“Civil War?” Murry


Your most important point deals with a general failure of people to define clearly what they mean by the term "civil war." Almost a thousand days into this civil war in Iraq, and we still have only a few Americans — such as yourself and retired Army General William Odom, to take only two examples — willing to point out this glaring deficiency. I’ve had it out with Professor Juan Cole in e-mails over this issue, since — at least until recently — he refused to see a "real" civil war in Iraq because no large-scale clashes between rival armies, like "Gettysburg" or "Antietam" (my examples), had yet taken place. General Odom, on the other hand simply sees "Iraqis fighting Iraqis" (as you also say) for power and rescources; a fight that began almost immediately after we knocked over the political, economic, social, and military order in Iraq: thereby creating a predictable power vacuum that we could not fill. Iraqis now fight openly — as they have for almost a thousand days now — to fill it. Civil War.

As others in this discussion have pointed out, America doesn’t want to face the terrible situation it created in Iraq. The failure to "call a spade a spade," so to speak, derives from the fact that America wanted to create a deck of hearts and flowers, hasn’t done so, and now refuses to see all the spades busy at work digging graves — for both Iraqis and Americans in Iraq. The psychologists call this "denial." The American government (currently under Republican Party mismanagement) fairly reeks of it.

The Vietnamese Civil War (at least the Second Indochina version of it), became an American War on Vietnam with the introduction into that domestic conflict of America’s Lunatic Leviathan military: driven insane by its own internal political and interservice bureaucratic rivalries for ever-expanding "roles" to play in wreaking havoc on a tiny but ancient country it did not even remotely comprehend. Frances Fitzgerald called it "an Orwellian Army that knew everything about weapons and tactics but did not know where it was." Now, as then, the American Orwellian Army knows all about bombing houses ("safe" or otherwise) but doesn’t recognize the cultural-social-political landscape it inhabits — so it continues to blindly thrash about in frustration, wrecking the joint and hurting itself in the process.

The American War on Iraq will revert to the more basic, lower-level Iraqi Civil War once America leaves Iraq and stops serving as the self-appointed and self-financing (not even hired!) gun for the Shiite-Kurdish Alliance. Then, like when the Vietnamese resumed their own interrupted civil war after the Americans left Vietnam, someone will "win" (or even call off the fight) and the Iraqi Civil War America started will quickly conclude.

As far as I can tell, the American government doesn’t want to militarily withdraw from Iraq because it doesn’t want one (or some combination) of the Iraqi factions to "win." I suspect that the American government fears — with good reason — that its favored faction (or combination thereof) might just take off its pants and run off in its undershorts like Melvin Laird’s "almost-stood-up-until-we-betrayed-them (after 20 years)" Vietnamese faction-du-jour thirty-five years ago. How embarrassing.

The current American government just doesn’t want to face the hideous embarrassment of watching Iraq and its neighbors figure out for themselves how they want to live in their own neighborhood. It doesn’t have to get any more complicated than that. If it does get more complicated, that only fogs the issues and postpones the inevitable day when, as Frances Fitzgerald said, the American government has to face its worst nightmare: "confronting the consequences of peace."

Michael Murry

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19 Responses to “Civil War?” Murry

  1. Jerome Gaskins says:

    See, this is why I’ve always liked good lectures!
    What are you indirectly referring to when you say Second Indochina version of the Viet Nam war? Seems that you’re implying there was a first one, and/or there were others outside of Indochina?

