Draining the Swamp

‘We didn’t go in with a plan. We went in with a theory,’ said a veteran State Department officer who was directly involved in Iraq policy… The Bush administration’s failure to plan to win the peace in Iraq was the product of many of the same problems that plagued the administration’s case for war, including wishful thinking, bad information from Iraqi exiles who said Iraqis would welcome American troops as liberators and contempt for dissenting opinions.

– Warren P. Strobel and John Walcott, "Postwar Planning Nonexistent," Knight Ridder Newspapers

‘It is only the beginning, from a military point of view,’ said Janabi, who heads the mujahedin shura, an 18-member council of clerics, tribal sheiks and former Ba’ath Party members that assumed control of the city of 250,000 shortly after Marines aborted their first attempt to capture it in April. ‘We have succeeded in drawing them into the quagmire of Fallujah, into the alleys and small pathways. They have fallen into the trap of explosive charges, land mines and, now, the defenders’ short supply lines inside the neighborhoods.’

– part of insurgent Sunni Cleric Abdullah Janabi’s face-to-face interview with an Iraqi reporter working for the Washington Post in Fallujah after the city was declared taken by U.S. forces. Anthony Shadid, "Troops Move to Quell Insurgency in Mosul," the Washington Post

Improving the Odds

Here was our tactical kindness: By threatening the invasion of Fallujah for months and launching a bombing campaign against parts of the city long before the assault was to begin, the Bush administration managed to turn an unknown but staggering number – up to 90% – of that city’s 250,000-300,000 residents out of their homes and into refugees living off relatives elsewhere or in the most pitiful of makeshift camps often without enough food, clean drinking water, electricity, or medical aid. The first mainstream account of such a camp finally appeared Friday in the New York Times (Robert A. Oppel, Jr., "Refugees: Fallujans in Flight: Transit Camps Are Not Much Safer Than Siege They Left"), even though some of the residents described in it had been relocated there weeks, if not months before.

It’s not simply a matter of journalistic lack of concern. Most non-Iraqi journalists have little choice but to be “embedded,” whether in actual U.S. military units (allowing for movement into “no-go” parts of Sunni Iraq but only where the military is conducting operations, not exactly the best perspective from which to get an Iraqi view of things) or essentially in their hotels. Hannah Allam of Knight Ridder Newspapers, for instance, writes:

“The hotel has become a prison, and every foray outside its fortified gates is tinged with anxiety about returning in one piece. Baghdad has never been tougher for journalists. Treacherous roads and kidnapping squads restrict travel. ‘Embedding’ with the military or going with Iraqi government officials is the safest way to leave the capital. Our ability to uncover and tell the truth about Iraq – good and bad – has suffered terribly… As the close calls grew, the Iraq we knew shrank. The northern mountains and southern marshes are off-limits now because the roads out of Baghdad are lined with bombs and gunmen. Even a jaunt to the grocery store is a meticulously planned affair. Do you have a radio? A flak vest? A second car to watch for kidnappers?”

A recent piece in the Washingtonian magazine online, about the return of the Washington Post‘s superb Anthony Shadid to Iraq after months out of the country, described the situation of Western correspondents in Iraq this way:

“[S]ome television news crews have hired security firms with armed Americans to follow their teams. Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post prefer former British military or armed Iraqis in vehicles that follow their cars. ‘They could lay down cover fire,’ says Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who recently returned from 18 months as the Washington Post‘s bureau chief in Baghdad. ‘It’s a matter of improving your odds.'”

While journalists in Iraq narrowed their scope and improved their odds, the American military, after a fashion, did the same. Military commanders gathered 12,000-15,000 American troops and a couple of thousand questionable Iraqi ones and then pulled up the artillery, the planes with their 500- to 2,000-pound bombs, the helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles, the lethal AC-130 gunships, the tanks, the Bradley Fighting Vehicles, the mortars, and the heavy machine guns. After months of careful planning in the wake of last April’s aborted attempt to take Fallujah, they then launched these forces against relatively small numbers of reasonably well-prepared insurgents, a few thousand at most, scattered in a significant-sized city.

In recent years, the American military has paid a great deal of attention to the matter of urban warfare – much feared by our commanders before the invasion of Iraq. The question then was: Would the American army be caught in a final block-by-block urban battle for Baghdad? (Given the way things are going, the answer may still be yes.) Cities are considered great levelers of the playing field between otherwise asymmetric military forces. The Iraqi rebels are armed largely with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, some mortars, and, of course, those car bombs and IEDs; but in Fallujah as elsewhere in urban Iraq, they know the terrain intimately, the warren of city streets, and street fighting has a notorious reputation for cutting down on sight lines and negating technological advantages. As it happens, our military seems to have dealt with this in Fallujah largely by bringing asymmetric amounts of firepower to bear on the slightest signs of resistance even by lone snipers; in other words, as far as can be told, they responded to the challenge of urban warfare in some areas of Fallujah by quite literally leveling the playing field.

