The 2003 invasion of Iraq was not the first time in history that a western army won decisive military victories in the Middle East and then found itself bogged down in a tenacious guerilla war. As the military historian Archer Jones noted in his book, “The Art of War in the Western World”, the same fate befell Alexander the Great 2,500 years earlier. After winning decisive victories against the Persian army in two major battles, he found himself unable to defeat the tribes of northern Afghanistan:
(Alexander’s) opponents essentially followed a raiding strategy, attacking his outposts and, except for their strong points avoiding contact with large contingents of his army…they sought to avoid strong Macedonian forces, concentrating on overwhelming weak detachments and then withdrawing.
(Alexander) established and garrisoned a large number of fortified military posts throughout the settled part of the county…although the measures taken by the Macedonians strengthened the defense… they failed to prevent the guerillas raids. The invaders had too few soldiers to stop the raids in a large country in which the guerillas had political support among the population.
Alexander was the first of the great conqueror-generals of western history. But the classic description of how a war of occupation should be conducted – one that was read by every British schoolboy learning his Latin in the era of the British Empire and by every modern graduate of West Point — is Julius Caesar’s narrative of his conquest of Gaul. Caesar’s dispatches to the Roman senate about his campaigns in what is now France, Belgium and Germany provided a model that all subsequent generals sought to emulate.
Western Europe in Caesar’s time was a vast patchwork of small tribes, each controlling areas of one hundred or two hundred square miles, along with some 20 or 30 much larger cultural groups. Caesar, in contrast, had only a handful of legions under his command. But the Roman legion was a formidable fighting force that could routinely defeat Gallic armies two, three or four times its size. It was a highly trained and disciplined formation of about 5,000 men that could fight as a single cohesive unit, standing literally shoulder to shoulder, or it could quickly divide into smaller groups that could maneuver and battle independently. A Roman legion could march all day at a pace almost twice as fast as most of its opponents and then build a walled, fortified camp before the sun had set. Roman military technology was far in advance of Gallic techniques and included the ability to build river spanning bridges, catapult artillery, siege towers and vast encircling walls around resisting Gallic cities within a matter of days.
But with only four legions when he began, Caesar could not hope to control the vast region from the Italian Alps to the English Channel by sheer military force alone. The key to his strategy was a complex network of alliances with some Gallic tribes and the deliberate fomenting of conflict between others – a method the Romans called divide et impera — divide and rule.
As the leading military monograph on Caesar’s Gallic campaign notes:
(Caesar’s) task was made easier by the inability of the Gallic tribes to unite to form a combined resistance to the invaders. Indeed some tribes supported the Romans, and the Romans played one tribe off against another, exploiting the territorial ambitions of different Gallic tribes and even political divisions within tribes.
Caesar (who frequently referred to himself in the third person in his dispatches) described one such maneuver as follows:
He (Caesar) impressed upon Diviciacus the Aeduan the importance, alike for Rome and the general safety of Gaul, of preventing the junction of the various enemy contingents, in order to avoid the necessity of fighting such powerful forces at once. He explained that the best way of effecting this was for the Aedui to invade the land of the Bellovaci and start devastating it.
In fact, reading Caesar’s dispatches is almost like looking over the shoulder of a skilled chess player as he moves his pieces – legions, garrisons and allies – across a map of Western Europe, placing garrisons at strategic locations, rapidly moving troops to quell outbreaks of rebellion and negotiating a careful network of alliances and “treaties of friendship” with tribal leaders. Caesar’s readers in the Roman senate were engrossed by his descriptions of how he maintained control over such a vast territory with his relatively small force.
Three features of Caesar’s Gallic campaign stand out as key characteristics that reappear in later empire-building military campaigns.
First is the remarkable sense of utter self-righteousness and superiority with which Caesar conducted his campaigns. Caesar was actually quite sympathetic to the motivations of the tribes who opposed him, noting at one point that “all men naturally love freedom and hate servitude” and that “tribes which were considered the bravest and most warlike in the world naturally felt bitter resentment at the complete loss of this reputation which submission to Roman rule entailed”. But he sees it as so completely self-evident that Rome should dominate the Gallic peoples that it does not require discussion. He takes great care to present himself as a reliable ally and merciful conqueror, but there is no question in his mind that the Gallic peoples must ultimately be forced to submit to Roman control.
