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Appointment in Samarra


Quote of the day:‘They attacked and they were killed,’ General [Peter] Pace [vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] said of the insurgents [in Samarra]. ‘So I think it will be instructive to them.


 


Quote of the day (2):‘It was like out of a movie,’ said… private, Curtis Lawrence of New York state, who joined the Army only in May and arrived in Iraq last month.” (John Daniszewski, “Troops Tell of Street Fight With Dogged Foe,” Los Angeles Times, 12/2)


 


Quote of the day (3):Even Samarra’s US-appointed police chief, Ismail Mahmoud Mohammed, told the Financial Times that US forces had gone too far in “provoking” the town, and said they should stay out from now on. ‘Were the French happy under the Nazis?’ he asked. ‘It is the same thing here.’” (Financial Times, “U.S. accused of provoking Samarra shootout,” 12/1)


 


There was a lot of firepower and a lot of shooting. That much we know for sure; that much the TV photos of pock-marked buildings and riddled cars indicate. But was it, as American spokesmen claimed (ABC News, 12/2), a “significant victory”, with a group of sixty-plus well-coordinated rebels being crushed by Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and 100 heavily armed American troops in the largest battle of the occupation era, or was it a case of Americans shooting wildly into civilian areas when facing tiny groups of guerrillas, twelve in all, attacking convoys bringing new Iraqi money to banks in Samarra as a (supposed) spokesman for the guerrillas claimed to Agence France Presse on Dec. 2?


 


Were 46 (or 54) rebels killed (at a cost of 5 wounded Americans), and their bodies then carried away by comrades? Or were only two rebels killed at a cost of six civilian dead and many more civilian wounded, as the bodies at the Samarra morgue seemed to indicate? This – whatever it was — was the “battle” of Samarra and it fits what I think of as a new version of the “Vietnam analogy” in which the whole of that endless war now seems to pass before your eyes in seconds.


 


Take those guerrilla dead. 46 or 54, or between 46 and 54, depending on which American spokesman you listened to and which of the first news reports you read. For those of us who lived through the Vietnam era, the initial warning bells sounded immediately in the very curious specificity of those numbers. After all, we’re talking about a figure garnered from various participants in after-battle assessments. And yet the number isn’t around 50. Not approximately 40-50. Not even the rounder 45 or 55 with or without an approximately. 46 or 54. Two choices, both far too specific to be approximations. You just knew those numbers couldn’t last long or represent reality.


 


In Vietnam, figures of enemy dead with that hallmark specificity went with the famed “body count” and proved an embarrassment once it became clear what approximations, or fabrications, or stand-ins for other kinds of deaths they usually often represented. Nonetheless, the challenging of those figures took a long, long time. In Vietnam, for years the press published accounts of such “victories,” large and small, with specific body counts attached quite straightforwardly. (This was, for instance, how the My Lai massacre was first reported, as a victory over armed Vietcong with a specific body count, though far lower than the real one against unarmed villagers.) It took years for journalists in Vietnam to build up resistance to such military claims.


 


Now, just consider that battle in Samarra as reported in my hometown paper. The New York Times‘ initial report on Monday was a reasonably straightforward account of a victory. Headlined “46 Iraqis Die in Fierce Fight Between Rebels and G.I.’s” and written by Edward Wong, the front-page piece began “American soldiers killed 46 guerrilla attackers in a firefight on Sunday afternoon in central Iraq. Military officials said the clash was the largest battle in the country since coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s government last spring.”


 


And this sort of reportage, of course, was a small victory for the Bush administration in spinning the post-war war in a more comforting direction (first news impressions often being the lasting ones). On the front page, there was, however, one disquieting little bit of contextualization that indicated reportorial minds already heading in other directions: “The battle came on the final day of the bloodiest month for American soldiers in Iraq…”


 


As Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher magazine on-line put the matter (“Coverage of Iraq firefight disputed,” 12/2):


 


“After a run of bad news for the U.S. in Iraq — including a record monthly death toll of U.S. soldiers — the military portrayed this as a major victory, and the press seemed to accept it. Neither The New York Times, New York Post, The Boston Globe, USA Today, The Washington Post, or Knight Ridder included any civilian witnesses or Iraqi hospital accounts in their initial reports Monday. Many flatly reported the death tally and account of the battle without noting this was ‘according to military officials.’ The Times topped its front page with the declarative headline: ’46 Iraqis Die in Fierce Fight Between Rebels and GIs,’ and this was common treatment. The Los Angeles Times account, however, noted that the 54 deaths had yet to be confirmed and included hospital officials’ contentions that only nine people had died.”


