Mao Zedong was a World-class Mofo: a review of Mao’s Great Famine

Mao Zedong wrote the book on guerilla warfare, literally, and was the godfather of Communist China. But thanks to scholarship like Frank Dikotter’s 2010 book, based on the latest archives out of Beijing, there’s more hope that Chairman Mao will be solely remembered as an asshole of the first order—even before he unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Why isn’t Mao, responsible for the deaths of at least 25 million people within four years, a supervillain in the vain of Stalin or even Pol Pot? (Ho Chi Minh is more of a household bad-guy name.) A couple big factors inform Mao’s lack of mainstream infamy. Most notably, the slow death of neglected peasants isn’t compelling Middle-American entertainment. It lacks cinematic drama. Unlike WWII, there’s no happy ending and there are no heroes. Another notoriety tamer: Mao didn’t specifically order Stalin-style show trials, executions and massacres. Nor did his henchmen dress in stylish black leather or shoot people, like the Nazis. Cable channels, like National Geographic and History, have never given Mao’s China its due.

The title Mao’s Great Famine puts the blame squarely on the Chairman. This specific ‘Fuck You’ is necessary to drive home his complicity because Mao is rather far from the actual carnage. As such, he is conspicuously absent from the second half of the book, especially in the long section called ‘Ways of Dying.’ It almost seems as though he has plausible deniability. He does not. The subtle evil of the Chairman is that he caused a famine then neglected to save his subjects. And it would have been so easy. Mao’s advisers, his planners and his enemies in the party whole-heartedly—yet silently—welcomed an end to his counterproductive policies.

The author takes care not to romanticize Mao and his cult of personality. Mao comes off as a flat character: impetuous, spoiled and often moronic, he seems to lack any skepticism. He’s described thusly:

“Mao spewed disdain”  “Mao now demanded full allegiance” “left Mao seething with resentment”

But Mao had seen his share of hardship, leading his communist guerillas on the Long March of retreat in the  Chinese Civil War. That Mao was desensitized to the suffering of others is not explored in the book—and it’s to his credit that Dikotter won’t allow Mao to escape responsibility via diagnosis.

The word ‘Great’ in the title is a reference to Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1958-1962. Irony doesn’t come much more blatant than this name: The Leap was one of the most insane self-inflicted steps backward in world history.


After WWII, Joseph Stalin was world communist No. 1—the most powerful soul in the eastern hemisphere. He bankrolled Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War against General Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists in 1947-48. But Stalin treated Mao like an illegitimate child.

“For thirty years Mao had suffered humiliation at the hands of Stalin, willingly subordinating himself to Moscow out of sheer strategic necessity.”

Mao’s accomplishments were nothing to sneer at. He was a pioneer of guerilla warfare and fought off Imperial Japan before driving the Nationalist army to the sea. As a fierce-willed proproganda-spewing prophet, he then cemented Communist China.

Mao had once respected Stalin’s vision but by the early ’50s he was plotting China’s course to match Soviet power. When Stalin died in 1953 of a brain hemorrhage, the Chairman saw no reason he couldn’t become the one true god of communism. Soviet successor Nikita Khrushchev, a loyal Stalinist thug, was not particularly respected inside or outside Moscow—which is why he survived Stalin’s frequent purges.

In 1957, the Sputnik satellite orbited the earth and earned the Soviets the superpower championship belt. Khrushchev boasted loudly about the advances of the industrial wonderland communism built. He proclaimed the USSR would overtake America in everything from color TVs to steel production. Mao began to echo these boasts and assured the world that China would soon outproduce Britain in steel. Soviet communism flourished, so surely China could achieve a Great Leap Forward to industrialization, a la Stalin’s Five-Year Plans.


Mao solidified top-level party support through fear and sold the Great Leap Forward as a way to both cure poverty and industrialize the countryside. But the phrase was first used “in the context of a water-conservancy drive” for which 30 million people had been recruited in 1957.

The Leap was China’s second get-power-quick scheme—Mao’s mid-50s Socialist High Tide faltered and drew heavy criticism. But Mao soon purged non-believers and continued collectivizing the vast rural population—seizing its property and forcing it into hard labor—as the People’s Republic sought an edge in prestige, goods and geopolitics. Ideology was a key method of oppression as Mao and his central committee instituted a military-based society: ‘villagers were “footsoldiers” who had to “fight battles” on the “front line” … while “shock brigades” might “stage a march.”‘ Beijing corralled peasants into the continuous revolution, the People’s communes.

Dikotter quotes Mao: “If we can provide food without cost, that would be a great transformation. I guess that in about ten years time commodities will be abundant, moral standards will be high. We can start communism with food, clothes and housing. Collective canteens, free food, that’s communism!”

Like five-star generals, Beijing’s economic planners gave orders that ran down the totem pole of party officials, from province to region to county to brigade and finally to individual cadre. Wielding authority and clubs, cadres stripped millions of poor villagers of their land, herded them into communes or collective farms, and put them to backbreaking work.

Not that the cadres were necessarily evil, they were simply under a lot of pressure to produce tons of steel and grain and other commodities. Cadres were responsible for getting giant damns built, irrigation systems dug and iron ore mined. To motivate workers, they threatened to withhold food.

County chiefs—who wanted to gain favor with the province boss, who wanted to gain favor with Mao—demanded production targets be met and projects be completed quickly. From cadres on up, everyone had to stay on the party’s good side.

Competition was fierce among counties to earn a coveted Red Flag, like a gold star, from Beijing. The state assigned ill-conceived projects and demanded high yields of crops, then provided no oversight, no quality control and no incentive to work effectively. Cutting corners became policy down the line. Tried and true farming methods were scrapped, so attempts to develop more foodstuffs directly resulted in serious food shortages. Entire villages were razed for steel and fertilizer in probably the most prolific residential destruction of all time. Quickie dams collapsed and reservoirs leaked dry. Irrigation schemes salinized—or salted—millions of hectares of soil, making it less fertile. Half-assed industrialization was rampant.

“One chemical workshop in Nanjing, put together in a residential dwelling, had a bamboo roof and paint peeling from mud walls…. Radioactive waste permeated nooks and crannies…. Some of the women had the cartilage separating their nostrils eaten away by constant inhalation of chemicals.”

Indeed, no examples were spared in Dikotter’s comprehensive exposé of dangerously shoddy Great Leap Forward campaigns. Brigades worked the malnourished villagers longer hours but it only wore them out or made them lazy with spite.

As pieces of the sky fell, local leaders buried them, hiding the horrors.

Though the last two-thirds of the book isn’t much fun to read, a relatively enjoyable part of Mao’s Great Famine comes in the ‘Survival’ section. In chapters such as ‘On the Sly’ and ‘Wheeling and Dealing,’ Dikotter concentrates on how regular people defied the party and managed to squeak out an existence. In a society where the lowliest bureaucratic functionaries held life and death in their hands —in the form of ration cards—smart folks learned fast to barter, bribe and network. Savvy businessmen found ways to outwit the state, bypassing the ‘planned economy’ with creative accounting and developing a ‘shadow economy,’ a vast black market.

“Li Ke, a cadre from Jianguomen commune to the east of Beijing, wrote himself a certificate for sick leave for nine months and started trading in sewing machines, bicycles and radios, investing the profit in a bulk acquisition of electric bulbs and cables. These he sold in Tianjin, purchsing in turn furniture which he unloaded in the suburbs precisely when the market contracted…”

Dikotter’s unromantic anecdotes, when they finally arrive, feel like tall tales of capitalist cowboys sticking it to the communist empire.

Cadres and county officials regularly stole from the state, smuggled goods and ran under-the-radar factories and even complex trading operations. What might be considered unconscionable corruption in a socialist democracy became survival in a totalitarian kleptocracy.

Other sections of the book, such as ‘Destruction’ and ‘The Vulnerable,’ detail the wide range of awfulness. The chapters therein, while fascinating in scope, offer up repetitive, depressing statistics for scholarship. One titled “Nature” reveals how Mao’s vainglorious delusions led him to declare war on the physical land.


The famine mentioned in the title is presented mostly as a sequence of brief images or as reams of statistics.

“In a hamlet once humming with activity, two children with drumbstick limbs and skeletal heads, lying by their cadaverous grandmother, were the only survivors. One in four people in a local population of half a million had perished in Guangshan.”

