s ultimate insight as secretary of defense, and his response is to urge the military to plan for more and better of the same. For this we give the Pentagon almost a trillion dollars a year.
The irony is that, in both speeches, Gates praises outside-the-box thinking in the military and calls upon the armed services to "think unconventionally." Yet his own thoughts couldn’t be more conventional, imperial, or potentially disastrous. Put in a nutshell: If the mission is heading into madness, then double the mission. Bring in yet more of those drones whose missiles are already so popular in Sadr City. This is brilliantly prosaic thinking, based on the assumption that the "global commons" should be ours and that the "next war" will be ours, and the one after that, and so on.
But I wouldn’t bet on it. John McCain got a lot of flak for saying that, as far as he was concerned, American troops could stay in Iraq for "100 years… as long as Americans are not being injured, harmed or killed." Our present secretary of defense, a "realist" in an administration of bizarre dreamers and inept gamblers, has just cast his vote for more and better Sadr Cities. In a Pentagon version of an old Maoist slogan: Let a hundred slum guerrilla struggles bloom!
It’s a recipe for being bogged down in such wars for 100 years — with the piles of dead rising ever higher. No wonder some of the top military brass, whom he criticizes for their bureaucratic inertia, have been unenthusiastic. They don’t want to spend the rest of their careers fighting hopeless wars in Sadr City or its equivalent. Who would?
The rest of us should feel the same way. Every time you hear the phrase "the next war"–and journalists already love it–you should wince. It means endless war, eternal war, and it’s the path to madness.
Vietnam… Iraq… Afghanistan… Don’t we already have enough examples of American counterinsurgency operations under our belt? The American people evidently think so. For some time now, significant majorities have wanted out of Baghdad, out of Iraq. All the way out. In a major survey just released by the influential journal Foreign Affairs, similar majorities have, in essence, "voted" for demilitarizing US foreign policy. In their responses, they offer quite a different approach to how the United States should operate in the world. According to journalist Jim Lobe, 69% of respondents believe "the US government should put more emphasis on diplomatic and economic foreign policy tools in fighting terrorism," not "military efforts." (Sixty-five percent believe the U.S. should withdraw all its troops from Iraq either "immediately" or "over the next twelve months.") But, of course, no one who matters listens to them.
And yet, the path to Sadr City and beyond is one that even an imperialist should want to turn back from. It’s the road to Hell and it’s paved with the worst of intentions.
[For a longer version of this piece, visit Tomdispatch.com.]