 


By the next morning (12/2), however, the Times had quite a different front-page piece, this time by Dexter Filkins and Ian Fisher (at least one of whom had driven to Samarra). The headline remained in the triumphal mode, “U.S. Sees Lesson for Insurgents in an Iraq Battle.” Here’s the fascinating thing, though, the two subheadlines were already in battle with it: “But Account Is Disputed,” and below that, “Angry Iraqis Doubt That the Americans Killed Up to 54 Guerrillas.” In other words on day two, the elements of years of Vietnam reporting were already on display in which the official military or governmental account proves, on scrutiny, not to hold water and some kind of other reality slowly begins to bubble to the surface.


 


This pattern was followed, Strupp tells us, in papers across the country:


 


“On Tuesday, nearly every major newspaper was forced to report that the death toll and, indeed much of the original account of the ‘battle,’ were in dispute… The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times published similar follow-ups reporting the disputed death count and claims of indiscriminate firing on civilians, although the Post and L.A. Times did not lead with the new discrepancy. ‘American forces and Iraqi residents of this loyalist stronghold sharply disagreed Monday over the death toll,’ the Tribune said in its lead.”


 


And the Times piece reflected that kind of a battle over the nature of Samarran reality throughout. Within two days, not surprisingly, the initial triumphalist American military accounts of “victory” were already in a state of collapse as almost every detail from those accounts seemed in danger of dissolving. Here, for instance, only two days later from another Agence France Presse report (12/2), is what an American spokesman is saying about two of those claims — that eleven insurgents were captured and that the insurgents were dressed in Fedayeen “uniforms” (assumedly in black):


 


“[Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the US-led coalition's deputy director of operations in Iraq,] acknowledged that the one insurgent now confirmed in custody was a sharp reduction on the 11 claimed captured by the commanding colonel in Samarra earlier in the day. ‘Some of those early reports might have been a bit off,’ he said. Brigadier General Kimmitt also sought to play down earlier reports that many of the attackers wore the uniforms of the disbanded Saddam Fedayeen militia of the ousted regime.”


 


But the crumbling details are far less interesting than what lies behind them. Let’s just try to put into some context the initial battle pronouncements by our military, which themselves represented tactical decisions in an unannounced but heating-up propaganda war with an enemy that, on the surface of things, has no propaganda whatsoever (except what we provide when we wildly shoot up civilian areas). Here’s how the Times piece framed the matter (on an inside page):


 


“The Pentagon typically does not publicize the number of enemy dead or wounded to avoid comparisons to the frequent enemy body counts in the Vietnam War, counts that ultimately proved to be a poor indicator of American military performance.


 


“But after weeks of suffering casualties from an enemy that detonates roadside bombs from afar and fires mortars under cover of darkness, American military officials seemed to relish the opportunity on Monday to claim credit for dealing the fighters a punishing blow. ‘They got whacked, and won’t try that again,’ a senior military official in Washington said. The Pentagon insisted the body count was accurate.”


 


Note that word “relish” — about as privately descriptive as a Times reporter is likely to get in a piece like this. So imagine, for a minute, the Bush administration, the Pentagon, and the military command in the field all dismayed by the last month and undoubtedly thoroughly frustrated.


 


After all, what’s the news from the war that wasn’t even supposed to be a war? The most powerful army in the world is in Iraq and day after day on the “home front,” there are those wrenching photos on TV of dead young Americans, those small lists in the paper (like the little daily box that happened to fall, yesterday, right under the Filkins and Fischer piece, “Killed in Iraq,” with the names of Stephen A. Berolino, staff sgt, Army, and Aaron J. Sissel, specialist, Army National Guard). There are those coffins coming home that must be hidden, those funerals the President must now duck to much criticism (or not duck with other complications sure to follow), the large numbers of wounded being flown back to the States at night, the steady drip, drip of dead allies.


 


Looked at in a certain way, of course, these are just batches of numbers as on any scorecard — and we know that we’re all riveted by numbers adding up. Victories, deaths, Dow-Jones averages, batting averages — it hardly matters what the figures are; if you can keep count, they gain a reality of their own. Just stand at the gas pump and try to take your eyes off those gallons and dollars flipping by as you fill the tank. Like anyone else, Pentagon officials can easily see that all these numbers look like one disastrous side of a propaganda scorecard of which there seems to be no other side. The urge to fill up the enemy side is just a simple matter of human nature, with dollops of frustration and revenge thrown in – not always the best atmosphere in which to decide either tactics or strategy.


