Shadows and Fog

by Henry Farrell on January 18, 2006

As a follow-up to Ted’s post, Chris Bray, a historian on duty as a sergeant in Kuwait has some interesting “reflections”:

bq. In a much-quoted op-ed piece in the Washington Post early this month, Paul Schroeder noted that his son, a marine, had died in a familiar town: “Augie was killed on his fifth mission to clear Haditha.” … The unblinking cheerleaders for the war in Iraq like to make comparisons to WWII: Imagine if we’d left Europe before Hitler’s army had been defeated. To which I say, imagine if nine landings at Normandy had led to four liberations of Paris, followed by a series of as-yet-unfinished marches on Berlin. Why can’t the U.S. military — unquestionably the most powerful in the world — clear insurgents out of Iraqi towns for good? Because (troop levels aside) the structure and direction of American military force does little to address the structure and direction of the insurgency … Successful attacks on Iraq’s ability to tap and distribute its own oil have not been the product of the kind of force-on-force attacks of a typical military campaign. Rather, the December disruptions were built around two things: First, the destruction of remote and unguarded sections of pipeline, and, second, the use of threatening letters directed to oil truck drivers. Robb concludes: “Cost of the attack (letters and potentially phone calls) = $0 (another example of global guerrilla efficiency).” … And so, in this and other insurgent efforts, a campaign of “infrastructure disruption,” implemented without direct exposure to the firepower of U.S. military forces, “has kept Iraq in continuous economic failure.” Economic failure generates and perpetutates political crisis …

bq. I was assigned to the tactical operations center (TOC) of an infantry battalion, at the time, and so was sent to a three-day class on a piece of software designed to allow battle staff to track events in combat. The class opened with a videotaped introduction: Uniformed actors in a make-believe TOC gathered around a set of video monitors, frantically tracking developments on a nearby battlefield. A narrator broke down the events as they happened, showing how easily the commander overseeing the battle was able to track the fight. The video cut back and forth between the TOC and the battlefield as enemy tanks and helicopter gunships raced toward American forces, were spotted and tracked, and died in the face of American firepower. After the video ended, we spent the rest of the class sessions making neat templates showing the locations of friendly and enemy assets: Air assets here, air defense assets here, armor assets here, infantry battalions massed here, here, and here for the attack. After one of the classes, I turned in the general direction of the major sitting next to me and mumbled, “Well, sir, at least we’ll always know where the insurgency’s fighter planes are.” He sighed, shook his head, and spit Skoal into his old water bottle.

bq. A few months later, I stood on a forward operating base in Kuwait and watched as a heavy division loaded up to move north into Iraq. … In one convoy after another, long lines of armored HETs stacked up along the staging area, loaded with Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks and Paladin self-propelled howitzers. It was particularly striking to watch all of the Paladins lining up; as the manufacturer notes, the Paladin’s features “include an Automatic Fire Control System with onboard ballistic computation and automatic weapon pointing, an integrated inertial navigation system with embedded GPS processing, NBC protection with climate control, hydraulics system segregation, and secure voice and digital communications.” It is a massively sophisticated, spectacularly powerful piece of weaponry, firing an enormous 155 mm. shell at targets up to 30 kilometers away. And all of these Paladins, loaded onto the backs of the still-more-massive HETs — all to be managed under the control of operations centers staffed with highly educated military professionals, working with exceptionally complicated systems of software and hardware — were headed to a war where they would face insurgents who mix with the civilian population, attacking with anonymous letters, dead-of-night infrastructure sabotage, and hidden bombs snuck out onto the roadside, dodging the Army’s massive assaults against their hiding places by slipping out of town as American forces slowly mass for the attack.

bq. The image I have is that of a man being bled slowly to death by thousands of biting flies. He’s well armed, and he’s sure he can stop the swarm from biting him, so he raises his shotgun again — the flies flitting away from the slow-moving barrel — and fires another load of buckshot. And then is being swarmed and bitten again, and chambers another shell to put a stop to it. Because how can a fly hope to stand up to a shotgun?

bq. And those are the competing force structures: Heavy and powerful versus small, distributed, quick, and swarming. This is a much-discussed — much-discussed — dynamic, but not one that has yet apparently penetrated the operational consciousness of the fighting Army.

