Tuesday, June 19, 2007

No Suribachis Here

Last year saw the release of two films directed by Clint Eastwood devoted to the Battle of Iwo Jima. The first, "Flags of Our Fathers," told the story of the US servicemen whose raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi was captured in a famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal. Its companion, "Letters from Iwo Jima," tells the story of Iwo Jima from the perspective of its Japanese defenders. Both films garnered critical acclaim, but it was the latter story that most vividly engaged the moviegoing public.

Why was this? Though many would argue (and I would agree) that, from an artistic perspective, "Letters from Iwo Jima" was a stronger film, I would assert that there is a further cause for its broader and more profound impact. Given the state of the world today and the current moment of US foreign affairs, "Letters from Iwo Jima" is a more topical and timely film for American audiences. Though "Flags of Our Fathers" was an artful and insightful work, it failed to strike a timely chord on two counts. Firstly, its central insight, that even during a righteous war the US government was not above the use of exploitive propoganda, is not a message that can surprise many Americans today. Secondly, the cinematic audience must sense that the key image of "Flags of Our Fathers" has little relevance to the current conflicts in which the US is embroiled. However cynically US leaders may have manipulated Joe Rosenthal's classic photo, it was nonetheless an unambiguous image of victory. After more than four years the conflict in Iraq has yielded no such image, and the realization is dawning that on the long road ahead one is not likely to materialize.

The relative anachronism of "Flags of Our Fathers" is contrasted by "Letters from Iwo Jima." The latter film's portrayal of the brutally self-annihilating defense by the Japanese Imperial Army resonates very poignantly with the destruction wrought by suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan today. "Letters" presents a mirror in which many of the same sociological forces at work in Iraq today may be seen reflected.

One of the tragic ironies of Iwo Jima is that Joe Rosenthal's famous photo was taken on the fourth day of fighting. That image, of the US flag flying at the highest point of the island, marked certain tactical victory for the US. With Suribachi in American hands there was no way that the Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima could prevail, yet the battle went on for another 31 days, the Japanese fighting on suicidally in the face of certain defeat. Almost 7,000 US servicemen died; more than 20,000 of the island's 22,000 Japanese defenders perished.

Why would the Japanese give their lives in such numbers to a lost cause? The answer is not in some deep cultural tradition of conformity or a cult of "bushido." Though patriotism was a factor for some, as "Letters" portrays, these nobler impulses can not be wholly seperated from an acute pathology that had seized Japanese state and society in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. War, revolution, colonialism, industrialization, the Great Depression, the perceived threat of communism, and the general corrosive shock of modernity had impacted Japanese society in such a way as to progressively entrench and institutionalize self-destructive values and imperatives. Japanese leaders and citizens had come to accept, despite some of their nation's most ancient traditions and deeply held values, that torture and terror were essential instruments of state control, that dissent must be quashed, that diplomacy was ineffectual, and that the mass suicidal sacrifice of the nation's youth was preferable to retreat, negotiation, or surrender. Whether or not the individual soldiers who died on Iwo Jima did so out of a sense of higher calling or personal conviction is not ultimately knowable. What can be asserted with relative certainty, however, is that the power structures that had taken hold in their homeland left them very little choice.

In similar fashion to pre-war Japan, chronic corrosive forces have impacted Iraqi society over the course of the twentieth century, and nihilistically self-destructive imperatives have achieved institutional purchase in elements of Iraqi society today. There is virtually no chance that Iraq will ever see a Sunni caliphate or a Shi'ite theocracy ensconced in Baghdad, yet bombings and murders continue on a daily basis in pursuit of these imaginaries. Unlike the Japanese Imperial Army, however, the destructive forces that create mayhem in Iraq cannot be defeated or defused through a sustained campaign of positional warfare.

Joe Rosenthal's photograph was so inspiring to the American public in 1945 because it visually encapsulated a tactical fact- the seizure of the highest point on Iwo Jima signified forward movement along a territorial trajectory that brought the US one step closer to victory. No such strategic logic is operable in Iraq. Coalition forces occupy the whole of Iraqi terrain, yet they are no closer to ending the insurgency today than they were four years ago.

