The Hearts-and-Minds Myth
Sorry, But Winning Means Killing
Mastering the languages, cultural nuances, beliefs and taboos
that prevail in a theater of war, area of operations or tactical
environment is vital to military success. It's much easier to
kill people you understand.
Beyond that, cultural insights ease routine operations and
negotiations, the training of local forces and the development of
intelligence. Environmental mastery helps us avoid making
unnecessary enemies. But that is where the advantages end in
conflicts of blood and faith: No amount of cultural sensitivity
inculcated in U.S. troops will persuade fanatic believers to
discard their religion, nor can any amount of American empathy
change a foreign thug's ethnic identity.
Frustrated with the difficulties facing us in Iraq after being
denied both adequate troop strength and the authority to impose
the rule of law in the initial days of our occupation, U.S.
military commanders responded with a variety of improvisations,
from skillful kinetic ops to patient dialogue. Nothing
achieved enduring results – because we never had the
resources or the fortitude to follow any effort through to the
end, and our enemies had no incentive to quit, surrender or
cooperate. We pacified cities with force but lacked the forces to
keep them pacified. We rebuilt schools, but our enemies taught us
how easy it was to kill teachers. Accepting that it was
politically impossible on the home front, we never conducted the
essential first step in fighting terrorists and insurgents: We
failed to forge a long-term plan based on a long-term commitment.
Instead, we sought to dissuade fanatics and undo ancient
rivalries with stopgap measures, intermittent drizzles of money
and rules of engagement tailored to suit the media, not military
It is astonishing that our efforts have gone as well as they
Yet no honest soldier or Marine would argue that we could not
have done better – and should have done better. Setting
aside, for now, the inept leadership from the Rumsfeld Pentagon
and the fateful, if not fatal, lack of adequate troop strength,
we're left with one crippling deficiency on the part of our
leadership: The unwillingness to recognize the nature of the
various conflicts underway simultaneously in Iraq.
With an obtuseness worthy of the left's caricatures of military
officers, we drew the wrong lessons from the wrong historical
examples, then did exactly the wrong things. Enmeshed in bitter
conflicts over religion and ethnicity resurgent after decades of
suppression, senior officers ignored myriad relevant historical
examples and focused instead on the counterinsurgency campaigns
with which they were comfortable – and that were as
instructive as dismantling a toaster to learn how to fix a
Reality's Delete Key
Officers looked to operations in Malaya, Vietnam, Northern
Ireland and, occasionally, Algeria for positive and negative
examples. Yet not one of those political struggles is relevant to
the situation in Iraq (or Afghanistan). As for the pertinent
examples of insurgencies rooted in religious or ethnic
fanaticism, such as the Moro Insurrection, Bloody Kansas, the
Sepoy Mutiny, the Mahdist Wars, the various European Anabaptist
risings, the Thirty Years' War, the Armenian Genocide,
Nagorno-Karabagh, the destruction of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Kashmir,
the Pueblo Revolt, the Ghost-Dance Rebellion, 1,300 years of
uninterrupted warfare between the Islamic and Judeo-Christian
civilizations, and several thousand other examples dating back to
the savagery chronicled in the Old Testament; well, the lessons
they suggest are, to say the least, politically incorrect. So we
hit the delete key on reality.
Our civilian and uniformed leaders have engaged in comforting
fantasies about the multilayered conflicts we're in, while
speaking in numbing platitudes. Now we're back to winning
hearts and minds.
We can't do it. Not in the Islamic world. Arabs – Sunni or
Shiite, in Iraq and elsewhere – are so battered
psychologically that many need to blame the West, Israel,
unbelievers, Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and the ice-cream man for
their failures. Any chance we had of winning the minds,
if not the hearts, of the biddable minority in Iraq was
thrown away when we failed to enforce the rule of law the moment
Baghdad fell. Proclamations of American generosity fall short
when you cannot walk your neighborhood streets without fear.
Even with the limited forces we had on hand three-and-a-half
years ago, we could have done more. But the Bush administration
and our military leaders had fallen into the politically correct
trap that spares the murderer at the expense of his victims. We
weren't ready to kill enough of the right people. As a result,
our enemies have been able to spend more than three years killing
the people we meant to liberate. Our reluctance to kill evil men
proved murderous to innocent men, women and children, and our
unwillingness to do what needed to be done leaves us at least
partly responsible for the thousands of Iraqis killed and maimed
by acts of terrorism – as well as for our own unnecessary
The law of war is immutable: Those unwilling to pay the butcher's
bill up front will pay it with compound interest in the end.
Mush, Not Rigor
The new counterinsurgency doctrine the Army and Marines are
developing gets the language right initially, noting that no two
insurgencies are identical and that each must be understood on
its own terms. Then it veers into nonsense, typified by the
insupportable claim that a defection is always better than a
surrender, a surrender is always better than a capture and a
capture is always better than a kill. That's intellectual mush.
And it's just plain wrong.
