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“Lost on a Couch” – Psychological Reasons for the US Defeat in Iraq

 article about “Lost on a Couch” –  Psychological Reasons for the US Defeat in Iraq
2007-02-16 15:27:52

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In many ways the decisive factors which have lost the war in Iraq  are the moral and psychological questions. How long will U.S. troops go on fighting for empty rhetoric and broken promises? How long can they continue to swear allegiance to the lies and deception of their Commander-in-Chief? How long can they keep up a fight without a meaning or cause in order to justify such suffering and death? How long can they face an enemy, who, repugnant though it may seem, harbours no doubts about the justice of his cause and commands the decisive high ground in terms of psychological morale and his sense of moral superiority. Because crazy as it appears in the political mayhem and sadistic barbarism of Baghdad, their foe knows exactly what he is fighting for and why.

When faced with an enemy's fanatical self-belief and the opposition to their presence by the majority of the population, the modern soldier's appetite for fighting for the ideals of "freedom and democracy" can't linger very long. This is especially so when Iraqis seem to no longer care about it, and support at home has evaporated, and while one's President appears to be in a state of clinical delusion, rather than simple denial over it.

In truth, within a very short period of time, the war's moral foundations and
potential for victory were already undone when it became clear that it was based on barefaced lies and deception. It is crucial to the morale of a fighting soldier is that they can look up to their Commander-in-Chief as a man of integrity. Instead, once the weapons of mass destruction were never found and Hussein's links to Al Qaeda disproved, the soldiers were left fighting for a liar and a cheat. Furthermore, as it became increasingly clearer that they were unwelcome on Iraqi soil and that the vision of "freedom and democracy" withered, they began wondering just for what and for whom
they were laying down their lives. To make matters worse, support for the war at home in the U.S. was crumbling, which all added together to create a sense of meaningless and futility as far their involvement was concerned. With it, the prospect of winning became increasingly untenable, the sectarian strife unbearable and the demands on their physical commitment unsupportable.


 


St. Thomas Aquinas made the famous point that "For a war to be just three conditions are necessary - public authority, just cause, right motive." Clearly, the war was exposed as having none of the three, and demoralization began to reach such levels that even commanders  in the field began warning publicly that the U.S. Army was at "breaking point."

The insurgents, who on paper are no match for the world's greatest super power, began to grow in morale partly for the very same reasons why the Americans' were deteriorating. Moreover, they viewed their cause as being morally superior to their enemy's, be that an American or Iraqi foe. For the insurgents of whatever hue, they are fighting for their right to self-determination, to national liberation, for the defence of their religion, sect, ethnic minority or cult-like, messianic ideology. In the sphere of psychological combat this gives them a colossal advantage. And in
war Napoleon Bonaparte once said, "The moral is to the physical as four is to one."

However, morals are always a question of the psychological angle and perspective from which one views them. It may be repugnant to suggest that terrorist, tortures and supports of dictatorship have the moral high ground, but that is the reality of the moral dynamic in this war, and this is the crucial reason why they cannot be beaten by the Americans. They are fighting for causes which are both concrete and visionary. While, if one asks the average American soldier what he is fighting for, the overwhelming reply will be just for "his buddies, his unit." Such a situation isn't sustainable for any length of time. On the psychological timeline, the advantage lays with the insurgents.

In general, be it the Sunni insurgents, al Qaeda or the Iraqi Mehdi Army they combine military know-how, terrorist expertise and guerrilla ingenuity with determination and tenacity. They are superior fighters to the Americans because they are fuelled by blind fanaticism, hatred, feelings of injustice, revengefulness and bloodthirstiness that reach barbaric levels, and making them a fierce and formidable enemy. They are unhampered by convention and unrestricted by law or censure. Nor are they affected by international public opinion or the need to be seen to act justly. They see themselves
as the victims, with whatever rights of retribution. They are"moral-less" and yet "morally" stronger than their American opponents.

As a "movement" they are contradictory, often counterpoised and still highly
effective. As smart as a fox, dogged as bears, patient as vultures, swift as a snake and as pitiless as hyenas. They are courageous and cowardly, wild and yet disciplined, they are dynamic and quick-witted. They are paradoxical and disordered and, yet, they thrive upon chaos and complexity.

This is the reason why the current 2007 U.S. offensive to retake Baghdad was also doomed to failure from the start. In reality, it is not just that they are essentially doing the same thing with more people, and then leaving behind a logistically inferior force to maintain the peace in the form of the Iraqi Army. The essence of the problem is that they are stuck in a mode of urban combat that stems from World War II thinking and practice. They are applying the same strategy and tactics to an urban guerrilla-terrorist force as they would to a traditional army in any metropolitan setting. Yet to their amazement and annoyance the enemy refuses to fight in the same way. It won't react, it won't fight back, it won't surrender in the same ways, and, worse still, unlike a traditional army following occupation, it keeps coming back! And still the US Chiefs of Staff (or at least many of them) are bewildered by the fact  that they have to start again!

The Army, next to the Church, is traditionally the most conservative of institutions in society. Its conservatism is necessary for it brings consistency, discipline, reliability and loyalty. But, unfortunately, it also means an almost organic incapacity to make fundamental changes in modes of thinking, and from that ways of behaving. This is the Iraqi guerrillas real trump card - the  innate, wooden thinking and cognitive rigidity of the American  military command, especially when it comes to innovative strategies for effective counter-insurgency. Only by understanding this is it possible to answer the question of just why the most powerful army the world has ever seen is unable to defeat a force often less well-equipped than members of the
Russian mafia. If Napoleon observed that "in war the moral is to physical as four is to one," then in asymmetrical war, suppleness and agility of the mind is to fanaticism and visceral belligerency as a hundred is to one. Herein lays the reason why the U.S. Army is impotent against a foe which is its logical inferior.

