We Shall Study War: Wars Are Not Bipolar
There can be numerous sides in a war—and it’s not always clear who’s who.
Editor's Note: During the past few days as we have approached Memorial Day, Hopkins Patch local editor James Warden has been chronicling his service in the military and exploring different aspects of war. This is latest post in his series.
The first time I was in a firefight, I didn’t know who was shooting at me.
The attackers were likely firing from the upper story of an apartment building and behind a satellite dish about 50 meters away—at least that’s where the American soldiers were shooting. All that sticks in my mind is dust kicked up by wind and bullets, sparkles as grenade shrapnel hit surrounding debris and nearly unbearable noise.
Yet my inability to identify the attackers was as much metaphorical as literal. The gunmen fighting that day never staked out membership in one group or another, and there were a handful of enemies to choose from.
That firefight was part of a larger battle in March 2008 (which soldiers inevitably dubbed March Madness). The battle erupted around Baghdad after the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government went into southern Iraqi cities to take out Shiite militias.
Journalists thought the Baghdad fighters were members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. But because al-Sadr had technically called a truce, American leaders insisted on calling them “rogue militias.” Meanwhile, bordering Sunni neighborhoods stayed quiet as their militias sat out the fight.
This variety of combatants is typical of the United States’ recent wars—and more common in past wars than we remember. Naturally, there is the U.S. military, the host nation and any alliance members.
Then there may be clear ideological or religious divisions, such as the Sunni-Shiite split in Iraq. But even that is too simple—as seen when Shiites took on Shiites in the March Madness battle.
Elsewhere in Iraq, Sunni tribes fought al-Qaeda militants, all Sunnis, because the tribes objected to al-Qaeda’s zealous enforcement of Islamic law or because they’d been forced off prime smuggling territory. The change, which became known as The Awakening, saw tribes that had opposed the United States suddenly fighting alongside the Americans.
There were even militant groups that were little more than criminal syndicates interested almost exclusively in making money. In one Baghdad district, Shiite groups that cleared a neighborhood of Sunni residents took possession of the houses and rented them to their coreligionists—then demanded protection money. It was a strategy any Mafia don would recognize.
Each of these groups had its own perspective and its own goals. Alliances shifted with changing aims and perceptions. Enemies reconciled. Allies turned into enemies. It was complicated, chaotic and confusing.
The variety of combatants opens opportunities for commanders savvy enough to play the sides off against one another on a path to peace. But it also creates challenges for those back home struggling to make sense of an unfamiliar world.
When Afghans rioted following the accidental burning of Korans on Bagram Airfield, many Americans complained about a double standard in which “they” kill U.S. soldiers and still act indignant over a mistake. Yet CBS noted that the protests occurred largely in the country’s Tajik areas. The “they” in this case contained significant numbers of people from the ethnic group that led the Northern Alliance, which helped the United States overthrow the Pashtun-dominated Taliban in 2001.
Then again, the same CBS article speculated that Tajik allies, upset by American negotiations with the Taliban, had killed two U.S. officers the week before.
Finding enemy fighters is never easy. Even when they attack, dust and danger make it hard to lay eyes on them for long. But it can be just as difficult to keep tabs on which groups are fighting, why they’re fighting and what they want to achieve.
Be sure to check out the entire series:
- May 22: We Shall Study War Once More
- May 23: Wars are not discrete.
- May 24: Armed force doesn’t resolve problems.
- May 25: Wars are not about justice.
- May 26: Worthy goals undermine one another.
- May 27: Wars are not bipolar.
- May 28: Wars are not about victory.
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