bq. The most remarkable examination of this topic is Sean Naylor’s recent book on Operation Anaconda, an American effort in 2002 to trap and destroy a force of hundreds of al Qaeda warriors in a valley in Afghanistan. Naylor’s book, Not a Good Day to Die, is far too detailed to come close to summarizing here. But two themes reappear throughout Naylor’s narrative. First, the American military has grown higher headquarters like weeds in rich soil. … Here’s a typical laundry list for a single meeting: “Representatives from K-Bar, the CIA, Task Force 11, CFLCC, the Coalition and Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force, and Task Force Rakkasan had been invited.”… Four-star generals reviewed plans down to the platoon level. Second, the coordination of those many different elements and agendas meant that painfully negotiated plans became locked into place simply because they were painfully negotiated. After members of a Delta Force team pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of walking up the side of a mountain in the Afghan winter to get a firsthand look at the valley, operation leaders received reports that there were somewhere around 1000 enemy, not the 200 the American plans had called for — and then they learned further that the enemy was not in the valley, where the plans put them, but were instead on the high ground around it. Leaders of the battle decided to go ahead with the plan as written, reluctant to throw out weeks of hard-fought staff work on the word of Lt. Col. Peter Blaber’s Delta operators. The plans trumped reality, because the plans had come with political and institutional costs.

bq. Finally, one of the ways that Army officers managed the problem of ignoring the Delta Force intelligence showing 1000 enemy on the high ground was to regard the special operators who delivered that intelligence as out-of-control and untrustworthy. Leaders ridiculed the Delta team reports, and “mocked the independent role that Blaber had carved out by calling him ‘Peter the Great’ and ‘Colonel Kurtz.'” The enforcement of institutional orthodoxy allowed leaders to ignore realistic bad news. Today’s U.S. Army in a nutshell, right there.

bq. To summarize, then — sorry about that — a too-hierarchical, too-orthodox U.S. Army, and U.S. military in general, leans heavily on lumbering equipment, high technology, and major ground offensives against an enemy that relies on tactics that are often not even conventionally military in nature; we mass artillery against threatening letters and infrastructure sabotage. In equipment, doctrine, tactics, and leadership structure, we’re organized for the wrong enemy, in ways that can’t be easily or quickly changed.



laocoon 01.18.06 at 12:53 pm

This is a *very* *old* point. One 60’s fighter called it “the war of the flea”. Rather than shotgun -toting hunter vs. flies it was a dog vs. fleas.

Old truths are often important truths, but one hardly needs combat experience to get this point. Look at Napoleon’s Peninsular Campaign.

The more interesting question is why, all around the world, for centuries on end, big armies never come to grips with this problem well – and when they do, they forget the lesson as soon as their daily survival no longer depends on it.


jonathan 01.18.06 at 2:39 pm

Perhaps the US army is doomed to fight this kind of enemy, due to its singular position in the world.


Steve LaBonne 01.18.06 at 3:01 pm

There aren’t many successful examples in history of which I’m aware of big armies successfully controlling a conquered people that retains the will to resist. It seems to me that most conquests of populous countries that really “took” followed the Roman model- in which the conqueror successfully coopts the local elites, who in turn have their population well in hand. But with substantial elements of the local ruling elite either still retaining the will to organize resistance even after inital defeat (see under Varus, P. Quinctilius) or destroyed / removed by the invasion (as in the US invasion of Iraq), against a determined guerilla resistance the big battalions rarely fare well. It’s probably not just a matter of failing to learn lessons, it may simply be an inherently almost impossible task. Wrong tool for the job- like trying to adjust your eyeglasses with a hammer.


jet 01.18.06 at 3:56 pm

Painful to read that our soldiers are dieing because the military is pig-headed and won’t learn. Some things just don’t change.

I like how the media spun Anaconda to make it look like the US had been ambushed, rather than the US had ignored Delta force intelligence and went ahead with a plan doomed from the beginning. Reminds me a lot of Vietnam.


