On March 31, 2004, two SUVs carrying contractors for Blackwater Security Consulting drove into an ambush in Fallujah. Four Americans were shot dead. All were ex-military men, at least two from the US special forces. A local crowd mutilated the bodies. Cheering and chanting “Fallujah is the graveyard of Americans”—some holding up computer-printed signs that said the same thing—the locals did the opposite of burying them. They burnt the bodies with gasoline. They beat and tore them. One body was tied with a yellow rope and dragged behind a car down a main street. Another was hauled by the legs by a group of teenagers. Two bodies were tied and hung from a green iron bridge that spans the Euphrates River.
Deaths by ambush occur every day now in Iraq. The Saddam Hussein regime lost a three-week war to the overwhelming force of the United States, a war in which our military conquered a nation of twenty-four million people, slightly larger in landmass than California, and left behind a partly relieved, partly dismayed population, who have since given birth to a variety of resistance factions.
The mutilations were unusual, however. The violation of dead bodies is against Islamic law; the dead are to be buried as soon as possible. Other American dead whose bodies were lost during the war were buried by locals.
The incident led to a massive and bloody US Marine offensive in Fallujah in the month of April, which we tried to understand from what we could read in our newspapers and see in the fragmentary footage on the television. We were told that clerics had ruled that the mutilations were an offense against Islam, and yet a Marine officer reported that a videotape of the mutilations was still selling well in many Fallujah shops.
History works by analogies. Eleven years earlier, a similar set of mutilations occurred in Mogadishu, Somalia. After a firefight with Somali militias, the bodies of three US soldiers—again, from the special forces—were captured by a local crowd. These American corpses were tied by hands or feet. One was splayed over a wheelbarrow. They were mutilated by dragging, in the dusty city streets.
The Mogadishu populace, too, adhered to Islam, and the mutilations were not sanctioned by religion. Saudi Arabian troops, stationed in Mogadishu, witnessed what local crowds were doing to the captured American bodies, and were appalled. “If he is dead, why are you doing this?” they shouted.
A last analogy. Three millennia earlier, the origins of our Western way of war unfolded in the battles between Greek and Trojan warriors on the plains of Troy. Homer recorded and embellished the story in the Iliad. A feature of the Greek way of fighting was the mutilation of the bodies of heroes. Achilles defeated Hector, killing him. And we know, from Book 22, what he did next, defiling the body by dragging its head in the dust: “Piercing the tendons, ankle to heel behind both feet,/ he knotted straps of rawhide through them both,/ lashed them to his chariot . . . And a thick cloud of dust rose up from the man [he] dragged.”
Whenever one compares modern war to ancient war, there is the danger of arguing for a simple continuity between all forms of war across history. Warfare is not continuous, however; methods change. American commentators have already invoked the Mogadishu mutilations multiple times—in the days and months following the spectacle in Fallujah—and this analogy, in their hands, has been misleading. Their implication was that we were witnessing a continuity of savagery, rather than civilization; an effort to throw Americans off their mission in Iraq, rather than a reflection on the character of the American military mission itself; a manifestation of terror, irrationality, or “mob mentality,” rather than the orderly policies of war, which would be available to reason.
The purpose of the comparison should have been to ask why the repetition occurred, why a scene of the mutilation of the most visible and valuable American fighters, these special forces and elite security contractors, should be restaged compulsively each time the US fights its contemporary ground wars. The answer resides in the logic of the fighting itself. What do we know of the meaning of past warfare in which such spectacles were paramount? I do not mean to excuse the mutilators, or say that they have become Homeric. It is American fighters who have become Homeric. A small set of our frontline fighters have attained a kind of value and visibility unlike that of any enemy these soldiers could possibly face, or anyone else in the recent history of modern war. Mutilation is an invisible population’s response to such power—they make themselves visible the only way they know how, by entering the system of American bodies and American lives.
Theories of postmodern war, and recent military histories and popular battlefield narratives, make equal and opposite errors about the nature of contemporary US combat.
War theorists only care about the new. To them, everything we see is wholly unprecedented and revolutionary. Before September 11, 2001, and the three years of continuous war that have followed it, a decade or more of thought on postmodern war said we were coming into the presence of a new formation in the history of the world. The human body would disappear from the scene of war. War would become a kind of video game for those people who would do the new postmodern killing. Virilio predicted the disintegration of the personality of the warrior. Baudrillard spoke of wars that didn’t take place. Ignatieff analyzed “virtual war.” Luttwak argued for “post-heroic war.” Even in the Pentagon—especially there—the generals dreamed of a revolution in military affairs, of network-centric warfare, information warfare, and the possibility of killing without risking US life, making the loop between sensing and killing an opponent increasingly automatic and autonomous. This has partly come true.
