War Stories

Building a Better Occupation

The U.S. Army has made some smart moves in Iraq—and some blockheaded ones, too.

Seven months into the “postwar” occupation of Iraq, the U.S. Army is starting to do some imaginatively smart things, which might improve security and order—but it’s also doing some atrociously stupid things, which are bound to make things worse.

In the smart category, one of the Army’s heavy armored divisions is preparing for its imminent tour in Iraq by casting aside its heavy armor.

Armored divisions usually train for combat by speeding across rough terrain inside M1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, maneuvering with artillery battalions, then firing large-caliber shells at targets hundreds of yards away. But in recent days, the division was put through very different, far more brutal exercises—skirmishing with urban guerrillas, arresting popular agitators, containing angry mobs—and doing so on foot.

In other words, top-notch young men and women, expertly trained at what the Army does best, were learning how to act like Military Police, civil-affairs officers, or—stranger still—Marines.

Clearly, the past few months have shown that, while armor still has a place in urban warfare, the basic and dominant unit of counterinsurgency campaigns—for establishing a presence, mastering the terrain, rooting out bad guys, and getting to know good guys—is the foot soldier.

The Army’s heavy divisions have not proved so agile at this art in Iraq. The lighter divisions, such as the 101st Airborne, and the Marines have been more successful; their tactics have traditionally emphasized boots on the ground more than tank treads and convoys.

The armored division’s recent exercises suggest that at least some of the brass now understands this principle. This might be the first tangible sign of fresh thinking that’s taken hold since Gen. Peter Schoomaker   * was named Army chief of staff. Schoomaker, who had spent two years in retirement until Donald Rumsfeld lured him back into service, was a veteran of the “shadow soldiers”—rising to the post of commander in chief for U.S. Special Operations Forces—and thus spent much of his career cultivating the fine points of the sort of fighting that the Army is now facing.

Changing an institution’s mindset is a long, hard slog (to borrow a Rumsfeld phrase). The question of the hour is whether the change will sink in deep enough and fast enough to bring order to Iraq. But at least the change is set in motion.

Or at least so it seems, until we look at the latest development that’s actually happening on the ground. This is where the Army’s getting stupid. According to a remarkable piece by Dexter Filkins in Sunday’s New York Times, roughly 50 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. soldiers are “wrapping entire villages in barbed wire.” Iraqi residents can leave or enter town only if they show a specially issued ID card that’s printed in English only. Another new counterinsurgency tactic, adopted in the area, is to bombard whole buildings where guerrillas have reportedly been meeting and to arrest suspects’ relatives.

Both techniques have been employed by the Israeli army in its attempt to protect the settlements—with mixed results, at best. This is no mere coincidence. Filkins reports that American officers have recently traveled to Israel to be briefed on tactics in urban warfare.

This is bad business on two counts. First, it reinforces the myth, propagated by radical groups in the region, that the United States is waging a war against Islam. American officials showed they understood this danger earlier in the year—and during the first Gulf War in 1991—by going out of their way to keep Israel out of the conflict. Why are they so openly aligning with Israel—and emulating its methods—during the equally sensitive post-battlefield phase of this war?

Second, Israel is a poor model on substantive grounds. Even when such a heavy hand has succeeded at swatting foes in the short run, it has tended to alienate more Palestinians in the medium-to-long run. The idea is to isolate the guerrillas from the population, but the result is often to turn the population into guerrillas.

The U.S. Army has had its own woeful experiences with attempts at this strategy. In Vietnam, it was called the “hamlet” strategy. It didn’t work. In early 20th-century Philippines, the cordoned-off villages were called “concentration camps.” It did work in the Philippines, but only after two years of savage brutality, followed by 40 years of occupation—more time, at either task, than anyone wants to spend in Iraq.

The current phase of the Iraqi war is complicated. It requires American soldiers to kill a band of insurgents while, at the same time, a half-mile down the road, other American soldiers are fixing a water pump or painting a schoolhouse. In this sort of warfare, such strange anomalies are not just inevitable but appropriate.

However, the two activities shouldn’t work against each other. The soldiers shouldn’t blow up the water pump—or, to put it more concretely, shouldn’t tick off the same people that the new water pump is meant to please. It’s one thing for the left hand and the right hand to be doing different things. It’s another for the left hand to mangle the right hand’s fingers in the process. That’s what seems to be going on in Iraq now.

Correction, Dec. 8, 2003: This article originally referred to the Army chief of staff as a major general. In fact, Peter Schoomaker is a full four-star general. (Return to the corrected sentence.)