Question: When is truth relative?
Answer: In war - especially counterinsurgency - always.
With photographers in tow, armed helicopters overhead, and a heavily armed escort, generals and politicians can stroll down selected streets without helmets or flak vests, declaring that security has improved.
To one battalion of the 1st Infantry Division assigned to Baghdad’s Sadiyah neighborhood, this is a lie. “The higher-ups…only go to the safe places, places with a little bit of gunfire” (Washington Post, October 27). The administration hypes these snapshots of “progress” by trumpeting the post-” troop surge” fall-off in Iraqi and coalition fatalities - which is real - but conveniently omitting the cost: some 40,000 (not 29,000) additional troops.
The very dangerous Baghdad that these 1st Division “grunts” see is a world - and 20 deaths - apart. When they arrived fourteen months ago, Sadiyah bustled with business and traffic. Today, after continuous assaults on Sunni residents by Shi’a militias and intimidation by a Shi’a police brigade, street life is largely limited to starving dogs and American patrols - reminiscent of Kipling’s refrain: “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon-day sun.”
The irony is that the Bush administration, like the British in World War I, did not have to get mixed up in the maze of contradictions and civil unrest that are rife in Iraq and the entire Gulf region. Introducing foreign occupation forces into the mix simply compounds the opacity of motives and alliances that, in turn, can tip the balance of power in contested areas in unpredictable ways.
Conversely, the existence of a UN mandate authorizing foreign troops as a “stabilizing force” reduces some ambiguity as this implies a degree of self-governance through which the Iraqi people’s voices can be heard. And what the UN is hearing from more and more Iraqis and from Afghans through their parliaments and presidents is frustration bordering on outright hatred of western ground and - increasingly - air forces. The reality seen by those people on the ground is the disproportionate if not unaccountable and unregulated use of air power.
On October 28 - and not for the first time -Afghan President Hamid Kharzai publicly protested to the UN and U.S. the increasing use of coalition attack planes. Unverified targeting has killed more than 300 Afghan non-combatants so far this year - about the same number of non-combatants killed by the Taliban - that is making 2007 the bloodiest year of this war.
In Iraq the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the coalition presence must be renewed in December. The last time it was renewed, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested an early vote by the Council to pre-empt plans by Iraqi parliamentarians to attach conditionsl. This time parliament is working on mandatory conditionality: e.g., geographic limits such as no air operations in urban areas and restrictions on types of activity such as training and border security. (Separately, the UN plans to look into recent incidents in which U.S. aircraft struck supposed al-Qaeda and Taliban “hideouts” but subsequent ground reports raised questions about the accuracy of the military’s press release describing the incident.)
Governments, especially governments at war, are adept at holding hearings and developing policies that get to “the truth” - or their version of the truth. Individuals, however, especially those in a battle zone, don’t need “truth.” For them, truth has nothing to do with policy and politics and everything to do with simply staying alive.
That is also the “truth” that confronts soldiers - a most apt thought for Veterans Day. No one wants to be the last one killed or injured in their unit, most particularly when, as now, it is clear that a war was started and is being continued on the basis of mistakes, errors, and lies by politicians, many of whom have no experience of war. And that is how Iraq (and Afghanistan) likely will end: with the lie that U.S. objectives have been reached.
It is a lie that Americans might embrace. The U.S. battalion in Sadiyah, with 20 dead and a month to go, undoubtedly would. One soldier put it succinctly: “I don’t think this place is worth another soldier’s life.”
Colonel Daniel M. Smith (Ret.), a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran is the Senior Fellow for Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker-based public interest lobby founded in 1943. www.fcnl.org