Popular military historians meanwhile promote the misconception that wars are all the same, in all times, and that contemporary US fighters, despite their technology, are actually continuous with ancient warriors. “As with Xenophon’s hoplites, the engine driving the campaign was not mechanical. Instead, it was a spirit, an unbroken code—” and so on. These commentators remember the past, but they paper over the strangeness of today.
In the battles the United States has fought on the ground in the last decade, we’ve seen something different from what both the dissipation-theorists and the warrior-traditionalists describe. In Mogadishu, at Mazar-i-Sharif or Tora Bora, in Nasiriyah, Najaf, Baghdad, and now Fallujah, we’ve seen something hidden since Vietnam—the way the US military currently trains and arms its best soldiers to fight on the ground, especially in urban or unconventional surroundings. Human bodies still do the face-to-face work of killing for the United States—just as in so many spheres of the postindustrial economy, small populations are still needed to do the skilled or filthy work that machines cannot reach. The military has become unprecedentedly reliant on a small number of frontline fighters, heavily equipped with technology, who are rewarded with a special kind of status.
Unfamiliar trappings surround them. US soldiers wear body armor of great technical ingenuity, flexible, miraculous. They fight with powerful, almost preternatural weapons, in episodes of virtuosic slaughter, until they withdraw to safety. Eyes circle overhead to guide them, superiors to whom they can appeal in times of trouble. Medicine makes wounds insignificant, as long as they are not instantly fatal. And when a military action takes a wrong turn, jeopardizing overwhelming US supremacy, or when any soldier is killed, the fighters may pause or even stop the operation, as if the primary goal of warfare were to preserve US lives rather than to win at any cost.
The oddity of this mode of fighting isn’t quite that it marks a new formation in the history of the world, or comes unknown to us. It’s that we thought we would never see it again. We are witnessing a temporary reconvergence with an ancient bit of history, caused by technology and the superior value the United States can now afford to put on the lives of its citizens and soldiers. In contemporary US warfare, the hero returns, in the manner of the Iliad, and “hero” has here a purely technical definition. He is the lone fighter, who takes the stage amidst a sea of mere mortal beings—one of only a few heroes who are comparable in abilities and significance. The hero may kill or be killed but he is always absolutely visible and valuable; owner of a social status, among the princes, aristoi, and in the front lines, promachoi, he is one of the select warriors who are by their method of life hērōes.
If we can see the relation of today’s fighter to his Homeric predecessor, it will give us a window onto what is so strange in contemporary US fighting. The new conditions will become obvious, which have made our situation so confusing in the “War on Terror,” the war in Afghanistan, and the war and occupation in Iraq. Only once these terms are set is it possible to understand that if postmodern conditions recreate the hero, of a sort we haven’t seen in several thousand years, the same features may prohibit what our civilization has sometimes understood as the condition of war.
The changes in the US military go back to the Vietnam War, but the place to start to understand today’s warfare is Mogadishu. On October 3, 1993, US special forces troops entered the Black Sea neighborhood of the Somali capital. They engaged local belligerents in the longest sustained firefight since Vietnam. The operation had been intended to take an hour. A journalistic account—Black Hawk Down, by Mark Bowden—details step-by-step the fourteen hours of fighting by US Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos that followed.
The American humanitarian mission to Somalia was meant originally to safeguard food aid during a famine. It turned into a campaign against the Habr Gibr clan and its obstructionist leader, Mohammed Farrah Aidid. By autumn of 1993, US troops had become accustomed to speedy arrests (or kidnappings) of clan officials. On October 3, soldiers landed in helicopters and captured two of Aidid’s lieutenants. After that capture, however, a set of unanticipated events extended the fighting. A soldier fell from a helicopter. A helicopter was shot down by Habr Gibr militia—a feat not thought possible by Pentagon planners. A rescue convoy got lost in the streets. A second helicopter fell to a rocket. Repeated rescue sorties went out, returned, or were pinned down. Eighteen Americans had been killed by sunrise and seventy-three injured. Americans killed five-hundred Somalis and injured another 1000.
To anyone acquainted with the Iliad, this description of the fight in Mogadishu may make a comparison to Troy seem arbitrary. I have not left anything out that is crucial to knowing the events of Black Hawk Down. All that I have failed to indicate, perhaps, is how strange the details of contemporary combat practices feel to anyone accustomed to modern war in its 20th-century guise—the soldiers continually in the field, under orders, anonymous, en masse, seizing territory while continually at risk. Mogadishu does not look like war. It is odd to find US soldiers inserted and extracted for the briefest acts of violence, whisked away at the first sign of injury. It is unsettling to see a military offensive of sorts turn into a continuous rescue mission. It alters our picture of war, as the contemporary surgeries in which the heart is deliberately stopped and restarted after the completion of the procedure alter our picture of life. But the thrust of the comparison depends less on the circumstances of the conflict, more on the status of the fighter.
