Publisher’s Note: I’d like to thank my former student, Douglas Bryant, for the ideas that inspired this essay. -BB
“Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.”
– Richard W. Paul
“Orthodoxy is a relaxation of the mind accompanied by a stiffening of the heart.”
– Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
War and conflict are about angles both kinetically and philosophically.
Parallax is the change or movement in the appearance of an object that occurs when viewing it from different perspectives. The parallax gap exists where the differences between two points of view cannot be bridged: where no coherent whole can make sense of both perspectives. Below, I extend the metaphor of the parallax gap to elucidate two failures in contemporary counterinsurgency warfare and in the larger framework, the neo-imperialist project of the West.
The first is a gap between the ethical norms of the citizens of the United States and the types of conflicts they believe they can solve with military power. The second gap is that between the counterinsurgency goal of gaining the support of the population with a better narrative than that offered by the insurgency, and the religious mind of the true believer and circumstances of average civilians for whom that narrative is not a live option.
The First Gap
Why is it that Saddam Hussein was able to prevent civil war in Iraq while the US could not do so before the surge and may not be able to now that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended and Operation New Dawn has begun? The short answer is that Saddam Hussein was willing to do things that the United States is not—things the US considers to be unethical and therefore unacceptable. Yet. The US limits its military options by its ethical norms, and it is not unique in doing so. However, it may be the case that there are certain conflicts in certain areas that the US cannot win with these limitations, and this possibility remains largely unacknowledged in the US. This should inform the nomenklatura in the US foreign policy and offense establishment on the ultimate feasibility of many of the conflicts it engages in and fights it picks. On the contrary, American faith in the military to win all conflicts is entrenched.
This, in spite of a track record of dismal failure in all its overseas adventures since the end of The War to Save Josef Stalin. One might also note that the Allied victory in WWII was a result of the wholesale commitment of Roosevelt’s precious Communist state in defeating the Axis powers. If you doubt the Soviet contribution to Japanese defeat apart from the Western sideshow starting in June 1944 on the Continent, take a look at the astonishing calculus of forces arrayed in August 1945 in the Russo-Japanese War II commencing on 9 August 1945 and culminating in a devastating defeat of Japanese forces. One wonders at the astonishing coincidence of these army operations within days of the dropping of the American atomic bombs. But a look at the deep penetration of the American executive decision complex established by both active Soviet agents and useful idiots in the foul and corrupt Roosevelt administration may offer some insight into how that could happen. I would also suggest that the nuclear decimation of the two Japanese cities was a signal to the Soviets about a new boss in town by Truman more so than a bargaining mechanism to get the Japanese to surrender. The Japanese had been seeking a conditional surrender since January 1945.
Accordingly, the US finds itself in “nation-building” and counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and increasingly in Yemen, Libya and the Horn of Africa. Ironically, these conflicts can never be won; they are not willing to sacrifice the time, treasure, or bodies victory demands according to the neoconservative brain trust and their collectivist carrion-trust throughout the administration this being Bush’s fourth term.
David Galula argues “a ratio of force of ten or twenty to one between the counterinsurgent and the insurgent is not uncommon when the insurgency develops into guerrilla warfare.” Galula later explains that victory is nearly assured if the counterinsurgency can “saturate the entire country with garrisons,” but short of this. Galula is rather statist and bloodthirsty but he has a point. Look at the rational force ratio required by nation states to engage insurgents whether the Allies chasing their tails after Vorbeck in Africa during WWI or the British string of disasters in the 20th century pursuing the changing permutations of the Irish rebellion after 1916. An academic could make his name if he tried to piece together the extraordinary rippling from Western efforts to remake the third world after 1918.
Absent the resources the military requires to defeat the insurgency, it can do little more than delay the inevitable until the US is disgusted enough with the casualties and costs to withdraw. So the unitary military hyper-power shambles from one pathetic but extraordinarily example military debacle to another.
The Second Gap
The counterinsurgent force cannot win without the support of the population. To gain this support the US must convince the citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan and every other neo-imperialist tar-pit that it can protect them from religious and ethic militias, and in Afghanistan it must convince civilians that it can protect them from the Taliban, IS and every other resistance organization supported over a permeable border. Unfortunately, the US has too often operated like a chess player who only prepares for a tournament by training for checkers. As Galula again explains, in a counterinsurgency “a mimeograph machine may turn out to be more useful than a machine gun, a soldier trained as a pediatrician more important than a mortar expert, cement more wanted than barbed wire, clerks more in demand than riflemen.”
This early failure to recognize the population as the center of gravity had multiple negative effects. Not only was the population unable to trust the US to provide protection, but it also was often prodded into joining the insurgency by US actions that end up maiming and killing women and children. The insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are diverse groups among which true believers are often the minority. What must also be considered are those who join out of economic necessity or merely to protect their families from the very insurgents they have joined. In addition are those who joined because the US killed their family members in an air strike or stormed into their home in the night and humiliated them in front of their families.
Unfortunately, the US has often failed to provide the population with a winning narrative or take its predicament seriously. This has led to creating insurgents faster than they can be killed. For a population to be supportive it must be more angry at the enemy than afraid of it—more desirous to get into heaven than to get out of hell. That is to say, the population must not be so concentrated on day-to-day survival that it cannot think about or contribute to defeating the insurgency.
Just as the US fails to understand the population and often incentivizes it to join the insurgency rather than the counterinsurgency, the US also fails to understand the resilience of the enemy. Tertullian’s claim in AD 197 that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” is just as applicable to Islamists as to all fundamentalist theological metaphysicians. This acknowledgement, that the true believers cannot be persuaded otherwise, has led to the conclusion that they must simply be captured or killed. Unfortunately, this has often only recruited other true believers to the fight, either as foreign fighters entering Iraq or Afghanistan, or by becoming independent or provincial insurgents. While counter-terror operations must be conducted to some extent, what has been neglected is the war of ideas, the pitting of one narrative against another. The gap between the narrative and cause offered by the US and what the native populations of Iraq and Afghanistan are able to accept remains unbridged.
Under these conditions, the US should pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan immediately. To stay is only to fight a battle impossible to win and to lose further men, women, and treasure in doing it. Plenty of deaths in these countries were largely the result of sectarian warfare, but it was the US invasion and disastrously managed occupations that unleashed those forces and rippled the Middle East. The US government fails to offer any credible counter narrative in the region buttressed by the huge underground river or resentment any occupation causes in a country or region. The US and the West will lose but worst of all, every evil deed and bad policy will return to the home countries to roost and fester. The United Kingdom is Exhibit A of an evil empire abroad that tucks its claws into its subject population once extracted from the corpses of its extant empire.
The US government continues its mad rush to fiscal oblivion and the mistaken impression militarily that the US forces are a hammer and every opposing force is a nail.
All of this is coming home to America with a vengeance. But the parallax failure bodes well for the coming Endarkenment as the US government uses brutal methods domestically to swell the ranks for the incipient rebellions both brewing and unborn. Never put it past the stumbling colossus to make every error worse than it had to be.
Where’s the Tenth Man when you need him?
“Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land, they own and control the corporations that’ve long since bought and paid for, the senate, the congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pocket, and they own all the big media companies so they control just about all of the news and the information you get to hear. They got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else. But I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them.”
– George Carlin