Though he’s wise to avoid drawn-out scenes of family’s cannibalizing one another, Dikotter could have found more room for peasants with names and character traits. Instead the reader sometimes sees the rural Chinese as Mao saw them: numbers.

The most sympathetic character, whose story would make fine historical fiction, is Liu Shaoqi’s, Mao’s head of state. He finally returns to his hometown in Huaminglou, Hunan, after 40 years, to investigate the results of 18 months of the Great Leap Forward.

One passage from Liu’s journey sums up how the Leap begat the famine.

‘He [Liu Shaoqi] tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959. Duan Sucheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a Red Flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meager crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions [taken by the state], villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.’

In short, Beijing took more and more food from the counties as they produced less and less.

Those who criticized the Leap were labeled ‘rightist’—like ‘commie’ during 1950s America’s Red Scare, a derogatory term that meant you could be blacklisted or worse. The scrutiny by cadres tasked with finding rightists led to the discovery that farmers had been hiding grain.

After a report was issued to Beijing, a furious Mao sent the orders that translated into brigades rampaging through small towns and villages, beating, looting and terrorizing peasants. As tons of hidden grain were violently confiscated, starvation increased exponentially.

When Liu Shaoqi returned home it was April 1961, after several rounds of rightist purges and grain confiscation, and the results of a famine, which had been severe since 1959, were hard to hide. Liu saw with his own eyes the obvious destitution and ‘clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer [Liu’s] team from speaking with villagers.’ Liu called the provincial Bureau of Security ‘completely rotten’ and immediately shut down the wretched canteen in his native village of Tanzichong.

Liu, clearly shocked with the conditions on the ground, was also disturbed that he had stopped getting mail. Dikotter quotes Liu: ‘My home town is such a mess but nobody has sent me a report…. I am afraid they were simply not allowed to write, or they did write and their letters were inspected and confiscated.”

Liu Shaoqi spoke truth to power a month later at a gathering of leaders and called on the party to accept blame for their errors, revealing: ‘in Hunan the peasants have a saying, “30 percent is due to natural calamities, 70 percent to man-made disasters.”‘

For his challenges to Mao and criticism of the Great Leap Forward, Liu’s stock tumbled until he was officially purged in the Cultural Revolution of 1966.


As early as 1959, Mao had to admit that mistakes were made, but he didn’t change the policies of the Great Leap Forward. A phrase he often used to explain it away was, ‘Out of ten fingers, only one fails, where nine succeed.’ And Zhou Enlai, the senior economic planner, routinely insisted on taking the heat for Mao.

When it was to his advantage, Mao did pretend to care about the rural population. By October 1960, as reports of mass starvation finally made it to Beijing, ‘Mao was visibly shaken’ and party leaders (such as Liu Shaoqi) were finally dispatched to the countryside on fact-finding missions into 1961. The state rounded up, imprisoned and/or purged the most abusive and neglectful county leaders and cadres. Mao called those offenders ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and ‘rightists’ who were taking revenge against the communist vision. But “at no point did the Chairman acknowledge that the regime of terror he modeled at the top was being mirrored at every level down the party hierarchy.”

By the end of 1960, Zhou Enlai and members of the central committee made subtle adjustments in economic policy to slowly reverse the catastrophic death and destruction. A year later, they even convinced Mao that imports of grain were needed to heal the countryside. Most of the famine-fueling elements had been rooted out, and conditions, which had nowhere to go but up, improved considerably by late 1962.

As Dikotter continually points out, a final damage assessment is hard to verify, given all the fraudulent information passed up and down the chain of command. An estimate of 25 million avoidable deaths is the low end of the spectrum—45 million the high. And he argues convincingly that Mao, who expelled experts overseeing an irrigation project for reporting that hundreds had died, knew what was up from the getgo.

Positive Spin on the U.S. Wars (my cynical id)

The Taliban and their friends in Pakistan safe havens have gotten a rude awakening. It’s about time we took the battle to its true center, North Waziristan and over the Pakistan border in general.

Helicopter attacks and increased drone strikes on insurgents who fire on coalition forces in Afghanistan and then retreat over the border to Pakistan are finally being accepted (with limits) by the Pakistani powers that be. In September alone there were 20 drone bombings and a copter raid killed at least 40 retreating Taliban. The CIA has a network of Pashtun informants and spies that allow these attacks to be accurate. And the Haqqani Network and the Taliban are murdering their own people in numbers over who might be informants.

It’s just about the coolest thing I’ve heard with regard to the Afghanistan(/Pakistan) war since the CIA, with the Northern Alliance, ousted the Taliban back in 2001 (without the U.S. military).

We have to put it to Pakistan or we have to go home. We’ve given them billions so they can play both sides and enough is enough.


Sure we went to war with countries that posed little or no threat to us, compared to Iran and Pakistan. (The Iranian leadership hates America and Israel and is desperate to acquire nukes. Pakistan has nukes and both countries have and support various terrorist/extremist groups that could snag those nukes.) Sure, instead of just toppling oppressive regimes we saw as hostile, we decided we had to stick around and pretend we could make those nations democracies. Sure, we played right into Osama bin Laden’s hands and spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to make the world think we’re brutal imperialists and to turn a new generation of potential terrorists against us.

But what have we learned? And more importantly, what have we relearned that has been stripped of ambiguity going forward?

1. There will always be war. The sooner we accept this, the better.

a) Fighting has been humankind’s defining trait since the dawn of time and the century that brought the world the most progress also brought by far the most devastating war and destruction.

b) 9/11 and our response to 9/11 have assured perpetual war. Now not just the hawks and the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about know this, the public knows it. That knowledge has been stripped of all ambiguity.

c) The invasion and occupation  of Iraq and Afghanistan will be seen as U.S. failures. But instead of promoting caution in further overseas adventures, it will only fuel our need to not be perceived as weak. Already prognosticators see no other option but military action if Iran continues to strive for nuclear weapons.

d) But even if the status quo remains with Iran for years, non-state actors will provoke the U.S. to attack other countries at some point. The sooner we accept this, the better.

2. We’ve relearned our allies are our enemies.

a) We can assassinate our enemies from the sky, and this is acceptable in Pakistan, a country we’re not at war with (it’s acceptable to the American people as well!). Pakistan works with the U.S. and against U.S. interests at the same time. We used the threat of a massive terrorist attack in Europe to finally go into Pakistan, where it was said to be planned. This has blowback potential.

b) We once supported Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

3. We’ve learned that politics makes bad military strategy.

a) Bush and Rumsfeld’s light-footprint strategy to limit U.S. casualties was a disaster.

b) Obama should have either pulled out or sent in more troops for the long haul. Instead he split the difference and prolonged our withdrawal for a year, actually doing himself no favors politically and learning nothing from the light-footprint Iraq fiasco. Obama will pull out before the 2012 elections.

c) The U.S. obtained its immediate objectives (removal of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban) easily. Did we really believe we could start a stable, democratic government (Bush’s political goal) in Iraq or keep amorphous, splintered groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban out of power forever (Obama’s stated goal in the campaign)?

4. We learned that the more we fight the better at fighting we get.

a) The military learned a new kind of war: counterinsurgency (COIN) for the 21st century. Our military is much smarter than it was 6 or 7 years ago, and has adapted impressively. (Too bad COIN is the most costly of all war strategies.)

5. We’ve relearned that our adventures and interference in the world can backfire and that, as the most powerful nation, we have serious limits. However, we’ve learned that we can still protect the American public (especially our non-Muslim citizens) by destabilizing other nations. Iraq self-destructed because its citizens lived in sectarian fear and had to join violent extremists to survive a civil war (spurred on by U.S. de-Baathification and the like). They spend so much time and energy killing one another that they do not pose a threat to the U.S. in the near future. Even al-Qaeda spent most of its resources inciting sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 instead of focusing on the U.S.

6. We have relearned that the United States is not concerned with civilian casualties in developing and Muslim countries, or in countries that commit mass sectarian violence within themselves.

The United States of America became (by WWII) and remains the most powerful nation in the world by engaging in often ridiculous and counterproductive wars and coups. History, the present and the foreseeable future all prove there will be war.

Be glad you’re on the winning team (because even the innocent losers are massacred).