What does a Homeric hero look like? He armors himself. Well-made greaves defend his legs, a breastplate burnishes his chest; a massive shield, slung on his arm, turns away spears with layers of leather and bronze. The modern soldier of the Argonne Forest or D-Day had been nowhere so well protected except for his metal helmet. But the technology of armoring has radically improved. US forces now suit up fully for the first time in centuries. Fighters don body armor, helmets, and goggles. They wear Kevlar vests, formed of layers of shielding to turn away bullets, and tough Kevlar helmets. They tuck bulletproof ceramic breastplates into their flak vests, cushion their legs with kneepads, fight with personal sniper rifles, rocket launchers, super-precise and powerful weapons.
And how does the Homeric hero fight? The Achaean or Trojan wades into the slaughter, sending the shadow of his spear hurtling over the ground, killing as many as he can before he himself is wounded or withdraws. The structure of the battle follows a steady pace of attack and withdrawal. With Diomedes’ advance, or Agamemnon’s, or Achilles’, Greek warriors drive their foes far back across the plain towards the gates of Troy. One peculiarity of this ancient method was that each army retained a steady place of rest. As chariots whisked them forward and back, soldiers attacked when angry and withdrew when wounded.
And, today, the incredible speed of helicopters and land vehicles recovers the ancient method from centuries of disuse. US troops maintained a secure camp on the beach in Somalia, unmolested, three miles from the center of Mogadishu—a broken-down Troy, with its burning tires and dung, its maze of littered streets and untouched mosques. American fighters “rope” in, rappelling from helicopters hovering fifty or seventy feet above the fray. With weapons blazing, they kill anyone who crosses their path. The dead fall around them until the American soldiers themselves—by mischance or fate—are wounded. As injuries occur, US fighters are “extracted” by speedy vehicles on the ground, or by small, agile helicopters that can land in the narrow streets.
Nor does any injury, in the Iliad or today, ruin a hero but the one that kills. Men like the Homeric heroes are never half-men, never maimed or in-between. An arrow in the foot or shoulder is cause to go home temporarily in a chariot. The puncture is healed by a medic or, occasionally, the succor of a god. When a US soldier is shot, anyone can make a quick calculation to know the significance of the wound. In the face or beneath a joint of armor, it will be fatal. Any other injury will be reparable, practically, as long as the mechanisms of extraction work successfully to take a soldier off the field. Even a frightened soldier can work out his chances, as Ranger Sergeant Raleigh Cash did in Mogadishu: “He had thought it through methodically. He was wearing body armor, so if he got shot, it would probably be to the arms or legs and there were medics who would take care of him. It would hurt, but he had been hurt before. If he was shot in the head, then he would die. If he died then that was what was meant to happen.” The invocation of fate by this soldier is tempered by the sense that fate has but a slim margin within which to do its grisly work.
And substitute gods watch over the troops in their desert camouflage and flak vests just as the Olympians watched the furious mortals in their sport, bronze helmets flashing, on the plains of Troy. OH-58 observation helicopters pass over Mogadishu with cameras; a high-flying P3 Orion spy plane regards the fighting from the clouds. Satellites watch from above earth’s atmosphere. A command-and-control helicopter hovers within range of the active soldiers, poised to give battlefield directions. The cameras also stream images in color video, plus infrared and heat display, to senior officers in control rooms miles or continents away, who watch until—very rarely—they attempt to intervene.
But the importance of the eye above a contemporary soldier at all times—just as it was with the eye looking down on the ancient soldier—is not really the efficacy of these gods, in pulling out wounded fighters or sending in bursts of terrible fire. It is, rather, the knowledge that someone is always up there, a peculiar reliance by the soldier on the sense that he is always, in some way, beneath the hovering US helicopter, under the range of the satellite, under the eye. He matters as a subject for attention. Even his agony registers in a higher consciousness.
All these practical features confer superior value. This is the attribute that unites the Homeric to the American hero. Other words capture subsidiary senses of the quality that adheres to the armored, barely killable, murderous, God-monitored fighter: singularity, irreplaceability, distinctness, visibility. The real uniqueness of the US fighter is located in his being seen and counted, monitored and protected, simply worth more than any enemy he could face. The maintenance of his life seems more important than any goal he could achieve.
And so one is struck by the two deep differences between Homeric and contemporary war. The first is that US postmodern fighters, unlike Greeks and Trojans, do not expect to die. The second is that US postmodern battle is one-sided—a fight against no other commensurable force.
Contemporary US fighters, regardless of their military goals, will go to great lengths to avoid the deaths of any of their own personnel. In Mogadishu, they nearly released the two men they had arrested when it looked as if these captives might slow down the soldiers’ own rescue. Rescue becomes the ruling angel of warfare.