Andrew Brown 01.18.06 at 4:20 pm

Um, which Roman model? The conquest of Gaul proceded by means of extraordinary and exemplary brutality. A policy of large-scale deliberate atrocity was very important in the growth of the Roman Empire. You might say, truthfuly, that the America conquest of Japan co-opted local elites. But that wasn’t the only factor.


Marcus Stanley 01.18.06 at 4:31 pm

I agree with the post above. The big difference between today and previous periods is that outright mass murder is no longer really a viable tactic. We can’t for instance kill a hundred civilian hostages for every U.S. soldier who dies. If we did that we’d probably get a lot better intelligence and cooperation from the Sunnis in shutting down the insurgency. In the extreme we could just kill all the Sunnis and depopulate the troublesome areas, which is exactly what the Romans would haev done. Remember Carthage?

Note that this is not an endorsement of such tactics, just noting that ruling them off limits fundamentally changes the power equation in warfare.


dp 01.18.06 at 5:19 pm

What strikes me about this analysis is that it echoes some of what Rumsfeld et al were critical of in their own top-down attempt to sideline the bureaucracy. The ‘smokestack’ method was intended to provide a direct conduit between intelligence and authority, sidestepping the careful, deliberative and scrupulous intermediates. What we got instead was a war based on corrupt intelligence and venal authority. Or maybe that should be venal intel and corrupt authority. Either way, Henry’s comments would fit in well with a disinfo campaign from within the White House, a campaign analogous to the one levelled at the CIA.

There are also a couple of troubling questions that come out of this: a) do we want to ‘win’ this war against ‘insurgents’, and b) if so, how do we intend to go about it? On the former, I am wondering whether the anti-war camp has succumbed to the pro-invasion thinking of the ‘insurgents’ as an evil to be wiped out. Whatever happened to letting the Iraqis sort out their own affairs?


J Thomas 01.18.06 at 5:51 pm

dp, the official line appears to be that the iraqis are unable to sort out their own affairs, and we can’t leave until they learn to sort out their own affairs to our satisfaction.


dp 01.18.06 at 6:18 pm

How true, J. How could I have forgotten?

Aside from that, I shouldn’t have said ‘Henry’s comments’, as most of them were Chris Bray’s. Brya’s comments could be co-opted by an anti-institutional campaign from within the White House. In that regard we should be glad for our slow-moving military. The alternative? Mossad?


Bro. Bartleby 01.18.06 at 8:14 pm

When the bad guys take up the tactics of a common criminal, then ‘modern warfare’ is no different than cops and robbers. The ‘problem’ that the US military faces in Iraq is the exact same problem every cop in the world faces: a single bad guy can create havoc in a town or city and even a hundred cops can’t catch him. Most criminals are caught by chance, not by an orchestrated police offensive, or even by ten thousand police marching through the city. The Marines can comb Fallujah just as the NYPD can comb NYC for a single bad guy, and you already know that the NYPD most likely will never find the bad guy, so why the surprise that Marines can’t find a bad guy, not in familiar NYC, but in a distant foreign land.


Steve LaBonne 01.18.06 at 8:31 pm

Of course the Romans were brutal, that wasn’t my point. How can conquest not be brutal? But they ultimately pacified their colonies, after the initial brutal conquest phase, not by trying to rule in a vacuum with the help of large garrisons stationed there indefinitely (the current Bush model in Iraq), but by threatening, bribing and eventually Romanizing the local elites who, in the pacified provinces, did the ruling for them therafter. Think of all those Gauls named C. Julius [insert unpronounceable Celtic cognomen here]. (Nonetheless there is definitely something to Marcus’s point as well. Thank goodness for that.)

Evidently the Bushies thought they were going to pull off something similar using Chalabi and other exiles. Since that plan was bizarrely at odds with reality, they are now reduced to trying to rule a sullen populace and suppress guerilla rebels using conventional army tactics. Which, to return to the original subject, ain’t gonna work either. It will simply lead to a hostile Iraq after the inevitable withdrawal.