Destabilization was obvious: a brief history of Iraq

Studying Iraq’s modern history for a few days and reading books such as Patrick Cockburn’s Muqtada, it seems obvious that the W. Bush Administration either intended to destabilize—i.e incite civil war in—Iraq or at the very least considered chaos as an acceptable side effect to the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. It’s no secret CIA studies had concluded that a major outbreak of sectarian violence would follow a regime-changing invasion. It’s also been a stated neocon goal in regard to the defense of Israel.

The volatile cross-identification of tens of millions of Middle Easterners—tensions based on religion, region and race, not to mention family bloodline and political party—and the traditions of violence in Iraq have been U.S. news since the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War. The Baath party (Arab nationalists) and its early de facto leader Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni, had ruled Iraq for two generations by 2003. In a society such as Iraq where one either rules or is oppressed, leaving a power vacuum is a recipe for bloodshed—then add a dollop of Islamic martyrdom and stir with unpopular Western forces. The complexity of hatred that America has either witnessed or directly fostered upon the fragmented country for 40-odd years might have tipped off U.S. warmongers (who had taken a day to study Iraqi history) that civil war was likely to erupt.

(In the 1970s, Saddam himself recognized that Iraq’s sectarian rivalries and tribal and religious divisions had to be quashed with a combination of violent repression and rapid modernization.)

Saddam engaged in ethnic cleansing, brutally silenced dissent, murdered countless allies in paranoid fits and instigated an unpopular eight-year war where hundreds of thousands were killed. It certainly wasn’t a hard sell for the Bush Administration to paint Saddam Hussein as the tyrant whose removal would be a cure-all and allow the U.S. to be “welcomed as liberators.” (This war argument was, of course, supplemental to the WMD hoax that Donald Rumsfeld et al force-fed the American public and Congress.)

But, again, a cursory study of Iraq in the second half of the 20th century reveals that the “liberators” prediction was absurd and that anything other than civil war could not have been realistically presumed (at very least in the short term). Here are some warning signs about the largest and most clearly defined potential insurgent group, the Shiites.

1) Without a doubt, studious Shiite Muslims live through their history and pay very close attention to it (chess is still forbidden because Yazid, the Umayyad leader who beat up on Muslims from 680 to 683, was playing it during the Battle of Kerbala). Shiite Muslims, a 70-plus percent majority in Iraq, remember that the U.S. supported secular Saddam and the Baath party, indirectly or directly, from 1963 to 1991.

2) The Shia themselves are separated into several factions along philosophical, familial and economic lines, e.g.: Quietism practicing Marji’iyyah clerics; political parties like al-Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq [ISCI]; millions of poor in what is now Baghdad’s Sadr City. Saddam’s atrocities and the Iran-Iraq war in particular—pitting Shiite against Shiite—resulted in further division (Iran’s Shia theocracy also has a lot to do with the lack of Shia unity).

3) Adding U.S. insult to Shia injury: After Saddam’s army was humiliated by U.S. forces in 1991, George H.W. Bush said it was time for the Iraqi’s to overthrow him themselves. When Shiites rose up and rebelled against the Iraqi president, they assumed they would have U.S. military backing. But the U.S. left, and Saddam crushed the violent Shia uprising with, of course, extreme prejudice. Even if the Shia had misinterpreted H.W.’s dedication, how could the second Bush Administration—a direct descendant not just in name, but in cabinet too, of the offending previous president—assume that Shiites in general would welcome U.S. forces as liberators? Nearly the exact same administration betrayed them to the tune of about 100,000 dead.

Did the Bush Department of Defense (DOD) anticipate the reaction of the divided Shiites—not to mention desperate Arab nationalists and Sunnis, nihilistic al-Qaeda and the emboldened Kurds—to be a unified front once the Americans stepped in to smooth the post-Saddam path? Did the DOD experts expect to only deal with Sunni vs. Shia (both of which only serve as an umbrella for a variety of subset insurgencies)? Did they care?

The U.S.’s 2003 invasion exacerbated Shia schisms, illustrated by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army (now the Sadrists) and its disconnect from both the Shia religious authority (grand ayatollahs such as the current leader al-Sistani) and the Shia politicos. This should not have been a surprise to the administration’s Iraq experts, but they underestimated this Shia insurgency by thinking not many would follow the nonclerical Muqtada—even though his twice-martyred family is a descendant of Muhammad’s cousin Imam Ali (the figure at the heart of the Shia/Sunni split in the 7th century).

The Sadrists, probably one of the easiest threats to be predicted, became arguably the most violent and frustrating force the U.S. occupiers had to deal with from 2004 to 2007. Muqtada al-Sadr still refuses to deal with U.S. now and is certainly not beholden to Shiite prime minister Nur al-Maliki. Muqtada, in exile in Iran, has even recently met with al-Maliki’s rival Ayad Allawi (the Shia ex-Baathist the U.S. installed as prime minister in 2004).

More than six months after the Iraqi elections in March, a government has not been formed. It’s good that the civil war is over. It is too bad nobody won.

As there are countless players and organizations to reference, the following timeline skews toward Sadrist ascendance and U.S.-influenced events. (It’s important to note that the holiest Shia cities, Najaf and Kerbala, are in Iraq near Baghdad, not in Shia-ruled Iran)

1958 – General (later president) Qassim overthrows the Hashemite Monarchy. In general, secularism, nationalism and even communism are superior to Islam or religion as a governing force at this time.

Late 50s – Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (Muqtada al-Sadr’s cousin and father-in-law), descendant from a line of respected Shia clerics going back to the 7th Imam and Muhammad himself, helps found and lead Shia political activism and the Dawa party. The practiced doctrine of Quietism (separating Islam from politics and the state) had led most Shia cleric elders (i.e. Marji’iyyah, ayatollahs) away from seeking direct political power, even though they were the majority. Sunnis, on the other hand, traditionally did not separate Islam from the state. Many Marji’iyyah saw Baqir al-Sadr and Dawa’s political aspirations as dangerous because they would draw attention.

1959 – The mainly Sunni Baath party (Arab nationalists) and Saddam Hussein in particular try to assassinate the communist leaning President Qassim. The U.S., under the Truman Doctrine auspices of containment, begins to back the Baath party.

Early 60s – 1) Saddam, a student of Stalin, helps create the Baathist secret police. 2) Baqir al-Sadr rallies the urban poor Shia (in what would become Sadr City), providing services and promoting his Dawa party—even drawing many Marji’iyyah to tentatively ally with him.

Feb. 1963 – The Baathists stage a military coup encouraged by the U.S. It is seen as “anti-Shia” by the majority of Iraqis. The U.S. sees the party as an enemy of communism. However, despite Qassim’s death, the Baathists cannot hold on to power.

1967 – The Shah of Iran, a U.S. ally installed by the CIA in a 1953 coup, declares himself a Persian King of Kings, expanding his powers and becoming more repressive and unpopular with Shiites, students and intellectuals.

1968 – The Baathists finally seize control of Iraq. Saddam is made vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, head of security forces.

1974-76 – Saddam consolidates his de facto leadership of Iraq. He has seized Iraq’s oil interests and marched the fractious nation into modernization. After a tentative peace with the northern Iraq Kurds, Saddam sacks the region and deports hundreds in his bid to take over oil interests in Kirkuk (and foster Arabization). Saddam becomes General of Iraq’s armed forces.

1978 – In a fateful move, the Shah of Iran asks Saddam (now vice president) to kick exiled Iranian Grand Ayatollah Khomeini out of Najaf, Iraq. Khomeini, who had been speaking out against the Shah (and against Shia Quietism) for years, moves near Paris where mass media outlets allow him to address the millions of disenfranchised Shiites in Iran much more easily than from Najaf. Khomeini has been reinterpreting Shiite religious authority to not only dove-tail with political power, but to in fact supplant it (Knomeinism).

1978-79 – 1) During the Iranian Revolution, the Shah is deposed and Khomeini assumes supreme leadership. 2) Saddam becomes official president of Iraq and immediately has 22 “disloyal” Baathist party members executed. 3) Al-Dawa and Baqir al-Sadr, tolerated by Saddam to keep the Shia majority in check for the last decade, support the revolution.

1980 – Saddam, to avoid the Shah’s fate, cracks down on Shia militants and sees fit to execute the man whom Shiites see as Iraq’s Khomeini. Grand Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr and his sister are murdered. He becomes the Sadrist’s first martyr. Many Dawa members flee to Iran, including future Iraqi prime minister Nur al-Maliki.