  2. Michael Murry says:

    Sorry for the lecture. If current American policy in Iraq did not evince such a profound ignorance of this history, I wouldn’t have bothered restating the obvious. Yes, as you say, a “second” something does indeed imply a “first” something that went before it.
    In this case, the First Indochna War (as so-called by most non-American authorities) marked the first Vietnamese War of Independence — against French colonialism — in the immediate period after WWII. The Second Incochina War began shortly after America refused to accept the Geneva accords of 1954 which set up a temporary, two-year period for regrouping forces, withdrawal of the French from Vietnam, and elections. The Second Indochina War marked, in reality, a second war of independence for the Vietnamese against a long succession of American attempts to install puppet regimes in the southern part of that country. The attempts by America to turn back the historical tide of national independence and self-determination in Vietnam ushered in a useless two-decade period of unprecedented violence in the former Indochina. It all came to nothing (for America) in 1975, as most people know. The Vietnamese feel a justified sense of national pride at winning TWO wars of independence, back-to-back, stretching over a thrity-year period (1945-1975), against two of the West’s leading powers.
    I mostly got the lectures myself during eleven weeks of counter-insurgency school at Coronado Island, California in 1969. Then came thirty-two weeks of intensive language study at the Defense Language Institute at Monterey, California. Then in the summer of 1970, once I knew — in two languages — why I shouldn’t go to Vietnam to “stand up” (as we say these days) a people who did not consider themselves “fallen,” my government sent me to try and do the impossible and ill-advised anyway. Eighteen months later in January of 1972, I came back from the experience lucky to have survived it when other, often better men (Vietnamese as well as American) didn’t. Yet the Second Indochina War — or American War on Vietnam, as many also call it — went on for another three years to the tune of the same, senseless rhetoric we hear today.
    Thirty-five years later, I still feel like the guy who survived a plane crash and then lives to see the same bankrupt airline taking off again with another load of doomed passengers. At any rate, I only wanted to reiterate Pat Lang’s basic point that not calling a plane crash a “plane crash” (or civil war a “civil war”) doesn’t change the basic nature of the debris — human and material — spread all over the landscape.

  3. Dan says:

    Borrowing from another great American leader, i guess it comes down to what the definition of “is,” is.
    “Finding a way to head off civil war is at the heart of all the major initiatives – including the talks over a new constitution – in Iraq. But by most common political-science definitions of the term, “civil war” is already here.
    “It’s not a threat. It’s not a potential. Civil war is a fact of life there now,” says Pavel Baev, head of the Center for the Study of Civil War at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway.”

  4. J Thomas says:

    How does this view that it was a long-standing war for independence compare to Colonel Lang’s idea that we could have won by extending a strong defensive line across cambodia to cut the supply lines from north vietnam?

  5. W. Patrick Lang says:

    J Thomas
    For the “other side” the war against our presence was a continuation of the Viet Minh War against the French and spiritually of the wars against Chinese domination that the Vietnamese had fought over the centuries.
    There were a lot of Vietnamese who did not want to be ruled by a communist government in Hanoi. They demonstrated that by leaving after the fall of Saigon. The SVN armed forces were by no means a joke. I fought alongside and advised SVN paratroopers. They were no joke.
    “Civil War?” It can be argued that the Korean War was a civil war as well and it ended somewhat differently.
    Laos, not Cambodia. I said Laos. What I said, I believe, was that if we had cut off enemy reinforcement and supply by interdicting an East-West line from the international border along the 17th (?) parallel to the Thai border on the Mekong, the main forces of the NVA in SVN would have “died on the vine.”
    From Tet 1968 on the units of the VC (both guerrilla and full time) were mostly filled with North Vietnamese “fillers,” the original Southern VC having mostly been killed or wounded out of the war. Therefore, the enemy’s military forces in SVN were very dependent on northern replacements from that time on. The same thing was true of supplies. The mythology that holds that the VC “lived off the land,” is just wrong. Without the multi-road truck supply line that came down through the Laos panhandle and then Cambodia east of the Mekong River, neither the VC nor the NVA could have existed after mid-1968.
    Michael and I may differ on this, but I think that the post 1967 counterinsurgency program in SVN (CORDS) was a success. That program, combined with the kind of interdiction I just discussed would have ensured the continuation of two governments in VN.
    I would agree that “our” war in VN was a poor idea, another instance of the law of unintended consequences, but it could have been won. pl

  6. searp says:

    I know that we are obliged at this point to prognosticate about the future of Iraq, because competing views of that future lie at the heart of the bitter domestic political fight.
    I think we have had, and will have, very little influence on the Iraqi political dynamic that is re-creating Iraq. If our goal is to influence this militarily, I’d say it was a fool’s errand given our rules of engagement.
    If we want to go further militarily, I’d say the correct analogy is with Francisco Franco. We use the military to defeat, detain, imprison or kill our political opponents in Iraq, all of them. Franco didn’t worry too much about who was POUM and who was CP.
    I am not advocating this, of course, as it seems to me to be a good way to win a battle and lose the GWOT.
    I hope to be around when the futility of the occupation is studied. Should be a doozy.

