Sunday, December 18, 2005
EVERYONE KNOWS: IRAQ AND THE ARGUMENT FROM OMNISCIENCE
An MHQ article by Ted Morgan from a few years ago titled “When the Maquis Stood and Fought” described the metastasizing legend of a rare pitched battle in early 1944 between a French Resistance force and a German Alpine division at the Glieres Plateau in which the Germans suffered six KIA, versus 43 plus 180 prisoners for the French (who had held the high ground at the beginning of the battle). That was the reality.
London radio turned the Glieres battle into a propaganda victory: The maquis had fought off 12,000 Germans for two weeks, inflicting, on a single German battalion, losses of 400 dead and 300 wounded. This would have amounted to a 99 percent casualty rate, since a battalion in Pflaum’s division consisted of 708 men....By 1973, when Andre Malraux, a resistance hero himself, came to the Glieres Plateau to inaugurate a monument to the memory of the fallen, the 12,000 Germans had grown to 20,000. “It took 20,000 Germans to dislodge 300 Frenchmen from this plateau,” Malraux said, “where…these men directly affronted Hitler’s army.”
Stories like this one—and WW2 has many of them—tell us two important things about irregular warfare.
First, that more often than not, irregular fighters come out very badly in stand-up fights against regular troops. There are exceptions that come to mind—Afghanistan, first Grozny, Dienbienphu—but they require horribly-trained and/or horribly-commanded and/or horribly-outnumbered regular troops. By and large, the value of insurgent warfare is indirect: Interdicting supply lines, tying up forces needed elsewhere, etc. Without regular armies complementing them, Insurgencies are almost never decisive.
And, second, that irregular fighters’ exploits are often romanticized and exaggerated. They are the underdog of underdogs, and it’s understandable that we tend to love the very idea of them.
This has gone on for a long time, at least as far back as the Revolutionary War, with its colorful Swamp Foxes and Green Mountain Boys. But even at the time George Washington—in spite of his reliance on local militias as necessity required—saw them “only as light troops to be scattered in the woods and plague rather than do serious injury to the enemy,” and belittled partisan warfare as “petite guerre.” The caustic remarks about militias that the movie The Patriot puts into the mouth of General Nathanael Greene were apparently an accurate expression of the feelings of Washington and those around him.
General Sherman thought so little of the insurgent cavalry bands that harassed his armies (like many insurgents, they often crossed the line that separates guerillas from criminal gangs) that he saw them as a net positive:
I don’t want those rebel bands captured. They are doing us excellent service. They are disgusting the minds of Southern people with Confederate government.
The appearance of mass electronic media in the twentieth century only made things worse. Romanticized images of Soviet partisans literally danced their way across the screen in Hollywood films like Song of Russia (“A pleasant musical romance,” as Louis B. Mayer called it in his testimony before HUAC) and The North Star.
Vietnam (and roughly contemporaneously with it, Algeria) brought us something new: Segments of society openly cheering on the guerillas fighting against the society’s own military. This is something only possible in highly-developed democracies where people have both the freedom and the abundant leisure time to cultivate a rooting interest in the success of their enemies. And because of the successes—public-relations successes at least as much as military ones—of the Vietnamese insurgency, the Vietnam War became, for certain segments of Western society, a template. Or, as we call it today, a meme.
The next step in the evolution of the meme was the current Iraq insurgency, an insurgency whose goals appear not to be military at all. The London Times reported the statement of one pro-insurgent Iraqi on the day of the parliamentary elections on December 15, 2005: “Because of the resistance the Democratic Party in America has started calling to withdraw US troops from Iraq,” he said, smiling. “That’s what the resistance has achieved.” Instead of anticipating military victories, the insurgency anticipates political triumphs. Bing West, in his No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, tells the story of the American Marines’ discovery of one of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi’s hideouts during the second battle for that city. Would this be some new Berchtesgaden, bursting with situation maps and strategy documents and war plans?
Well, not exactly. What the Marines found was…
…a film studio with the green and black flag of Zarqawi’s terrorist gang, Al Ansar, on the wall, and black blood on the floor where Nicholas Berg had been decapitated in May…In the next room were two computers, klieg lights, a CD burner, two video cameras, VHS tapes, a television, a VCR , and a recording schedule typed in English. The schedule included what time a prisoner was to be brought out and washed up, when his confession had to be taped, when the execution had to be done, how long it would take to digitize the video and make copies and when to leave Fallujah in order to deliver the tape to the al Jazeera studio in Baghdad to be shown in prime time.