1981-1988 – Iraq goes to war against Iran. Despite being supported by U.S. money and arms (Special envoy Donald Rumseld visits Baghdad to make sure Saddam knows where on his side), the war is a bloody stalemate à la WWI’s trench warfare. Iraqi Shiites are forced to kill their religious brothers in Iran. Captured Iraq Shiite soldiers (betrayers of the faith) are treated far worse than Sunni or secular Arab prisoners.

1987 – Saddam begins a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, using chemical weapons and killing at least 50,000.

1991 – Khomeini has died and the Iran-Iraq War is over. Saddam invades Kuwait for oil control. When the U.S. responds, Saddam’s prized military deserts him.

1992 – With the hopes that the U.S. military will help finish the job, a Shiite rebellion explodes with Baathist’s murdered throughout the south. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (cousin to first martyr Baqir al-Sadr, and father to Muqtada) takes control of the many young militant Shia poor in Sadr City, Baghdad (then called Rebellion Township). Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the most powerful Shia cleric in Iraq today, encourages the uprising with much more subtlety. Both the U.S. and Iran do nothing to support the uprising, leading to further Shiite rifts after Saddam crushes the rebellion. However, the ghetto of Rebellion Township was so Shia- entrenched that Saddam could only contain the area, not control it nor kill Sadeq al-Sadr. In fact, soon after the uprising, Saddam believes he is shrewd by making Sadeq al-Sadr the Marji’ al-Taqlid, the Shiite religious leader of Iraq to appease the Shia after massacring their people.

1998 – After years of targeted U.S. bombings and harsh sanctions (leading countless Iraqi’s to die), Saddam still refuses to comply with U.N. disarmament terms. War with Iraq is discussed but unpopular with the American public. President Bill Clinton signs the Iraq Liberation Act, calling for regime change.

1999 – Openly critical of Saddam while gaining support of millions of Shia poor throughout the 90s, Sadeq al-Sadr and his two eldest sons are finally assassinated. Just as his cousin Baqir al-Sadr did when he became an official target of Saddam in 1980, Sadeq donned the white death shroud before he was killed. He became the second martyr.

2003 – 1) Saddam and his Baathists are quickly eliminated by Coalition forces. The U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority’s Iraq Governing Council (IGC) is set up with Paul Bremer as viceroy and Shia ex-Baathist Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. 2) Muqtada al-Sadr consolidates control of the almost 2 million Shia in Sadr City, providing basic services through his Sadr Bureau and arming his Mehdi Army (he, of course, runs the newspaper Hawza). Muqtada, hero to the Sadrists, opposes the U.S. occupation and speaks to the illegitimacy of the Iraqi Governing Council. He declares a shadow government and is at odds with both the leading Shia cleric, al-Sistani, often seen as the representative of the middle class and wealthy Shitte elite, and the Coalition’s Shia IRC “stooge” Ayad Allawi.

Counterinsurgency Redefined

The COIN Field Manual defines insurgency as an “organized movement aimed at overthrowing a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict” and counterinsurgency as “those political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological and civic actions taken by the government to defeat an insurgency.” Insurgents can be revolutionaries who want to upend the political power structure of a country or secessionists that seek independence. Insurgencies are always internal wars, with one exception, says the manual’s Chapter 1 overview: the “liberation insurgency” where “indigenous elements” seek to overthrow what they perceive as a foreign government’s occupation.

Though Chapter I “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency” is mostly written with an eye toward analytical inclusion of historic insurgency trends and definitions, make no mistake, this manual is about the specific U.S. entanglements of the here and now. As General John Nagel writes in a new introduction: “It is designed both to help the Army and Marine Corps prepare for the next counterinsurgency campaign and to make substantive contributions to the national efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The 2006 manual was a comprehensive update to a shorter, hurried manual written as a response to the explosion of violence in Iraq after 2004’s de-Baathification. Its primary function was to layout the best (if not the most feasible) of all military strategies for the two American wars. It was also seemingly written to get the Pentagon off the hook, as COIN in its most effective form 1) “emphasizes the primary role of traditionally non-military activities and the decisive role of other agencies and organizations” and 2) admitted in the manual, requires an extensive commitment of time and resources that no U.S. politician, nor the general public, would provide nor have much patience for in wars of choice.

Some, like Don Bacon, argue that authors General David Petraeus and General James Mattis, in fact, hijacked the term counterinsurgency to spin the perception of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To avoid calling ourselves an occupational force, which often has a negative connotation, they made COIN the overarching term for U.S. strategy (what has been conflated with our goal and mission as well), and of course insurgentsounds bad. If the bad guys are the “insurgents” (conveniently decreasing the potential for them to be called Iraqis or Afghans or even Sunnis or Shias in the media) then what would that make America as leading the “counterinsurgency”? This argument makes sense because pro-war propaganda is key to help garner support while conducting not just one but two wars of choice.

Whether the manual’s jamming of COIN into the nation’s vernacular was a side effect of media coverage or a sly attempt to reframe the wars to make us look noble and good, the field manual is the ultimate guide to a “just war.” It is not concerned with how or why these wars were started, but how to conduct them now with not only minimal damage to the Host Nation (HN) but a solid commitment to protect the HN civilians, and make the HN more structurally and economically sustainable. It paints our intentions in the best of all lights (though in a much different way than George W. Bush did, even though we haven’t been greeted exactly as liberators).

The field manual’s first chapter implies but never states that counterinsurgency is good and insurgents are evil. The most obvious distinction is that insurgents tend toward terrorism as tactic to “sow chaos and disorder.” There are more subtle tells, such as phrases within the counterinsurgency definition like supporting “constituted government” in “restoring and enforcing the rule of law,” as if the ruling parties of nation-states were inherently benevolent and never to be insurged upon. (Ironically, Mao Tse-Tung, the iron-fisted famine-causing Red China dictator, is cited as the leading insurgency expert.)  The most dubious “just war” implication in the first chapter overview portrays counterinsurgency as defensive—a response to aggression and not the cause. This of course wouldn’t matter at all in terms of public opinion if the field manual were not being sold on

A very short history of some “counterinsurgency”

In the paper “Effective Leadership in Counter-Insurgency: The North-West Mounted Police in South Africa, 1899-1902,” the author makes a strong, if not obvious, case that having a leader who is respected personally by his men and who has the appropriate experience (in this case, as a veteran mounted North-American Indian killer) is key when fighting insurgents, especially as the fighting is particularly unpredictable and stressful. Though the paper, which opens by discussing the modern-day trend away from traditional warfare to guerilla warfare (a.k.a. irregular warfare), was written in 2008, its title bears no relationship to the COIN manual definitions.

Instead it refers to the Canadian Mounted Police regiment called to South Africa to “fulfill its assigned task of counter-insurgency” against the Boer settlers, who were whipping the British army with snipers, ambushes and the intimate knowledge of their land. And thus throughout the paper, the “counter-insurgency” is simply a group of men with guerilla-combat experience employed to defeat the “insurgents,” who—true to typical underdog definition—used hit-and-run tactics to compensate for their lack of numbers and/or technological disadvantages.

Counterinsurgency came into its modern incarnation as President Kennedy took over the Cold War. He believed one of our biggest threats to be Soviet-sponsored “wars of liberation” in smaller nations around the world. As such he expanded Eisenhower’s CIA-run undercover and paramilitary missions to “overt and covert war against the internal enemies of friendly governments…. ”

Kennedy sought a large increase in Special Forces and increased military authority abroad (over U.S. ambassadors in particular) to go beyond containment of the Soviet threat and provide comprehensive support to countries facing communist insurgencies, though he asserted that “the main burden of local defense against overt attack, subversion and guerilla warfare must rest on local population and forces.” His requisite speeches clarifying the need for billions in military buildup and foreign aid to take on the threat by nonnuclear “forces of subversion, infiltration, intimidation, indirect or non-overt aggression, internal revolution, diplomatic blackmail, guerilla warfare or a series of limited wars [his words]” makes the War on Terror and its Middle Eastern boogiemen seem like cowboys and Indians in scope. (A result of our Hubris of Toughness according to Peter Beinart.)