The closest thing to a "Suribachi moment" that the Iraq crisis has yielded was the famous image of Saddam Hussein's statue being pulled down in Baghdad in the first weeks of the invasion. We now know all too well that that image did not signify an end to bloodshed and chaos, but a beginning. The great weakness of Saddam Hussein's regime was not best expressed in the image of his statue being pulled down, but in the need for the statue to be erected in the first place. Hussein's regime was pathological, to be sure, but its dissolution has only unleashed even more destructive and entropic forces that pulsed beneath its brutal facade and that now murderously rend the fabric of Iraqi society. These forces cannot be defused by the seizure of critical terrain, nor do institutions exist whose power can be harnessed (like that of the Japanese imperial throne) to bring violence to a halt. In the face of such realities Coalition forces cannot end the current crisis using the conventional tactics and strategies that brought down the Japanese Empire. New institutions must be created and new values established that can displace the destructive forces that hold Iraqi society in thrall. That is a victory that cannot be won on a battlefield by foreign soldiers, but can only be secured through an arduous and painstaking negotiation conducted amongst the Iraqis themselves.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Korea Delusion

Recent statements by Bush administration officials to the effect that the President envisions a "Korea model" for the future trajectory of US involvement in Iraq add a new dimension to the vast edifice of distortion, delusion, and sheer lunacy that is the Bush Iraq policy. Previously one had to guess (though Tom Englehart is right, one did not need to look hard to see the clear signs) at the Bush regime's plan to maintain a permanent US troop presence in Iraq. Now discussion of the "Korea model" has drawn the curtain away from Oz and revealed the Bush strategy in all its demented glory. The willful ignorance embodied in such invocations would be comic if it had not been, and did not continue to be, so tragically destructive of human life.

Bush's Korea fallacy is the product of a logical defect that, unfortunately, is not exclusive to him alone. Many American leaders and intellectuals share in it. The President and his advisers look around the world for historical "models" to draw upon in constructing Iraq policy, and in doing so they assume that any strategic situation the US currently inhabits is autonomously of American making. We conquered Japan, we turned it into a democracy, we remained in the archipelago to steward the newly democratic society we had created. We saved South Korea from Communist takeover, we remained on the Peninsula to see that it remained free.

Such thinking completely ignores the real roots of current US geostrategy in Asia. The US remains in Japan because the Japanese people want it there. In the wake of WWII demilitarization was a goal broadly embraced by the vast majority of Japanese across the political spectrum. There were critics of the strategic partnership into which Japan would ultimately enter with the US, but its most powerful opponents were not advocates of a remilitarized Japan that would take charge of its own strategic defense. Rather, opponents of alliance with the US wanted to see Japan become a ward of the UN and to have Japan's defense entrusted to a multinational force administered by the UN Security Council. Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru did not enter into the series of treaties that have structured US-Japanese relations ever since because he was bending to American will. Rather, he saw alliance with the US as the most pragmatic way to achieve the collectively desired Japanese goal of demilitarization (as, in his view, custodianship by the UN was a practical impossibility). If the collective political will of Japan had been determined to evict US soldiers from Japanese soil, there is no way that a significant US troop presence could have remained in Japan for the long run.

On those same principles, the US continues to garrison 37,000 soldiers in South Korea for one reason only- because the South Korean people tolerate their presence. Although successive postwar governments of South Korea have required a steady US troop presence in order to remain sovereign in the face of the threat from the North, such dependency has not robbed them of legitimacy in the eyes of South Korea's people. Because the citizens of South Korea generally accept the legitimacy of their government they are willing to tolerate a garrison of US soldiers as an unfortunate necessity until there is some dramatic change of the status quo in the North. If this were not true guerrilla attacks against US forces in Korea would be as frequent as they are in Iraq.