 


Hence, the body count, whatever you decide to call it. It’s not that our military doesn’t remember its Vietnam history — they remember perhaps too well (if selectively) — but they find themselves, frustratingly, driven to it anyway. As Patrick J. McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times reports (“US Reports Insurgent Death Toll,” 12/2):


 


“U.S. military officials, in their regular news briefings in Iraq, have quietly begun reporting insurgent ‘KIA,’ or killed in action, after months of declining to detail the other side’s losses.


 


“The Army had long resisted inclusion of such figures, in part fearing comparison to Vietnam War days, when enemy casualties always seemed to dwarf U.S. losses even as the war was going badly. Inflated body counts eventually became emblematic of a Pentagon spin operation struggling to mask the bad news in Southeast Asia. But the continuing U.S. casualties in Iraq – November was the deadliest month with 111 members of the U.S.-led coalition killed – has apparently contributed to a shift in approach.”


 


But, of course, as the “battle of Samarra” shows, as they already know, the body count has its own problems, and reporters like our military, alerted to these problems by their own readings of and memories of Vietnam, are likely to report, at least to some degree, accordingly. In other words, we may not be in a situation “analogous” to Vietnam in Iraq, but we are certainly in some kind of Vietnam feedback loop, and all the bobbing and weaving and spin and triumphant declarations and statements of progress or grit or staying the course or whatever are only likely to get us further into it. Hence, the constantly changing tactical decisions in both the war and the propaganda war.


 


In the meantime, whether we taught the Iraqi insurgents a “lesson” or not, a lesson is rearing its ugly head in recent accounts of death and mayhem in Iraq and it’s that they have “intelligence” and we don’t (or not enough and not reliable enough anyway), even though for months we’ve been recruiting Saddam’s former intelligence officers to work for us (possibly against their former comrades). For instance, Elizabeth Nash of the British Independent, reporting recently on the ambush of those Spanish intelligence officers, wrote (“Asnar resists mounting pressure,” 12/1):


 


“The attack on the eight agents was ‘meticulously prepared,’ a Spanish television reporter said yesterday from Iraq, amid speculation that the vehicles may have been followed from Baghdad. The reporter added that some Iraqi policemen, trained by coalition forces, have joined the resistance and have carried out assaults on occupying troops.”


 


Think of “Iraqification” (can you even stop the word “Vietnamization” from coming to mind?) in that context and then reread the quote I began with from the police chief of Samarra. Now, consider various accounts of the Samarra ambush as reported by our military. It’s clear that the ambushers were familiar with the routes and the times of the convoys to the banks and may have had information from within the banks themselves. (“Since the banks had to be notified to expect the deliveries, U.S. forces believed their enemies would know as well.” John Daniszewski, Los Angeles Times, 12/2)


 


Here’s what Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post writes on the subject (“Battle Reveals New Iraqi Tactics,” 12/2):


 


“‘This was not done in a last-minute planning effort,’ said [Col. Frederick Rudesheim, the brigade commander], who acknowledged that, despite the scale of the ambush, U.S. forces lacked any intelligence on what was afoot…. Throughout the battles, Rudesheim and others said, the fighters — though outgunned — showed a level of tactical sophistication. Divided into squads, they used orange-and-white taxis, BMWs and white Toyota pickups to reposition their fighters in back alleys as the battle unfolded. Guerrillas were posted at routes leading in and out of the city. Improvised mines were placed along the streets.”


 


Finally, here’s part of a description from SFTT.org (“Soldiers for the Truth,” picked up off the always interesting www.warincontext.org) by an anonymous American “combat leader” who claims to have been in the Samarra ambush. It’s always hard on the Internet to be sure of the genuineness of such things and I’m usually quite careful. I think this one rings true and it seems to offer a pretty basic set of rules for how to make enemies and influence Iraqis, while fostering an insurgency:


 


“The ROE [rules of engagement] under ‘Iron Fist’ is such that the US soldiers are to consider buildings, homes, cars to be hostile if enemy fire is received from them (regardless of who else is inside. It seems too many of us this is more an act of desperation, rather than a well thought out tactic. We really don’t know if we kill anyone, because we don’t stick around to find out. Since we [are] armored troops and we are not trained to use counter-insurgency tactics; the logic is to respond to attacks using our superior firepower to kill the rebel insurgents. This is done in many cases knowing that there are people inside these buildings or cars who may not be connected to the insurgents…


 


“The Commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Colonel Frederick Rudesheim, said after this battle that ‘We are going to continue to take the fight to this enemy. This is the most significant contact we have had to date in the city of Samarra. We are going to have to respond accordingly.’