Cuba and Vietnam, the two biggest concerns of the Kennedy administration and the trial and error of infant COIN, were unmitigated disasters.  After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a broader, comprehensive vision of COIN was needed and a cadre of high-level national-defense officials, called upon by the likes of Robert Kennedy, became Special Group Counterinsurgency. It was created by National Security Action Memorandum 124 to “assure the use of U.S. resources with maximum effectiveness in preventing and resisting subversive insurgency in friendly countries.”

In South Vietnam, the U.S. backed in battle Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem against the North Vietnamese communists and their Vietcong “insurgency” in the South (ostensibly because of the Domino Theory for all of Southeast Asia). But Ho Chi Minh was teaching the Vietcong from the Mao insurgency playbook. Among the major COIN mistakes the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations would make: Camelot allowed Diem, the only effective SV leader, to be killed in a 1963 coup de tat after his corrupt, oppressive regime became national news. Coup after coup followed and, as anyone who knows about COIN today will tell you, it doesn’t work without a legitimate Host Nation. The field manual derives a good portion of its existence from the lessons of Vietnam—where we bombed and murdered the indigenous people as we tried to win their “hearts and minds.”

For Kennedy’s part, his counterinsurgency plan had been based on Diem defeating the Vietcong on his own, and JFK spoke out against putting any boots on the ground (as in Cuba). “Counterinsurgency” in the U.S. in 1963 didn’t even involve soldiers.

Anwar al-Awlaki, American Terrorists and Yemen

Anwar al-Awlaki

Anwar al-Awlaki became a terrorist superstar this summer with the recent CIA focus on al-Qaeda’s Arabian Peninsula crew (AQAP), with possible drone strikes planned for Yemen. A series of articles (CBS; WaPo) highlighted that it is due to the internet-savvy New Mexico-born motivational jihadist, the AQAP operations manager. Replacing Osama bin Laden as the highest profile target, the 38-year-old Awlaki has reportedly chatted with the Fort Hood shooter, the Christmas Day would-be plane bomber and the Times Square would-be car bomber—his sermons were attended by at least three of the 9/11 hijackers. The U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan in response to 9/11 motivated Awlaki to step up his terror-promoting activities and profile.

Constants on a Path of Jihad‘, a lecture from a founder of al-Qaeda he appropriated and popularized, has been called “the virtual bible for lone-wolf Muslim extremists,” and he targets English-speaking Muslims in America and Britain for recruitment (see ‘Do Not Trust Them‘ and ‘Your Just Reward‘ his videos from December). He also has a book called ’44 Ways to Support Jihad.’ It is worth noting that he preaches against vice and sin often, though he pleaded guilty to soliciting a prostitute and another lesser charge (stemming from prostitute services) in Denver.

That Obama and the U.S. National Security Council have put this Colorado State grad (with a masters from San Diego State) on the CIA ‘kill list’ is an auspicious event as he is the first U.S.-born citizen to earn this honor. After this fact was revealed, U.S. human rights groups decided to sue the administration—on behalf of his father, though not because they like people who want to destroy America. The ACLU et al would like some guidelines set before the government starts gunning for Americans absent a battlefield or some due process.

“Enemy Combatants”

The anachronism of someone born and raised in America, well-educated and holding a prosperous position, wanting to wage terror on innocents in this country says something about U.S. hegemony. But with a diverse multireligious 300 million people, it’s surprising that we have our first native-born Wanted Man.

The home-grown terrorist issue has come up most famously with John Walker Lindh (dubbed American Taliban) and Jose Padilla. One was caught before we realized he was American (Lindh) and the other before there was any proof he was a terrorist (Padilla).

John Walker Lindh

Lindh was born in Washington DC, converted to Islam in 1997 at 16 and went to study Arabic in Yemen. At 20, he was nabbed in Afghanistan—where he had gone to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance—during the U.S. invasion in 2001. Convicted of conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens, he is now serving out a 20-year sentence.

Jose Padilla

A Brooklyn-born of Hispanic descent, Padilla represents a failure of our nation’s right to due process. Picked up in May 2002 on suspicion of plotting a dirty bomb (radioactive) attack, the Islamic convert was designated by the Bush administration as an “enemy combatant” as a way to avoid bringing him to trial. Imprisoned for more than three years, Padilla was put on trial and finally convicted of criminal conspiracy after attorney general Richard Ashcroft, under pressure from civil rights groups, had to make a case. He had been dubbed the ‘dirty bomber’ long before any trial had been set up, but the supposed plot never came up.

The Republic of Yemen, briefly

The Muslim democracy—one must be Muslim to hold office—has re-elected as president the same man, Ali Abdullah Saleh, since the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 (he had been president of North Yemen since 1978). International observers have defined these elections as “partly free.” The government includes a Constitution requiring that the president share power with an elected House of Representatives and an appointed Shura Council. Sharia is, of course, the law for the 28 million-ish Yemenis, mostly of Arab origin. (Yemen has the world’s highest birth rate, and the population is expected to double by 2050. The capital, Sanaa [2 million], has grown so rapidly in the past two decades that it may run out of water.)

Yemen and President Saleh have some current issues: A bloody civil war raging in the North since 2004 between the government forces and Shiite Houthi rebels; a poor, secession-minded tribal South; and flourishing al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula bases. The latter has the U.S. looking toward a serious aid increase to Saleh.

In December 2009, the U.S, with Yemen’s support fired cruise missiles at al-Qaeda training camps near Sanaa and in Abyan province in the south. Some Yemenis in Abyan claim that the attacks killed many more civilians and children than reported and have led to anti-American backlash. The U.S. and British embassies closed for security purposes around the same time.

In 1991, when Saudi Arabia and other Arab states expelled 850,000 Yemenis, approximately 15,000 emigrated to the U.S. and the number is around 20,000 currently.

We Need Another World War II Documentary About the U.S.

If I have to suffer through one more PBS/Channel 13 WWII documentary…. While PBS should be required viewing and Ken Burns’ War is a quality (if sentimental) film, please call me when the station runs a WWII documentary from the point of view of the Philippines or Poland. America’s Perilous Fight: Iwo Jima, with new color footage, is neat. But airing it not more than two weeks since the last installment of War serves only to drive home its redundancy.

We need to see Iwo Jima again like we need another History Channel program about Hitler. But at least the shows about Hitler aren’t naval-gazing generation worship. What more can possibly be gleaned by rehashing our most victorious victories? Maybe we should seek to create and air war documentaries that tell us why people hate in this country instead of constantly re-congratulating ourselves for saving the world. We had almost 600,000 dead and wounded in WWII, and that sucks; the rest of the world, 54.5 million.

World War II was not an equal opportunity destroyer. Was the U.S. the only combatant nation that can’t claim a civilian casualty? Maybe (China lost more than 5 million; Poland saw 2.5 million citizens die). Was the U.S. the country that gained the most while suffering the least in WWII? Without a doubt. Fuck our romantic view of the Great Generation’s War. It continues to color our vision of war as noble and just.

Potential War of the Week: Iran

Iran, or more specifically President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, is posturing: a new nuclear reactor and missile drones shown off expo-style. They think America is weak.

Some say we should do some preemptive blustering and tell them what we’ll do should they initiate a hostile act such as sponsor a terror attack or mess with the oil in the Persian Gulf. As a deterrent, we must posture ourselves. Though if we picked up on nothing else from the Cold War, hopefully we learned that posturing is a tactic often employed by those with little to back it up. The posturing argument is based on the correct assessment that neither the U.S. nor Israel should ever preemptively strike Iran—and only ever strike after direct provocation.

While threatening Iran isn’t the worst idea, any preemptive strike by the U.S. or Israel is. Obama knows this, so a serious debate on this question has no merit. The Bush Administration wasn’t even willing to pull the trigger; we have two wars going on. For all the other reasons we’ll never draw first blood, see Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy. This is not to say that a USS Maine–like incident set off by Israel to provoke Iran or Hezbollah into doing something stupid could not occur (a rather long shot better suited to conspiracy theorists).

