The Battle for Minds (Forget the Hearts)

Reality TV votes with its feet on Bush foreign policy:

[Bernard van Munster, the Dutch-born co-creator and executive producer of the reality TV show, The Amazing Race] continues to scout locations for the seventh season, more than ever convinced that the world is a far less dangerous place than it sometimes seems. ‘Everybody everywhere has been helpful to us from the beginning,’ he said, ‘because I tell them: “I’m not here to criticize your country or your culture. I’m here to bring Americans to learn from you and to have a good time.” Right now, the only places I wouldn’t consider going are Iraq and Afghanistan. Everything else is on the board.’

– Joe Rhodes, "An Audience Finally Catches Up to The Amazing Race," the New York Times

The Carthaginian Solution

What follows is a collage put together from the eyewitness accounts of reporters with major newspapers and news services, most of them embedded with U.S. troops. It is meant to be a portrait of Fallujah… well, you can’t quite say “after the battle” since – as in the Chechen capital Grozny after the Russians flattened it in 1999 – the fighting goes on and on. I’m sorry to say that I suspect the following only begins to catch the scale of the destruction in Fallujah:

“Even the dogs have started to die, their corpses strewn among twisted metal and shattered concrete in a city that looks like it forgot to breathe. The aluminum shutters of shops on the main highway through town have been transformed by the force of war into mangled accordion shapes, flat, sharp, jarring slices of metal that no longer obscure the stacks of silver pots, the plastic-wrapped office furniture, the rolls of carpet… [T]he insurgents were putting up their most tenacious resistance as U.S. and Iraqi forces pursued them through a bleak landscape of bombed-out cinder block factories and houses reminiscent of the movie Blade Runner… It is still far from clear when civilian residents will be allowed back in [to Fallujah] – or what they will think of this post-apocalyptic wasteland when they are… Driving down Highway 10, the main street running east to west through the heart of Fallujah, is like entering a film that is set sometime on the other side of Armageddon. Cars sit on the roofs of buildings. Lamp posts lie at odd angles on the street. Just south of the highway, a minaret has been snapped off near the base like a pretzel stick, and another minaret is missing a huge chunk. Fire has blackened the facade of building after building… As he trudged through the desolate, rubble-filled streets, [Marine Sgt. Aristotel] Barbosa said he remembered thinking how bad the city looked, worse than he had imagined. ‘Basically every house has a hole through it,’ he said…

“A drive through the city revealed a picture of utter destruction, with concrete houses flattened, mosques in ruins, telegraph poles down, power and phone lines hanging slack and rubble and human remains littering the empty streets. The northwest Jolan district, once an insurgent stronghold, looked like a ghost town, the only sound the rumbling of tank tracks… Restaurant signs were covered in soot. Pavements were crushed by 70-ton Abrams tanks, and rows of crumbling buildings stood on both sides of deserted streets. Upmarket homes with garages looked as if they had been abandoned for years. Cars lay crushed in the middle of streets… The reaction of U.S. troops to attacks, say residents, have been out of all proportion; shots by snipers have been answered by rounds from Abrams tanks, devastating buildings and, it is claimed, injuring and killing civilians. This is firmly denied by the American military. About 200,000 refugees fled the fighting, and there have been outbreaks of typhoid and other diseases… The city’s Haj Hussein mosque was destroyed in one overnight air raid, [residents] said. The U.S. military says it considers mosques legitimate targets if insurgents use them for military purposes…

“Rasoul Ibrahim, a father of three, fled Fallujah on foot on Thursday morning and arrived with his wife and children in Habbaniya, about 12 miles to the west, at night. He said families left in the city were in desperate need. ‘There’s no water. People are drinking dirty water. Children are dying. People are eating flour because there’s no proper food,’ he told aid workers in Habbaniya, which has become a refugee camp, with around 2,000 families sheltering there… Cowering in their house with nothing to eat or drink as bombardments and firefights shook their neighborhood, Iyad al-Mashadani and his family dug a 3-foot hole in their yard and drank the brackish water. ‘We were sure that we would die,’ said Mashadani, 32, a car mechanic…