But we must give the Iraq insurgency the credit it deserves. It was able to persuade Western elites—who, admittedly, were eager to be persuaded—that it was defeating Coalition forces on the field of battle.
The apogee of the “insurgents are winning” movement came with a Newsweek article in the October 31, 2004 issue, just before Second Fallujah, a Salon digest of which made it around the Internet at veritable light-speed:
Colin Powell believes U.S. is losing Iraq war (Newsweek)
Secretary of State Colin Powell has privately confided to friends in recent weeks that the Iraqi insurgents are winning the war, according to Newsweek....This is a particularly troubling development for the U.S. military, as it prepares to launch an all-out assault on the insurgent strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi...If the Fallujah offensive fails, Newsweek grimly predicts, "then the American president will find himself in a deepening quagmire on Inauguration Day."
And by that time, the smart money—informed by the Newsweek report and the reporting of Dexter Filkins and Edward “The guerilla movement has a seemingly endless supply of men” Wong in the New York Times—was on the insurgency. Spencer Ackerman in The New Republic’s blog 11/10/04: “By every strategic indication, the insurgents are winning the battle.” And elsewhere: “The insurgency is winning, and is doing so geometrically.” “The insurgents are winning the war. The insurgents know it. Our military knows it. The whole world knows it.” Blogger Steve Gillard went into depth:
What Bush doesn’t realize is that the guerrillas not only control the pace of operations, but read the newspapers about them. They know exactly how to stymie US tactics and will do so…the Iraqis are lavishly equipped. No bolt action rifles here. Just AK's and RPG's…The US would need like a 10-1 advantage to take Fallujah and we can't even come close.
Students of debate may begin to recognize this for what it is: The Argument From Omniscience. Related to the argumentum ad numerum of classical forensics, The Argument From Omniscience asserts its own indisputability based on an implied universal consensus. It works as rhetorical hyperbole...if there is in fact general agreement as to its truth.
“Everyone knows the insurgents are winning” was a younger and weaker brother of the much better known and much more successful formulation “Everyone knows there never were any weapons of mass destruction.” This latter, with not one but two absolutes in one sentence, has problems of its own in terms of pure argument, but its narrative is straightforward and easily understood, and it works much better. Given the facts, an actual victory by the insurgents is much harder to imagine.
Melvin Laird pointed out in a recent Foreign Affairs that, while the number of Communist forces in Vietnam surpassed one million, the Iraqi insurgents numbered in the thousands. Blogger Wretchard observed that the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War numbered some 30,000, but the total number of Saudi jihadists in Iraq was less than a tenth of that. There was no military basis for any realistic expectation of an insurgent victory, only a political one; and here the insurgents and those in the West who believed them were forgetting their Chairman Mao, the man who literally wrote the book on insurgency: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
And the rest is on record: Second Fallujah was a crushing, overwhelming victory for Coalition forces—I recommend West’s very balanced volume, which also unflinchingly reports the strategic and political failures that marked First Fallujah. Following in its wake in 2005 were the devastating Tal Afar offensive, and the Euphrates campaigns (Iron Fist and Steel Curtain) against the insurgency’s supply lines, as well as three successful elections which sucked much of the political life out of the insurgency.
If you filter a Nexis search by dates, you’ll notice that phrases containing variations of the statement “the insurgents are winning” show a significant decline after Second Fallujah, which now seems to have been some sort of turning point. Even Zarqawi couldn’t spin Second Fallujah, and could only rant furiously against pro-government Sunni clerics: "Hundreds of thousands of the nation's sons are being slaughtered at the hands of the infidels because of your silence."
Margaret Friedenauer, an embedded journalist in Iraq from an Alaska paper, wrote shortly after her arrival in 2005:
I’m a journalist. I read the news everyday, from several sources. I have the luxury of reading stuff newspapers don’t always have room to print. I read every tidbit I could on Iraq and the war before coming.
Everything I thought I knew was wrong.
All of which is another reason gaming is important. Any story, any information, any interaction between human beings can be spun, but gaming, to its credit, can only be spun to its detriment. In simulation gaming there isn’t a “version” of a battle, only an as-realistic-as-possible simulation of it. I imagine that one could create an alternate Iraq insurgency game corresponding to the war coverage on Al Jazeera and in the Guardian and the New York Times, where tanks flee from fearless insurgents and American snipers apparently spend their time looking for toddlers to shoot.
But it would be a lie. And everyone knows it.