Rubblizing the Neighborhood

News about the resulting devastation grows worse by the day, though the announced body counts of dead insurgents – 1,200 or more – can’t be trusted. (I’m reminded of the informal “Mere Gook Rule” of the Vietnam War when it came to body counts: “If it’s dead and it’s Vietnamese, it’s VC [Vietcong].”) But the main point no one will make in the American news mainstream – where U.S. military self-constraint tends to be emphasized and military claims about efforts to avoid civilian casualties are printed without significant comment – is simple indeed: The levels of destruction in Fallujah were not a by-product of the campaign, but the product itself. The rubblizing of whole neighborhoods was meant.

The Bush administration may indeed have invaded Iraq on a theory, not a plan, but the assault on Fallujah itself was planned with great care over significant periods of time. So what remains of that city in which hardly a building evidently emerged unscathed (among those that remain standing) must be considered the Fallujah that was supposed to be. The brief shots on the nightly news are breathtaking (or breath-stopping) in the visible levels of destruction whenever the camera bothers to pull back for a few seconds. You have to return to 1968 and the old Vietnamese imperial capital of Hue to find a city flattened in anything like this manner by the American war machine; and in that case, the Americans were responding to Hue’s surprise seizure by the other side in the midst of the nationwide Tet Offensive.

As I’ve argued in the past, it was in the Vietnamese countryside – where we instituted free-fire zones and bombed at phenomenal levels – that similar planning and results could be found. The free-fire zone that was much of rural Vietnam, including in some cases literal “jungle,” has been replaced in Iraq by the “urban jungle.” Veteran journalist Simon Jenkins made just this point in a striking piece recently in the British Sunday Times ("A wrecked nation, a desert, a ghost town. And this will be called victory"). “In Vietnam,” he wrote, “the Americans destroyed the village to save it. In Iraq we destroy the city to save it.”

Some of you may remember that Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong famously compared guerillas to fish swimming in the sea of the people. During the Vietnam era, there was much talk among American counterinsurgency strategists about how to “drain” that sea. In Vietnam, what this turned out to mean in practical terms was grim indeed – the forcible removal of Vietnamese peasants from rebel-controlled areas (and so their lands), their resettlement in government-controlled “strategic hamlets” (or as refugees in the South’s then swelling cities) and the creation of “free-fire zones” in large swaths of the countryside that was devastated by a bombing campaign of almost unparalleled fierceness (Laos was worse), involving record tons of bombs dropped per square inch of territory. This bombing campaign in the South, unlike the one against North Vietnam, went largely unreported in our media at the time.

This was, of course, a punitive strategy leveled collectively against a population without reference to what any individual peasant might have thought or done. It gave the counterinsurgency strategy of “draining the sea” a bleakness beyond words. It also, not unsurprisingly, alienated the rural population from both the South Vietnamese government and the Americans in ways that seem all too repetitively familiar in Iraq today, and it created an especially atrocity-conducive environment for young Americans sent into an alien and hostile landscape, knowing nothing of Vietnamese culture or history, unable to communicate, and generally having no way to separate friend from foe. Does this sound the least bit repetitive to anyone?

In such circumstances acts of war grow ever more brutal. Just the other day, for instance, Tom Lasseter, a fine reporter for Knight Ridder, wrote a small piece about a Marine company in Fallujah whose commander had been “shot through the torso” by an RPG. In grief and anger here’s what they did, according to Lasseter: “In the surrounding neighborhood, troops furious at the news of their fallen leader called in revenge, in the form of a 2,000-pound bomb airstrike and a storm of 155-millimeter artillery shells. A mosque lost half a minaret, its main building smoldering in fire and smoke.” This is what you tend to do, and do ever more of, under conditions of war in an alien and increasingly hostile land.

Much of this, though not yet on a Vietnamese scale, is already taking place, not in Iraq’s “countryside,” but in its heavily populated cities. Just as we dropped leaflets warning residents to depart the free-fire zones of Vietnam, so we seem to have dropped endless leaflets on Fallujah. (It would be interesting to have some reporter tell us just what these actually said.) It seems that, as in Vietnam where napalm and white phosphorus – unbearably gruesome weapons – were commonly employed, American troops have already used white phosphorus in Fallujah (“Some artillery guns fired white phosphorous rounds that create a screen of fire that cannot be extinguished with water. Insurgents reported being attacked with a substance that melted their skin, a reaction consistent with white phosphorous burns.”) Similarly, they seem, at least informally, to have declared parts of Fallujah the equivalents of “free-fire zones.”

