An Empire’s Burden: Endless, Bloody Wars

No one can accept that an imperial army has been annihilated by men with bows and arrows and rusty old guns who live in tents and never wash and cannot read or write. And who am I to jeer at life-giving illusions? Is there any better way to pass these last days than in dreaming of a saviour with a sword who will scatter the enemy hosts and forgive us the errors that have been committed by others in our name and grant us a second chance to build our earthly paradise? I lie on the bare mattress and concentrate on bringing into life the image of myself as a swimmer swimming with even, untiring strokes through the medium of time, a medium more inert than water, without ripples, pervasive, colourless, odourless, dry as paper.

-J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians

If you listen closely to the televised official briefings, you will learn that the Iraqi war is an “asymmetrical” conflict. This does not mean that the United States is fighting a race of lopsided people, or people whose left arms and legs are shorter than their right arms and legs. (Such people are formidable foes when fighting on hills, but on a flat desert they are at a disadvantage.) An asymmetrical enemy is one that will not fight set-piece battles, wear uniforms or do the other kinds of things which will enable the American military to blow it to kingdom come. The officials do not say it, but they leave the impression that those who fight asymmetrically are not fighting fair. And fair is what the other side is supposed to be, but which our side-because we are fighting for freedom-does not have to be.

That word “asymmetrical” is an excuse word. An asymmetrical war is not a regular war, fought by regular people in the regular way, so it may go on for years and years. The asymmetrical war which the United States fought to subjugate-I meant liberate-the Philippines went on from 1900 to 1910. An asymmetrical war must be looked on as a low-level fever, the cause of which the doctors can never exactly find-an abscess unlocated, an infection that goes on and on.

Tar-baby Iraq is an asymmetrical war par excellence. Years will pass before the United States will leave that place. With some luck, George W. Bush will be able to set up a puppet democracy, and the American forces-somewhat reduced in size-can withdraw into encampments commanding the surrounding area, like the barons’ castles in medieval Europe. It must be thus, because puppet governments do not have a good survival record when their sponsoring powers pull their armies out.

This is as good an outcome, if you call that good, as we can reasonably hope for. For this conclusion, I rely on what I read in the papers as written by American journalists-few of whom speak Arabic, who have scant background knowledge, whose movements in the country are confined by fear and danger, and whose copy sometimes makes me think that their patriotism, or their adhesion to the government line, has destroyed their capacity for critical analysis. So we have only a 50-50 chance of getting a handle on what is actually transpiring in Iraq.

Whatever is transpiring is murky. There is, for example, the corpse controversy. The Democrats have picked up on Karl Rove’s decision that the bodies of American service personnel killed in the asymmetrical war are to be sneaked into the country so as not to remind the civilian population that losses are being incurred. Compared to the last semi-asymmetrical war waged by the United States in Vietnam, the Iraqi losses are trifling. During the Vietnam conflict, the administration had to suffer photographs of planes full of body bags being unloaded at West Coast airports. On the other hand, since there have been few killed in Iraq, it is possible to focus in on them, put their pictures up on TV, personalize them, interview their grieving relatives, show the mourning children-the kind of human-interest thing that our wonderfully sensitive media likes to do. Which is more politically uncomfortable: hiding the dead, or giving them noisy, colorful military funerals? We shall see.

Also to be seen is what may be happening to the military, and the political consequences thereof. In 1950, President Truman called up Reserves and National Guard formations for the Korean War. The men in these units were veterans from World War II, and you can be sure that few of them welcomed their return to a bloody, muddy, dangerous and unpopular war. The resentment played a part in Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s election in 1952. Then came the Vietnam War and, thinking that he would avoid Harry Truman’s mistake, Democrat Lyndon Johnson refused to call up the National Guard and relied instead on the draft. The Guard became a haven for men like President Bush, who wanted to avoid active duty, while conscription ultimately became a political disaster for the Democrats.

For Iraq, Mr. Bush has gone back to relying on the Guard and Reserves, but this is a small war, using fewer soldiers, compared to the previous two wars. Nevertheless, it is turning out that, though Mr. Bush’s needs in numbers of troops are small, they are still larger than his resources, at least from a political point of view. There has been open grousing about being called up for long stints overseas. It is becoming obvious that many not in the regular Army are not favorably disposed toward year-long postings to a place like Iraq. There have even been a few cases that we know about of men more or less refusing a second tour of duty in asymmetrical combat situations.

How much the unhappiness of the troops has affected morale and, more importantly, discipline is not known. Looting has been a side business with armies since the beginning of time, sometimes with the approval of the higher-ups and sometimes very much against orders. If some American troops are looting Iraqi homes, you may be sure that it is very much against orders, which means that some people aren’t obeying orders, which in turn means that discipline is not what it ought to be.

If the standards of conduct of individual troopers may be breaking down, official policy has also been lowered a notch or two. According to Dexter Filkins of The New York Times, the United States takes hostages, trapping and wrapping entire villages in razor wire, destroying the homes of families which may include an asymmetrical warrior/terrorist, all in the time-tested and successful Israeli manner. Whether or not the United States is also running concentration camps isn’t known, although it is suspected.

When those appalling men and women from the American Enterprise Institute talk in their complacent seminars about how having an empire might not be such a bad idea after all, they do not discuss what comes with empire. What comes with it is perpetual, low-fever warfare. Out there on the dividing line between the empire’s end and the dark and frightening lands where the barbarians live, there is no peace and there is no victory. It never ends, the murky mini-murders-a vehicle being blown up by a surreptitiously planted land mine, a soldier shot in the head by a sniper, a civil-affairs officer’s throat slit, all the slow, one-by-one killings.

Perhaps at one of the press conferences, a journalist or two will screw up their courage to ask with persistence what is ahead for us, down there somewhere in our asymmetrical future.