Stories or statistics? Read and compare to find the truth!
Part III of a series about our Long War
September 5, 2007
Statistics give us a blurred vision of Iraq. First, there is no functioning central government to reliably collect data. Second, like most war zones Iraq has no neutral sources of data. Still, as described in Part II of this series, publicly available statistics show little or no improvement in significant metrics during the “Surge.”
Eyewitnesses give us color, impressions, and insights – what Peters calls “smell.” Pro-war websites showcase descriptions from those “who’ve been there” – often disputing the other source of first-person testimony: journalists. These clashing accounts show the limits of eyewitnesses. Can foreigners briefly walk around a large and complex foreign land – with little knowledge of the local culture and none of the language – and draw reliable conclusions? Or do they return with stories, Iraqi dirt on their shoes, but all preconceptions intact and misperceptions reinforced?
There is a drastic solution. We could wire observers and send them to every corner of Iraq. We would learn much from transcripts of their conversations with the locals. Insurgents would capture some, perhaps many. Transcripts of their interrogation, torture, and execution would also be enlightening, especially to our pacifists and die-hard multiculturalists.
I anticipate few volunteers for this role, although it exemplifies the harsh moral dilemmas of fourth generation warfare. What are the lives of a few hundred volunteers, perhaps members of the military, compared to the 4,000+ Coalition soldiers lost so far? Is this price too high to pay for accurate intelligence? Such calculations appear routine for our enemies.
Other than through such drastic measures, how can we make the best of what data we have? Discarding the chaff of reports by untrained and inexperienced observers, that leaves those by different kinds of professionals. Here we look at two articles by professionals, each with a different perspective on the war. Both deserve careful reading, from which you can draw your own conclusions.
The first is “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt” (29 August 2007) by David Kilcullen – trained as an anthropologist and military officer (a powerful combination for this purpose). This is his first long article since completing a tour in Iraq as senior counterinsurgency adviser to the Multi-National Force.
For a description of Kilcullen’s impressive background, see appendix #1 of Part I.
Kilcullen gives us a glimpse into our plan for victory in Iraq. To what extent is Kilcullen's article a realistic description of what's happening in Iraq? Consider this excerpt, about measures to support the uprising of Sunni and Shiite tribes against al Qaeda. As he describes it, this is a major development in the war: “The uprising began last year, far out in western Anbar province, but is now affecting about 40% of the country.”
Kilcullen explains how Coalition forces have nurtured the revolt, so that it furthers our strategic goal – building a stable Iraq which has a strong central government.
Sounds wonderful. I wish we could implement this in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it raises many questions, among them:
Another perspective: are the Sunni Arabs properly grateful to us? Although lacking in public services – clean water, sewage treatment, and electricity – we have brought them supervision by state-of-the-art police technology (“biometric registration of tribal fighters”).
Another View: Journalists
In pursuit of answers we can compare Kilcullen’s views with articles from journalists in Iraq. During the Vietnam War these often proved more accurate than public statements by our civilian and military officials. Our second sample report is “The Former-Insurgent Counterinsurgency” by Michael R. Gordon, [co-author with LtGen Bernard Trainor, USMC, ret., of Cobra II, a detailed study of the March 2003 invasion] published in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (2 September 2007).
Gordon has written a fascinating picture about America's class structure, our deep optimism, and Martin van Creveld’s observation that all COIN is rooted in lessons from lost wars:
The key figure of the article is Lt. Col. Mark Odom. We learn much about him.
Especially revealing is a text that Odom brings to Gordon’s attention.
Such sentiments occur in almost every counter-insurgency waged by foreigners. Local successes in doomed wars. Tiny flickering bright spots in the dark,. First person optimism floating in a sea of statistical darkness. Repeated every few years until conventional Armies come to understand 4GW.
The first half of the article is upbeat, much like Kilcullen's article. After this gung-ho beginning the article turns detailed, anecdotal, and gloomy. The second half makes Kilcullen's description of this “bottoms up reconciliation" (to use the current jargon) look like fiction. We see little of the highly controlled, complex integration of the Sunni tribes back into the Iraq polity.
Much of this reads like a reply to Kilcullen’s article.
On this key subject, “squaring the circle” of Iraq politics, neither this article nor any other have much good to report. Unfortunately that is the key to attaining our strategic goals; all else is secondary. Without a viable political settlement, Iraq becomes with a failed state or a plaything of its neighbors.
Considering this brings a grim conclusion to Gordon’s article:
Is “hope” a reliable option for our operations in Iraq?
Everyone must choose their own path to determine the truth. I will continue to rely on the available numbers, imperfect as they are, to tell us about the Iraq War. So far they have accurately told the grim tale, while most first-person accounts appear to have been too optimistic.
Are the things reported here good or bad? Please consult a priest or philosopher for answers to such questions. This author only discusses what was, what is, and what might be.
Please send any questions as well as your comments and corrections on this article to . Please note: Any questions you ask may be used – without your name – in future articles, unless you request otherwise.
Fabius Maximus was the Roman leader who saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing its weakness and therefore the need to conserve its strength. He turned from the easy path of macho “boldness” to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s power and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century America.
Qualifications of the Author?
Read the past articles by Fabius Maximus. A work of intellectual analysis stands on its own logic, supported by the author’s track record.