Nothing is more fun when writing about potential war than looking at a list of an intellectual/journalist’s past headlines announcing the dire immediacy of the inevitable catastrophe that never comes. The reality of the status quo works fairly well, yet by nature of being the status quo, it is not really that interesting. This is why punditry about our dramatic Iranian enemy is often divided between war and maybe war. The act of continually besieging Obama with arguments against attacking Iran assumes that the administration is even considering it. The Atlantic Monthly’s cover story tries to imagine a case for a preemptive strike. And it tries to imagine that Israel will attack without our consent. Ironically, Jeffrey Goldberg’s detailed reporting and interviews only serve to undermine his primary conceit by the end of the comprehensive story.

Our relationship with Israel, for anyone who reads the papers, has been waning. Now is the exact time Israel cannot securely count on the U.S. to back it up. Yet certain people who make news assume that Israel will act. Why? Because it’s exciting to imagine, especially now that the cutoff date for an Iranian bomb is estimated at a year. And the article states that we should expect an Israeli strike on nuclear facilities in Iran by next July. Timing is the major hook for Goldberg’s piece. But the intelligentsia are known for encouraging the emphasis of short-term time limits to enhance their arguments, see the Friedman unit.

Never mind that we already support disruptive Sunni terrorist cells in Iran and that the U.S. has been actively engaged in black market ops to slow down the old Safavids’ nuclear “threat.” (Goldberg touches on U.S./Israel covert operations in Iran, but apparently that poses absolutely no danger as an instigator of real war.)

Pundit journalists get paid to make something appear scarier than it is. The downside is that it gives Hawks a way to frame military debates to their advantage and allows self-fulfilling war prophecies a chance to gain traction.

Addendum: I fully support a unified U.S. and Israeli ultimatum given to Iran if and when all else fails and Iran tests a nuclear weapon. We must weigh all other options until then.

‘The War Lovers’ and Related Thoughts on American War

The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898

The War Lovers by Evan Thomas is more evidence that it wasn’t just the influential yellow journalism of the New York Journal (William Randolph Hearst) and the New York World (Joseph Pulitzer) and an accidental explosion on the USS Maine that drove us into the Spanish American War in 1898. It was a cabal of powerful agitators such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge who stoked the fire, as vehemently as the papers, in the name of manifest destiny, Anglo-Saxon superiority and the moral strength of war as an end in itself.

One of the book’s most fascinating epistolary revelations is the all-consuming fear of its antihero, Teddy Roosevelt, that he might not see battle. (He eventually leaves sick child and bed-ridden wife to lead the Rough Riders.)

Both he and Lodge had watched the mounted, regal officers of the Civil War cheered through their New England towns on their way to fight and die. The romantic visions of these heroes, and their glorified deaths, never left them. Then there was the fact that Roosevelt’s father had bought out of Civil War conscription. TR had to redeem his family name and pay his debt of honor to society—even if he had to start a war to do it.

While Roosevelt was hunting big game and writing countless books on frontier cowboys, Lodge was getting his PhD in Anglo-Saxon studies and buying into the faux-science du jour (especially for Anglo-Saxons) that, according to the Social Darwinists, they were the master race responsible for civilizing the rest of the world. Along with poems such as Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” this notion helped comfort the WASPs distressed by watching Eastern European immigrants flood our shores.

Lodge and TR, close friends, believed that without war, manliness would decay and our country would become soft and weak. Without a frontier to march toward, our spirit of exploration and conquest had been snuffed out. Expansionism, was in fact, a major facet of “Americanism,” and had to be resuscitated. Oh, the myriad reasons these men who had never seen war could call upon to defend its moral replenishment! Roosevelt put his money where his mouth. After almost single-handedly modernizing the U.S. Navy as its assistant secretary (with Massachusetts senator Lodge shouting for funding), he created his own regiment of Western cowboys and Eastern elites, and made a dramatic display of fighting in Cuba that would propel him to the presidency.

The other two 1870s-ish Harvard men chronicled in The War Lovers are William Randolph Hearst and William James.

Hearst was an awkward prankster who never graduated and whose überrich family eventually let him run one of its newspapers. Finding a talent for sensationalism, stoking people’s basic fears and desires, and always shouting in huge, bold letters about his “journalism that acts,” Hearst was actually shy and introverted in public. His competition with Pulitzer’s New York World, selling newspapers, and his desire to be a historymaker put his motivations for jingoism in plain sight. No one would expect any less than the Journal’s bellowing of conspiracy theories about the Spanish spies who blew up the USS Maine, despite a lack of evidence and a lack of motive for Spain to provoke the U.S.

If Hearst’s New York Journal exaggerated and spun everything, its account and photos of the Cubans’ suffering and starvation in Spanish camps were reasonably accurate. According to the book, though never plainly stated, the humanitarian cause for intervention was needed to get the ball rolling on a publicly approved war.

William James, teaching at Harvard while Hearst attended, was one of the leading American psychologists and philosophers in the early 1900s. He takes a character-actor role in The War Lovers as the conflicted conscience of a nation. James was a Roosevelt foil: A man of nuance who could not abide sweeping ideologies or simple overarching explanations—especially those concerning WASP Social Darwinists. Literally writing the book on pragmatism, the subjective-minded realist was often attacked for agnosticism and moral relativism, but he was fervent individualist who championed the wisdom of personal experience (“radical empiricism”).

James admired aggressive men of action, such as his two brothers wounded in Civil War battle, mostly because he was not one. And he supported the Spanish-American War, after long and serious consideration, as a remedy to Spanish atrocities and a just liberation of Cubans. James loved his country, even while his anxieties about the concept of American Exceptionalism grew. He “understood that war, while sometimes necessary and unavoidable, could be a bitch goddess, a seductress of young men and old fools, particularly the kind who had never experienced her savage embrace,” Thomas writes.

Reluctant to become an activist and speak out against American “imperialism,” James finally cracked at the McKinley administration’s disastrous handling of the Philippines situation (which preceded the Filipino-American War, officially concluded in 1902 with insurrections raging on until 1912). He took his pluralistic views a step further to condemn intolerance and became a voice railing “against the unintended consequences of liberating a people by conquering them” in 1899’s “On Certain Kinds of Blindness in Human Beings.” We are “insensible to the inner significance of lives different than our own,” he said, referring to our tendency to view strange cultures of dark-skinned people as less than human. “What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another.”

The Filipino-American War
Only in the last five years has the U.S. been involved in a tragically mishandled population massacre, the “unintended consequences” of the Iraq War’s sectarian violence explosion, comparable to the Filipino-American War of 1899-1902 (Vietnam and Korea differ vastly in scale and complexity). Miscommunication with regard to the post-Spanish authority and the long-term plan for Filipino autonomy (the administration’s exploratory commission decided the natives were not fit yet to govern themselves), allowed maverick U.S. generals and local insurgencies to quickly ratchet up the death toll.

McKinley’s calls to maintain a semblance of order and his overtures to the local leader Emilio Aguinaldo that the march to independence would be slow but certain, came too late to be regarded realistically. After Aguinaldo’s necessary switch from conventional to guerilla warfare against the U.S. military, the policy of “total war” had been adopted by generals such as E. Stephen Otis and Jacob H. Smith, and overcrowded, disease-ridden camps were set up to distinguish civilians from insurgents (ironically, we had initially gone to war with Spain over the squalid death camps they forced upon the Cubans!). Many thousands, whose villages fell to the “scorched earth” tactics, died in the camps and anyone who ventured out was free to be gunned down.

Soldiers who sent letters describing the atrocities back to the States were either forced to retract their statements or court-martialed (though one made it through to Hearst’s Journal, which ran the front page story that General Smith had ordered his men to shoot anyone over 10 years old). Torture, including water-boarding, and horrific mutilation were common on both sides. In the end, anywhere from 35,000 to 100,000 Filipinos, and approximately 4,000 U.S. soldiers, died. If only the Filippinos had been patient enough to wait 45 years for independence, as was promised by McKinley’s administration from the get-go.

Comparing the Spanish-American-Filipino War to recent conflicts

Evan Thomas makes an analogy between the Iraq War and the Spanish-American War in the intro to The War Lovers, offering a modern context and perhaps modern relevance. In February 2003, just before the Iraq War officially started, offered a comparison as well. And in the broad view, the similarities are there, primarily their status as “wars of choice.”

