Clearing the Cobwebs Out of Our Strategic OODA Loops
December 19, 2005
The Pentagon has claimed repeatedly it does not do body counts in Iraq like it did in Vietnam. Pentagon spokespersons have also said repeatedly that we are waging the war by applying destructive force with unprecedented precision. Nevertheless, President Bush just acknowledged that 30,000 innocent Iraqis have been killed since we invaded Iraq. He did not give the source of this information, but presumably he did not get it from the Pentagon, since they say they are not keeping count.
Setting aside the oxymoronic character of an assertion that we are being precise without examining the unintended effects of our precision, the claim that we don't do body counts has its intellectual roots in the much criticized doctrine of attrition warfare that was practiced in Vietnam. But the great doctrinal debate over body counts in the aftermath of the Vietnam War had nothing to do with the important question of civilian casualties — or so-called collateral damage in the antiseptic jargon of Versailles on the Potomac. In the late 1970s, advocates of changing our fighting doctrine to one of maneuver warfare were arguing that the number of dead enemy soldiers was not a reliable indicator of success on the battlefield, because attrition measures — dead enemy soldiers, military targets destroyed, tons of explosives dropped on those targets, etc. — ignored the far more important mental and moral dimensions of all conflict. Indeed, by ignoring the more crucial mental and moral dimensions of conflict, the proponents of maneuver warfare argued that our military strategy in Vietnam boomeranged, and we were defeated precisely on the levels conflict we ignored (the moral effects being shaped in part by our toleration and acceptance of widespread and horrific collateral damage). Those stab-in-back theorists who argue that we were defeated on the home front have always missed this basic grand-strategic point.
America is now engaged in a 4th Generation War of choice in Iraq. In 4th Generation War, the moral and mental dimensions of grand strategy are even more important than in a conventional war between nations. Now our leaders have changed this war's primary aim to one of building a democratic Iraq by pursuing what they assert is a clear-hold-build strategy. By implication, such a strategy must eventually produce decisive support among the Iraqi people and, at a minimum, induce the Iraqi people to be empathetic to our success. This strategic requirement — ipso facto — makes understanding the extent of collateral damage centrally important to decision makers controlling the direction and intensity of our tactical actions and operational maneuvers. The unintended killing or imprisonment of innocent civilians, the destruction of homes and peacetime infrastructure, and the impoverishment of millions will hardly induce Iraqis empathize with our goals, no matter what the source of their misery.
In short, the more collateral damage inflicted on the Iraqi people, the more difficult it will be to win at their hearts and minds, which are by definition at the mental and moral levels of this conflict. This means, at a minimum, we need some kind of reliable information feedback loop to give us an accurate appreciation of the relationship between the intended and unintended consequences of our actions, so that we can adjust our subsequent actions and move ever closer to our goal. By definition, therefore, the clear-hold-build strategy necessarily includes an accurate appreciation of the "collateral damage" resulting from our application of destructive force. Simply saying "we are waging the war with unprecedented precision, but we don't do body counts" may sooth the mind but it ducks the issue.
This brings us back to Bush's estimate of 30,000 dead Iraqis and raises the question: Is this appreciation sufficiently close to the truth that we can use it to chart a future course of action that will win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?????? Or put more abstractly, is a strategic decision cycle shaped by this kind of feedback connected to unfolding reality????
My good friend Andrew Cockburn suspects that this may not be the case, and that in fact, a much larger number of innocent Iraqis have been killed than Mr. Bush claims. If Cockburn is correct, Bush's strategic OODA loop is disconnected from the real world. The attached essay describes Cockburn's reasons for holding his view. His is an important view because it goes to the heart of the question of ultimate victory in a war shaped by the mental and moral effects of a clear-hold-build strategy
By Andrew Cockburn
There is, however, another and more reliable method for estimating figures such as these: nationwide random sampling. No one doubts that the result accurately reflects the overall situation if the sample is truly random and the consequent data correctly calculated. That, after all, is how market researchers assess public opinion on everything from politicians to breakfast cereals.
In September 2004, [Les] Roberts [of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health ] led a similar team that researched death rates in Iraq before and after the 2003 invasion. Making "conservative assumptions," the team concluded that "about 100,000 excess deaths" among men, women and children had occurred in 18 months. Most were directly attributable to the breakdown of the healthcare system prompted by the invasion. Violent deaths had soared twentyfold.
Unlike the respectful applause granted the Congolese study, this one, published in the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet, generated a firestorm of criticism. The outrage may have been prompted by the unsettling possibility that Iraq's liberation had already caused a third as many Iraqi deaths as the reported 300,000 murdered by Saddam Hussein in his decades of tyranny.
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