One of the classic signs of ideology at work is the redefinition of words to empty them of their meaning. An article by Greg Jaffe in the Feb. 16 Wall Street Journal, “New Factor in Iraq: Irregular Brigades Fill Security Void,” describes the rapid spread of militias in that unhappy place, which is probably now more accurately called Mesopotamia. The story is based largely on the work of one U.S. Marine Corps officer, Major Chris Wales, in tracking the new militias. But it also quotes Major Wales as saying, “We don’t call them militias. Militias are illegal.”
Well, that certainly solves the problem. A militia isn’t a militia if we don’t call it a militia. And we can’t call it a militia, because we have decreed there shall be no militias in Iraq. King Canute, call your office.
Let me quickly add that I am not pointing a finger at Major Wales. In today’s Marine Corps, a major is a minor, and any major who didn’t use Newspeak (especially when talking to the press) would quickly find himself the MWR officer in Barstow.
Generals, it seems, can be a bit more frank. The March 2 Washington Post, reporting on General Abizaid’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, had this to say:
“Asked by lawmakers about irregular Iraqi militia springing uparound the country, Abizaid said the help of such militia in providing security for the elections was ‘in some ways a good thing.’ In the long run, however, they should be incorporated with Iraqi government forces. ‘Ultimately it’s destabilizing,’ he said.”
The proliferation of militias, the growing dependence of the Iraqi government and the U.S. on those militias to fight Sunni insurgents, and our obvious inability to control the militias all point to the bottom line of the war in Iraq: Iraq is not moving closer to becoming a state again, and it may be moving further away from doing so. Local, private armies, often for hire, are a classic sign that the state is weak or nonexistent. If a state does not have a monopoly on organized violence, it is not a state. It cannot bring order. Such order as exists is local and is enforced by local military forces, which are militias whether or not Americans call them that.
The absence of a state breeds militias, and the militias are in turn both a sign and a cause of the absence of the state.
The proliferation of militias points to another fact about the war in Iraq: it is increasingly taking on the nature of a civil war. In the Fourth Generation stew of militias, gangs, groups of insurgents and so on, some fault lines seem to be emerging. The new militias are largely Shi’ite (the Kurds have an old and very capable militia, the peshmerga), they are aligned loosely in support of Iraq’s new Shi’ite-dominated government (but not controlled by that government), and their main purpose is to fight the insurgents, who are Sunnis. It is fairly clear where this script is heading.
Like the American destruction of Fallujah, and the recent Iraqi elections, the rise and spread of Sh’ite militias devoted to fighting Sunni insurgents put ever greater pressure on Iraq’s Sunnis to cast their lot with the insurgency. Shi’ite militias in particular leave them little choice; who else but the insurgents will protect them from Shi’ite militiamen? The situation in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War may be an analogy: though many tried, few German princes could avoid casting their lots either with the Protestants or with the Catholics. Neutrality meant you became the victim of both.
So what is the U.S. to do, beyond not calling Iraqi militias “militias”? There is nothing we can do. The Wall Street Journal quotes Lt. Col. James Bullion, who works for General Petraeus, as saying, “There is no way we can stop the Iraqis from doing something they want to do. This is their country and their army now. We can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”
Better still is General Petraeus’ own comment: “I want to get the hell out of here.” Amen.