The United States entered both the Spanish-American War and the Iraq War without direct provocation, there were no threats or treaty obligations. It took war mongers and jingos (as they were called in 1900) fanning the flames of war from the top down with scurrilous evidence. Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge had the Maine explosion ; Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had yellow cake uranium and WMD. It took the hubris of dominance, the idea that victory would be not only assured, but at little cost. It took international-cop ideas of moral superiority: clamoring about Spanish atrocities against Cubans and Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime gassing its own people. The administrations seemingly attempted all diplomatic solutions, though William McKinley was looking to avoid a conflict while George W. Bush wanted an excuse to invade. Both administrations went to war without a clear or realistic view of an end game for the battlefield countries.

In the end, counting the Filipino-American War, the casualties ended up roughly the same. So far, the spoils appear to be similar: nada. The Philippines never became a major economic market (eventually gaining independence in 1946) and Cuba, of course, played host to our sworn superpower enemy from the ’40s to the ’80s. In the Middle East, we’ve helped our most hostile adversary, Iran, by destabilizing their archenemy and making a suppressive Islamofascist party the de facto power in the region (outside of Israel). And the oil reserves in Iraq have yet to materialize to benefit Americans, if not the oil companies who will be stepping in soon. As our combat troops leave Iraq, August 20, 2010, nobody is writing about any potential U.S. oil windfall.

It is indeed beneficial to compare and contrast all U.S. wars to gain insights. The similarities were, again, only comparable in broad swaths. In fact, the Spanish-American War (minus the Filipino conflict) is more akin to the Persian Gulf War of 1991 as a whole. More than 20 years had passed since a major mobilization of forces had occurred, an economic recession was waxing and as the Salon piece claims (in much more of a stretch for the 2003 contest) a national sense of purposelessness pervaded (the frontier was settled; the Cold War had ended). The goal was not the toppling of a regime but the liberation of a state. The short-term, decisive nature of both fights could be billed under the headline: “Splendid Little War.”

Speaking of a hawkish public opinion and Congress, fueled partly by the yellow press of 1898 and cable news now, the Salon piece posits “that Spanish transgressions were as much an excuse for war as a cause, which may be the strongest similarity between that war and our putative one.” As has become clear, the Bush administration was looking for an excuse for “preemptive invasion” before 9/11, but to leave 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan out when considering the run up to the Iraq War, as the Salon does, is to leave out a third dimension from reality. Would the Bush administration have been able to bring about the nationalist, flag-waving momentum of post 9/11 or the “fight ‘em over there” revenge-cry foundation of the newly instituted global war on terror? Would Cheney and Rumsfeld have so carelessly sought reasons to strike Saddam, unprovoked, if we hadn’t scored victory in Afghanistan in under 90 days with barely more than a CIA presence? We’ll never know. But considering that the Iraq War was still somewhat tough sell after 9/11 and considering the less than credible ascension to power of W., I’d wager that without provocation from Saddam, beyond harassing weapons inspector, the case for an Iraqi invasion would have fell on deaf ears. (Still, with the Persian Gulf War in 1991 as the model of a quick casualty-less success, having been proceeded by prompt, guiltless incursions into Grenada and Panama in the 80s, who can say?)

In further comparison, our far superior military condition in both Iraq adventures underlies the uniqueness of the Spanish-American War: In 1898, the U.S.’s vigorous war drum–beating was inversely proportional to the the Army’s preparedness for war. As War Lovers illustrates vividly, the Spanish-American War was being pursued and contemplated with an army only 28,000 strong and a newly built navy, both untested. Though 200,000 volunteers clamored for the excitement of war, they had yet to be organized or trained.

Moral Equivalent of War

Written in 1906 by William James, it is clear from his first sentence in this essay that his ambiguity on the subject of war circa 1898 is gone: “The War against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party.”

Indeed, James cites the Illiad as representative that “history is a bath of blood.” With epic tales of great warrior/conquerors “our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bones and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us. The popular imagination fairly fattens on the thought of war. Let public opinion once reach a fighting pitch and no ruler can withstand.” Here James brings in the brief example of the Spanish-American War, in which the frothing, restless masses forced McKinley’s declaration.

James writes persuasively that the military-minded cannot fathom that war could be a passing phase in “social evolution,” and are disgusted by even the notion. Nations, they argue, are constantly either shrinking or growing, and without permanent war preparations, a nation is doomed. But not only from outside threats; interior degeneration will creep in and laziness will bring about inferiority. War brings discipline, physical health and hardiness, honor and selflessness, and common purpose and unity. And on top of that, a world without it would be boring: Political and military leaders possess a deep “unwillingness to see the supreme theater of human strenuousness closed.” Even confronted with the death and destruction, they will only say that without the horrors, there would be no triumphal exaltation: “Where is the blood-tax? Where is anything that one feels honored by belonging to?” asks the general.

Admitting himself a pacifist who would like to see the abolition of all war, James sees only one viable option to negating war’s existence: developing a moral equivalent of war. A sort of civil service tour of duty dedicated to constructive, goal-oriented labor, that would serve to turn boys into men, unite them, humble them and discipline them as the military does—and to be “redeemed by that from the suspicion of inferiority.”

I’ll let William James break it down:

“We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built….

The war-party is assuredly right in affirming and reaffirming that the martial virtues…are absolute and permanent human goods. Patriotic pride and ambition in their military form are, after all, only specifications of a more general competitive passion. They are its first form, but that is no reason for supposing them to be its last form. Men are now proud of belonging to a conquering nation, and without a murmur they lay down their persons and their wealth, if by so doing they may fend off subjection. But who can be sure that other aspects of one’s country may not, with time and education and suggestion enough, come to be regarded with similarly effective feelings of pride and shame?…Individuals, daily more numerous, now feel this civic passion. It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent, and on the ruins of the old morals of military honor, a stable system of morals of civic honor builds itself up….

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature…to coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.”

With terrorism and Third World destruction for all to see in the news daily, James’ idea in today’s context seems rather ridiculous. But as a universal concept about a future without war, it is the equivalent, I believe, of an absolute truth. And applied to the once insanely militaristic Japanese becoming a socialist-economic juggernaut by the ’80s, it seems to have enjoyed practice in the modern era. The doctrine otherwise seems to apply only to Western Democracies that have no clear need for national defense, after having had one for a while. Or, more specifically, it seems to apply to a notion of isolationist idealism of what America had the luxury of becoming because of its status as prosperous ruler of its own continent. We should all hope that this theory will apply again someday.

The New Republic’s Afghanistan Issue

Karzai in hat

The New Republic dedicated an issue to “what’s next” for the Afghanistan War. This is a summary of the each of the nine essays included, followed by some light ranting.

“Losing Faith” by Leon Wieseltier

America has every right to be in Afghanistan for its national interest: “I remember September 11.” We also have a strong argument to be there for humanitarian reasons because of the “medieval” Taliban. But Wieseltier dismisses counterinsurgency strategy (COIN, according to general David Petraeus’ manual) as irredeemably misplaced in Afghanistan. COIN’s major tenet requires a legitimate host government, which the interventionist forces seek to prop up. Afghanistan is not only provincial, but in many areas tribal, and the potential central power is seen as corrupt. What’s worse, there seems to be no native will to battle the insurgents: “…The Taliban must be fought. But it must be fought by the people whom it aspires to oppress—and those people seem to want us to fight it for them. They complain, rightly, about Bush’s indifference and Obama’s impatience, but they have not yet risen up….” Even when noting a Henry Kissinger theory about COIN operating within, not above, the separate regional interests, the author doesn’t see it faring much better. His assumed prescription? Something that doesn’t include the devoted cooperation of the splintered, self-interested population.


“Keeping Promises” by Peter Bergen

Taking his thesis from an ABC/BBC poll indicating that the Afghans’ biggest concerns are unemployment and poverty and their biggest fear is the Taliban, Bergen says the population wants us there (62 percent!) and we have a responsibility to the Afghan people. Infrastructure reconstruction, woefully lacking since the early resistance of the Bush Administration to nation-building, is a necessity strategically. Some major projects to undertake to increase economic activity: secure the Kabul to Kandahar highway, finish the Kajaki Dam and implement an FDR-style Works Progress Administration. Bergen then refutes the draw-down argument that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are mainly in Pakistan by citing the Pakistan Army’s intensive fighting in South Waziristan: “Let the Pakistani’s continue at their own speed and desist from publicly scolding them” as they have lost more soldiers than all the NATO nations combined. To throw Pakistan a security bone vis a vis India, have the U.N. declare Afghanistan neutral. In any case, we must “fulfill the promise we made to Afghan citizens to put their country on the path to a better future.”