Imagine in any case simply pouring artillery fire into a cityscape. For example, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who flew out to “Camp Fallujah” with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers (now, there’s high-class embedding for you) to “inspect the toughest problems in Iraq firsthand” had this throwaway line in a piece about – what else? – how we’ve arrived at the “tipping point” in Iraq: “Most of the fighting in Fallujah was over by the time we arrived at this headquarters compound, although the tom-tom beat of 155-millimeter howitzers, still pumping rounds into the city, was constant.” Remind me one more time about that definition of “over…”

Draining the Swamp

Nor is the media doing a better job of covering the air war in Iraq than they did in South Vietnam. As I’ve written numerous times, while individual air strikes may be reported daily – all those “targeted” bombings of “terrorist safe houses” in Fallujah, for instance – the loosing of air power against urban Iraq has now gone on for almost a year with increasing ferocity (as overstretched American troops, lacking any serious support from Iraqi troops or police, have to deal with an ever-widening rebellion). And yet no significant account of the overall use of air power in Iraq or of the military or political calculations behind it has yet appeared. There’s a special irony here, since early in the last century the British first tested the punitive abilities of air power on rebellious Iraqi villages.

Iraq may indeed not be “Vietnam,” and there may be many other more plausible historical analogies for what’s happening in Iraq to draw on, but let’s face it, Vietnam is unavoidable. When we train Iraqi troops with hopes that someday they will replace American ones, military officials and reporters naturally speak about “‘Iraqifying’ security and politics” (as once such officials and reporters talked about “Vietnamizing” them). Similarly, when our military men on the ground express “disappointment” in the Iraqi troops we’re training and a sneaking respect for the willingness of those they oppose to fight and die (“The insurgency has shown ‘outstanding resilience'”), Vietnam will naturally come to mind.

The fact is that “Vietnam = Iraq” will never go away as long as we occupy Iraq. As a start, Vietnam (or avoiding the subject) has been obsessively on the collective brain of the Bush administration for years now; but it’s been no less on the minds of others around the world. And that makes good sense. Vietnam was, after all, the last great moment before this one of American imperial overstretch and the last great American defeat. How can people everywhere not be amazed to see so many of its elements uncannily reappear, even after U.S. leaders have spent over three decades trying to obliterate that era from American memory. (It was, after all, the elder Bush at the time of Gulf War I who exulted: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome!”)

If the people of the world in some sense cannot help but be focused on the last remaining superpower and its catastrophic encounter with Iraq, then how could they not help but think about Vietnam as well? It’s not a mistake that Saddam’s military officers studied the Vietnam experience and evidently considered it in planting the seeds of a postwar insurgency before our invasion even began; nor that rebellious Shi’ites in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City last June were writing “Vietnam Street” on walls along their embattled avenues (“This is called Vietnam Street because this is where we kill Americans.”); nor that a rebellious Sunni cleric in Fallujah this week spoke about drawing the Americans into the “quagmire of Fallujah.” Even giving some leeway for translation, the reference has to be to Vietnam, just as thoughts of the Vietnam “quagmire” never quite depart from the minds of Americans, top to bottom, assigned to Iraq. (As one American soldier in Samarra recently put it to a French reporter: “I don’t think we’re going to win this place. It’s going to be like another Vietnam. We’ll be here for a long time.”)

“Quagmire” (or its cognates swamp, quicksand, bog, morass, sinkhole, bottomless pit) was, of course, the single most famous image of the Vietnam war – we were being drawn in step by step and couldn’t extricate ourselves – and a strange one it was, as I’ve written elsewhere. After the Sept. 11, 2001 assaults, it was, I believe, the first Vietnam image to come to mind in official Washington and in a curious form that combined the quagmire environment with the counterinsurgency idea of draining the sea. The phrase was “draining the swamp” (assumedly so that the mosquitoes and other evil creatures there would have no place left to propagate), and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used it within days of 9/11. Tony Karon of Time magazine reported on Sept. 20, 2001 that earlier in the week Rumsfeld had said of bin Laden and his followers in Afghanistan, “[T]he campaign would combine military, political, intelligence and diplomatic initiatives to ‘drain the swamp they live in.'”

A week later, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz addressed a meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels saying, “While we’ll try to find every snake in the swamp, the essence of the strategy is draining the swamp” – and, though he didn’t quite point a finger at Iraq by name, his references were clear. Everyone there had to know, even then, just two weeks after 9/11, that in his mind the snake of snakes was Saddam, and the swamp of swamps, Saddam’s Iraq.

One, Two, Three, Many Fallujahs?