The second notable feature of Caesar’s campaign is his complete and routine acceptance of systematic brutality and massive reprisals. Regarding one tribe, Caesar notes:
He (Caesar) resolved to make an example of them in order to teach the natives to be more careful in future about respecting the rights of ambassadors; he had all their councilors executed and the rest of the population sold as slaves.
Every village and every building they saw was set on fire; all over the country the cattle were either slaughtered or driven off as booty; and the crops, a part of which had already been laid flat by the autumnal rains were consumed by the great numbers of horses and men. It seemed certain therefore that even if some the inhabitants had escaped for the moment by hiding, they must die of starvation.
The starvation of civilian populations was, in fact, a standard method of Roman imperial warfare, as was the selling of entire defeated populations as slaves. Although Caesar at times expresses regret that the rebelliousness of the Gauls obliges him to commit these acts, there is no question in his mind that they are a natural and necessary part of maintaining order.
The final characteristic of Caesar’s Gallic campaign that reappears in later conquests is the calm acceptance of the idea that in wars of this kind, an actual state of “peace” can never really be achieved. All a conqueror realistically seeks is to limit the warfare to a perpetual series of low-level rebellions that must be constantly combated. In the Gallic case, battles between Romans and Gauls had been occurring for over a century before Caesar arrived on the scene and it was not until well into the reign of the first Emperor Augustus that Gaul was considered pacified. Even then, periodic rebellions still occurred for another century.
After the decline of Rome, the next great colonial empire created by the strategy of divide et impera was the conquest of the New World. The conqueror of Mexico, Hernan Cortez, even more then Caesar, exploited the skillful use of the strategy to seize control of the country with only a literal handful of conquistadors. Although his victory is frequently credited to his European weapons – a small number of muskets and cannon – the most detailed modern account of his politico-military strategy – Mexican historian Jaime Montell Garcia’s La Conquista De Mexico-Tenochtitlan – makes it abundantly clear that it was the skillful series of alliances he negotiated with the other indigenous cultures subjugated by the Aztecs that were of greater importance. The vast majority of the fighting during the conquista, in fact, actually occurred between different native cultures with the conquistadores playing only a relatively minor military role.
Divide and Rule played a similarly important role in the creation of the British Empire, particularly in India, which was a vast mosaic of languages, religions, ethnicities and cultures. One particularly vivid expression of the British approach was expressed by an artillery officer who said “I seek to have a different and rival spirit in my different regiments so the Sikh might fire into Hindoo, and the Goorkha into either, without any scruple in case of need”
In two respects these later empires followed the Caesarian pattern. First, both the Spanish and British had a similarly firm belief in the utter righteousness of their cause – the former saw themselves as saving the Aztecs from the flames of hell, the latter as saving the Indians from the darkness of ignorance and superstition. Second, both colonial powers were fully willing to use systematic brutality and massive reprisals to enforce their rule. Names like “The Black Hole of Calcutta” and visual images like the illustrations of the methods of torture used against rebellious Indians in Fray Diego De Landa’s Condicion de Los Indios de la Nueva Espana have come down to the present day as reminders of what were considered “normal” and “acceptable” methods for suppressing native rebellion.
But in another respect the Spanish empire in the new world and the British Empire in India departed dramatically from the Caesarian model. Unlike Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, both Spain and Britain did indeed fundamentally transform the indigenous cultures of the countries they conquered, imposing West European culture on top of the native economic, political and social systems. By the 20th century to most people it seemed entirely “normal” or “natural” that Mexicans should speak Spanish rather than Nahuatl or Indians English rather than Hindi.
Yet, it is important to recognize that this transformation was extremely long and vastly complex. The Spanish and British colonial administrations directly controlled the two nations’ school systems, legal systems (courts, prisons), civil service and major economic institutions. And yet it took at least 50 and more like 100 years for a major sociocultural transformation to occur.