And the US begins to fight on a strategy of survival. The Mogadishu firefight as it is recounted in Black Hawk Down includes scattered killings of civilian noncombatants, glimpsed just out of the corner of the eye. If you keep a list, you can gradually develop a picture of what such fighting must mean to anyone not a US soldier, reporter, or citizen. As the assault begins, US fighters kill a few Somalis by accident. They shoot an innocent woman. They shoot a few boys. Their “rules of engagement” dictate they “shoot only at someone who pointed a weapon at them.” But as risk accelerates, US soldiers and attack helicopters stop shooting civilians by mistake, and start shooting them deliberately. They shoot anyone advancing on the troops, then anyone suspicious in the vicinity, then any groups in the city moving in the direction of the pinned-down troops, then anyone at all. They gun down crowds on purpose.
Somali fighters, of course, are killed with just the same lack of registration as the crowds. Visible—they must be spotted, to be shot—but invisible. As the heroes occupy their peculiar haloes of bodily safety, a strategy of survival makes it harder to gaze out through this glare to identify anyone who might inhabit a different, more traditional order of life, such as these low-tech Somali fighters—a grim, unromanticizable bunch—who nevertheless cannot be extracted by helicopters, who cannot be remade by medicine, who fight as modern war taught them to, aiming at goals, expecting to die, and wiped out by American fighters in extraordinary numbers.
The Somalis become a natural or biological menace, a menace made of men. And this licenses any degree of killing of combatants or noncombatants. Again, that death toll: in fourteen hours, Somalis had 1500 casualties, a third of whom were killed. Fewer than one hundred American casualties occurred; of these, only eighteen were killed. We can remind ourselves that Americans’ abstract moral beliefs are second to none. Whenever things go right, our military’s adherence to certain conventions of war, at the level of planning and training especially, is admirable. But whenever things go wrong, a different order prevails. The strategy of survival bleeds into a reality of extermination, and a form of warfare in which, for Americans, there may be an enemy group, but there is no other side.
The analogy to the Iliad is an aid to thought. Homer’s poem is an example of warfare everyone knows. It is so different from what our warfare is supposed to be like now that it jogs the mind.
The long-term trend of recent US military planning is to expand and accelerate the features of ground combat that were most startling in Mogadishu. This has gone along with a particular line of military thought, now dominant in the Bush administration, which seeks to remodel all of the US military on the example of special operations forces. The Army’s “I am an army of one” advertising campaign, before September 11, already recruited on the basis of the new conception, picturing individual soldiers, alone, wearing futuristic armor, almost unrecognizable as human beings, or else accomplishing extraordinary feats by themselves. As Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld has sold his idea of “transformation” of the armed forces—originally a matter of corporate-style “downsized” military organization, budgeting and goals—by concrete examples from the special forces, and by their conspicuous recent successes.
The conventional wisdom on the 2001-2 war in Afghanistan was that it was won almost entirely by a tiny number of special operations soldiers who called in massive air power. US heroes mobilized the “proxy fighters” of the Northern Alliance, target-spotted for precision bombing, and overthrew the government of a vast country—leaving a large ground force to be called in only later, when there was little left for it to do.
Pentagon planners love this model because it is quick, delivers more funding to technology and less to manpower, and is freer from public scrutiny and public opinion than the use of the regular military. Journalists have fallen in with it, too. The hagiographic literature of special operations forces in Afghanistan is both unilluminating and extensive. Many of the Afghan engagements are classified, but the few that are not resemble storybook tales. Heroes come roaring out of a curtain of precision explosions—as at Mazar-i-Sharif—on horseback, surrounded by faithful Northern Alliance fighters, to overwhelm a Taliban stronghold. Or heroes radio home the GPS coordinates for targets, or paint them with lasers, and moments later the enemy vehicles, or houses, or men, are vaporized by munitions dropped from Stealth bombers; the heroes melt back into the landscape, blending in with the natives. Rumsfeld himself, in a policy article in Foreign Affairs, likened the new forces of transformation to an opportunity to take an M-16 back to the Middle Ages. You wouldn’t joust with the knights you met—you’d machine-gun them. Such was the curious charm of the special forces in Afghanistan.
The far more important development, however, may be that the armor and tracking devices which only belonged to the highest-value fighters in 1993 have been made increasingly available to a wider, though still relatively small, cadre of frontline fighters in the regular infantry and Marines. A Marine rifleman now wears a ceramic plate in his sapi vest, like a Delta operator ten years ago; an Army infantryman can be watched by drone planes, and his vehicle followed on the Blue Force tracker at headquarters. This is what we saw in Iraq, during our brief war.
Iraq: we now are coming to understand it better and better, as commentators relive our twenty-one days’ war, then ask what went wrong. Iraq is the real test for the new conditions of combat.
New accounts of the war are arriving at a steady pace. We have David Zucchino’s Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad, Rick Atkinson’s In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat, Bing West and Major General Ray L. Smith’s The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division, Williamson Murray and Major General Robert H. Scales, Jr.’s The Iraq War: A Military History, and John Keegan’s The Iraq War, among others. Each of the accounts by “embedded” journalists adds something new. The military histories mostly confirm the larger picture that the journalists sometimes can, sometimes cannot, see.
