The Algebra of Occupation

In 1805, the French army out maneuvered, outsmarted, and outfought the combined armies of Russia and Austria at Austerlitz. Three years later it would flounder against a rag-tag collection of Spanish guerrillas.

In 1967, it took six days for the Israeli army to smash Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and seize the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. In 2006, a Shi’ite militia fought the mightiest army in the Middle East to a bloody standstill in Lebanon.

In 1991, it took four days of ground combat for the United States to crush Saddam Hussein’s army in the Gulf War. U.S. losses were 148 dead and 647 wounded. After more than five years of war in Iraq, U.S. losses are approaching 4,000, with over 50,000 wounded; 2007 is already the deadliest year of the war for the United States.

In each case, a great army won a decisive victory only to see that victory canceled out by what T.E. Lawrence once called the "algebra of occupation." Writing about the British occupation of Iraq following the Ottoman Empire’s collapse in World War I, Lawrence put his finger on the formula that has doomed virtually every military force that has tried to quell a restive population.

Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk has cited Lawrence to this effect: "Rebellion must have an unassailable base… it must have a sophisticated alien enemy, in the form a disciplined army of occupation too small to dominate the whole area effectively from fortified posts. It must have a friendly population, not actively friendly, but sympathetic to the point of not betraying rebel movements to the enemy. Rebellions can be made by 2 percent active in a striking force, and 98 percent passive sympathy. Granted mobility, security… time and doctrine… victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical factors are in the end decisive."

Failures of Occupation

There is an inexorable trajectory to this process. An army vanquishes another army, only to find that wars don’t always end when generals surrender and capitals fall. When a few locals take up arms because they object to being occupied by "aliens," the occupiers act like armies, which are designed to kill people, not to win their hearts and minds.

So the occupiers break down doors and search for weapons, terrorizing and humiliating people in the process. They call in air strikes, which kill innocent bystanders. They choke off commerce and impose curfews to teach the locals a lesson, lessons that are never learned. For over 800 years the English beat, imprisoned, transported, shot, and hung hundreds of thousands of Irish, and it made the natives not the slightest bit quieter or more respectful. Indeed it made them quite the opposite.

In this process of trying to get the occupied to accept defeat, a certain corruption of spirit begins to seep into the soul of an army, transforming it from a war-fighting machine into a kind of monster.

Listen to some of these voices.

Reporter Chris Hedges, who talked with solders, officers, and medical personnel in Iraq, said his interviews "revealed disturbing patterns of behavior by American troops: innocents terrorized during midnight raids, civilian cars fired upon when they got too close to supply columns. The campaign against a mostly invisible enemy, many veterans said, has given rise to a culture of fear and even hatred among U.S. forces, many of whom, losing ground and beleaguered, have, in effect, declared war on all Iraqis." Sgt. Camilo Mejia told Hedges that, as far as the deaths of Iraqis at checkpoints, "This sort of killing of civilians has long ceased to arouse much interest or even comment."

Except among the survivors and relatives, of course, who now know who their enemy is. "Our children are being killed. Our homes are being destroyed. We are bombed. What should we do?" asks Abdul Qader, who lost seven family members in a June 29 U.S. air strike that killed 60 people in southern Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

"The Americans are killing and destroying a village just in pursuit of one person [Osama bin Laden]," one man told The New York Times. "So now we have understood that the Americans are a curse on us, and they are here just to destroy Afghanistan."

Israeli psychologist Nofer Ishai-Karen and psychology professor Joel Elitzur interviewed 21 Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories. They found that the soldiers routinely engaged in murder, assault, threats and humiliation, and many of them enjoyed it.

"The truth is that I love this mess – I enjoy it. It is like being on drugs," one soldier told them. Another said, "What is great is that you don’t have to follow any law or rule. You feel you are the law, you decide. Once you go into the Occupied Territories, you are God."

One soldier told a story about seeing a four-year-old boy playing in the sand in his front yard during a curfew in Rafah. The soldier says his officer "grabbed the boy. He broke his hand here at the wrist, broke his leg here. And started to stomp on his stomach, three times, and left. We are all there, jaws dropping, looking at him in shock… the next day I go out with him on another patrol, and the soldiers are already starting to do the same thing."

A few hours with the works of Goya will give one an idea of how the French army behaved in Spain.

Against All Enemies

An occupation is not a war against an army, it is a war against all. There are no front lines and no distinguishing uniforms, only an ambush or a roadside bomb that strikes without warning.

And when one does, a veteran told Hedges, "people just open up." A roadside bomb in 2005 set off a massacre by U.S. Marines in Haditha that killed 24 civilians. On March 4, 2007, following a suicide bomb, Marines in Afghanistan went on a rampage that killed 12 civilians. Occupation is only possible if the occupied are reduced to a category that places them outside the boundaries of a shared humanity. So the Iraqis becomes "Haji," just as two generations ago the Vietnamese became "Slopes." The Israeli right routinely refers to the Palestinians as "cockroaches."

Soon, everyone becomes an enemy.

When U.S. helicopter gun ships killed 16 people October 23 in a small northern Iraqi village near Tikrit, military officials said the dead were insurgents, because many of them were "military-age males," a category that embraces about one-third of the population.

Not many "hearts and minds" were won this past October near Tikrit.

What Soldiers Do

But "winning over the population," continues to be the illusion of every occupier. Testifying before Congress, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "Army soldiers can expect to be tasked with reviving public services, rebuilding infrastructure, and promoting good government."

And then there is the real world.

A survey conducted by the Office of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army Medical Command found that only 38% of Marines and 47% of Army soldiers thought civilians should be treated with dignity. Some 45% Army solders and 60% said they would report the killing of innocent civilians.

A recent ABC/BBC poll found that 78% of Iraqis say things are going badly for the country as a whole, 47% support immediate U.S. troop withdrawal while 79% oppose the presence of coalition forces, and 57% support violence against coalition forces.

Those are the "algebraical factors" of occupation, and as Lawrence concludes, "against them perfections of means and spirit struggle quite in vain."

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author: Conn Hallinan

Conn Hallinan writes for Foreign Policy in Focus.