Just to be clear, I am not in favor of the American Empire, regardless of the means employed.


rollo 01.19.06 at 1:43 am

There’s three layers to the set-up Bray describes, not two – aside from the field-experienced soldiers struggling under progressively sludge-hampered and incompetent chains of command there’s the more shadowy will that directs them overall, the motive force that deployed the military to Iraq in the first place.
We’ve been told repeatedly by men in high office, who have been repeatedly shown to be morally compromised and confirmed liars, that the purpose of the invasion and occupation was to “establish democracy” and “bring freedom to the Iraqi people” etc.
This isn’t so, and everyone knows it.
What the real goals were, and what they still are, aren’t even publicly discussed.
Part of the illusion that’s being argued as fact is the Iraqi nature of this campaign. That somehow this is only happening in and to Iraq and Iraqis. That the insurgency is confined to Iraq and Iraqis. It seems pretty clear this is a war against something bigger, and for something else – it’s mostly being fought in Iraq at present, yes, though Afghanistan’s still not pacified, but it isn’t about Iraq and it never was.
It’s specious to talk about the Iraqi insurgency as an entirely local phenomenon, though for soldiers on the ground it’s obviously necessary, if not vital to do so. Though it could be said with some accuracy that soldiers at war don’t inhabit any geography but that of war itself.
Grown men in the comfort of their homes talk about Sunnis and Shiites now as though they were football teams, as though the tactical problems of containment and control were strategies of sport.
First-hand accounts of this debacle and its carnage are disheartening no matter where or from whom they originate – that someone with Bray’s mind and abilities should be occupied with these matters is a tragedy, and it’s compounded by the thousands of less-articulate but just as human men and women whose experience confirms his.


Doctor Memory 01.19.06 at 9:09 am

Metanote: it makes more happier than I can easily express that Chris Bray is blogging from the middle east. Mr. Bray has the singular honor of being the man who most clearly warned us, six years ago, about the nature of the deal about to go down in DC. It’s good to have him back.


Barry 01.19.06 at 9:11 am

bartelby, you’re bullsh*tting. Just in case you haven’t noticed, car bombs (to take just one item) are actually rare in NYC.


Bro. Bartleby 01.19.06 at 9:34 am

Bro. Barry,

Ahem, a car bomber, or a suicide bomber is singularity, not Picketts charge at Gettysburg. If car bombs began popping off about NYC, the NYPD (as well as every other governmental force) would have a greater difficulty in putting down ‘independent armies of ONE’ (aka insurgents, terrorists, etc) than Gen. Washington had putting down the Red Coats. At least Gen. Washington could see his enemy, and least we forget, traditional (and ‘civilized’) enemies dress for the occasion (military uniforms).

Bro. Bartleby


soru 01.19.06 at 10:05 am

There aren’t many successful examples in history of which I’m aware of big armies successfully controlling a conquered people that retains the will to resist.

Isn’t that rather like saying you are unaware of many tall people with a height of less than 4 feet?

‘successful conquest’ and ‘retain will to resist’ are inherently contradictory.

Of course, the _really_ successful conquests are those that don’t end up being discussed in those terms, like the US conquest of the US, and the Dutch conquest of England.



Steve LaBonne 01.19.06 at 10:13 am

The point, soru, is that absent plain genocide or population transfer, eliminating the will to resist is not a purely military matter and is unlikely to be accomplished by purely military means. Which is why the lack of any planning for Iraq other than merely military invasion planning turned an already bad idea into an ongoing disaster.


soru 01.19.06 at 11:49 am

The point, soru, is that absent plain genocide or population transfer, eliminating the will to resist is not a purely military matter and is unlikely to be accomplished by purely military means

I suppose it’s purely a matter of definition of terms as to whether you consider the methods used with some success in Kurdistan and the south to be ‘purely military’ or not.



Steve LaBonne 01.19.06 at 11:57 am

Certainly not in Kurdistan. That’s a political “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangement. Or do you imagine that the US Army bludgened the Kurds into supporting US interests? And what pray tell are these successes in the south of which you speak?


Barry 01.19.06 at 2:05 pm


“Ahem, a car bomber, or a suicide bomber is singularity, not Picketts charge at Gettysburg. If car bombs began popping off about NYC, the NYPD (as well as every other governmental force) would have a greater difficulty in putting down ‘independent armies of ONE’ (aka insurgents, terrorists, etc) than Gen. Washington had putting down the Red Coats. At least Gen. Washington could see his enemy, and least we forget, traditional (and ‘civilized’) enemies dress for the occasion (military uniforms).”

