Saturday, 30 May 2015

Military force: limited, however great it may be

It’s hard to understand what prevents the United States understanding that, faced with a popularly supported insurrection of a majority of a population, even the most powerful military force on earth can only ever gain a temporary advantage.

What happens is that an occupying military force tends to alienate even those who are initially sympathetic to its aims. Foreign soldiers aren’t good at distinguishing between their enemies from their friends within a civilian population. They tend, therefore, to treat them all as hostile. And treating people as hostile generally means treating them badly, imposing martial law, for instance, denying their rights, even confiscating their property, and generally being arrogant, high-handed and brutal.

The result is that disaffection grows. What might have been a relatively small, localised antipathy quickly spreads, so that ultimately large swaths of the population are at least passive opponents, so that even if they don’t join the active insurgents, they don’t resist them and may even succour them. This affects every part of the occupied nation. Even those who are drafted in to support the occupiers, in some kind of locally recruited military force, lose their stomach for the fight or even worse, turn against their erstwhile allies.

They’re often quick to spot what’s happening themselves. Here’s a comment from one officer in a locally raised militia, on the behaviour of his supposed allies, and its effect on alienating the support they were initially offered.

… the people in general are becoming indifferent, if not averse, to a government which in place of the liberty, prosperity, safety and plenty, under promise of which it involved them in this war, has established a thorough despotism.

What’s got me thinking about these things?

It could have been the fall of Ramadi in Iraq. Units of the national army, exhausted and their enthusiasm worn thin, eventually collapsed in the face of the advance of ISIS, which occupied the large and strategically vital city earlier this month. There are reports of a counter-attack making some progress, but there’s clearly a hard battle ahead. Meanwhile, the civilian population is suffering the brutality that comes with ISIS rule. The Dubya-Blair assumption that all they had to do was overthrow Saddam Hussein by military force, to usher in a friendlier and democratically-inclined regime in Iraq, has been exposed as massively misguided.

The ruins of Palmyra: memento of an Empire
Now occupied by ISIS
Alternatively, the fall of Palmyra in Syria could have prompted my thoughts on this theme. Palmyra is one of the great cultural centres of the world. At one point, it stood at the heart of an Empire which for a time resisted the power of the Romans. The remains of that culture are a precious world heritage. ISIS have occupied that city too and, though they’re promising to respect the ruins, there’s no guarantee that they will. And meanwhile the civilian population is suffering the brutality that comes with ISIS rule.

But in fact it was neither of these events that got reflecting on the hopelessness of using military force to crush an insurrection.

Amazon’s streaming video service is currently offering viewers a series called Turn: Washington’s spies. Well acted and constructed, it also opened my eyes to an aspect of history that I knew little about: George Washington’s highly professional use of a spy ring against the British in the American War of Independence. It focuses on the so-called Culper ring that spied on the British in occupied New York.

Jamie Bell in the role of Abraham Woodull
a key figure in the Culper ring of spies
As it happens, the series, though entertaining, also suffers from some of the flaws of any soap. A narrative that would have been far more believable had it stuck to the historical record moves increasingly away from it as the series advances, until it becomes frankly implausible. So I’ve turned to the book on which it’s based, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies. And I’ve found it fascinating.

You may have noticed that the remark I quoted earlier was a little archaic in its style. it comes from the book, and the person quoted was a loyalist – i.e. pro-British – officer in a Militia unit. He voiced his complaint in 1779, and what he was lamenting was the way the British, then probably the most powerful military nation on Earth, were driving loyal supporters like himself into the arms of those they regarded as rebels.

Benjamin Tallmadge
As a younger man, he ran the Culper ring, reporting to Washington
Which is why the Americans really ought to know better. They’ve been on the receiving end of the alienating behaviour of military occupiers. And they were able to turn it to their favour, to gain the ultimate victory.

The British, too, who lost their colonies through their own blundering actions, ought to have learned their lesson. Over two centuries ago.

And that brings me back to the intervention of both nations in Iraq.

What on earth were we thinking of?

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