  7. J Thomas says:

    Colonel Lang, thank you.
    So to make an analogy that fails on details, in the US revolutionary war there were a lot of colonials who didn’t want to be ruled by nonmonarchists, and if they had concentrated in one part of the country — some number of the colonies — and if the british had kept the rebels out of those areas, then a big part of the colonies might have been saved.
    As it was, only canada remained and some of the tories went there after the war was lost while others went to england etc.
    I want to ask you how certain you are about the viet cong. I mean no disrespect, I don’t have the data and you do, and I wonder how reliable that data was.
    It’s widely agreed that the viet cong lost more men than they could afford with the Tet offensive, and they were sidelined from then on. And yet, in 5 years they’d completely replace their lost 16-to-21 year-olds. I’d like to suggest another possibility. Guerrilla warfare is usually pretty taxing, you can expect to take 5:1 or worse casualties and go long periods without a safe place to relax. Groups do that because they have no better choice, and they switch to regular army-against-army warfare as quickly as they can. So if we suppose that the irregular forces weren’t actually finished, they still might have mostly laid low and let the regular army fight. And then if we could keep the NVA out, they might have had the guts to start up again.
    Clearly it’s cheaper to fight irregulars who have no reliable source to resupply their ammo etc than an army. It was obviously worth it to stop the NVA or fight them in laos rather than wherever they chose. But if CORDS was less effective than you’d think, we still might have gotten metrics that were superficially successful.
    How likely is it that the apparent success of CORDS was due to insurgents biding their time, instead of insurgents gone? I don’t have any grand conclusion in either case, no axe to grind. I’ve just seen so many examples where everybody knew something that turned out to be a misinterpretation of the data….

  8. W. Patrick Lang says:

    J Thomas
    “might have been saved.” From what? Englishness?
    You know, it has been 35 years, but I don’t recall any prisoners or buddies of dead “dinks” (no disrespect intended) telling me that there was some grand scheme like this underway.
    Could be, but I never heard of it from the guys in the field who included a lot of enemy soldiers who switched to “our” side.
    I might be able to give you the address of their restaurants if you live in the right places. pl