“The brutal assault has crushed homes and mosques and ground much of the southern neighborhoods into rubble. Survivors are hungry and aid convoys have been unable to reach them. Reports of civilian suffering, expected to spread after the Americans loosen [their] grip on the city, could transform Fallujah into a shrine to Muslim warriors killed in the fighting… The town’s main east-west drag, a key objective of U.S. troops, is a tangle of rubble-filled lots and shot-up storefronts. Shattered water and sewage pipes have left pools of sewage-filled water, sometimes knee-deep. Scorched and potholed streets are filled with debris; power lines droop in tangles or lie on the ground. Many mosques, the city’s pride and joy, are a shambles after insurgents used them as shelter and firing positions, drawing return fire from the Marines… The entire municipal government complex must be rebuilt and secured. The police station, City Hall, and other government buildings have been seriously damaged, heavily looted and are occupied by Marines… Despite the clear military gains, the city remains insecure enough that major civil affairs units that will oversee reconstruction have yet to arrive. But more than $50 million in contracts has already been let, and people are standing by, ready to start work as soon as it is safe enough… In the works is some kind of ‘Welcome Back to Fallujah’ campaign, directing residents to military civil affairs offices where people can find reconstruction help… Though a week-long American offensive smashed the insurgents’ haven of Fallujah, snipers continued Tuesday to shoot at American troops roaming the debris-covered streets. Residents began to warily step out of their homes, emerging into a wasteland devastated by American bombs and bullets.”

[The sources for the quotes above are in order: the Washington Post‘s Jackie Spinner, “Fallujah Battered And Mostly Quiet After the Battle”; the Boston Globe‘s Anne Barnard, “In hidden spots, a tenacious foe”; the New York Times‘ Robert F. Worth, “Battleground: As Fire Crackles in Fallujah, GIs Look to Rebuild a Wasteland”; Spinner, “In Fallujah, Marines Feel Shock of War”; the British Independent‘s Michael Georgy in Fallujah and Kim Sengupta, “A city lies in ruins, along with the lives of the wretched survivors”; Reuters‘ Michael Georgy and Fadel al-Badrani, “U.S. Forces Say Rebels Trapped in Southern Fallujah”; Barnard, “Fallujah refugees describe ordeal of life in crossfire”; the Associated Press‘s Jim Krane, “U.S. racing insurgents for influence in Fallujah as battle winds down”; the Los Angeles Times‘ Patrick J. McDonnell, “Iraqi City Lies in Ruins”; the New York Times‘ Edward Wong, “U.S. Troops Move to Rein In Rebels in North of Iraq.”]

And the latest reports indicate that American troops are still mortaring parts of Fallujah, that insurgents are attempting to slip back into the city, and that at least one of the leaders of the homegrown Fallujan rebels remains there, and defiantly so. (“‘The Americans have opened the gates of hell,’ Abdullah Janabi said Monday in Fallujah. … The battle of Fallujah is the beginning of other battles.’ Iraqi officials had said they believed Janabi, a 53-year-old Sunni cleric, had fled the city before U.S. troops pushed into the insurgent stronghold. But he spoke from the city’s southern section, at times boasting of losses inflicted on U.S. troops and at other times insisting that other insurgent leaders remained in Fallujah with him.”)

All of this provides a context for Jonathan Schell’s discussion below of the battle for “hearts and minds” in Iraq (which the editors of the Nation magazine have kindly allowed TomDispatch to publish online). From his experience covering the Vietnam War long ago for the New Yorker Magazine (see his classic book The Real War), Schell knows a good deal about that “battle” and the escalating levels of destruction that tend to go with it. His most recent book, The Unconquerable World, offers an unparalleled three-century-long perspective on imperial attempts to nail down hearts and conquer minds, almost invariably in the long run without success but at a horrific cost in life and limb. Tom

What Happened to Hearts?
by Jonathan Schell

For some time now, American political discussion has seemed to revolve around little stock phrases, such as “defining moment” (at the time of the first Gulf War), “the end of history” (at the end of the Cold War), “the economy, stupid” (in the early Clinton years), “shock and awe” (as the second Gulf War began). Sometimes there’s a revival of one or another. One of these is “winning hearts and minds.” It became popular during the Vietnam War and is enjoying a vogue in the context of the war in Iraq.

However, the phrase has undergone an interesting evolution. This is reflected in two recent columns, one by Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post, the other by Mark Bowden in the Los Angeles Times. You might suppose that any reflection on hearts and minds would revolve around the elections that are planned for January in Iraq. How, someone might ask, can the United States, now hugely disliked in Iraq, make itself so appealing that Iraqis would vote for a government cut to our specifications? Yet the principal occasion for the two writers’ reflections is instead the military campaign – specifically, the Marines’ assault on Fallujah.

