Getting Swept

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The past couple weeks have been a hard time here in my home town of Cleveland, Ohio. Third Battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve unit headquartered just ten minutes from my house, lost 20 guys in two days in Iraq. It was a kick in the stomach for the whole city.

Those Marines were our neighbors and sometimes our friends. The battalion commander of 3/25 is an old friend of mine, from his days as a captain. Last winter, before they deployed, I held a seminar on Fourth Generation war for him and some of his officers and staff NCOs. The FMFM 1-A was barely in draft form then, but I did get them a pre-publication copy of John Poole’s Tactics of the Crescent Moon. It is probably the best thing out there on the Islamic way of war. I hope it helped. Like everyone in Cleveland, I am frustrated that there is so little we can do for our own guys over there.

There is one thing I can do, and that is use this column to raise a question: why are units such as 3/25 being used to conduct sweeps? It was on a sweep that the 14 Marines were killed when their Amtrack was hit. The battalion took a similar hit last May in another sweep.

I am not criticizing 3/25 here. The policy of conducting sweeps is set at a level far above battalion. Maybe these things are decided in the Emerald City in Baghdad, maybe in Washington. In either case, it is in some vast headquarters where everything is reduced to Powerpoint briefs and spoon-fed to generals who know more about promotion politics than they do about war.

Why do I say that? Because anyone who knows anything about counter-insurgency warfare knows that sweeps don’t work. In a sweep, a conventional military unit, designed to fight other units like itself, is sent into bad guy country. It is not going to stay there; it’s just passing through. Inevitably, the insurgents know for days if not weeks beforehand when and where it is coming. Most of the bad guys simply leave. Enough stay behind to set some ambushes and plant mines and booby-traps. The unit doing the sweep comes through like ducks in a shooting gallery. It gets hit, sometimes hard. Maybe it picks up a few insurgent weapons dumps. Typically, it rounds up any young men it finds as "possible insurgents" (units like 3/25 now report that they find no young men on their sweeps — no surprise). Then it leaves. The insurgents come back. Nothing has changed, except places like Cleveland hold a lot of military funerals. In the end, it’s us that gets swept.

So why do we keep doing it? Beyond the facts that many of our generals are military idiots and more are politicians in uniform, the standard answer is that we don’t have enough troops in Iraq to occupy the place. That is true. But instead of wasting the troops we do have by conducting sweeps, why don’t we adopt the "ink-blot strategy" where we can? Deriving from British experience in Malaya and what American Special Forces and Marines did in the early stages of the Vietnam war (and it was working when we abandoned it), the ink-blot strategy uses however many troops we’ve got to come into an area and stay. They move right into the towns and villages. They live with the local people. They provide long-term security, so local people can work with us without getting their throats cut three days later once we’ve gone.

No, we do not have enough troops to do this in all of Sunni Iraq. But we can start with part of it. Yes, that will give the insurgents a free hand elsewhere, for a time. But sweeps don’t change that fact; they only change the appearance, which may be what is wanted for briefings back in Washington but means nothing on the ground. Over time, our ink-blots can slowly expand, as areas become genuinely secure and can be turned over to someone else (probably local militias willing to take American dollars).

The root problem here is one I have pointed to many times before: the seeming inability of the American military’s higher echelons to learn. The officers and men of units like 3/25 learn and adapt quickly. But our vast, overstaffed and underled headquarters seem to live on another planet. They don’t learn from the experiences of others, through history, and they also don’t learn from the experience of 3/25 and other similar units. They just keep ordering the same failed tactics, like sweeps or dropping bombs on populated towns and cities, over and over again. I’m not a psychologist, but I believe that is a traditional symptom of neurosis.

Yet on another level their behavior is rational. American generals become senior commanders by pleasing politicians. They please politicians by telling them what they want to hear. The Bush administration wants to be told that what we are doing is working, so that is what the generals tell them. And it’s so much easier to tell someone else that it’s working if you believe it yourself. It all makes perfect sense — in a closed-system fantasy-land that has no relationship whatever to the war units like 3/25 are fighting.

If the people of Cleveland and other places like Cleveland ever figure out what’s really going on, there’s going to be hell to pay. Anger is a short step from grief.

William Lind [send him mail] is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity.

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