February 21, 2002
Collateral Damage

Now that the war is (mostly) over in Afghanistan and it is (relatively) safe for the news readers to visit the place, hundreds of them are descending on it with visions of Vietnam in their empty little heads and pulitzer prizes in their greedy little hearts. This is why we're suddenly hearing again about civilian deaths during the war.

The biggest advantage of an air-dropped bomb is that it is very difficult for the bomb-ee to shoot back at the bomb-er. In war, this is a Good Thing. The biggest disadvantage is that people don't just stand around with "bomb me, I'm a bad guy" signs on their heads. If they did that we'd just have to strap fins to a rock and drop that. Instead, they tend to hide in buildings and disguise themselves and walk amongst peasants and come up with all sorts of other ways to inconvenience the bomb-er and make their job difficult.

Now, we've gotten a whole lot better at hitting targets with our airplanes. A lot better. This is why I applaud the actions of the doves out there... you're mostly wrong, but your irritations have made the military a much more precise place. Even from a military perspective, this is a Good Thing. Fifty five years ago, it took thousands of bombers and tens of thousands of men to destroy a single factory (taking out most of that quarter of the city in the process). Today, it takes two guys and a single bomb. Cheaper, faster, safer, and more effective by orders of magnitude.

We did a good job in Afghanistan, perhaps even a great job. There were people that got killed that shouldn't have, and that's just awful. But I think we did a good job for reasons that aren't immediately obvious, and won't be reported in the press. You see, the Afghans were the ones that really won the war. We just provided the big stick they needed to do it with. But that still counts as help, because the Taliban is and al Qaida will soon be out of business. And, most importantly, they're still helping us by snagging Taliban and Al Qaida when they can catch them.

The day after September 11th, A lot of folks thought we shouldn't need to ask permission, build a coalition, or attempt to work with the locals, and instead should've carpet bombed the place into a kitty litter box. As satisfying as that would have been to watch, it wouldn't have worked.

It wouldn't have worked because, like we learned in Vietnam thirty years ago and the Soviets learned in Afghanistan twenty years ago, guerilla warfare doesn't respond well to so called "conventional" strategies and tactics. The main problem is that you don't really have a conventional force to fight. Who do you bomb if nobody is wearing a uniform? This matters even if you don't care who is and is not a good guy.

Historically the key to winning such a war has proven to be the support of the common people. As with air supremacy in a conventional war, who ever has it can't be beat. Why? It works something like this:

Here's a peasant farmer, let's call him B'hab (or Chin or Bahakamahulili or whatever). He and his fellow villagers (all 40 of them) mostly don't care what is happening in the larger world. They're busy enough scratching out a living, feeding their kids, keeping their wives happy (no small task with them hearing about the latest thing over the transistor radio), and perhaps having a smoke or drink with each other in the afternoon. What's happening in the next village is newsworthy. What's happening in the capitol or the rest of the world is just not worth caring about.

Now B'hab knows that there is trouble in the capitol. They do get news out here thank you, they just don't much care about it. He also knows that a lot of kids in villages closer to the capitol have decided that the government is hopelessly corrupted and have got themselves a leader that is shooting people to change it. B'hab knows that these kids are badasses and no damned good at all, but they have guns and are capable of anything, so he pretty much leaves them alone. He's heard recently that some white guys have come from across the ocean to help the government. He knows that the government is no damned good either but since they have guns too he pays his taxes and quietly grumbles to his buddies in the afternoon.

One day B'hab is out with his ox tilling his field when a group of badasses come out of the mountains with rifles over their shoulders, looking harried. B'hab recognizes two or three of them from other nearby villages. Most aren't much more than sixteen. They explain that they are tired and hungry and (holding their rifles) if B'hab doesn't mind they're going to sleep for awhile in the basement of his house and eat some (most) of his food and by the way does he have any daughters? B'hab is no fool and points at his hut and says a small prayer to himself that his 13 year old daughter realizes something is up when she comes home from the fields, before it is too late.

A few hours later, a bunch of white guys come roaring out of the sky in helicopters. They're bigger than any people B'hab has ever seen in his life, they have bigger guns than he's ever seen in his life, and while he's never seen a helicopter before the things hanging off it sure look like weapons of some sort. To say B'hab is impressed is an understatement.

Watch carefully. There are times and there are places that are pivot points, cruxes in the flow of time. One set of actions taken, one door chosen, by just a few people can send history down one sort of hallway, another set, another door, can send it elsewhere. It's easy for us to see, and bitch about, because we stand outside that point. We're already half way down the hallway these people picked for us.

Let's open the first door:

Lieutenant: "Ah goddammit, another gook farmer. Here we go again. You sure you saw them head this way Sergeant?"

