December 05, 2003


So, Jim Baker is in as the Iraqi debt czar. No surprise there, but I look forward to all the condemnations of the Bush government for using a man long in the pay of the Saudi government for this task, after the same people accused Joe Wilson of being in the Saudis' pocket due to his (apparently non-paid) Middle East Institute connections. Turnabout is fair play, after all...

Posted by BruceR at 06:12 PM


Jim Henley has been badgering for this site to say something useful about the recent firefight in Samarra, where the Americans claimed 54 fatal casualties on the other side to none on their own. It's hard to add anything novel to the story-parsing he and others have already done, though, unless it's drawing on history for guidance.

For frankly, from the start, the coverage of the whole thing reminded me more than anything of that classic event from early North American history, the white soldiers' forays into Indian country.

The confused and illogical accounts are akin to what you see over and over again in primary accounts from Jackson's army in the Creek War or Harrison's on the Northwest Frontier in 1811-13, to name the two I'm most familiar with. If unverifiable body counts from the Creek conflict (a conflict, it should be noted, that saw pro-American and pro-British Creeks fighting each other, and an American army not particularly interested in sorting out the subtle differences sometimes) are added up, Jackson's army must have killed every combatant Creek male several times over.

Farther north, William Henry Harrison would get elected President in part for his "victory" at Tippecanoe, a victory only in the sense that the Americans held the field at the end of a night of battle, having been surprised by only a small portion of their enemy, had their lines driven in, and in all likelihood inflicted fewer casualties on their opponents than they suffered, despite all Harrison's later self-aggrandizing claims to the contrary (Notably, Harrison's electoral backers, like the American PR officers in Samarra, would argue that the number of Indian corpses was so low because the Indians must have spirited many of their fatalities away). You see it again, and again, all the way down to the frankly ludicrous enemy casualty figures in some accounts of Little Big Horn (and by Canadian troops at Cut Knife Hill in 1885, for that matter; it's not just an American thing). I'm sure careful study of Phillipine insurgency battle accounts from 1900 would show something similar.

There's no reason in the case of Samarra to doubt French reports that only a couple dozen attackers were involved, of which perhaps two were killed, and half a dozen civilians were killed, as well. It also seems clear from Iraqi and U.S. reports that at least some of those "civilians" spontaneously picked up arms or otherwise assisted the Iraqi guerillas in blocking the Americans or escaping. The most likely interpretation at this point is that guerillas tried their usual touch-and-run on the first Americans to enter their city in strength in a while, the Americans responded with more than usual force, and possibly this led to a small insurrectionist response, until the Americans packed up and left. If it wasn't for the superior performance of today's American soldiers under fire, and the surely-not-quite-as-noble aims of these particular insurrectionists, one could compare it to Lexington and Concord on that basis, as well.

UPDATE: What I really find amusing is people, like this fellow, who believe that this is somehow a sign that the co-ordinated Iraqi high command is making mistakes. Um, is it not obvious yet there is no coordinated high command? It's a bunch of loose bands, little more than bandits in some ways. The American analogue would be the Civil War in Missouri-Kansas, or for that matter, the rise of banditry in the West generally in the 1870-1885 period. No one then assumed the James and Billy the Kid gangs were in cahoots. Yes, gradually over time these groups will tend to coalesce, as the American Indians attempted to do in their various confederacies, to pull off more coordinated attacks. And there is evidence (that Paris-Match interview and the recent one in the New York Times) that some cells are more Saddam-friendly than others, and that remnants of the previous leadership are trying to funnel funds and arms to the more successful groups. But it's not a question of a central headquarters ordering changes of tactics... it's much more Darwinian than that, with multiple groups trying multiple approaches on their own; some failing, some succeeding, some starting to fail (with fatal results for the group that uses them) when the Americans adapt, and so on. Tactics that initially prove successful (remote-controlled explosives, for instance) are virally transmitted to other groups through the media.

Left to itself, this kind of organic resistance can do little more than perpetuate a steady low-level American casualty count (insignificant, compared to most wars), so long as they stay in country. As weapons and funds dry up, it will likely fade; its high-water mark has probably even passed already. But it will never be entirely defeated, and can easily spark up into something much worse if Kurds or Shiites come to conclude that their interests are not well-served, the Americans slacken their grip, or some neighbouring nation sees value in supporting the resisters.

FURTHER UPDATE: Relevant, perhaps, is Custer's official report on the "Battle of the Washita River" in 1868, now generally recognized as something of a massacre, and portrayed as such in the movie The Last Samurai, opening today. Two facts to keep in mind while reading: a subsequent Congressional investigation established that the 100-strong band Custer's 800-man force initially attacked had only 11 males of fighting age (as Custer does describe, other Indian bands descended on the Americans later; one of those was responsible for most of the the American casualties in this action when it surrounded and eliminated a small outlying group of Americans. Custer would later be criticized for retreating with those men still unaccounted for and possibly still holding out.) and the annihilated band had gathered near an American fort and sent out emissaries in order to offer their surrender, an offer that had been refused by the local American commander.

Posted by BruceR at 10:58 AM