This is pretty much a restatement of your previous post, with no additional support, and little agreement with reality, combined with a bit of ignorance about how the American Revolutionary War worked (googled ‘loyalist’, for a start).


soru 01.19.06 at 3:29 pm

Certainly not in Kurdistan. That’s a political “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangement.

An arrangement, as I understand it, largely worked out and operated by military personnel (plus some spooks behind the scenes, presumably). In any case, little if any detailed management by full-time politicians.

I suppose it’s all a matter of whether you consider the term ‘military’ to automatically imply ‘politically ignorant and ineffective’.



Bro. Bartleby 01.19.06 at 3:34 pm

Tolstoy, ‘War and Peace’

One of the most obvious and advantageous departures from the so-called laws of war is the action of scattered groups against men pressed together in a mass.  Such action always occurs in wars that take on a national character.  In such actions, instead of two crowds opposing each other, the men disperse, attack singly, run away when attacked by stronger forces, but again attack when opportunity offers.  This was done by the guerrillas in Spain, by the mountain tribes in the Caucasus, and by the Russians in 1812.

People have called this kind of war “guerrilla warfare” and assume that by so calling it they have explained its meaning.  But such a war does not fit in under any rule and is directly opposed to a well-known rule of tactics which is accepted as infallible.  That rule says that an attacker should concentrate his forces in order to be stronger than his opponent at the moment of conflict.

Guerrilla war (always successful, as history shows) directly infringes that rule.

This contradiction arises from the fact that military science assumes the strength of an army to be identical with its numbers.  Military science says that the more troops the greater the strength.  Les gros bataillons ont toujours raison.


Steve LaBonne 01.19.06 at 3:35 pm

Of course not, but there is an important distinction to be made between military personnel who are fighting and military personnel who are doing jobs like diplomacy and reconstruction that could also be done by civilians. Successes in the latter role do nothing to vitiate the argument that the Army qua conventional fighting tool is not the most useful instrument for pacifying an occupied country.


soru 01.19.06 at 7:21 pm

(always successful, as history shows)


The rare examples of successful guerrilla warfare against a native regime include the Cuban Revolution and the Chinese Civil War, as well as the Sandinista overthrow of a military dictatorship in Nicaragua. More common are the unsuccessful examples of guerrilla warfare, which include Malaysia (then Malaya) during the Malayan Emergency, Bolivia, Argentina, and the Philippines.



Bro. Bartleby 01.19.06 at 7:58 pm

(always successful, as history shows)
None of your modern examples dispute Tolstoy circa 1865.


J Thomas 01.19.06 at 11:44 pm

Bro. Bartleby, there are advantages and disadvantages to concentrating forces. It depends on the goals.

If your aim is to take a particular piece of landscape, a capital city etc, then scattered forces cannot stop you if you concentrate your forces. They can annoy you, but then you take their capital and burn it down or whatever, and they didn’t stop you. The same number of forces concentrated could have forced you to stop and deal with them, and given favorable conditions and a good general, they might even win decisively.

When you have a specific concentrated goal and they lose unless they stop you, they have to concentrate. But if your goal is to make it safe for your bureaucrats to go anywhere in the countryside, then your task is much much harder.

Even then, scattered forces lose if the concentrated forces are allowed to depopulate the area. Kill everybody who doesn’t run away, and the scattered forces have to spend a lot of their time just providing themselves with food etc. And you can destroy their crops.

It’s all much easier when you don’t care how many survivors there are in the enemy areas. And if you have slavery, it’s easier still — detainees aren’t liabilities that take troops to guard them while you decide what to do with them. They’re assets. Depopulate the area and then bring in your own peasants.

Dispersed fighters fighting concentrated forces tend to take more casualties. You can make a raid against a superior force and do them some damage. Then they’re likely to catch you. Scatter, and they’re likely to catch a lot of individuals. But when you’re willing to accept those odds and you do them more damage than they’re willing to accept, then you win. It takes a lot of dedication. When people have that dedication they usually win, often at great cost. When they don’t have enough that are dedicated enough, they lose.