On reflection, it is clear why this would necessarily be so. In sociological and anthropological terms fundamental cultural change is best understood as a process that occurs not over a period of years or decades but over generations. For the first 20 or 30 years after a conquest, there are still many people who remember the previous culture in which they grew up and which continues to seem “normal” or “natural” to them, even if they are militarily subjugated by a foreign power. It is only as generational replacement brings in new generations who grow up, go to school, find work, marry, have children and pay taxes in a culture that is increasingly Spanish or British dominated that a fundamental social- psychological transformation gradually occurs.
Seen in the light of this historical background, the current strategy of Bush, Cheney and Petraeus in Iraq now finally begins to make sense.
On the one hand, as we have seen, U.S. strategy during the last year fits neither a “classic counterinsurgency” framework nor a “temporary cease-fire leading directly to stability” perspective. It is therefore almost comforting to find that there is actually a very different military strategy that is driving our current actions.
In fact, it is quite clear that the actual military strategy America has been following since last spring has been a “hedge our bets” variant of the classic divide et impera – simultaneously paying salaries to the Sunni resistance, declaring our support for the ISIR/Badr government of Nori al Maliki and honoring a prolonged cease-fire with the Madhi Army (even though this last step gave them the chance to resupply, reequip and consolidate support in the economically vital south).
These contradictory actions make absolutely no sense as normal counterinsurgency tactics (which call instead for maintaining “unrelenting pressure” on the minority of insurgent “bad actors”) nor as standard UN style peacekeeping (which would not endorse massively subsidizing the arms purchases of probable future belligerents). But they make perfect sense as elements of a spur of the moment divide et impera adopted under the pressure of events.
And in fact, in larger perspective, a neo-Caesarian divide et impera imperial strategy has actually been the real, underlying “shadow strategy” that has guided the Bush Administration’s actions in the Middle East since before 2001. The basic outlines of this strategy were to (1) invade, occupy and pacify Iraq, (2) build an extensive and robust infrastructure of military bases in the country and then (3) use those bases as the staging areas for air strikes, commando-style raids, large airmobile operations and even full scale, Brigade and Division-level armored ground attacks on targets in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and anywhere else in the region Administration policy might deem necessary.
There was nothing particularly secret about this strategy. That part of it which was not published in think-tank monographs and magazine articles in the conservative journals between 1996 and 2003 was gleefully blurted out over cappuccinos and canapés to solid progressive journalists like Josh Marshall, John Judis and others who then dutifully reported virtually all of its major elements to their readers. Many of the Neo-conservatives’ power-point slides which showed the likely targets of future military actions could be overlaid almost exactly over a map of Alexander the Great’s major military campaigns.
It was the general awareness of this Neo-Caesarian “shadow strategy” operating behind the scenes that gave the press coverage of the Iraq invasion its weird, Kabuki Theater character. Journalists were universally aware that the date for the invasion had been set the previous fall, based on the predicted optimal temperature and weather conditions in southern Iraq and Bagdad, and yet they earnestly reported “shocking” new discoveries that supposedly provided the missing “smoking gun” that suddenly proved an invasion was necessary. Leading Administration spokesmen and defenders confidently declared themselves totally unfazed when their most basic predications turned out to be totally false (e.g. that we would be greeted as “liberators” or that “secular” Iraqis would not sink into sectarian civil war) and quickly began to be quoted as “the leading experts” once again. In fact, everybody knew that their monumental errors in judgment were not really important because they were only part of the superficial PR packaging of the invasion and not part of the fundamental long-term military strategy.
In the view of the neoconservatives and the administration, in fact, the Neo-Caesarian shadow strategy has actually been a solid success. A substantial American military presence in Iraq has become an international fait accompli and a massive network of 70 bases, 38 major supply depots, 18 fuel storage centers, 10 ammunition dumps. 1,900 tanks, and armored vehicles, 700 aircraft and 43,000 trucks has been created.
