Blogs > Cliopatria > Shadows and Fog

Jan 12, 2006 9:05 am

Shadows and Fog

Over the next few days here, as time permits, I plan to lay out my view of the war in Iraq. I have come to view the war as probably unwinnable, and the situation of American soldiers on the ground as painfully untenable.

A few important things to note before I begin.

First, these observations come secondhand; I'm nominally an infantry sergeant, but am currently parked at a not-very-interesting desk job in Kuwait. What I write here comes from what I've read, what I've observed at the periphery of the war, what I've experienced in training, and the discussions I've had with other soldiers who have been in Iraq.

To be clear about sources, a few of the military-themed blogs and websites I read regularly are John Robb's Global Guerillas, Phil Carter's Intel Dump, the anonymous Arms and Influence and Armchair Generalist, and the broader Defense and the National Interest, where I pay particularly close attention to the columns written by William Lind. Some of the books that inform my thinking about the institution of the U.S. Army and the nature of the war in Iraq are Sean Naylor's Not a Good Day to Die, a brilliant examination of Army politics and culture, Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near, and Bernard Fall's Street Without Joy, which reported on the French war in Indochina. More generally, books that I have found useful on the topic of small wars include Brian McAllister Linn's The Philippine War and Elliott West's The Contested Plains. Another exceptionally important book, Ed Ayers' In the Presence of Mine Enemies, informs my understanding of the way that we manage the political meanings of war. Also influential: James Scott's Seeing Like a State and Lt. Col. John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Astute readers will note the absence of Noam Chomsky from this list.

(More below)

Second, anticipating the reaction of commentors, let me be very clear about what I don't intend to do here. I do not intend an attack on American soldiers. I do not intend a reflexive attack on President Bush, who I do not regard as"Chimpy McBushitler." I do not intend a Chomskyian, far-left assault on America.

Third, what I do intend is a critique based on, one, my imperfect and secondhand observations of fact, and, two, on a view that largely draws from the conservative political tradition. My discussion here is premised on a belief in the limited utility of state power, a rejection of state utopianism, and a desire to see government act with judiciousness and restraint. Experience suggests that some commentors will nevertheless turn what I write over the next few days into an America-hating Maoist assault on human decency, and that the name Michael Moore will appear at least once. This seems to be the state of our current discussion: Cindy Sheehan! Cindy Sheehan! (Oh yeah? Hitler Hitler Hitler!) It is abundantly strange that an unwavering faith in foreign adventurism and grand government-led social reformation -- and an unwavering fealty to the political personality at the head of the central government -- have somehow become" conservative" principles. But never mind.

Finally, the point of this discussion is not to tear down the American military or the current administration. I think that both have performed poorly in many ways -- but I also doubt very much that others could have avoided significant mistakes of their own, and I assume that leaders in both acted in good faith to do what they thought was best. The much-too-frequent, much-too-shrill rejection of critical discussion about the war that is so much in evidence in our polarized discussions, right now, suggests a view that all criticism is always merely a partisan attack. Everything I will say here I also have said in the army, in regular and friendly discussions with other soldiers who disagree. As a soldier, I talk every day with other soldiers who have an exceptionally wide range of views on the war; most are entirely open to the discussion, and deeply interested in sorting through the significance of the project to which they are committing so much of their lives. Critical discussion leads to correction, improvement, and stength. Soldiers get this point; witness, for example, the recent decision by the active duty editors of the U.S. Army-published Military Review to print a British officer's exceptionally sharp criticism of U.S. tactics in Iraq.

Everything that I will write here is offered in that spirit. The same instincts that led me to enlist in the military (and to go to grad school to study the history of my country) lead me to question our conduct of the current war in Iraq. I want to live in a prosperous, well-settled, and peaceful constitutional republic -- a republic that is fiercely but carefully defended, with modesty and restraint to balance its determination and strength. Call that whatever you want.

So here we go. I'll write, and post, as time permits.

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More Comments:

Chris Bray - 6/24/2008

See also the latest from the GAO.

Chris Bray - 6/24/2008


You're welcome to quote me, but you should also look at someone like Phil Carter who has actually been in Iraq -- I was parked in Kuwait, and wouldn't be that comfortable being described as an Iraq War veteran.