The Iraqi people as a whole will never tolerate a significant US troop presence to the degree that the people of South Korea do, and any cursory examination of the history of Iraq would demonstrate why. As brutal as the regime of Saddam Hussein was, the Sunni citizens of Iraq generally supported it and felt represented by it. The force that displaced Hussein will always remain suspect and hostile in the eyes of a significant proportion of Sunni society. Moreover, Iraqi Arabs more broadly, both Sunni and Shi'ite, will always harbor suspicions of and animosities toward the US because of Iraq's historical experience of colonialism. The US may never have directly colonized Iraq, but as a predominately English-speaking and Christian nation many Iraqis feel there is little to choose between the US and its ally Great Britain, a country that did ruthlessly exploit Iraq as a quasi-colony in the wake of WWI. It does not help the US case that our President Woodrow Wilson did not promote self-determination for Arab-speaking former Ottoman colonies with the same fervor or effect as he did for the European colonies of the Austro-Hungarian and German empires, thus abandoning the people of the Middle East to the tender mercies of the French and British.

These historical grievances are compounded by more recent trends. Many Iraqis are angered by the role the US plays in supporting Israel and its lack of either interest or success in promoting the claims of the Palestinians for a sovereign homeland. Though Israel/Palestine is a very visible and emotional issue, perhaps of even more significance to Iraqis is the US role in the development of the petroleum industry throughout the Middle East. In nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait the US has provided technological and political support to narrowly despotic and regressive regimes in return for a share in the profits from private exploitation of oil resources and steady access to cheap free-market petroleum. Iraq has historically resisted this model of development, preferring a mixed economy in which petroleum resources were largely state-owned and nationally managed. Suspicion of the US in this regard is not exclusively "guilt by association" with past policies. Bush spokespeople have trumpeted their concern about the "failure" of Iraqi parliamentarians to draft and pass a law mandating the disposition of oil revenues in a federal Iraq, but such protestations elide the role of the US itself in hindering an effective compromise. US officials have insisted that Iraqi law structure the petroleum industry on free-market principles and allow US companies to participate in and profit from the development of Iraq's oil resources, a self-serving position that flies in face of long Iraqi trends going back to before the Hussein era.

In addition, the problematic relationship between the US and Iran precludes the presence of US troops becoming routine or legitimate for much of Iraqi society. Though the position of the Shi'ite clergy is a contested issue even among Shi'ite Iraqis, the institution is broadly revered and enjoys sweeping authority. The deep historical ties between the ulama of Iraq and Iran are not severable, thus as long as the US remains in a rhetorical battle with Iran's theocrats it will be viewed by many Iraqis, even some who agree with many aspects of US policy, with ambivalence and/or hostility.

Thus, though not all Iraqis are violently anti-American, suspicion and animosity toward the US is prevalent through a broad enough spectrum of Iraqi society to make a "Korea model" completely unworkable in Iraq. No Baghdad government that depends upon or even tolerates a large US troop presence in Iraq will ever enjoy sufficient authority to stabilize and pacify Iraqi society. As long as US soldiers remain on Iraqi soil a critical mass of Iraqis will remain irreconcilably opposed to the regime in power. These forces are never likely to possess the power to forcibly drive the US out of Iraq or overthrow the regime in Baghdad, but they will have enough support (some active, some tacit) in Iraqi society to fight on and keep Iraq in perpetual turmoil until such time as US troops depart.

The only way to defuse such forces is to remove the proximal condition that feeds their base of support- US troops. A plan to garrison Iraq a la South Korea is a plan to condemn Iraq to unending torment. The fact that President Bush and his advisors did not recognize this fact before invading Iraq was a shame, the fact that they still do not do so after more than four years of crisis is beyond a disgrace. All patriotic Americans on any part of the political spectrum should rise up to decry the folly of Bush policy on this score. Those who would defend Bush leadership in the face of such grotesque fallacies must be deemed either ignorant or disdainful of the best interests of the nation.