In Iraq, the trends toward the making of “heroes” continued. The heroic aspects of monitoring, armor and medicine appear in these books in familiar form. During the war, the death of any US soldier from hostile fire is rare and shocking. Operations pause to evacuate wounded soldiers by armored vehicle or helicopter. Medics see the benefits of the new personal armor—in one firefight, twenty men are wounded but “there were no head wounds, no sucking chest wounds, no wounds to vital organs.”
And the United States fought another low-casualty war, with few personnel killed during the actual campaign, and remarkable numbers of Iraqi deaths whenever US forces encountered resistance. Murray and Scales cite one engagement west of the Baghdad International Airport on April 3, 2003. It began in late afternoon: “By early morning the bodies of nearly 500 fedayeen littered the ground in front of American positions.” West and Smith recount an engagement at Diwaniyah: “In six hours, the battalion estimated two hundred Iraqi soldiers and fedayeen had died, not an unusual number, for the length of the battle and the panoply of weapons applied.”
Zucchino gives figures for some of the dead in the fighting around Baghdad—where the massed corpses can be counted in one-mile stretches of highway, and intersection by intersection. In a morning-long engagement on April 5, “[t]he Desert Rogues [tank] battalion had just killed between eight hundred and a thousand enemy soldiers. . . . It had cost them one dead.” On April 7, at one intersection, US forces may have “killed as many as two hundred and had destroyed at least forty-five vehicles. The company had not lost a man.” At another: “Hubbard figured his men had killed up to four hundred enemy fighters and had destroyed eighty vehicles. A single American soldier had been injured—a minor shrapnel wound.”
The strategy of the US ground campaign in Iraq was simple. The US had two large forces, both of which left Kuwait at the same time, pursuing roughly parallel paths north to Baghdad. The main force was the Army V Corps. It included the Third Infantry (Mechanized)—a powerful force of tanks and fighting vehicles—the paratroopers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne, and the commandos of the Special Operations Command. The I Marine Expeditionary Force had a comparable mix of tanks, helicopters, fixed-wing air support, artillery, and infantry. The Army struck along a Western route, on highways and briefly through the desert on the far side of the Euphrates. The Marines fought their way north on an Eastern route, between the Euphrates and the Tigris. The two forces converged on Baghdad.
At the battle for Baghdad, they reached what could have been the most elaborate and dangerous ground engagement the US had fought in decades. The original US strategy was to conquer Baghdad by making raids from stable bases outside the city, using the relatively small forces of the 101st and 82nd Airborne and the special forces, backed with every kind of firepower and support imaginable. This would have been like Mogadishu. Perhaps as late as April, official war plans called for these troops, who are transported in Black Hawks and closely supported by Apache attack helicopters, to strike into Iraq’s capital city and fight in the neighborhoods day by day, in raids of attack and withdrawal.
The US forces made a discovery during the earlier campaign, however, which changed all this. In the unique Iraqi environment, tanks could perform urban warfare as well as fight traditional open-field engagements in the desert. Because Iraq had maintained a full highway system—with road signs in Arabic and English—tanks could move swiftly wherever they liked. Because the monumental architecture of Saddam’s Baghdad, not unlike the Mall in Washington, D.C., gave tanks room to maneuver at the heart of the capital, they could drive to the center of Baghdad and collapse the city’s defenses from within. Because the Baath defenses included fixed roadside bunkers, light gun-mounted pickup trucks, and suicide cars—all easy targets for tank guns—the tanks were lethal and unstoppable. The armed hero found a new way to “walk” into a hostile city, in other words, with an even lower risk of injury—clad in even more invincible armor and with more unimaginable firepower, looking at the enemy streets over the sill of a turret, wearing the skin of a tank.
On April 5 and then April 7 and 8, 2003, Third Infantry tanks led so-called “thunder runs” into the city of Baghdad, killing all the fighters they encountered along the way. Nothing went wrong this time. The US forces killed, and killed, and killed. The main worry for the Americans, in the hottest engagements, was only that they would run out of ammunition.
And one sees the same ethos, the same super-power and super-value, among the frontline fighters, as in Mogadishu. The one-sidedness of this mode of battle is, again, dramatic. The tankers use thermal sights to find enemy targets by their body heat and vehicles by their engines and exhaust. The regular optical day-sights are also good enough to hit standing Iraqis who, relying on the naked eye, may not even know there’s a tank in view: “Some of the dismounts would stand up right in the open. Gibbons would cut them in half with the coax and he and Booker would shake their heads and mutter, ‘What the hell are these guys thinking?’”
