In the last few weeks I have spent a lot of time on airplanes and sitting around in airports. During these interminable hours, Thomas E. Ricks’ Fiasco has been my constant companion. As a devoted military man, Ricks is far more sanguine about the U.S. military than I am, but his basic thesis is sound: America fought the war it knew how to fight (blowing away a hapless enemy with overwhelming firepower and the weapons of intimidation)-not the war for hearts and minds the situation required. Faced with a rapidly evolving insurgency and mounting casualties, the American army panicked. In its pell-mell pursuit of “actionable intelligence” American soldiers burst into private dwellings, sticking their automatic weapons into the faces of Iraqi men, women and children, and hauling off entire neighborhoods of young men to detention facilities like the notorious (and soon grossly overcrowded) Abu Graib.
“In the spring and summer of 2003,” Ricks writes, “few U.S. soldiers seemed to understand the centrality of Iraqi pride, and the humiliation Iraqi men felt to be occupied by this Western army. Foot patrols in Baghdad were greeted during this time with solemn waves from old men and cheers from children, but with baleful stares from many young Iraqi men.” (Fiasco, p.192)
In the course of two long chapters Ricks calls “How to Create an Insurgency,” he discusses directives from senior command calling for “the gloves to come off” so that the insurgency could be “broken”. One young commander with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment responded with enthusiasm.
“I firmly agree that the gloves need to come off.” With clinical precision, he recommended permitting “open-handed facial slaps from a distance of no more than about two feet and back-handed blows to the midsection from a distance of about 18 inches . . . I also believe that this should be a minimum baseline.” He also reported that “fear of dogs and snakes appear to work nicely.”
America is confronted with poor, drug infested neighborhoods marked by high crime rates and a growing disrespect for the rule of law. We have responded with policies predicated on threats and intimidation. Doors are kicked in. Scores of officers flashing firearms sweep into an apartment. Babies scream for their mothers and elderly women are brusquely pushed aside. The f-word abounds. The young men are thrown to the floor and handcuffed while the apartment is ransacked. Maybe the police find illegal drugs; maybe they don’t. Maybe they got the right apartment; frequently they don’t. But it doesn’t matter. “The only language the bad guys understand is fear,” police officers tell one another.
The residents of poor neighborhoods tell me they are tired of being humiliated and disrespected by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. They are tired of being called “mother f&%*#@s”. They are tired of the sneers and the dismissive glances. They are tired of being suspects.
Like American soldiers in Iraq, police officers working poor neighborhoods have a hard time distinguishing the “good guys” from the “bad guys”. In both cases, the solution is the same: treat everyone like bad guys. If a few innocent people wind up doing long stretches in prison, that’s just the price we have to pay. No one in a poor neighborhood is ever innocent. Not really. They are suspect because they are poor. If residents are poor and black, the suspicion deepens.
But Thomas Ricks notes that not all military officers embraced the policy of intimidation and humiliation. An officer with the 501st Military Intelligence Battalion responded quite differently to the new call for neighborhood sweeps and brutal interrogation.
“It comes down to standards of right and wrong-something we cannot just put aside when we find it inconvenient, any more than we can declare that we will ‘take no prisoners’ and therefore shoot those who surrender to us simply because we find prisoners inconvenient.” This officer also took issue with the reference to rising U.S. casualties. “We have taken casualties in every war we have ever fought-that is part of the very nature of war . . . That in no way justifies letting go of our standards . . . The BOTTOM LINE,” he wrote emphatically in conclusion, was, “We are American soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on the high ground. We need to stay there.” (more…)