It's Malaya again, with doughty Brits hacking through the jungle
to pip-pip-wot-ho those wily communists. It's Kit Carson Scouts
in Vietnam and faithful Montagnards. It's the PX at Tan Son Nhut
air base (oops, almost wrote Balad). It's the nonveteran
John Wayne starring in The Green Berets and proving beyond
any doubt that all good Vietnamese instinctively loved Americans
and dreamed of drinking Cokes in suburban freedom. It's Mel
Gibson reprising Pickett's Charge in the Ia Drang valley –
and winning this time!
The well-intentioned drafters of our counterinsurgency doctrine
are mining what they've recently read without serious analysis.
Do they really believe that a Sunni Arab insurgent in Kirkuk is
going to see the light and declare that, from now on, he's a
Kurd? Or that a Shiite militiaman in the Mahdi Army is going to
wake up and decide, Twelfth Imam, Shmim-mam! I'm going to
become a Sunni and move to Ramadi!? Does anyone outside the
nuthouse political left really believe that friendly persuasion
will disarm al-Qaida in Iraq? Isn't a crucial lesson of
Guantanamo that irredeemable prisoners are a strategic liability?
Our doctrine writers are in danger of producing a tome on
procreation that doesn't mention sex.
We are in the middle of a multilayered, multisided struggle for
supremacy between intolerant religious factions and age-old
ethnic rivals. And we pretend that it's just another political
struggle amenable to a political solution – because it's
more pleasant to think so, because we believe we know what to do
in such circumstances, because facing reality would force us to
drastically change the way we behave in combat, and because
acknowledging the truth about the situation in Iraq would demand
that we question every goofball cliché about the human
preference for peace that we've bought into for the past
Yet, unless we accept the truth about the kind of wars we're in
– and inevitably will face in the future – we're
going to continue to make a botch of things.
Blood Ties, Bloody Gods
The political insurgencies of the last century were easy problems
compared to this century's renewed struggles of blood and belief.
In political insurgencies, some of the actors can, indeed, be
converted. A capture may be better than a kill. Compromise may be
possible. Dialogue is sometimes a useful tool, although even
political insurgencies are best resolved from a position of
indisputable military strength. Men who believe, often hazily, in
an ideology occasionally can be converted – or bought. The
political beliefs of the masses are fickle. Defeats discourage
those with mundane goals. And a political struggle within a
population otherwise united by its history can end in
reconciliation even after horrible bloodshed – as in the
American Civil War, the Risorgimento, the gruesome Mexican
revolutions of 1910-20 and the civil wars in Vietnam, Greece and
many another gore-drenched, relatively homogeneous states.
Violence arising from differences of religious confession, race
or ethnicity is profoundly different – and far more
difficult to quell. Generally, such struggles are brought to an
end only through a great deal of killing. One side – or all
– must be bled out. Whether cast as divinely sanctioned
liberation struggles or simply about one bloodline getting its
own back from another, these conflicts over God's will and
ancestral wrongs are never amenable to reason. Self-righteous
journalists love to claim that the first casualty of war is
truth, but that's a self-serving lie; the first casualty of any
form of violence is reason, that weakest and most disappointing
of learned human skills.
Our exclusive focus on recent political insurgencies misleads us,
because wars over tribe and God are humankind's oldest legacy,
while the conflicts we choose to study all fall within a brief
historical interval that stands as an aberration – the
twilight decades of the Age of Ideology, which ran from 1775 to
1991, a blink in historical terms. Now we have reverted to the
human norm of killing one another over interpretations of the
divine will and ancient blood ties. We don't have to like it
– and we won't – but we must recognize the reality
confronting us. We have returned to the historical mainstream.
The tribes want tribute. The gods want blood. And the killers are
ready to help.
The road to Srebrenica was paved with pious platitudes, the path
to 9/11 with wishful thinking. Presidents and generals may
declare endlessly that we're not engaged in a religious war or
that ethnic factions can be reconciled, but the first claim is a
lie and the second relies for its fulfillment on intrusive
military power and a strength of will greater than that of the
factions in question. We are, indeed, engaged in religious wars
– because our enemies have determined that these are
religious wars. Our own refusal to understand them as such is
just one more debilitating asymmetry. As for ethnic
reconciliation, call me when Kosovo's Muslims and Serb Christians
reintegrate their communities, form joint neighborhood-watch
committees and vote for each other's political candidates (and
check the ingredients of the casserole that Ivo's wife brought to
the potluck, nonetheless).
Blood and Budget Deficits
If we want achievements commensurate with the risks we undergo
and the costs we pay in blood and budget deficits, we must
overcome our revulsion at the truth. Saying nice things about war
to please the media or to placate noisome academics is useless,
anyway, because they'll always oppose what the U.S. government
does – even when, as with a dictator's overthrow and a war
of liberation, our government implements the left's long-standing
agenda. We must stop belching out chipper slogans and fleeing to
simplistic models for answers. We have to start thinking beyond
our moral comfort zones. When generals lack intellectual
integrity, privates die for nothing.
Above all, we must regain our perspective on what truly matters.
