Resurrecting a Modern Myth: "The Surge Is Working"

Back in the good old days of the Vietnam War, Gen. William Westmoreland, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara kept sending more troops into battle, calling it “escalation.” It was a term fraught with negative meaning, but capitalizing on the horrible public relations experience of that war, George Bush has since hired PR experts who have given it a new name, i.e., “surge.” It sounds much better, and–despite the horrors of what’s happening in Iraq–Bush and his political clone, John McCain, are chanting the mantra, “the surge is working,” meaning the escalation is working. Senator McCain has come out for victory and against surrender in Iraq.

What Senator McCain means by “the surge is working” is that he sees America as winning the war in Iraq and therefore, in order to finalize the victory there, we shouldn’t stop what we are doing. Aside from never explaining what he means by “winning the war,” McCain also hints that American casualties are way down because of the escalation. That chorus is intended to help him win the presidency this fall.

The Escalation and U.S. Casualties

In January of 2007, when Bush first announced his escalation, U.S. troop levels were at 132,000. By then the government had counted 3,044 dead Americans. Iraqi civilian deaths continued to mount, however.

By March 2007, U.S. troop strength had reached 152,000. On March 27, 2008 Senator McCain told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “General Petraeus goes out there every day in an unarmed humvee…” But he later acknowledged that there is no such thing as an unarmored humvee.

In April 2007, U.S. troop levels had reached 160,000 soldiers. In June 2008, the American command acknowledged that it was arming and passing money to Sunni tribes formerly allied with al-Qaeda who, after the money was passed, have promised to fight their former allies alongside their former enemies–the U.S.

In September 2007, when Gen. David Petraeus told Congress that the escalation had largely met its military goals, U.S. troop strength had reached 168,000. By the following month, U.S. military casualties had dropped to levels that were lower than any before. For example, 37 U.S. soldiers died from combat in October; in November, 35 died; and in December 2007, 23 died. From January through July 2008, the U.S. lost 215 American soldiers to combat. That, obviously, is a relatively good thing, compared to the earlier, much heavier losses.

My preference would be no Americans lost–which would have been the case had Bush not lied in 2003, and invaded Iraq that year.

The drop in casualties has little or nothing to do with the escalation. But what neither McCain nor Bush is including in the “surge is working” mantra is a series of factors that more accurately explain the drop in casualties, a drop that has little or nothing to do with the escalation. In fact, the drop in casualty rates coincided with the near completion of the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis that the Shi’i militias had undertaken in Baghdad. In effect, the Sunni minority already had either been killed, had fled to other parts of Iraq, or had fled to Syria and to Jordan to save themselves and their families. Syria now has about 1.5 million Iraqis who are refugees from the killing fields in Iraq, and Jordan has about 750,000 such refugees. (As opposed to fewer than a thousand Iraqi refugees who have been admitted to the United States.)

To simplify the equation, there were very few Sunnis remaining to be killed who were within reach of the Shi’i militias.

Contributing to this milestone was the outright U.S. bribery of Sunni tribesmen in western Iraq, many of whom once had been allied with al-Qaeda and who made up the bulk of the insurgency, but who now are fighting alongside the Americans. The result of this positive change in strategy has been to drive al-Qaeda sympathizers into remote corners of Iraq and away from where U.S. troop strength is concentrated.

While it fortunately has brought down the number of American casualties, bribing these former enemies is itself a danger. No one knows what will happen should someone else come along and offer them more money. The danger is that they may not stay bribed and may turn on Americans again with the weapons General Petraeus has given them. But hopefully they will stay bribed, and that would also be a good thing. One wishes that General Westmoreland would have thought of that military strategy in Vietnam–”provided, that is, that the Communists were capable of being bribed.

The third factor accounting for the drop in U.S. deaths is the cease-fire called by Muqtada al-Sadr, which has been of great help in saving American lives. One must suppose that the cease-fire came about because of the departure from Baghdad of Sunni Iraqis–”people who were the targets of al-Sadr’s militia.

Far be it from me to accuse politicians of using wars and casualties to advance themselves politically, but, in short, Mr. Bush and Sen. McCain have manufactured the modern myth that escalating troop strength was the correct formula for Iraq, thus giving McCain the words to his song of “Obama was wrong.” In fact, Obama is wrong on a lot of issues, but he was right when he opposed the Iraq war and he was not wrong on the escalation.

McCain, however, has cleverly tried to turn his deadly mistake of supporting the Iraq war to his advantage by trumpeting that his policy decision has brought down American casualties. But neither Obama nor McCain is talking about the 32,000 wounded and maimed Americans, nor do they mention the several hundred thousand Iraqis who have died as a result of Bush’s invasion. It’s as though those dead Iraqis never existed. Supporters of the Iraq war are unable to see the wreckage of Iraqi lives caused by George W. Bush, the former fraternity boy, who has left to someone else the cleaning up of the terrible mess he’s made.

The suffering of tens of thousands of Iraqis and the killing of hundreds of thousands more are invisible–”invisible because of the silence of the mainstream American media as well as the silence of our politicians. That silence, that arrogance, and that refusal to see what has been done to Iraq and to the Middle East allows those people to argue for continuing a debilitating war until we reach some vague “victory,” where someone else suffers, but not them.