In Iraq, the phrase is still “drain the swamp.” Fallujah was actually our second attempt to drain the Iraqi “swamp” by obliterating it – our first having been in the Old City of Najaf – which meant of course draining out of it those hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of whom may have felt little sympathy for the Talibanization of Fallujah but undoubtedly now feel great anger at the brutal actions of their occupiers. Unsurprisingly, the process of draining the swamp in Iraq has had the effect of turning what were previously cities into the equivalent of swamps, places fit only for those “snakes.”

Parts of Fallujah were evidently quite literally turned into “swamps,” according to Patrick J. McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote of “[s]hattered water and sewage pipes have left pools of sewage-filled water, sometimes knee-deep.” It seems that our memorial, thus far, in Iraq is a “swamp” where a city once stood. And this is supposed to be, as Jonathan Schell pointed out at TomDispatch recently, the prelude to a democratic vote. Now that the Fallujah solution is in place (actually the Najaf-solution done far more methodically), administration planners will naturally find themselves considering “Fallujah-type solutions” for Sunni Iraq’s other rebellious cities. Another lesson of Vietnam was that there’s a kind of grim momentum to such things.

And here’s the present black humor punch line to the Iraqi joke, as McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Reconstruction of Fallujah is on hold as the fighting persists.” There is now much press-talk about the reconstruction of Fallujah, the difficult task ahead, and the challenges we face, but imagine for a minute that after nearly two years, under far better circumstances, we haven’t been able to bring 24-hour a day electricity or clean water to much of Baghdad and then think about just what kind of reconstruction we can possibly do in a destroyed but not fully subjected city in the heart of the inflamed Sunni Triangle. Subject closed.

In the meantime, “draining the swamp” in such wars, it’s worth remembering, is hardly a unidirectional activity. As the London Times‘ Jenkins comments, reaching back to Napoleon’s 19th century invasion of Russia (and an early version of the quagmire image),”The Russian general, Kutusov, called Moscow ‘the sponge that will suck Napoleon dry.’ Sunni Iraq is taking on the same function for the Americans.” And the rebels of various factions are intent on hastening the process by performing their own grim “draining” activities – draining away all support for the occupiers. The horrific murder of Margaret Hassan of CARE was heavily reported here. Hers was the death of an innocent and the act of brutes, but of course it only hastened the withdrawal of aid organizations from the country (which, though certainly harmful to the American effort, is undoubtedly devastating to the lives of many ordinary Iraqis).

Yet more brutal (if such things can even be measured) has been the remarkably coordinated campaign to “drain the swamp” of anyone willing to associate with the Americans, even laundrywomen on American bases, for instance, no less translators, truck drivers, or policemen. Assassinations, beheadings, the slaughter of innocents via car bombs and roadside bombs, kidnappings, murders of every sort are met on the American side, as on Friday, by the raiding of mosques and hospitals, by the use of weapons that are, by their very nature, indiscriminate in the neighborhoods of great cities. These surely are the gates of hell. It’s difficult even to remember a time when Americans could have dreamt about “liberating” Iraqis. That might as well have been in another world.

Our gamblers in Washington cast the die in March 2003 and invaded Iraq based on a “theory.” Now, the game is being played out ever more extremely and murderously by others on the ground. In the penultimate paragraph of a recent piece – oh, those last, seldom-read paragraphs of news reports in our imperial press where reporters can finally slip in their hunches and opinions, usually through the words of others – Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post quotes a “Special Forces veteran, who speaks Arabic” as summing up the situation this way: “Across Baghdad, Latifiyah, Mahmudiyah, Salman Pak, Baquba, Balad, Taji, Baiji, Ramadi and just about everywhere else you can name, the people absolutely hate us. . . . The Iraqi people have not bought into what the Americans are selling, and no amount of military activity is going to change this fact.”

Simon Jenkins writes this:

“No statement about Iraq is more absurd than that ‘we must stay to finish the job.’ What job? A dozen more Fallujahs? The thesis that leaving Iraq would plunge it into anarchy and warlordism defies the facts on the ground. Iraq south of Kurdistan is in a state of anarchy already, a land of suicide bombings, kidnapping, hijackings and gangland mayhem. There is no law or order, no public administration or police or proper banking. Its streets are Wild West. The occupying force is entombed in bases it can barely defend or supply. Occasional patrols are target practice for terrorists. Iraq is a desert in which the Americans and British rule nothing but their forts, like the French Foreign Legion in the Sahara.”

But perhaps the simplest way to sum up where matters may rest in Iraq today I ran across in the final lines of a recent long New York Times piece by Edward Wong and James Glanz ("Rebels Attack in Central Iraq and the North"): ” [T]he violence [in Mosul] had calmed since then, and children could be seen playing in some parks. At one playground, Amin Muhammad, 10, and his friends raced around with plastic guns. ‘We divide ourselves into two teams,’ he said, ‘the mujahedin versus the American forces." And in their battles, he said, the mujahedin always win.”

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 TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.