Back in the days of Vietnam, the phrase acquired a definite meaning: In a war of pacification, winning battles was not enough; you also had to win the population’s hearts and minds. If you did not, each victory in battle would only be the prelude to further battles, and at the end, when you left, all your work would be washed away by the contrary will of the local people, as happened in Vietnam. It was possible to rule by the sword, as empires have done through the ages, but then you had to be ready to occupy the country indefinitely. Winning hearts and minds, therefore, was not a frill of policy but its foundation, the sine qua non of victory.

In his discussion of the invasion of Fallujah, Hoagland begins with a seeming acknowledgment of the Vietnam lesson. He recognizes that the measurements of success cannot merely be the “numbers of insurgents killed or captured, or bomb factories seized or obliterated.” For “as Americans learned to their grief in Vietnam,” such measurements are “elusive and illusory.” We expect to hear at this point that winning hearts and minds is necessary, and Hoagland does not disappoint. But he introduces a variant of the old phrase. Fallujah, he says “is part of a battle for minds rather than ‘hearts and minds.'” (The title of the article is “Fighting for Minds in Fallujah.”) What can he mean? What happened to hearts?

The answer is that the “immediate objective is to dissuade Sunni townspeople from joining, supporting or tolerating the insurrection,” and “the price they will pay for doing so is being illustrated graphically in the streets of Fallujah.” This isn’t a lesson for the heart – the organ of love, enthusiasm, positive approval. The reaction of the heart – whether Iraqi or American – could only be pity, disgust, and indignation. Thus, only the “minds” of “the townspeople” could draw the necessary conclusions, as they survey the corpse-strewn wreckage of their city. In short, the people of Iraq will be stricken with fear, or, to use another word that’s very popular these days, terror. Then they’ll be ready to vote.

Bowden takes up the same theme. “Guerrilla war is always about hearts and minds,” he notes. He acknowledges that most of the guerrillas would have escaped in the long buildup to the attack. Still, he argues, the attack was important. True, it will not influence the “boldest” souls, who are motivated by “nationalism, religion, kinship, or ideology.” (All these things were applauded in the recent American election, but they apparently are to have no place in the life of Iraqis.) But “ordinary people” can still be won over. How? He arrives at the same conclusion as Hoagland. “I suspect fear has more to do with influencing them than anything else.” Most Iraqis, “like sensible people everywhere, are looking to see which side is most likely to prevail.” The stake for them is “survival” – depending on which side is more likely to kill them. Bowden wants it to be the United States. The payoff is not any concrete achievement of the attack; it is the spectacle of the subjugated city, which “works as a demonstration of will and power.”

Certainly, the assault on Fallujah has given the Iraqi people a lot to look at, and a lot to think about. Some 200,000 people – the great majority of Fallujah’s population of some 300,000 – were driven out of their city by news of the imminent attack and the U.S. bombardment. No agency of government, U.S. or Iraqi, which turned off the city’s water and electricity in preparation for the assault, offered assistance. Nor did the United Nations Refugee Agency or any other representative of the international community appear. And where are the people now? And what stories are the expelled 200,000 telling the millions of Iraqis among whom they are now mixing? We don’t know. No one seems to be interested.

When the attack came, the first target was Fallujah General Hospital. The New York Times explained why: “The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Fallujah General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties.” If there were no hospital, there would be no visible casualties; if there were no visible casualties, there would be no international outrage, and all would be well. What of those civilians who remained? No men of military age were permitted to leave during the attack. Remaining civilians were trapped in their apartments with no electricity or water. No one knows how many of them have been killed, and no official group has any plans to find out. The city itself is a ruin. “A drive through the city revealed a picture of utter destruction,” the Independent of Britain reports, “with concrete houses flattened, mosques in ruins, telegraph poles down, power and phone lines hanging slack, and rubble and human remains littering the empty streets.”

Both columnists do mention the elections. Bowden says the best hope for Iraq is “for elections to take place,” and Hoagland believes the attack on Fallujah will “clear the way” for them. Ballot boxes are to spring up in the tracks of the tanks. Some commentators even refer to “the Sunni heartland.” (As far as I can tell, no one has yet asked how Iraqi “security moms” will vote.) Meanwhile, the insurgency, failing so far to learn its lesson, has opened fronts in other cities, which may soon get the same treatment as Fallujah. “They made a wasteland and called it peace,” Tacitus famously said. It was left to the United States, champion of freedom, to update the formula: They made a wasteland and called it democracy.

Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. His most recent book is The Unconquerable World.

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from