 


“This is a great attitude for a combat commander to have when fighting an armored force on force, but Colonel Rudesheim is not trained in Counter-Insurgency and my soldiers are taking the heat. We drive around in convoys, blast the hell out of the area, break down doors and search buildings; but the guerillas continue to attacks us. It does not take a George Patton to see we are using the wrong tactics against these people. We cannot realistically expect that Stability and Support Operations will defeat this insurgency.”


 


The balance of power


 


If I try to make the comparison with Vietnam, here’s what strikes me: What makes the guerrilla war in Iraq so staggering is that it’s so modest in size. Imagine a set of scales. On one side a nation/imperium with a $401.3 billion military budget (and that figure probably leaves out at least another $100-200 billion in military expenditures of various sorts), a military armed with the most technologically advanced and powerful weaponry on the planet, intelligence services which have the capacity to intercept almost any message and hear almost any phone call almost anywhere on Earth, the most powerful economy on the planet, and probably a few more things I can’t quite bring to mind at this second.


 


On the other side of the scale, a modest insurgency with perhaps a few thousand to ten thousand guerrillas actively under arms, with at best modest funding, with no nearby states to back it, no obvious “sanctuaries” just beyond the country’s borders to retreat to for regrouping or resupply, no unified central command, and no obvious propaganda outlets, all this in a land whose infrastructure has already been wrecked, whose main industry — oil — is in catastrophic shape, and whose people have been sapped of wealth, health and strength by several wars and a decade of sanctions, and well more than half of whom are unemployed, a land whose former leader is a discredited tyrant.


 


By almost any of these standards, then, this is closer to the opposite of Vietnam than a Vietnam equivalency. And yet, you explain it, those scales seem far more evenly weighted than they should be and Vietnam is never far from the American brain.


 


The fact is that, though we don’t quite know who “they” are, they seem to be increasingly in the driver’s seat and the leaders of the imperium increasingly, frustratingly, driven from pillar to post. They clearly have the “intelligence” and we don’t. They are doing the planning and we’re continually walking into it. In the game of propaganda, which is crucial to what, since Vietnam, has been known as the “winning of hearts and minds,” they look ever stronger and more successful despite the fact that they have no newspapers, issue next to no statements, and at least some (possibly many) of them represent a regime that most Iraqis clearly would prefer never to return.


 


This is their lesson: They have proven themselves organized and tactically as well as strategically canny (unless you want to propose the most striking string of luck in recent history). Take just a simple thing that’s struck me from this distance — call it luck, call it planning but in all the death and mayhem in which private contractors, and Spanish intelligence officers and Japanese diplomats are dying along with American soldiers, journalists are not now dying. Some of that is certainly happenstance. But I have to believe that decisions have also been made not to target foreign journalists. If so, that’s no small thing.


 


In the meantime, the international and care organizations and ngos have left; allies like Spanish Prime Minister Aznar, swearing up and down that nothing has changed or will change, that their commitment to Iraq is forever and a day, find themselves embroiled in controversy at home; the U.S. military is stretched to the limit and our troops are getting picked off, so far largely in ones and twos (which our spokesmen call “militarily insignificant”) day after day (Senator Robert Byrd, months back, started to talk about our soldiers being sitting ducks in an Iraqi “shooting gallery”); polling figures for the presidential handling of Iraq have been dropping steadily; Shiite clerics are proving resistant to America’s vision of Iraqi sovereignty, and plans for the previously unplanned occupation and for that future “sovereignty” seem to change by the hour. The only plans that seem unchanged are the bedrock ones — for the retention of permanent bases and so a permanent presence on Iraqi soil (see the latest Jim Lobe piece from Asia Times, 12/2) and for the privatization of the Iraqi economy.


 


I recommend to you the single best piece I’ve seen in a long while by a reporter in Iraq, Mark Danner’s aptly entitled “Delusions in Baghdad” in the latest New York Review of Books (12/18). Though his analysis is complex — and fascinating — he offered the following provisional thoughts about the course of events in Iraq:


 


“The United States fields by far the most powerful military in the world, spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined, and as I write a relative handful of lightly armed insurgents, numbering in the tens of thousands or perhaps less, using the classic techniques of guerrilla warfare and suicide terrorism, are well on the way toward defeating it.”


 


This was, by the way, not the dispatch I meant to do today. But it seems that, though I meant to go elsewhere, I had my own appointment in Samarra.


 


 


[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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