Sergeant: "Yup, I sure did sir. They're hiding in one of those mud houses, not sure which, and they had a lot of gear when we last saw them. Gonna be a bitch to get them out."

Lieutenant: "Ok. Let's see what Mr. Farmer here has to say. Hey you! Did you see anyone come this way?"

B'hab: "[I do not understand what you are saying]"

Lieutenant: "Great! Anyone here speak gook? Anyone?"

Sergeant: "[Men come from mountain, come here, hide here, tell us where men]"

B'hab: (who knows that by now the badasses are probably watching, and that they have friends, with guns, that don't live far from here) "[I don't know about any men]" (twitch twitch, wink wink)

Sergeant: "He says he doesn't know anything about them."

Lieutenant: "I'm so sick and tired of lying gooks. What's he twitching for anyway?"

Sergeant: "Don't know. Probably something in his water."

Lieutenant: "Right. Well, time to teach Mr. Farmer here what happens when you lie. Sergeant, you got the co-ordinates?"

Sergeant: "Yup sir, got 'em."

Lieutenant: "Call it in. Let's roll."

And so B'hab watches them leave, just as mysteriously as they came. A few minutes later, jets come roaring out of the sky and level the entire village, destroying everything he's worked so hard to build, killing his wife, most of the small children, and a few of his best friends. The badasses dig themselves out of the basement and tell B'hab that this happens to everyone the white guys talk with, but in time they will destroy the government and make the white devils go home. All B'hab knows is that he's going to have to start all over again, but he damned sure knows which side he should be on now, and so do the surviving villagers. A few newly orphaned boys ask if they can travel with the badasses. B'hab asks the badasses if they need some food to carry on their journey.

Now, open the other door...

Lieutenant: "You sure you saw them head this way Sergeant?"

Sergeant: "Yup, I sure did sir. They're hiding in one of those huts, not sure which, and they had a lot of gear when we last saw them. Gonna be a bitch to get them out."

Lieutenant: "Ok. Let's see what Mr. Farmer here has to say. 'Scuse me there sir. Did you see anyone come this way?"

B'hab: "[I do not understand what you are saying]"

Lieutenant: "Hey J'hill, get over here!"

J'hill: "[Hi, I'm J'hill from the capitol. My friends here saw some really nasty rebels come this way, and think they may have hidden in your village. They are very dangerous, and have stolen property and raped women and killed children. My friends here would like to capture them. If you help us, they promise to return and build a road and a school for your village, and clean your water supply so your children don't die the week they're born. You can ask the next village if this is true, as they just last week set up a water tower there.]"

B'hab: (who knows that by now the badasses are probably watching, and that they have friends, with guns, that don't live far from here) "[I don't know about any men]" (twitch twitch, wink wink)

J'hill: (nods knowingly) "[I see.] Lieutenant, they're in the village all right, but they're hiding inside this farmer's house. (quietly) [If we wait in the hills over there]" (nods her head), "[could you point them in our direction when they leave?]"

B'hab: (winks and says very loudly) "[I do not have any idea where the brave lads who are keeping our country free from you infidels may be, but I hope that you and your white devil friends roast in the sixth level of hell before you find them!]" *spit* (and then, in a quick whisper) "[They should leave some time tonight.]"

J'hill, who has played this sort of game several times before, mainly because teenage boys never learn, nods her head and departs with the soldiers. They all leave with a great deal of noise, but then a different set of soldiers creeps in from the hills.

B'hab lies in his bed that night. The badasses didn't get to his daughter, but they did get to his wife. She'll survive, and, as he hears the rattling sound of gunfire in the distance, he knows that having running water and a baby that doesn't die will go a long way toward healing her wounds. He checked with his friends and knows what J'hill said was true. He also now knows that his cousin B'hill knows someone who has a nephew that married a lady whose father works for the white guys. B'hab doesn't know what the white guys would do for them if he turned in another group of badasses, but he sure means to find out.

A few months later a bomb falls out of nowhere and blows B'hab's cousin B'hill into the afterlife in the nosiest and most spectacular way possible, taking his family with him. B'hab mourns his cousin, as does the rest of the village, but fortunately the bomb didn't take out the water tower they now own, and B'hab knows deep down that it was probably an accident. He is staggered beyond belief when strange white men come to their village in a jeep a few weeks later and hand them money, apologizing for blowing B'hill up.

A whole new world has opened up for B'hab's village, and now there's one more place a Taliban patrol can't hide in, one less place to get food from, a whole set of young men that will farm instead of fight.

And that's how you win a guerilla war.

Posted by scott at February 21, 2002 05:02 PM

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