The recent elevation of General Petraeus to head the Central Command for the Middle East and Central Asia – replacing a general who was not sufficiently enthusiastic about using Iraq-based, American forces to threaten and if necessary attack Iran — is, in effect, the formal recognition of this Neo-Caesarian divide et impera shadow strategy as the basis for the future US military role in the Middle East.
There are a vast range of moral, political and diplomatic objections that can be raised against this Neo-Caesarian strategy. For the moment, however, it is important to focus on its purely military aspect.
There are three important lessons from previous wars of occupation and empire that suggest that ultimately this strategy is likely to fail.
First, we have far too few troops to actually achieve either of the two major post-invasion objectives that the original strategy was designed to achieve – to seriously win the “hearts and minds” of the people in Iraq and to have available a large enough military force to successfully launch a substantial military incursion into Iran.
The military force that would be necessary to accomplish these objectives goes far beyond the military’s immediate problems of overextended troop rotations and maintaining proper military reserve levels in other areas of the world. Fully achieving either one of the objectives above would require something like a hundred thousand additional troops at the barest minimum — and achieving both objectives would require hundreds of thousands, particularly if – as it should be – the Powell Doctrine of requiring overwhelming and disproportionate force would be followed rather than gambling on operations using barely adequate or less than adequate forces.
Second, unlike previous empires, America is constrained by global media oversight and world opinion from using extreme tactics of reprisal and massive retaliation that have often proven brutally effective in the suppression of other guerilla wars (In the post-war period French tactics in Algeria became notorious for their systematic brutality, for example, while in Central America death squads, mass executions and the destruction of entire villages were endemic). The advocates of this approach (who tend to have nicknames like “blowtorch Bob” or “piano-wire Bill”) grumble mightily about cowardly half-measures, but the regular U.S. military itself is sufficiently aware of the catastrophic effect on Arab and Moslem opinion of events like Abu Ghirab and indiscriminate civilian casualties to think that the trade-off can today be worthwhile in purely military terms.
Third, without Americans taking a major direct role in running the country, we will not significantly westernize Iraq’s culture. To significantly reduce culturally sanctioned corruption, near-universal ethnic and religious sectarianism and tribal nepotism, pervasive anti-American ideological indoctrination in the schools and systematic indifference to western notions of legal rights and justice, the historical evidence indicates that a full-scale colonial administration – covering the civil service, school systems and police and court systems – would be required for an extended period of years. Otherwise the examples of Lebanon and the occupied territories under the PLO suggest that even after one or more decades there may be little cultural change.
Therefore, given the limited forces currently at our disposal and our unwillingness to use extensive brutality or direct colonial administration, what we are left with is a strategy that will end up looking very much like Julius Caesar’s continually improvised, “putting out one fire after another ” approach in the conquest of Gaul – regularly dispatching troops from one area to another to put down a city-wide rebellion in one place and then having to redeploy them to battle resurgent guerilla activity somewhere else. Equally, while we do have the forces to make a temporary raid or launch an aerial bombing campaign against Iraq , we do not have enough to achieve the long-term occupation of any major Iranian city much less the overthrow of the government as a whole. (Caesar actually conducted several brief harassing raids into Germany during his Gallic campaigns but never attempted to make any major incursions because he considered his forces far too meager).
Now there is no doubt that, if it wished to do so, The US is financially and demographically able to decide upon a massive national mobilization – one that would bring back the draft, deploy 750,000 troops in the Middle East, formally make a commitment to stay 30 or 40 years and be willing to accept ongoing casualties for that entire time. This would be a militarily realistic set of steps to propose in order to guarantee the achievement of the two objectives above. But with our currently limited forces, it is not at all clear what the sacrifices American troops are being asked to make are really going to achieve.
In the current election campaign, John McCain is offering extravagant promises of creating a peaceful, happy Iraq with just our current level of forces. But he offers no plausible explanation for how this can actually be achieved. Pro-military voters may admire McCain’s values and character, but they also take military strategy seriously enough to recognize when they are being given the run-around. The Democrats need to offer pro-military voters an alternative military strategy – one that they can examine side by side with the Republican strategy and decide for themselves simply makes more sense.