  9. Michael Murry says:

    Pat and I do indeed share some views and differ in other respects vis-a-vis the Second Indochina War, or the American War on Vietnam (if not most of the former French Indochina — especially Cambodia) as I prefer to call it. In drawing parallels and comparing different situations, of course, one has to consider not just similarities and differences, but weigh the various considerations according to their significance. Sheer, disproportionate SCALE explains many things. For example:
    Pat says that the NLF (or “National Liberation Front”) forces in the southern part of Vietnam “did not live off the land.” True enough, in one sense, but irrelevant, since NO ONE lived off the land in the southern part of Vietnam once the massive defoliation and refugee-generating “dry up the water” campaigns destroyed the native agricultual economy and turned everything and everyone in the southern part of Vietnam into dependent constituencies of the American millitary aid programs: soldiers, prostitutes, PX-ration-card black marketeers, taxi-drivers, thieves, and beggars. No one “lived off the land,” because EVERYONE lived off the Americans. When the Americans left, of course, the entire house of cards collapsed. A similar situation and outcome in Iraq would not surprise me in the least.
    During the American intervention in the Chinese Civil War (a deja-vu precursor to our intervention in Vietnam), Mao used to jokingly call America his “quartermaster,” since the demoralized Nationalist conscripts would just drop their American-supplied military equipment and run off — leaving the equipment to the more disciplined Communists to pick up and use. In the southern part of Vietnam where I served, the NLF forces would scour our trash dumps for expended LAAW rocket tubes which made great containers for booby-trap hand grenades when strapped to the side of a tree. As some exasperated person once put it: “They keep killing us with our own garbage.” In Iraq today, we tend to call this sort of ingenuity “improvisation.” Guerrillas always somehow seem to possess more of it than the American supported puppets do. One need hardly wonder why. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some of the artillery shells we sold or gave to Saddam Hussein for use against Iranians now show up — “improvised” — in the roadside bombs, booby traps, or “IEDs” that have killed over a hundred of our men in just the last month. Gee, this sure does look like another “live off the American land program” to me.
    As just one more extreme example of NLF “live off the American land” strategies, I can remember going back to California State University Long Beach after getting out of the Navy upon my return from Vietnam in January of 1972. Once — out of morbid curiosity, I suppose — I went to attend a “Vietnamese Culture Program” sponsored by some Vietnamese student groups (safely removed by their “patriotic” parents from any threat of having to “fight for their country”). I can still remember the “patriotic” folk songs sung by the Vietnamese students in support of their “compatriots” in the NLF, for whose benefit the concert ostensibly — and quite publicly — sought to raise money. Yes, NLF fundraisers in America, probably something like the ones the IRA likes to hold. I particularly noted the lyric of one song: “chet nguoi my” (or “kill the Americans”) that the clueless American college kids in the audience did not understand. I think I said something later to one of the event organizers to the effect that the NLF would just liquidate his rich “patriotic” parents if the guerrillas succeeded in winning independence for the country; but the guy had never met an American who spoke Vietnamese before and so he looked at me like I had just arrived from the planet Mars. The NLF lived off the land all right, like all south Vietnamese did — OUR land. Not that I blamed them. Why not? Everyone else did.
    So when I hear today of Iraqi “bad guys” infiltrating every level of the “Iraqi government” I have to laugh in sardonic recognition of a time not-too-long past when Vietnamese “bad guys” did the same thing to another of our dependencies (I won’t call them “allies”).
    I have great respect for Pat and his informed views, but on this issue of “supply lines” I have a somewhat different perspective. As Pogo might have said: “We have met the supply line, and it is us.”
    Also, the only North Vietnamese I encountered (an officer in the South Vietnamese Navy) in way-down South Vietnam used to scream at his South Vietnamese conscripts in the Com Center when his Marine colonel “advisor” would scream at HIM for screwing up operations and “letting” the “bad guys” escape from the colonel’s carefully laid plans. The Marine colonel never understood that the Vietnamese preferred in many cases to simply avoid fighting where possible in the hopes of surviving until the Americans finally left — which everyone knew would happen sooner or later. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that many Iraqis take the same long view of their unfortunate present circumstances.
    Anyway, I admit to having a hugely skeptical attitude — if not a downright cynicism — in thinking that the American government knows as much about where the Iraqi “insurgency” gets its stuff as it did about where the Vietnamese got theirs: namely, something about what doesn’t matter and not much about what does. Strangers in a strange land navigating by delusional maps of their own construction usually wind up lost — or sunk. I know that sinking feeling all too well from bitter, personal experience and long years of meditation upon it. Sometimes I feel like Melville’s Ishmael floating on a coffin out at sea: sole survivor of a great shipwreck.
    “And I only am left alone to tell thee.”

  10. MarcLord says:

    Successful insurgencies are inclusive and infiltrative. Iraq’s insurgency has got the second part down, not so good with the first part. If the factions came to a common understanding that they first have to re-take the oil fields, THEN fight over the proceeds, we’d have been turning Air Force and Navy support staff into groundpounders for the better part of this year. Our attrition rate would be far higher.
    There are multiple insurgencies going on, the structure sort of like an isoceles triangle with occupation forces at the center of it. The occupation is, to some extent, holding back a full-fledged uniform-wearing Civil War, which is being carried out by car bombs and death squads; muted somewhat, but a vicious civil war nonetheless.
    This may explain the Shia enthusiasm for signing up as puppet-soldiers; they know they’re going to need an Army to put down the Sunnis, and far better to get US supply than nominal Iranian support. And it explains the Sunni effort to infiltrate those same “Iraqi brigades.”
    So, it’s kind of like Vietnam, only without the good parts.

