The investigations of Marines for possible murders
of Iraqi civilians in Haditha last November and, more recently, in Hamdaniyah,
seem set to follow the usual course. If anyone is found guilty, it will be privates
and sergeants. The press will reassure us that the problem was just a few "bad
apples," that higher-ups had no knowledge of what was going on, and that
"99.9 percent" of our troops in Iraq are doing a splendid job of upholding,
indeed enforcing, human rights. It's called the "Abu Ghraib precedent."
The fact that senior Marine and Army leaders don't seem to know what is going
on in cases like this is a sad comment on them. Far from being exceptional incidents
caused by a few bad soldiers or Marines, mistreatment of civilians by the forces
of an occupying power are a central element of Fourth Generation war. They are
one of the main reasons why occupiers tend to lose. Haditha, Hamdaniyah, and
the uncountable number of incidents where U.S. troops abused Iraqi civilians
less severely than by killing them are a direct product of war waged by the
strong against the weak.
There are, of course, lesser causes as well, and it is on the lesser causes
that we tend to focus. Poor leadership in a unit easily opens the door to misconduct.
Overstretched, overtired units snap more easily. Every military service in history
has included a certain percentage of criminals, and a larger percentage of bullies.
The fact that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the insurgencies are getting stronger,
not weaker, generates increasing frustration among our troops: nothing they
do seems to yield any real progress. The enemy's highly effective use of IEDs
leads units that have been hit often and hard to take their frustrations out
on the civilian populations, since they cannot find, identify, or shoot back
at the people who are hitting them.
But all of these factors are secondary to the power of weakness itself. We
may find it easier to grasp what the power of weakness is and how it works on
us by first imagining its opposite. Imagine that instead of facing ragtag bands
of poorly equipped and trained insurgents, our Marines and soldiers in Iraq
were in a very difficult fight with an opponent similar to themselves, but somewhat
What would fighting the strong do for them? Being David
rather than Goliath, they would see themselves as noble. Every victory would
be a cause for genuine pride. Defeats would not mean disgrace, but instead would
demand greater effort and higher performance. Even after a failure, they could
still look at themselves in the mirror with pride. Knowing they faced a stronger
enemy, their own cohesion would grow and their demand for self-discipline would
If the enemy's overmatch were too great, it could lead our units to hopelessness
and disintegration. But a fight with an enemy who was stronger but still beatable
would buck us up more than tear us down on the all-important moral level.
Now, to see the situation as it is, turn that telescope
around. Every firefight we win in Iraq or Afghanistan does little for our pride,
because we are so much stronger than the people we are defeating. Every time
we get hit successfully by a weaker enemy, we feel like chumps, and cannot look
ourselves in the mirror (again, with IED attacks this happens quite often).
Whenever we use our superior strength against Iraqi civilians, which is to say
every time we drive down an Iraqi street, we diminish ourselves in our own eyes.
Eventually, we come to look at ourselves with contempt and see ourselves as
monsters. One way to justify being a monster is to behave like one, which makes
the problem worse still. The resulting downward spiral, which every army in
this kind of war has gotten caught in, leads to indiscipline, demoralization,
and disintegration of larger units as fire teams and squads simply go feral.
Again, this process is fundamental to Fourth Generation war. Martin van Creveld
has stressed the power of weakness as one key, if not the key, to 4GW, and he
is correct. It shows just how far America's military leadership is from grasping
Fourth Generation war that its response in Iraq has been to order all troops
to undergo a two- to four-hour "refresher course in core values."
They are caught in a hurricane, and all they can do is spit in the wind.
The rest of us should get ready for the house to blow down.