Carter’s statement of the situation is doubtless accurate. He has reliable observers, and no inclination to bias. But “will to fight” sounds like description of a virtue. In places and times, it is. The phrase risks mislabeling Iraqi soldiering as a moral issue. It distracts from our issues, which are U.S. interests. If one decided (and I am not doing so here) that Iraqi soldiers were yellow-bellied cowards, it would still be in the interest of the U.S. for them to win.
It is not in U.S. interest for a lion-hearted ISIS to prevail over a cowardly Iraqi army.
T.E. Lawrence, fighting in the same general area between 1916 and 1918, described exactly what Carter remarks about. Better known as Lawrence of Arabia, he put his experiences together in a great read, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published in 1922. Not much has changed since then. In the interim, in the shadow of a protectorate and then a weak monarchy, a thin crust of intellectuals toyed with nationalism among themselves, until they were booted by strongmen in 1958. It was all downhill from there, with a Ba’ath coup in 1963. The father of their countries, Winston Churchill, had ulterior motives usually skipped in discussions of his greatness.
Since American soldiers fight so remarkably well, it is perhaps natural to expect the same from other cultures. But little has changed since Lawrence of Arabia led charges against Turkish trains defended by heavy weapons. His tribal fighters were interested in booty, not nation building. If there was a train to sack, they charged. If the goal was a strategic objective, they went home. We might call this desertion.
I wish we could just send George S. Patton over to deliver his speech. A less profane adaptation: Listen now, it’s important. Of those Americans who soldier, and among many who do not, it strikes a chord. Don’t be embarrassed, because, at the time, it was an exhortation to save humanity by making the unthinkable thinkable.
About Americans, Patton said,
“Men, all this stuff you hear about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of bullshit. Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players and the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. Battle is the most significant competition in which a man can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base.”
The Iraqis don’t have the cultural hooks described above, so the speech would not make any particular impression. Not so long ago, how the U.S. Marines turned men into soldiers was demonstrated by R. Lee Ermy in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (clip). The U.S., with a population of 320 million, has since replaced the conscript army with a volunteer army, so harsh psychological manipulation is no longer a necessary part of basic training.
The psychological hooks of our secular society, that make possible the transformation of ordinary young men into exceptional soldiers, are not available in Iraq. The Iranians do it, with their own soldiers, and the Iraqi militia, but the hook is religious, not secular. Mullahs travel with the militias, delivering religious exhortations from pickup trucks with loud speakers. Religious indoctrination is reinforced daily.
While Americans can be convinced to fight for “duty, honor, country”, the corresponding Iraqi concept is martyrdom. On the subject of martyrdom, Patton said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
So, with respect to the roots of will to fight, the cultures of the U.S. and Iraq have no common logic. Unfortunately, mullahs with loudspeakers on pickup trucks are not part of the U.S. arsenal. Perhaps a line item should be included in the next defense budget. The morale builders available to us are demonstrations of success. We have a saying, “Success breeds success.” The converse is also true. Prior to the modern era, part of the salvage of victory from defeat was to show that the enemy was not invincible.
We don’t have mullahs; we have no direct psychological hooks, but we do have Tac Air Control Parties, which would, at the very least, boost morale. In November 2014, the Iraqis successfully repelled an assault on Ramadi, so perhaps success can breed success. Useful assessment of the idea could be provided by individuals, now retired, who worked with indigenous elements in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2003.
Deployment is not without risk. In the current environment, betrayal to the enemy is not inconceivable, resulting in a prolonged national nightmare. But then we must ask, how important is it to us that Iraq survive as a country? We could allow Iran to take the better part of it, leaving a rump state of unknown composition. It may happen anyway. In October of last year, I wrote,
Southern Iraq is bound to Iran by culture and religion dating back to 680 A.D. The connections are vastly powerful, yet curiously under weighted by U.S. strategists. There is, in the scheme of things, an exceedingly minor theological rift between the religious institutions of Iraq and Iran. With the passing of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is currently 84, integration of the religious establishments of Qom and Karbalā will become total. Secular fusion will inevitably follow.
Whether we consciously allow it to happen, consciously or by default, will become immaterial in a few years. But the fact of it will persist.