The US heroes are consistently mystified by what the Iraqis are thinking, when they stick up their heads and have them blown off. Don’t they know we have thermal sights? The Iraqis aim wildly, but the US machine guns, used properly, can’t miss: “their computers corrected for range, lead, temperature, wind, munitions temperature, and barometric pressure. The tanks knocked down the fedayeen one or two at a time as they ran across open spots.” The Iraqis continue to fight in the only way they know how—on their feet, with small arms, breathing and therefore generating heat. They die as they are glimpsed. “They were not giving up. It seemed suicidal—men with nothing more than AK-47s or wildly inaccurate RPGs were charging tanks and Bradleys. It was like they wanted to die, or worse, they didn’t care,” the tankers think. This is the logic of a higher form of life, regarding a lower.
A large part of the apparatus of the US military is of course still oriented to preventing US deaths. Colonel David Perkins, the commander of the 2nd Brigade tank force that made the final “thunder run,” had to instruct his officers specifically against this ethos: “[H]e told his commanders that the mission’s main goal was not to avoid getting anyone killed. It was to force the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
Yet the strategy of survival reappears, in the usual ways. When a tank battalion’s commander learns that some enemy soldiers are playing dead, standing up to shoot after the tanks’ main guns have passed, he decides to have his men “double-tap” all visible bodies—that is, to shoot the wounded and the dead, lest they prove to be a threat later. His officers and gunners put it into practice: “[A]nyone in an Iraqi uniform was going to die. It didn’t matter that they were wounded or pretending to be dead.” Because the US forces make their assault using a capital city’s highways in the early morning, civilian cars are also on the highway on- and off-ramps, and when they can’t be differentiated from enemy “technicals” and suicide cars, they must be destroyed. “Deep down, [the tankers] knew they were inadvertently killing civilians who had been caught up in the fight. They just didn’t know how many. They knew only that any vehicle that kept coming at the column was violently eliminated.”
John Keegan blames the civilians for not staying home.
One of the most bewildering characteristics of this strange war was the apparent refusal of civilians to accept that a war was indeed going on. They drove about, in vehicles easily mistaken for the ‘technicals’ used by fighters, as if the Americans should understand that they were on a family outing or on their way to market, as they often were. The result was the spectacle of dead fathers or slaughtered children in bullet-riddled cars skewed across the roadway.
As in Mogadishu, when real danger presents itself, US methods turn truly annihilative. During the Baghdad fighting, Iraqi forces mounted counter-attacks at three crucial highway cloverleafs on Highway 8. The US fighters fired tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, but still more attackers appeared, and the commanders began to fear the enemy might break their perimeters and overrun their positions. So they lowered their restraints. Residential buildings bordered the highway. It became necessary not only to shoot the visible enemy inside the windows, but to take down the buildings.
Hornbuckle was concentrating on four- and five-story buildings to the northeast and the southwest, where RPG teams were able to fire straight down on his men dug into the cloverleaf. They were civilian buildings in a residential neighborhood, but under the rules of engagement they were now legitimate targets because they were being used by the enemy to attack American forces. Hornbuckle had first ordered his Bradley crews to fire high-explosive Twenty-five Mike Mike straight through the windows, where he could see the RPG teams firing and moving. . . .
The captain had his mortar team fire. . . . The mortars chopped the buildings down, floor by floor.
Then Hornbuckle called in the Paladins, the 155 mm artillery batteries set up south of the brigade command center. Their ninety-five-pound shells tore into two of the buildings, leveling both structures.
With the threat continuing from neighborhoods along the route, the commander of China Battalion, Lt. Colonel Stephen Twitty, gives an order to stop asking for orders, and just bring mortar fire down on the residential neighborhoods. If you sense a threat, he orders, “Just level it. Take it down. Call artillery.” He will end any threat to his men—no matter who may be in those neighborhoods.
My concern, however, is actually mostly with the enemy fighters, however loathsome a portion of them were, however grateful we are when American lives are protected, however necessary it was that the Saddam regime lose, and lose as quickly as possible.
Why should it matter when killing is as one-sided as this? It may seem a perverse exercise to say which specimens of military killing qualify as war, and which others do not. I know it will seem equally perverse to militarists and pacifists.
Some people claim that war is just the application of force to another group until it submits. Ideal war then tends towards a totality of violence. Clausewitz began the tradition of modern thinking in this vein. Though he understood war’s motives to be based in state policy, he believed war’s prosecution tended inevitably toward the “extreme,” toward limitlessness. This is often called a “realist” position.
The first thing you have to believe, to view war differently, is simply that war is a distinct, longstanding human enterprise, bound by rules. Our ordinary language holds to this, in retaining such distinctions as those between war and massacre. The rules of war, too, grant immunity from violence to those who surrender, are wounded, or are taken prisoner. The rationale is simple—anyone who cannot provide a threat is no longer subject to killing.
Certain actions which seem morally allowable along the progress toward their perfection, when their goal is possible rather than actual, may became disallowable if they ever reach that goal. Every general in history may have dreamed of a war in which he killed all of his enemies without a single death among his own men. But the dreamed-of situation was never attainable, and its unattainability was crucial to war’s ethical acceptability. Once the US can annihilate large percentages of our foes in war with minimal losses to ourselves, we have entered a different moral universe.