A concentrated force can use a large minority of soldiers who aren’t dedicated at all. Sometimes a large majority. Find the occasional deserter and hang him, and most of them will stay. Then when you put them up against an enemy that’s trying hard to kill them, most of them will fight. It works, particularly when the enemy doesn’t try hard to convince them they’d be better off switching sides. But it’s hard for scattered forces to threaten their own men that effectively. Very often “guerrilla warfare” involves losing and losing and losing until the enemy gets so sick of their military victories they go home. It takes a lot of dedication to fight that way. When you have it, the enemy has to track you all down and kill you, and there’s a very strong chance they don’t want to badly enough. But when you don’t have that will then you fold up and accept conditions as they are.

When you say it’s always successful, you’re only counting the hits. Large guerrilla movements are usually successful. If they didn’t have a cause that inspired a lot of dedication they wouldn’t have gotten big in the first place. But there are lots and lots of little guerrilla movements that never really get started. Consider for example the Symbionese Liberation Army, which apparently never had more than about 10 people at once. The only reason anybody ever heard of them is they were publicity hounds and tried hard to attract attention. If they’d had an attractive cause and they’d put their effort into recruitment instead, they might have accomplished far more before they fizzled out and yet never gotten much attention at all.

Only counting the hits. People do this all the time.


Bro. Bartleby 01.20.06 at 7:54 am

We got two problems today:

1. The good guys play by the rules, because the world press is watching and reporting and the good guys want to remain being good guys because everyone back home expects them to be good guys and the light of day shines on the good guys and their every move is watched. Forget tactics used in previous wars, wars that were far away and under reported, wars where our soldiers used ‘flame throwers’ and planes dropped napalm. Our soldiers today are on a short leash, fighting a politically correct war, and for good reason, everyone is watching and the reality of war is no longer a hidden secret. So, our soldiers play by the rules, because we demand it.

2. The bad guys don’t play by rules. The bad guys are not only willing to die, but want to die. The bad guys are expected to behave badly, so the world press isn’t even an issue. Collateral damage is not something to avoid, but is their main tactic. Rules?! “We don’t need no stinkin’ rules!”


J Thomas 01.20.06 at 10:50 pm

Bartleby, do you have some sort of illusion that somebody in iraq is playing by rules?

The US forces are trying very hard to make sure journalists don’t see anything, so they can claim to be good guys.

And the al Zarqawi guys have gotten such a bad reputation for collateral damage to innocent civilians that the local insurgencies are claiming to be attacking al Zarqawi’s people. Because the locals are generally agreed they want the foreigners to all go fight each other somewhere else….

Of course, our reputation for collateral damage hasn’t made us look like good guys to the iraqis who’ve had to accomodate us….

So, how many iraqis do you think we’ve killed so far? There’s an estimate on civilians killed that’s based on media reports where somebody reputable gives names or at least enough data to make sure it isn’t already reported. So this is an absolute rock-bottom minimum estimate, nobody can make a lower estimate without outright lying.

What about iraqi insurgent casualties? Any idea ho many iraqis we’ve killed for resisting us? I can make very rough estimates based on reasonable assumptions, but the media doesn’t publish any estimate at all. What is the world press reporting?

So in iraq, the bad guys who do your #2 above ave gotten a bad reputation from it, nobody wants to play with them, they’re losing — they’re hated almost as much as we are. It looks like that isn’t a good strategy unless you have so much force it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks.


Bro. Bartleby 01.21.06 at 11:21 am

Yes, we are playing by rules, and however muddled they are, I consider not just the U.S. military in Iraq, but the entire government, which includes the U.S. press and you and I. We are all part of this. The military can attempt to suppress the telling of events, yet the press will continue to find ways to get the stories. As muddled and cross-purposed as all this is, these are the rules that ‘we’ are playing by. And the bad guys? Collateral damage to them is missing the target. What we call collateral damage is their targets. Yes, without rules, they can call anything anything. Good guys? Bad guys? My very fuzzy point is that with modern communication, war is no longer a heroic option, all are sullied in war, you and I included, because we haven’t figured out an alternative yet. War is the most stupid of all human endeavors, but when confronted by a Hitler-like evil, then sometimes, in the most rare of all occasions, stupidity gets the job done.

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