Recent polling numbers, as reported by CNN, suggest that Americans on the whole are now more open to the use of escalated force against the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, at least judging by the disapproval 57% of polled persons had with the way that the Obama administration is persecuting the war. It is remarkable, however, that a solid half of those polled are still opposed to ground escalation even as they view the war’s current results as disappointing. Yet, these numbers suggest more enthusiasm then most Americans have had for large scale intervention of any kind for several years.
I went to see American Sniper last night, and I enjoyed the film for the acting and on the understanding that I was watching carefully edited truth. It also made me realize, however, that perhaps some lessons of Iraq were lost on director Clint Eastwood and possibly on his audience. I don’t mean that the movie is propaganda, but I think it makes, for narrative reasons, some questionable simplifications that belie a deep problem with the way Americans view the Iraq War, or another round of intervention.
Chris Kyle’s legendary enemy “Mustafa”, a jihadi sniper, is the antagonist of the film. Mustafa is imaginary, paste together from several snipers that Kyle mentions in his book. In the movie he is first shown working for al Qaeda in Iraq, but later turns up in Sadr City, presumably fighting alongside Jaysh al Mahdi, in the film’s climatic scene. That AQI and JAM represent two factions fighting for two diametrically opposite aims (and who spent as much time fighting each other as fighting the US) is glossed over to focus on Chris Kyle’s one man war on the mujaheddin.
Yet, as one sometimes hears, the devil is in the details. When understanding why ISIS suddenly appeared, and why Iraq suddenly fell apart last summer, you have got to understand why these two enemies represent two very different things. They represent two armed wings of a sectarian struggle within Iraq’s Arab population over who calls the shots in the local and national affairs, Iraq’s Sunni Resistance (the remnants of the old Saddam Regime with elements of global Sunni extremism) or the rising power of the Shi’a majority, some with ties to Iran. Throw in additional considerations of tribal loyalties and familial allegiances, and you realize the complexity of the situation that American leadership and the soldiers confronted during the occupation and the difficulties of combating insurgents and terrorists.
The fact is that this still matters. As psychopathic and apocalyptic as ISIS and their success appears, they didn’t simply arise from Hell. As the Institute for the Study of War observed earlier this week, a huge threat to the coalition against ISIS is that many of the “moderate Sunnis” feel as if they are being disenfranchised in the national assembly and are being attacked by Shi’a Militias who are supposed to be their allies. Little is dead and buried without the proper rituals of peace and firm mutual guarantees, and the concept of an Iraqi citizen/fighter without local color or communal identification (as Tip O’Neill reminds, “All politics is local”) is the kind of a-historical middle ground which simply concludes (as Chris Kyle did) that Iraqis are just “savages” or “crazy” because they can’t get over their differences.
But then again, why should they? What trust do they have in anything besides God, their communities, and their blood relatives? Over the past decade, Iraq has become the ground zero of uncertainty. Armed groups, some religious, some political, some simply criminals masquerading as the other two, have stressed the fault lines of the country. From 2005 to 2008, civil violence racked the country and American troops, while heroic in the face of danger, were unable to stop the abuses of Maliki’s local governments and their police forces (read death squads). Sunni communities who threw out al Qaeda while working with the Americans were armed and trained over the objections of the Shi’a dominated central government, who quickly suspended their salaries and left many young men bitter at Baghdad. Nobody felt like there was a national institution to trust in, certainly not the Iraqi parliament after the last round of elections revealed Iraq’s regional polarization and Sunni resistance to Shi’a majority rule in Baghdad. It certainly wasn’t the Army, which already was suspect for mass corruption, or worse being gunmen for Shi’a extremists. In times of uncertainty Iraqis do what anyone would do: they fear, and then they act out of fear. Fear is easy to create, and a man who is afraid is a man who can be manipulated. This is what Clausewitz means when he talks about the passion of the populations and the soldiers who fight as an essential part of the trinity of warfare.
This is important, because fear will not simply dissipate when American boots hit Iraqi sod. Iraqis are not a monolithic block waiting for us to come rescue them, and that’s important to know before voices demand we send the troops back in. Our fight with the ISIS would not just be a fight with ISIS. We also have our so called allies, the Iranian-backed and sometimes Iranian-led Peace Brigades who supplement the Iraqi Army, and who represent the same ranks of the Jaysh al Mahdi who besieged Chris Kyle in the climactic scene of the film. It is inevitable that a large American force will overlap in Iraq with Iranian and Iraqi Shi’a ones who view our intervention in the Anbar Awakening as having created this problem in the first place. This will create tension, and will create fear which can easily be manipulated by Iran or from anti-American elements (many of whom were good Maliki constituents) to direct militias against our supply lines from our Persian Gulf bases. We will need many, many boots to keep our forces operating along cordons extremely vulnerable to attrition.
This is where Americans, and their elected representatives, need to realize that everything in war is simple, and that simple things are complicated. It isn’t about Chris Kyle’s excellent war-fighting ability or that of America’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen, which I have no doubt of. I don’t doubt that American forces would beat ISIS’s current force in a stand-up fight 9.99/10 times. What you don’t see in American Sniper, however, is the hazards of trying to patrol neighborhoods or keep your bases supplied when you are surrounded by insurgent forces. Chris Kyle’s humvee, bringing mail and extra wrenches to a Forward Operating Base, doesn’t get hit by a buried IED artillery shell which kills and maims 7 men in one horrible second. The majority of America’s war wounded and killed in Iraq was due to improvised explosive devices hitting vehicles and personnel, and was an issue that cost the Federal government $45 billion in specialized vehicles alone.
That is what a war with no safe rear area actually looks like, and that’s what a prolonged war with ISIS will be like, operating in a country where the line between friend and enemy is extremely thin, and where there is already a violent seven year history of mistrust. Everything will be uncertain, the only certainty being that our boots on the ground will have plenty of itchy trigger fingers aiming at them.
In times of uncertainty, to be sure, many things are at play. Fear, the desire to live, and hope, the desire to do better tomorrow, will drive some Iraqis to take up arms, shelter fighters (many of whom they know), and be seduced by outright psychopaths and dangerous power-hungry sociopaths to participate in and promote terrible violence, either by threats or more innocuous incentives. We in the West also fear, fear for innocents, fear that terrorist groups like ISIS are exporting violence to us and our allies (and will continue to do so as long as ISIS remains undefeated), and fear that we aren’t destroying extremism faster than it is spreading. Yet, before we allow our fear to overwhelm our judgement and empower our leaders to promote a supposedly limited war that may unfortunately prove more complicated than they are willing to admit, we must carefully consider that nothing is certain, that strategy is about making hard choices when things don’t go your way, and that our enemies are dynamic, shifting, and uncertain.