One of the peculiarities of the newest US technologies of war is that they make enemy soldiers resemble disarmed persons or prisoners of war. At the start of the war in Afghanistan, the US quickly destroyed all Taliban defenses against high-altitude aerial assault. The US then began bombing Taliban soldiers. We killed Taliban soldiers sitting in “front line” positions. We destroyed personnel in rear supply positions. The US at no time stood to the front or rear: only above. Our pilots stayed out of range of any threat these soldiers could present them. A ground force had not entered Afghanistan. It is a paradox of technology to make armed combatants as helpless before our weapons as the categories of disarmed soldiers whom it would be unlawful to kill.
Elaine Scarry once defined war as a reciprocal contest of injuring. Behind any military conflict, she agreed with Clausewitz, lies a crisis of policy, as one group wants to compel another to accept its will. But how should it be, Scarry asked, that wars can be won or lost between populations in a way that prepares each side to rewrite its deepest ideologies, or remake the constitution of its society—and all because of an action so uncivilized and terrible as the maiming and killing of soldiers in war? As occurred in Japan and Germany in 1945, and as we are hoping will occur in Iraq in 2004 (also, we should note, as occurred in the United States at the end of the Vietnam War), societies wind up changing their beliefs and self-conceptions because of the outcome of a contest that seems to “realists” to have to do only with killing power.
This model of war requires mechanisms of consent by which a population can support or isolate its fighting representatives. In a liberal democracy like the United States, those are the mechanisms of a free press and representative government. In any loose or undemocratic state, they may simply be the power of the populace to provide or withdraw shelter, to respect fighters’ secrecy or hand them over to the enemy.
But it also may be the case that any war which produces a lasting settlement might need two-sidedness—need, that is, the sense that a war actually occurred, a contest of representatives, with the real power to hurt each other, and recognize and count their losses, and equally be subject to the odd combination of skill, strength, and blind luck that means the battle is not always to the strong. It might also require time for campaigns to be drawn out, as two populations observe the mayhem and ask themselves if the deaths are worth it—whether, that is, the ideas and principles incarnated in the fighters were worth the loss and pain, or whether to change ideas.
Some wars end without ending, and without producing a state of peace or stability, as is the case today in Somalia, Afghanistan, and—so far—in Iraq. These failures either result from an incomplete eradication of the “enemy,” as the US government and its military spokesmen tend to declare, or from the defective and permanent “tribal culture” of peoples not organized on liberal-democratic lines, as pundits inform us. But one also has to ask whether the manner of carrying out a war, when the war is not quite a war, might somehow undermine the permanence of any settlement.
On May 1 of last year, George W. Bush flew to an aircraft carrier and unfurled his banner: “Mission accomplished.” Major combat operations were over. The war against the Iraqi government was done. Saddam’s government was destroyed.
The paradox is that we began to see the crucial conditions of war return only when war was declared over—in an occupation that the US had not prepared for, and that we citizens are slowly coming to recognize and understand. We return to war, in some form, at a moment when war is unacknowledged—when an exchange of deaths, a slow and visible process, undoes the one-sidedness of our glorious, barely visible three-week war last March and April.
In mid-April of 2003, tens of thousands of Iraqis protested against an occupation, but that was lost in the end of what we had declared to be our war, while we were preparing to declare it over. US troops fired on the demonstrators twice in three days, killing at least fifteen and wounding seventy-five. Back in April, the first revenge attack was reported in Fallujah—and this news, too, was lost. The US and UK finally declared themselves “occupying powers” in May, seeking the protection of international law to take temporary control of Iraqi oil supplies. By mid-June 2003, the drip of dead Americans, ambushed or bombed, had begun. Attacks on US soldiers during the fall, Patrick Graham recently reported in Harper’s, reached “roughly fifty per day” in Al Anbar province alone. By January of this year, 2004, says Rick Atkinson of the Washington Post, US forces were suffering an attack, on average, every forty-one minutes. Whatever the frequency of attacks, as of this writing, 810 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq, only 108 of them during the three-week war. Nearly 4700 have been wounded—some of them grievously, we know, since US medicine can stop death and undo wounds but can’t save exploded arms and legs, which have to be replaced with artificial limbs.
“Heroes without war” acquires another meaning when US troops fight so remarkably, and against such weak states, that a “war” can be held to twenty-one days, too short a time for anyone to understand what is occurring, too quick a sequence of battles to be meaningfully represented by the press. In Iraq, it made too compressed a victory for either the defeated population or the victors to learn whom they would be living with in the odd intimate proximity of an occupied nation and a distant foreign power—as we shipped our reserve troops and entrepreneurial citizens to the Middle East to speed the transformation.
We began to learn, however. And so did the Iraqis. By observing the Americans, Iraqi insurgents could see firsthand how much we watch each of our military lives. The Iraqis could not kill our best fighters in a planned war. But it didn’t matter who a dead American was. It didn’t matter, in the occupation, if the person killed was a fuel convoy driver, an Army Reservist rotated from weekend training to overseas duty, a National Guardsman who usually protects the USA from natural disasters, or a Marine patrolling the street.