  11. W. Patrick Lang says:

    I remember the “good parts” on occasional trips to the city when I bought Chinese antique porcelains, scroll paintings and dined at places like “Tan Thams” in the marketplace (marvelous “crabbe farcee” and Manhattans), “Guillaume Tel,” “La Cave,” “L’Admiral, and “La’Arc en Ciel,” in Cholon.
    Hey. As we used to say in SF, “It does not take practise to be miserable.” pl

  12. Curious says:

    We are creating ethnic tensions and setting conditions for civil war rather nicely. This train wrekc is moving fast toward oblivion.
    This is a direct result of our early war analsyis (that Iraq consists of bla bla ethnicties, bla bla religions ..this or that factions….) So, then the generals and planers seek to manipulate and controls this variables and parameters, nevermind the natural equilibrium of Iraq history and political interactions.
    To put it in more concrete hypothetical examples. If these were ’60’s civil right movement, we are sending soldiers to snuff up violent groups and saying this is white’s fault, that is black faults…flip-flop…between ethnicities. ignoring the subtle political dynamic and natural flow of power discourse. So, instead of for eg. alternative political point of view, civil right, human right, euqlity, let’s try something new, justice, go beyond the race attributes…etc. (political recontextualization.).., what dubya and his band of bozos are increasing tensions. Which naturally this flip-flopping/violence overdose is going to burn everything down.
    So, instead of new political recontextualisation/framing the national politics in new way, using for eg. nationalism, new justice system. We are using the divisive attribute of sunni-shia-Kurdish, and using it to snuff each other. The generals of course are too dumb to understand cultural/politics recontextualisation. All they care is simplsitic ‘winning heart and mind’, terrorists’, ‘zones’, ‘operations’ bla bla… They don’t understand the historical structure and cultural foundation of Iraq as a nation. All they see is manipulatable attributes. ———————————————————————Sunni-shia tensions are complex enough, let alone adding kurds in the mix.)
    And people wonder how we get ever increasing violence in Iraq. Give it enough time, these band of bozos will start dragging Syria, Iran, Israel… the entire region.. by keep exploiting inter ethnic tension and religios tension. They can’t see Iraq problem beyond military short term military strategy and few counter moves.
    Are US-trained forces in Iraq executing Sunnis?
    Looks that way according to the NY Times. Ironic that this is all coming out on the day that Saddam’s trial started — or was supposed to start:
    As the American military pushes the largely Shiite Iraqi security services into a larger role in combating the insurgency, evidence has begun to mount suggesting that the Iraqi forces are carrying out executions in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods.
    Hundreds of accounts of killings and abductions have emerged in recent weeks, most of them brought forward by Sunni civilians, who claim that their relatives have been taken away by Iraqi men in uniform without warrant or explanation.
    Some Sunni males have been found dead in ditches and fields, with bullet holes in their temples, acid burns on their skin, and holes in their bodies apparently made by electric drills. Many have simply vanished.
    And, by the way, this is your tax dollars at work:
    American officials, who are overseeing the training of the Iraqi Army and the police, acknowledge that police officers and Iraqi soldiers, and the militias with which they are associated, may indeed be carrying out killings and abductions in Sunni communities, without direct American knowledge.
    Is this the “noble mission” of which Bush so frequently speaks?

  13. Curious says:

    dangling thought.
    I really don’t think these clowns understand the full implications of playing with sunni-shia tension. This is like playing protestant-catholics tension in 17th century europe. It’s large scale cultural tension that can engulf the entire region. It happened before (Saudi/Iran tension, Egypt politics, Syria/Israel/Jordan, Lebanon)
    These are big forces.
    We are like a kid romping around at the edge of iceberg, tossing stones, kicking small ice cracks, making cute snowman, jumping up and down, never realizing the whole structure underneath can collapse any minute.

  14. Eric says:

    “What it amount to is bunch of trailer park trash with guns trying to sort out 12 centuries worth of political dynamics.”
    Cheap shots like that get you nowhere Curious. do you really expect Rhodes scholars to enlist?

  15. W. Patrick Lang says:

    “He jests at scars who ne’er has felt a wound?”
    Perhaps I am wrong, but I doubt it. pl

  16. Curious says:

    Posted by: W. Patrick Lang | 28 November 2005 at 09:38 PM
    it’s a stupid comment, but the result is very real.
    We use tribes, ethnicities, religions to create easy military solution (trying to create cohesive Iraqi forces quickly ) But the ethnic resentment arising from arm clashes will be with us for 20 years to come. (example, Lebanon, Iran/Iraq, Egypt, Iran Islamic revolution.)
    like I say, we may not have large scale civil war in Iraq now. But we sure are setting up all the ingredient for a big blow out.

