Awaiting the Rebellion


101st at Tuy Hoa, 1966 (Photo: Jim Coyne)

When, one wonders, will mutiny begin among the troops in Iraq?

Recently I talked by email about the war with Jim Coyne, an airborne-infantry friend who served two tours as a gunship door-gunner in Viet Nam and then made a career in journalism. I asked, “Do they [I meant the officer corps, the official military] actually believe the optimistic twaddle this time around? Do they really not know what is happening?”

Jim’s response: “In my opinion, they really don’t know; they may not even want to know on some level. You know as well as I, these are mission-oriented folks; can do folks; failure and its introspective handmaidens are not options to them. And in a tactical mission-oriented world our military doesn’t really fail very often; in a strategic military/political world such as the Mideast and Iraq, however, we simply cannot win.

“Again, as in Viet Nam, the career officer corps salutes and marches toward the sound of battle. Eventually however (and it won’t be long now) it’s the grunts who will begin to revolt, first in small ways (as in the 101st in late 1968, ‘No sir. We are not going up that hill again.’) and then, quickly thereafter (As in 1973, "F___ you, asshole.") By that time the media may get wind of things and spin it exponentially out of control. That’s what I think.”

So do I.

We have two sharply differing versions of Iraq. One comes from the professional officers. It holds that the military is making progress and the insurgents losing ground. The Iraqi people love us and want the benefits that we will bring them. The increasing attacks by insurgents are signs of desperation. Things seem bad only because the media emphasize the negative. The officers see light at the end of the tunnel. The body counts are great; the bad guys can’t much longer take the pounding we are giving them. Onward and upward.

The other view comes from enlisted men (and from a lot of reporters before being edited to say whatever the publisher believes). These assert that the Iraqis hate us and we, them; that the insurgency is growing in strength, that we are not making progress but going backward, that our tactics don’t work and we can’t win.

The pattern is so common in recent wars as to be routine. The enlisted men know that the US is losing. The officers do not know it, or refuse to know it. This will eventually have consequences.

When men die pointlessly in a war they know cannot be won and that means nothing to them, when they realize that they are dying for the egos of draft-dodging politicians safe in Washington—they will revolt. It happened before. It will happen again. But when? Next year, I’d guess.

It is important to understand that officers and enlisted men are very different animals. For example, enlisted men do things (drive the tank, repair the helicopter) whereas officers are chiefly administrators. But the important difference is psychological. Enlisted men are blue-collar guys or technicians. They carry little ideological overburden. They want to fix the tank or finish the field exercise and then go drink beer and get laid.

Above all, they are realists. If the new radio doesn’t work, or Baghdad turns out to be a tactically irresolvable nightmare, the enlisted guys feel very little urge to pretend otherwise. This is why officers do not like reporters to be alone with the troops. And they seriously don’t.

The standard response of the officer corps is that the troops cannot see the Big Picture. (Unless of course the enlisteds say what the officers want to hear, in which case their experience on the ground lends irresistible authority). But the Big Picture rests on the Little Picture. If a soldier sees slow disaster where he is, and hears the same thing from guys he meets from everywhere else in the country, his conclusions will not be without weight. Sooner or later, on his third tour with a pregnant wife at home and seven friends killed by bombs, he will say, in the crude but expressive language of soldiers, “f___ this s__t.”

By contrast, officers can’t conclude anything but the positive. There are several reasons. Career officers, first, are politicians. You don’t get promoted by saying that the higher-ups are otherworldly incompetents. An officer’s loyalty is to his career, and to the officer corps, not to the country or to his troops. If this sounds harsh, note how seldom an active-duty officer will criticize policy, yet when he retires he may suddenly discover that said policy resulted in unnecessary deaths among the troops. Oh? Then why didn’t he say so when it would have saved lives?

There is a curious moral cowardice among officers. They will fly dangerous missions over Baghdad, but they won’t say that things aren’t going well. They don’t go against their herd.

Further, and I want to say this carefully, officers often are not quite adults. They can be (and usually are) smart, competent, dedicated, and physically brave, and some are exceedingly hard men. But there is a simple-mindedness about them, an aversion to the handmaidens of introspection, a certain boyishness as in kids playing soldier. A lot of make-believe goes into an officer’s world. Enlisted men, grown up, see things as they are. Officers are issued a world by the command and then live in it.

Note the heavy emphasis of the military, meaning the officer corps, on ritual and pageantry. It is adult kid-stuff. Three thousand men building a skyscraper just show up, do their jobs, and go home. The military wants its men standing in squares, precisely at attention, thumbs along the seams, with brass perfectly polished. It wants stirring music, snappy salutes, and the haunting tones of taps, “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full, sir.” This is justified as necessary for discipline. It isn’t. A gunny sergeant has no difficulty maintaining his authority without the hoop-la

Officers remind me of armed Moonies. There is the same earnestness, the same deliberate optimism-by-policy. Things are going well because doctrine says they are. An officer is as ideologically upbeat as Reader’s Digest, and as unreflective. This is the why they don’t learn, why the US is again flailing about, trying to fight hornets with elephant guns. “Yessir, can do, sir.” Well, sometimes, and sometimes not. It is not arrogance, more like a belief in gravitation.

And so we hear phrases that embody the eternal precedence of oo-rah! over realism: “There is no substitute for victory,” or “The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer,” or “Defeat is not an option.” But sometimes it is an inevitability.

I think Jim is right. Sooner or later, a unit won’t go up the hill again. Then it will be over.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.