“Get Out Yesterday” by David Rieff

The goals for the war set in June by the Obama administration—to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban and create a stable government in Afghanistan, while persuading Pakistan to assist in the destroying, all by 2011 — are not remotely realistic, even without a draw-down date. Rieff uses variations of the terms unachievable and goals at least three times and gives his priorities: “I’d feel far safer if we were doing less fighting in Helmand and unleashing even more drone strikes in Pakistan, and more spying on mosques in Brooklyn and Minneapolis.” Acknowledging that we could “hold the cities” as the only definition of long-term success conceivable (and that we are not leaving any time soon), Rieff maintains that it’s simply not worth the blood and treasure. Espousing a general philosophy against “expeditionary wars and humanitarian and human-rights-based interventions,” the only hope now is that we will move closer to isolationism, learning lessons from this quagmire.

“Stay Forever” by Josef Joffe

Canada, Poland, Australia, Germany and Britain are anxious to depart. NATO nations have grown frustrated with Afghan civilian casualties, not to mention their own loss of money and soldiers—a collective moral conscience weighs them down. This is, after all, a war of choice. Joffe notes that COIN constitutes the “willingness to stay as long as it takes” but seems to endorse the counterterrorism model without ever mentioning it: While nation-building is costly and futile (“there is no nation in Afghanistan”) and an all-out exit is not the path to victory, “a combination of watchful presence and nimble offensive can be sustained indefinitely.” He emphasizes a police-on-the-beat analogy and using our technological advantages (as well as local intel) to keep our enemy’s costs high and sap their energy and resources. Joffe points to the draw-down date and Karzai/Taliban negotiations as a neon sign that the muslim extremists cannot be defeated, but must be contained. If we can outwit and be perceived to outlast, we gain long-run bargaining power. In his reasons for staying, Al Qaeda and the threat of terrorist attacks are conspicuously absent. Instead, foresight into the 21st century Middle East as a continual battleground for ideologies as well as resources (“Europe in the 20th century”) obligates us to the region—where the Taliban is small potatoes compared to Pakistan and Iran.

“Unshackle the Troops” by Amitai Etzioni

The rules of engagement under COIN—which seek to minimize Afghan casualties by, say, having U.S. soldiers announce they’re going to attack so bystanders can vacate the area—increase the likelihood of coalition casualties. Etzioni offers a couple hypothetical scenarios that illustrate the problem in action. Even before these newer constrictions, the Taliban et al exploited our willingness to heed Geneva war guidelines, using their countrymen as human shields in every way possible. And ironically, it is our play-by-the-rules generals who constantly apologize for the civilian deaths caused by the insurgents as an integral part of their strategy. Much more innocent blood is on the insurgents’ hands. Etzioni makes sure that we know he thinks killing Afghan noncombatants is “deeply regrettable.” In fact, better to go with the Biden counterterrorism model of drones and Special Forces in order to negotiate with the enemy: “Instead of asking our troops to fight this war under rules that increase our losses in the vain hope of gaining popularity, we should offer to withdraw our forces as long as the Taliban agree to stop harboring terrorists who threaten us or our allies.”

“Rescue the North” by Anna Badkhen

Badkhen took a trip through North Afghanistan—largely neglected as virtually anti-Taliban—where a lack of promised aid has allowed the fundamentalists to regain strength, and the poppy industry to flourish. Everywhere she went, she heard the same thing: The best way to win back the region is not with added security forces, set to be arriving this summer, but with schools, clinics, electrical grids, communal wells and paved roads. Millions in the North are improverished and jobs and infrastructure would go a long way toward gaining popularity for the counterinsurgency effort, according to area governors. Right now, the Taliban are filling the void with basic necessities and even foreign Al Qaeda operatives are finding refuge. While Badkhen notes that delivering the aid is a dangerous undertaking, it should be seen as preferable to simply “handing over half the country to the Taliban.”

“Awaken the Pashtuns” by Fouad Ajami

Though Ajami never explains the significance of Pashtun or their relationship to our enemies, one can gather from this mistitled piece that he believes General Petraeus and the prosecutors of the war would do well to foment a Pashtun Awakening (in the manner of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq). The Afghans who share the religious and cultural beliefs of the Taliban should be heavily persuaded to break with them. Ajami hints that Petraeus can use the Iraq War template to salvage some sense of progress by attempting to line up strategic partnerships before we begin our exit. But, for almost two-thirds of the article, the focus lingers on the Obama administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the inherited war and the Democrats’ ambivalence, if not hostility, toward it. Quoting the president’s speeches, Ajami invokes the two wars in the eyes of Obama’s 2008 campaign—Iraq, the bad “choice,” Afghanistan, a “necessary” operation—before pointing to what could potentially be seen as Obama’s LBJ Vietnam nightmare.

“Save Whatever We Can” by Ahmed Rashid

The situation in Afghanistan is bleak. We need to cut our losses. Strangely, as if there weren’t a draw-down date set for roughly eight months from now, Rashid calls for Obama to make a “change in strategy—one that takes into account that fact that NATO forces will not be able to stay…much longer.” The first step is mediation with the Taliban, in which the U.S. takes the lead backed up by Karzai—not the other way around. Rashid’s piece is based on accomplishing “comparatively easy objectives” by which he means fight where defeating the insurgents is plausible in a short time. We must clear and hold the roads connecting Afghanistan’s major cities. Next, secure Kabul and the areas where the insurgents have little footing. Finally, “clearing the eastern and northern provinces…which are more pro-government than the Taliban-dominated south.” To emphasize the word comparatively in these goals is key. Once we’ve made headway on the more realistic actions, we bring our enemies to the bargaining table and allow them the Helmand and Kandahar chips.

“Stop Blaming the Afghans” by Steve Coll

Instead of promoting a unity of political forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO have “mostly exacerbated the country’s fragmentation.” A united effort is most important in holding together a diverse Afghan National Army that has any chance of effectively containing the Taliban. Obama’s premature withdrawal date announcement, of course, has undercut all unity goals, and our dedication to an insecure Hamad Karzai has not particularly endeared us to other significant regional groups. That aside, the formation of a broad national commission from all religions, regions, tribes and the military, not solely run from the presidential palace, would be symbolically impressive—without necessarily having to be particularly functional (at first). Afghans “repeatedly rejected Taliban-style ideology” and “produced a unified and mainly peaceful nation for much of the 20th century, until a succession of outside invaders shattered its cohesion.” To dismiss them as corrupt, drug-addled, and lacking will is to shirk the responsibility to finish what we started in the fall of 2001.

Commentary by Michael Quiñones
The basic question: Is this a humanitarian mission in which we are beholden to improve the lives of the Afghans by seeing through a capable, secular government and army? If not, we can withdraw a large chunk of troops and cover most of our national security concerns with the counterterrorism model: drones, Special Forces and a broader war on all Al Qaeda harborers. (In all likelihood, this will be the strategy to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table when we draw down in 2011.) However, if it is our mission to improve lives or spread democracy, then both Presidents Bush and Obama have irredeemably failed, and Obama far worse. Obama could have learned from the futile “light footprint” method in Iraq. He had two choices in Afghanistan: contain the Taliban and Al Qaeda with counterterrorism (the Biden method) or wipe them out and keep them out with COIN, sending at least 100,000 troops to both “clear, hold and build” and provide security for massive aid and reconstruction to win hearts and minds — and institute a ten-year plan. To split the difference was both a bad political move and unfeasible militarily. Iraq taught us that you can’t half-ass COIN, especially without a credible government to take the reins. And the most obvious and egregious disregard for true COIN, the arbitrary draw-down date, sealed the deal. That we didn’t just try and fail but clearly set ourselves up to fail will be the hardest thing (politically and historically) Obama will face from this ordeal. As described above, there are ways to salvage the situation, if not to help the Afghan people then at least to keep our country safer from attack by monitoring the greater region with the structures we have put in place. We will be in Afghanistan in some capacity for at least another decade, hopefully trying to improve relations with all those who feel we betrayed them. But there is no way to salvage the perception of Obama’s war—a political balancing act (likely the result of having many advisors clamoring from all sides) that will prove an epic backfire. His decision is destined to tarnish him and liberal presidents for generations to come in the annals of war.