Monday, 11 April 2016

The US and counter-insurgency: not a formula for success

Imagine the following scenario.

The United States comes under attack, losing a number of lives of citizens who were expecting no aggression. The response within the country is one of horror, and a growing desire to hit back against the threat. As a result, American forces begin action around the globe, including regions not apparently in the least connected with the original outrage.

In one country, a long way from home, US troops are initially greeted as liberators from a previous autocratic regime. However, as it becomes clear that the they intend to overstay their welcome, an insurgency develops against the occupation. The US engage in a long and often brutal battle, inflicting heavy losses, including many among the civilian population. In some instances, they commit what it would be hard not to regard as war crimes.

There is no accurate count of the number of local casualties. Estimates range between 34,000 and 200,000. At no point does it become clear that the US action in any way addresses the issue that originally precipitated it.

Does that all sound drearily familiar?

Well, I’m not talking about the 9/11 attack or about the US response in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor, therefore, am I thinking of the possibly 200,000 lives lost during the US battle against the Iraq insurgency.

No. The trigger event, that whipped up the war fever in the States, was the sinking of the US cruiser Maine in Havana harbour. Why in Havana? Because Cuba was then a Spanish possession facing a local uprising for independence; the Maine was there to cow the Spanish and provide tacit support to the independence movement.

A US commission concluded she’d been struck by a mine.

Interestingly, more recent scholarship suggests that the ship blew up because of an internal explosion. It may have been caused by burning gas from the boilers reaching the magazine and the ammunition it contained.

The incident led to the Spanish-American war of 1898. US forces took on the Spanish in a number of theatres around the world, including the Philippines. Which is where the counter-insurgency I mentioned took place.

Like Cuba, the Spanish colony of the Philippines was in a state of turbulence. A struggle for independence had started two years earlier. Many in the movement at first saw the arrival of the American troops as an aid in their struggle, but it soon became clear that they weren’t there to free the islands, only to replace one form of foreign domination by another.

Mark Twain – yes, he of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn fame – outlined how few enemy soldiers were generally killed in American battles, even in the Civil War. He then described the deaths that occurred when US forces surrounded insurgents, including women and children, in the Moro crater, an extinct volcano:

...with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men killed outright, and we had thirty-two wounded... The enemy numbered six hundred – including women and children – and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.

The Moro Crater massacre
Unedifying. And sadly setting a precedent.
Were you upset about the conduct of the Iraq War? About the outrages in Abu Ghraib prison? About the senseless waste of civilian lives?

Sadly, none of these things were new. The war in the Philippines ended, in theory, in 1902. The Moro Crater massacre took place in 1906.

The conclusion? We didn’t learn much in the century that followed. And, by failing to learn from our errors, we committed them all over again – with ISIS as our reward.

A pity Mark Twain’s powerful sarcasm echoed so little with Blair and Bush when it should have.

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