No Iraqi can face off against our frontline fighters. And it doesn’t matter if the American is not faced down. He or she can now be blown up by what even the press calls an IED, an “improvised explosive device”—an old artillery shell, for example, wired with a fuse. A highway full of booby-traps, like a barrage of carelessly fired mortar rounds, will eventually hit someone. And the new deaths are added to the balance sheet of American lives, each one mattering more than fifty or a hundred Iraqi fighters in our calculus. So Americans’ higher register of life can be used against us. A steady hemorrhaging of lives, one or two a day, could force our recognition of the opposite side, whom the American fighters still find unintelligible, and whom the American public hears about only as “dead-enders,” “foreigners,” and “terrorists.”
The act of mutilation—performed by boys and townspeople, though the ambush was arranged by fighters—is a way of getting us to see what we Americans value most, as we watch it be undone. We respect “clean” killing; here is filthy mistreatment of the already dead. In Mogadishu, the special forces soldiers watched the mutilation of their comrades’ bodies on a barracks television. “What kind of animals . . . ?” they thought.
The pilots wanted to get up over those crowds and mow them down, just mow them all down. Fuck the whole lot of them. Then land and recover the bodies. These were American soldiers. . . . Garrison and Montgomery [their commanders] said no. There were big crowds around those bodies. It would be a massacre.
The massacre would have meant nothing. All the soldiers cared about were the bodies. In Fallujah, six civilians and a journalist had been shot dead by US troops the Friday before the mutilations. No one noticed. You who do not wish to see us, the mutilators cursed, waving their computer-printed signs in the air, we will show you what you are like.
Ironically, several weeks before the mutilations, the Marines had been brought in to replace the 82nd Airborne in part because they were more polite, more decent, closer to the ground in their fighting methods than the paratroopers they replaced, more likely to win “hearts and minds.” Then the mutilations occurred. The Marines joined a battle more like Mogadishu than anything that had occurred in Iraq during the actual war. Reports have been spotty and contradictory. The Marine tactic in Fallujah seems to have been to enter the city to draw fire, then pulverize the sources of fire. Close air support was used in neighborhoods inside the city, from Cobra helicopters launching Hellfire missiles, to cannon-firing AC-130 gunships, to bombs from F-16s. The director of the Fallujah General Hospital reported 600 people killed and 1,200 wounded in one week. He said the majority were civilians; the Marines insisted ninety-five percent were “military age males.”
April proved to be the bloodiest month for American forces since the war. One hundred thirty-five soldiers died and 1100 more were wounded. The Fallujah insurgency continued a year-long chronology of Sunni Muslim resistance. Simultaneously, however, the Shiite Muslim forces of Muqtada al-Sadr and his anti-American Mahdi Army were rising against US troops in Najaf, Karbala, and elsewhere. Twelve Marines were killed in a single seven-hour firefight in Ramadi on April 6—nearly two-thirds of the number killed in the long-ago fight in Mogadishu.
This occupation, in reassuming the condition of war, will change the self-conception of the Iraqis, or our own—if only we have the nerve to look steadily at it, and think. The United States is making a claim on what Iraq should be: secular, human-rights based, economically privatized and open to foreign investment, and as democratic as it can be while assuring permanent friendly ties with the US. When we make this claim backed by our military, we are also making claims about our United States—for example, that we have the moral, national, and humanitarian authority to overthrow tyrannical governments in favor of democracy and free market economics.
The insurgents, in turn, are making claims about the way they want their own country to look: theocratic, Islamist rather than Western, traditionally repressive rather than egalitarian and rights-based, “Arab” rather than globalized, independent rather than occupied. They are also making claims about how they want the United States to be: not expansionist, not dominant, not spreading Western values, not capable of imposing rights-based freedoms, equality-based democracy, or free-market globalization.
And these conflicting conceptions—the “policy” at stake in our unwanted new war—will be deliberated upon by two whole populations, and not the jihadists and ideologues who started it, in that odd and terrible form of deliberation that is greased with lives, pain, suffering, and loss.
In this sense, “resolve” is a word that has been grossly misused in recent months, and yet is most relevant. The administration makes it mean resoluteness, a steadfast quality of refusing to change course in war regardless of events. The siege of Fallujah in April was even called “Operation Vigilant Resolve” or “Iron Resolve.” Yet the word has a more honorable place in our democracy. It is the oral formula in which all acts of public deliberation are put forward, from town councils to the Congress: “Be it resolved, that . . .” The significance of a resolution is not its finality, but the fact that deliberation goes on. At this moment, war once again becomes a cause for thinking. The thinking will go on in public. Our administration’s certainties are not America’s. Our resolve is a public self-discovery that has yet to be made.