We must get over our impossible dream of being loved as a nation,
of winning hearts and minds in Iraq or elsewhere. If we
can make ourselves liked through our successes, that's well and
good. But the essential requirements for the security of the U.S.
are that our nation is respected and our military is feared. Our
lack of resolve and mental rigor has brought us close to
sacrificing both of these advantages. And a nation that is not
respected encourages foreign chicanery, while a military that is
not feared invites attack.
The Marine Corps entered Iraq with a motto that captured the
essence of what our efforts should have involved: No better
friend, no worse enemy. That restatement of the
carrot-and-stick approach to military operations expressed in
simple terms how to fight just about any kind of enemy –
including insurgents and terrorists. The problem is that no
American leader, in uniform or in a $3,000 suit, lived up to the
maxim consistently. Instead, we applied it in fits and starts as
we tried to make friends with our enemies. In the clinch, we
defaulted to the carrot.
Consider how many potential turning points we missed: We failed
to enforce the rule of law while all Iraq was terrified of us and
anxious for clear orders. We failed to occupy the predictable
trouble spots early on and in force. We failed to display
sufficient imagination and courage to break up the artificial
country we inherited from Saddam Hussein and a pack of Europeans
at Versailles. With our typical dread of short-term costs, we
passed up repeated and justified chances to kill Muqtada al-Sadr,
inflating his image in the process – and paying a far
higher price in the long term than we would have paid had we
acted resolutely and promptly. We needed Henry V and got Hamlet.
Our leaders fled from victory in the First Battle of Fallujah.
Now an administration with a flagging will is determined to
withdraw our troops prematurely – Mission Accomplished, Act
II. And all the while our soldiers and Marines have paid the
price – while re-enlisting to pay it again and again.
Our men and women in uniform deserve better. They're dying not
only of roadside bombs but of phony morality imposed by those who
face no risks themselves. Spare a terrorist, kill a soldier.
Spare a terrorist leader, kill our soldiers by the hundreds.
We want to treat a country torn by rival visions of a punitive
god and drenched in ethnic bloodshed as if it needs only a bit of
political tinkering. We're not looking for exit strategies, just
The longer we wait to study and learn from the relevant conflicts
of the past, the more American blood we'll squander. We have to
be tough on ourselves, forcing each other to think beyond the
deadly platitudes of the campus, the campaign trail and the press
briefing. Begin by listing the number of religion-fueled
uprisings throughout history that were quenched by reason and
compromise – call me collect if you find a single one. Then
list the ethnic civil wars that were solved by sensible treaties
without significant bloodshed. Next, start asking the really ugly
questions, such as: Hasn't ethnic cleansing led to more durable
conditions of peace than any more humane approach to settling
power relations between bloodlines? Monstrous as it appears,
might not the current neighborhood-by-neighborhood ethnic and
confessional cleansing in Iraq make that country more, rather
than less, likely to survive as a confederation? Shouldn't we be
glad when fanatics kill fanatics? Are all successes in the war on
terrorism merely provisional? Is this a struggle that
unquestionably must be fought by us but that began long before
our country existed and will continue for centuries to come? Is
there a historical precedent for coping with violent religious
fanatics that does not include bloodshed to the point of
Even beyond these military and strategic issues, deeper questions
about humanity – the individual and the mass – await
serious minds. The one useful result of the coming generations of
fanaticism will be to rid our own cultural bloodstream of the
poison of political correctness, white lies that lead to black
results. Why does humankind love war? And yes, the word is
love. Does religious competition have biological roots?
Is the assertion of ethnic supremacy as natural as the changing
of the seasons? Is genocide in our genes? We do not have to
celebrate unpleasant answers, but, if humanity is ever to make
the least progress in reducing mass violence, we need to face
those answers honestly.
The American military knew how to deal with conflicts of blood
and faith. But we do not study our own history when the lessons
make us uneasy. During the Moro Insurrection, the U.S. Army lived
up to the Marine Corps' motto for Operation Iraqi Freedom. For
the peaceful inhabitants of the southern Philippines, our
soldiers and administrators were benefactors. For the Moro
warriors, they were the worst enemies those fanatics had ever
faced. Of course, we didn't have CNN filming our Gatling guns at
work, but, then, we may need to banish the media from future
battlefields, anyway. Our brutal response to the brutality of
Muslim fanatics kept the peace until the Japanese invasion four
decades later. And no peace lasts forever – four decades
qualifies as a big, big win.
The religious movement that fired the Boxer Rebellion could only
be put down through massacre. The same need to rip the heart out
of violent millenarian movements, enabling societies to regain
their balance, applied from 1520s Germany and 1840s China through
the 19th-century Yucatan and the Sudan, down to the Islamist
counterrevolution today. Only massive killing brought peace. Only
extensive killing will bring peace.
We need to grasp the basic truth that the path to winning the
hearts and minds of the masses leads over the corpses of the
violent minority. As for humanitarianism, the most humane thing
we can do is to win our long struggle against fanaticism and
terrorism. That means killing terrorists and fanatics.