Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.
My good pal Jerry Sullivan recently floored me with the comment, “I’d rather fight ‘em in Iraq than here in the USA.” These words coming from the average badly informed American would have immediately triggered a take-no-prisoners response from me. But Sully, who’s badly banged up from wounds suffered in Vietnam, has devoted himself to studying guerrilla warfare for the past 35 years.
Could Sully be right?
Maybe he’d channeled Lyndon B. Johnson’s rationalization that it was better to fight the commies in Vietnam than on the beaches of San Francisco. Or perhaps he was co-opted by George W. Bush’s similar and – I believe – equally wrongheaded sound bite, “We will confront them overseas so we don’t have to confront them here at home.”
But my respect for Sully motivated me to review my thinking, and here’s what came to mind:
In a conventional war, where nations are fighting nations, of course it’s better to slug it out on the enemy’s turf with the goal of taking a Berlin or a Tokyo and smashing your opponent’s industrial base and army. In such fights, a powerhouse like the United States can unleash its superior assets and bulldoze its way to the final objective – which is the modern American way of conventional war – with little or no damage to America the beautiful.
But as we rediscovered in Vietnam and Somalia, insurgent warfare is a fight against a different animal, frequently a hit-and-run, stateless opponent without easily identified major targets to zero out.
Ironically, too, our bombs and heavy-handed firepower become major insurgent recruiters in guerrilla warfare. And that’s what’s happening in Iraq, where a significant percentage of the population is now openly clamoring for the Yankees to go home. Many Iraqis have already either turned to actively supporting the guerrillas or they’re sitting on the sidelines, afraid to take sides and allowing the guerrillas to attack our forces at will.
So, fighting in Iraq bears not the slightest resemblance to our triumphant World War II march across Europe. Almost the entire Arab world views us not as liberators occupying that bludgeoned country solely to pull the Iraqis up by their sandal straps, but as Crusaders who’ve returned to finish the dirty work the Christian world started a thousand years ago. Deep in the hearts of most Arabs, we’re just the latest wave of infidels who are into violating their sacred land.
Other disadvantages are that we don’t speak the language, know the turf or understand the culture or the underlying basics, like who belongs to what tribe. As a result, our intell system – which is vital to winning a guerrilla war – is about as effective as throwing darts in a darkroom.
Another downer is that our troops are at the end of a 10,000-mile supply line requiring both megabucks and megaguts to maintain. Once supplies are shipped to ports in Kuwait or Turkey, they still have to be trucked forward on “Highways of Death” treks, which daily take their nerve-shattering toll in U.S. casualties and destroyed vehicles and supplies.
And fighting the guerrillas in Iraq has worn out our regular ground force to the point that units committed there need a minimum of a year Stateside to recover from their tours in hell. Ditto the Guard and Reserve troops – who are meanwhile not available to defend the home-front or put out any local U.S. fires.
We’re also suddenly on high alert in Washington, D.C., Newark, N.J., and New York City, which have all morphed into Checkpoint Charlies, just as Boston was a maxi-fortress last month. Meanwhile, our southern border is being breached by hundreds of Muslim fanatics passing as Mexicans, and our northern border has more holes in it than the White House sprinkler system.
Sully, let’s face it: The USA is only in Round One of what promises to be at least a 15-rounder, yet we’re already performing like Mike Tyson in his last fight. For sure, our country’s first priority should be defending this great land – which should certainly include securing our borders and rebuilding our exhausted, overextended Army and Marine Corps.
And without question a simultaneous priority should be winning in Afghanistan and finishing Osama.
I’m forced to conclude, Sully, that you and Mr. Bush have both made a bad call on our quagmire in Iraq.