In 1967, it took six days for the Israeli army to smash Egypt,
Jordan, and Syria and seize the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the
Sinai Peninsula. In 2006, a Shiite militia fought the mightiest army
in the Middle East to a bloody standstill in Lebanon.
In 1991, it took four days of ground combat for the United States to
crush Saddam Hussein’s army in the Gulf War. U.S. losses were 148
dead and 647 wounded. After more than five years of war in Iraq, U.S.
losses are approaching 4,000, with over 50,000 wounded; 2007 is
already the deadliest year of the war for the United States.
In each case, a great army won a decisive victory only to see that
victory canceled out by what T.E. Lawrence once called the “algebra
of occupation.” Writing about the British occupation of Iraq
following the Ottoman Empire’s collapse in World War I, Lawrence put
his finger on the formula that has doomed virtually every military
force that has tried to quell a restive population.
Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk has cited Lawrence to this
effect: “Rebellion must have an unassailable base…it must have a
sophisticated alien enemy, in the form a disciplined army of
occupation too small to dominate the whole area effectively from
fortified posts. It must have a friendly population, not actively
friendly, but sympathetic to the point of not betraying rebel
movements to the enemy. Rebellions can be made by 2 percent active in
a striking force, and 98 percent passive sympathy. Granted mobility,
security…time and doctrine…victory will rest with the insurgents, for
the algebraical factors are in the end decisive.”
Failures of Occupation
There is an inexorable trajectory to this process. An army vanquishes
another army, only to find that wars don’t always end when generals
surrender and capitals fall. When a few locals take up arms because
they object to being occupied by “aliens,” the occupiers act like
armies, which are designed to kill people, not to win their hearts
So the occupiers break down doors and search for weapons, terrorizing
and humiliating people in the process. They call in air strikes,
which kill innocent bystanders. They choke off commerce and impose
curfews to teach the locals a lesson, lessons that are never learned.
For over 800 years the English beat, imprisoned, transported, shot,
and hung hundreds of thousands of Irish, and it made the natives not
the slightest bit quieter or more respectful. Indeed it made them
quite the opposite.
In this process of trying to get the occupied to accept defeat, a
certain corruption of spirit begins to seep into the soul of an army,
transforming it from a war-fighting machine into a kind of monster.
Listen to some of these voices.
Reporter Chris Hedges, who talked with solders, officers, and medical
personnel in Iraq, said his interviews “revealed disturbing patterns
of behavior by American troops: innocents terrorized during midnight
raids, civilian cars fired upon when they got too close to supply
columns. The campaign against a mostly invisible enemy, many veterans
said, has given rise to a culture of fear and even hatred among U.S.
forces, many of whom, losing ground and beleaguered, have, in effect,
declared war on all Iraqis.” Sgt. Camilo Mejia told Hedges that, as
far as the deaths of Iraqis at checkpoints, “This sort of killing of
civilians has long ceased to arouse much interest or even comment.”
Except among the survivors and relatives, of course, who now know who
their enemy is. “Our children are being killed. Our homes are being
destroyed. We are bombed. What should we do?” asks Abdul Qader, who
lost seven family members in a June 29 U.S. air strike that killed 60
people in southern Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
“The Americans are killing and destroying a village just in pursuit
of one person [Osama bin-Ladin],” one man told The New York Times.
“So now we have understood that the Americans are a curse on us, and
they are here just to destroy Afghanistan.”
Israeli psychologist Nofer Ishai-Karen and psychology professor Joel
Elitzur interviewed 21 Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied
Territories. They found that the soldiers routinely engaged in
murder, assault, threats and humiliation, and many of them enjoyed it.
“The truth is that I love this mess—I enjoy it. It is like being on
drugs,” one soldier told them. Another said, “What is great is that
you don’t have to follow any law or rule. You feel you are the law,
you decide. Once you go into the Occupied Territories, you are God.”
One soldier told a story about seeing a four-year-old boy playing in
the sand in his front yard during a curfew in Rafah. The soldier says
his officer “grabbed the boy. He broke his hand here at the wrist,
broke his leg here. And started to stomp on his stomach, three times,
and left. We are all there, jaws dropping, looking at him in shock…
the next day I go out with him on another patrol, and the soldiers
are already starting to do the same thing.”
A few hours with the works of Goya will give one an idea of how the
French army behaved in Spain.
Against All Enemies
An occupation is not a war against an army, it is a war against all.
There are no front lines and no distinguishing uniforms, only an
ambush or a roadside bomb that strikes without warning.
And when one does, a veteran told Hedges, “people just open up.” A
roadside bomb in 2005 set off a massacre by U.S. Marines in Haditha
that killed 24 civilians. On March 4, 2007, following a suicide bomb,
Marines in Afghanistan went on a rampage that killed 12 civilians.
Occupation is only possible if the occupied are reduced to a category
that places them outside the boundaries of a shared humanity So the
Iraqis becomes “Hajji,” just as two generations ago the Vietnamese
became “Slopes.” The Israeli right routinely refers to the
Palestinians as “cockroaches.”
Soon, everyone becomes an enemy.
When U.S. helicopter gun ships killed 16 people October 23 in a small
northern Iraqi village near Tikrit, military officials said the dead
were insurgents, because many of them were “military-age males,” a
category that embraces about one-third of the population.
Not many “hearts and minds” were won this past October near Tikrit.
What Soldiers Do
But “winning over the population,” continues to be the illusion of
every occupier. Testifying before Congress, U.S. Defense Secretary
Robert Gates said, “Army soldiers can expect to be tasked with
reviving public services, rebuilding infrastructure, and promoting
And then there is the real world.
A survey conducted by the Office of the Surgeon General of the U.S.
Army Medical Command found that only 38% of Marines and 47% of Army
soldiers thought civilians should be treated with dignity. Some 55%
of Army soldiers and 40% of Marines said they would report the
killing of innocent civilians.
A recent ABC/BBC poll found that 78% of Iraqis say things are going
badly for the country as a whole, 47% support immediate U.S. troop
withdrawal while 79% oppose the presence of coalition forces, and 57%
support violence against coalition forces.
Those are the “algebraical factors” of occupation, and as Lawrence
concludes, “against them perfections of means and spirit struggle
quite in vain.”
Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.