So what can they do? Ah! Fight fire with fire! Use the same successful tactics of the enemy against the enemy in order to defeat  them? But is the U.S. Army going to set off roadside bombs, take sniper shots at an invisible enemy, put adverts in the Washington  Post for suicide bombers? That the discussion becomes ludicrous so quickly speaks for itself. The fact is, militarily they cannot win. Or rather they cannot win militarily for socio-political reasons and reasons of different morals and psychology.

In military terms, a more effective attack upon the enemy would be to substitute the current approach for "scorched-earth" policy, depriving the insurgents of anything to actually fight from or come back to. If the Americans razed Baghdad to the ground (and in fact necessarily all other urban centres – villages included), then any guerrillas left would have to fight them by conventional methods in open combat.


 




But that, too, holds no guarantee of success. Why? Because, in the long term, even the desert recovers. People come back, grass grows, buildings re-arise and weeds flourish with a double vengeance. And, unless the entire socio-political situation is changed, the Americans have to start all over again with a new counter-insurgency. Again the discussion becomes ludicrous. However ruthless the Americans are, the terrorists would pursue their same favourite policy. Faced with a 'scorched earth' policy they would just move to another country, until the conditions were right to return. Jihad would be exported and then re-imported. Similar types of approach have totally failed for the Russians in Chechnya or the Soviets and the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Indeed the most experienced forces with regard to counter-terrorism and urban counter-insurgency are the Israelis. Yet, one only has to look at their record and the intensity of their efforts to see how everything has been in vain. The Occupied Territories of West Bank and Gaza, seized in 1967, have a combined population of 4 million,  The insurgency began proper with the second intifada beginning in 2000. It has been entirely urban combat. In the course of it, the Israeli forces have killed some 4,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 20,000. Another 28,000 insurgents have been arrested and 8,000 Palestinians remain in prison. The scale of the loss of innocent lives, destruction of homes and infrastructure is well-known. But despite the
colossal repression, the insurgency shows no sign of stopping 6 years on. Were the Americans to employ the same intensity of counter insurgency in Iraq, it would mean having to arrest about 190,000 insurgents and to kill or wound another 140,000.

Furthermore, the U.S. forces have lost at an incredible rate of some 3,000 dead and 20,000 wounded in 3 years, compared to an average of 500 Israelis in the same period. Even if one takes into account differences in size of population, Americans are still dying at insurgent hands at something like 6 times the rate of Israeli troops under fire. Should the current Iraqi insurgency become a full-blown uprising, as in the Occupied Territories, it would be much more ferocious and deadly. Nearly all the population has weapons. Consequently, it would quickly become an armed uprising
involving thousands, if not millions. Numbers of U.S. casualties would be exploded geometrically. Hundreds of thousands of troops could loose their lives. Moreover, in comparison with the Israelis they are doing a much worse at the job already, let alone faced with its escalation.

If the example of Palestine were not enough for the Americans, then the ignominious and humiliating defeat for Israel in Lebanon should serve as a fresh reminder of what can happen when the an inferior military force like Hezbollah has the balance of moral and  psychological forces weighted decisively in its favour.

Perhaps the psychological factor that could tip the balance towards the Americans, would be at least ‘being wanted'. And they most certainly are not. Regardless of White House propaganda, this is not true in Iraq. Despite some reluctant support in some sections of the population, and despite some measure of hostility or antipathy toward the insurgents, the majority of people oppose the U.S. presence  nd have little confidence in either the Iraqi national government, Army or police. At the same time, there is sufficient, substantial support and toleration of the militias and insurgents by the population for them to thwart the U.S. and finally succeed. The  difference between Iraq and the few successful counter-insurgency wars there have been - such as Malaysia and Indonesia - is largely due to the fact that despite much opposition, the national government and army, plus the foreign troops, had, at least, some important basis of support within the population, especially in urban areas. And then they supported one ethnic group against another.

Consequently, there isn't sufficient positive support for the U.S. to win and there is enough for the insurgents to be able to function very effectively. This is the key reason why they are able to return to areas that have been cleared or withdrawn from. Moreover, when  the U.S. troops get as far as clearing an area and handing it over to the Iraqi Army, they can't hold it for the same reason - they lack sufficient public support. Moreover, if the U.S. defeat the insurgents with all its military might, then the poorly trained and equipped Iraqi troops stand no chance. The attitude towards them will be exactly the same as it is to the Americans – "for God's sake get out, you're making matters worse!" And there is real truth in that.

The reason for the military failure in Iraq exists on many levels, and not just
militarily. Strategic and tactical matters are inextricably interlinked with moral and psychological issues. Many other factors, such as the mode of thinking in the White House and  the Pentagon, the opinion changes among the people of Iraq and in the U.S. and world opinion, in general, all play an important role. The fact that the situation changed so dramatically within three years belies how complex the interaction of these factors are. Complexity is not something which conservative thought deals with easily both for the military and political leadership of a country. And if that is not enough,
the next thing which conservative thought  finds bewildering and abhors is chaos – precisely the two phenomena governing the essence of the Iraqi situation and a crucial reason  why the current U.S. conservative leadership is simply incapable of dealing with
it.

Stephen Morgan 15/01/07





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