    This is Kissinger observation regarding vietnam policy. To certain extent we are rehasing old mistakes.
    America, at any rate, paid a price for its adventure in Vietnam that was out of roportion to any conceivable gain. It was clearly a mistake to have staked so much on suchj ill-defined causes. America had become involved n the first place because it applied litrally the maxims of its succesfull European policy to region with radically different policial, social and economic condition. Wilsonian idealism permitted no cultural differentiation, while the theory of collective security held that, security being indivisible, the fabric of the entire international order would unravel if even one strand were pulled out.
    Too idealistic to base its policy on national interest, and too focused on the requirements of general war in its strategic doctrine, America was unable to master an unfamiliar strategic problem in which the political and military appeal of its values, America vastly underestimated the obstacles to democratization in a society shaped by Confucianism, and among a people who were struggling for political identity in the midst of an assault by outside forces.
    Perhaps the most serious, and surely the most hurtful, domino which fell as a result of the Vietnam War was the cohesion of American society. American idealism had imbued both officials and critics with the misconception that Vietnam society could be transformed relatively easily and quickly into an American-style democracy. When that optimistic proposition collapsed and it became apparent that Vietnam was far from being a democracy, disillusionment was inevitable. There was also a nearly incomprehensible misconception about the nature of the military problem. Lacking criteria for judgement, officials often misunderstood, and therefore often misstated, the issues. But when these officials claimed to be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, that in fact was what most of them perceived. However misguided their assessment, they had above all deceived themselves.
    The Neocons began by wanting to destroy the Sunni Arabs of Iraq and their Baath Party, and then going to to overthrow the ayatollahs in Iran. They inducted Bush and Cheney into this over-ambitious and self-contradictory plan, which depended on putting the Shiite Iraqis in power in Baghdad. But wouldn’t the Sunni Arabs violently object? Wouldn’t the Iraqi Shiites establish warm relations with Tehran.

  17. Curious says:

    And as I have argued before, an Iraq civil war will likely become a regional war, drawing in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. If a regional guerrilla war breaks out among Kurds, Turks, Shiites and Sunni Arabs, the guerrillas could well apply the technique of oil pipeline sabotage to Iran and Saudi Arabia, just as they do now to the Kirkuk pipeline in Iraq. If 20% of the world’s petroleum production were taken off-line by such sabotage, the poor of the world would be badly hurt, and the whole world would risk another Great Depression.
    On the other hand, the gradual radicalization of the entire Sunni Arab heartland of Iraq stands as testimony to the miserable failure of US military counter-insurgency tactics. It seems to me indisputable that US tactics have progressively made things worse in that part of Iraq, contributing to the destabilization of the country.
    So those who want the troops out also do have a point.

  18. Curious says:

    So my line of thinking
    -we are taking out Baathism. The very idiology and aparatus that hold Iraq together against ethnic and religious chaos. We have nothing real to replace them except corrupt and incompetents expats propped up with big military force.
    – We are re-doing crucials mistakes that causes Iranian Islamic revolution and collapse of Lebanon. (observe how we pit, ethnicities, religions, etc.)

  19. Curious says:

    Here we go, it has begun. We are cought in our own making sectarian violence.
    The fear is that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would inevitably trigger a Sunni-Shiite civil war. In many areas, that war has, in a sense, already begun, and the United States military is being drawn into the sectarian violence. An American Army officer who took part in the assault on Tal Afar, in the north of Iraq, earlier this fall, said that an American infantry brigade was placed in the position of providing a cordon of security around the besieged city for Iraqi forces, most of them Shiites, who were “rounding up any Sunnis on the basis of whatever a Shiite said to them.” The officer went on, “They were killing Sunnis on behalf of the Shiites,” with the active participation of a militia unit led by a retired American Special Forces soldier. “People like me have gotten so downhearted,” the officer added.

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