Jeff Vanke - 6/24/2008


Thanks very much for your time on this. If I end up publishing anything on this, I will juxtapose an Iraqi quotation (Kurd or not) really wanting us to stay, vs. one really not. I would also like to juxtapose a US Iraqi veteran who really wants us to stay, vs. one who really wants us out. May I quote you as the latter, and if so, do you have anything to add? The intended audience is middlebrow (not HNN or Slate types), and the quotations will be short.

And thanks (again?) for serving. I opposed invading Iraq, and I'm torn about whether leaving is best. But I sure as hell am glad that you, and soldiers like you, have represented us over there.


Chris Bray - 6/22/2008


I would just say the same thing David Petraeus supposedly asked at the opening of the war: Tell me how this ends. We should "stay and stabilize" toward what purpose? Toward more staying and stabilizing? Where is this going? A 58-base SOFA? The premises are still false or vague; the U.S. has killed all the insurgents about ten times over, now, if you buy the initial estimates about how many insurgents there have been, and there are still always more insurgents. I still think the prevailing categories of discussion -- "the insurgency" vs. "the government" -- obscure more than they reveal. The Iraqi government officials who took Saddam Hussein to the gallows were shouting Moqtada al-Sadr's name, but the Mahdi Army is an anti-government, criminal organization. So I don't know the future, but I wouldn't be shocked to find that the decline in violence is temporary, misleading, and not the critical thing to be watching. I'm just guessing, and I'd love to be wrong, but I can't see what successful outcome could follow another six or ten years of American military operations in Iraq.

Jeff Vanke - 6/21/2008


I couldn't find another way of getting in touch with you...

When I occasionally run into an Iraq War veteran or soldier or National Guardsman, I usually get the line, we should stay and stabilize. Would you be willing to share your thoughts on (a) whether there is any use to our ongoing military presence in Iraq, and (b) if there is, whether it worth the cost, and (c) what that cost would likely be, in lives lost per month, 2-3 years from now?

I keep reading that the surge is working, that we are killing many insurgents and forcing others to rethink the insurgency. I also keep reading conflicting reports on whether Iraqis can maintain anything like a stable government, even with our current military numbers.

Many people have their minds made up about withdrawing or staying. I don't, and I'm thinking of writing up something about the conflicting factors I just identified. Your thoughts would be most valued.

Jeff Vanke

Tim Matthewson - 1/22/2006

If I were you I would just go ahead and write my impressions, and lets my readers worry about whether what you say is of value. The people who would engage in name calling will never satisified with what you write, and your patriotism will speak for itself.
Regardless, than you for the thoughtful commentary and I wish you the best of luck in Iraq and the ME and when you return to finish your education.

James Starowicz [Independant] - 1/14/2006

While I think I understand where you're coming from in your opening post, I'm one who cannot be Blind to the Dangers this Current U.S. Leadership has led this Country and that's from the Administration to the Congress to the Intelligence Agencies!
As a Vietnam Veteran I view what is going on, in this present century as Escalation, not just ridding a small country of Illegal Occupiers. Vietnam they just wanted the French than Us Out! In Iraq this Raises the Hatred Level, especially by the Killing/Maiming of Innocents, who did Absolutely Nothing to Warrent their Destruction. To Grow the Already WorldWide Guerilla War, which was being carried on long before 9/11, and has no ManMade Boundries/Borders that contain it. The people waging it are telling the Powerful that they are Tired of being Pushed Around and Used, along with their countries Natural Resources, and Want Respect if not as Human Beings than to be Feared as Destructive Forces!
Critisism of those Civilian/Military Leadership who have led us to the Line Must Be Voiced, for the Generations behind us will be the Ones to contend with and pay for that which we are doing in the present!!
I'll hold more thoughts and follow your posts and suspect you will be attempting to bring more clarity to the situation, here's hoping!!
James Starowicz
USN '67-'71 GMG3 Vietnam In-Country '70-'71
Member: Veterans For Peace { }

Rebecca Anne Goetz - 1/12/2006

Can't wait to read more, Chris.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 1/12/2006

Me too...

Jonathan Dresner - 1/12/2006

...or eyes, or whatever metaphor it is we're supposed to use these days.

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