Counterinsurgency Tactics Led to Haditha, My Lai
Daniel Ellsberg, a defense intellectual, released the Pentagon Papers, which he had secretly copied, to the public in 1971. Working under US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he also surveyed counterinsurgency and “pacification” plans in Vietnam. Ellsberg spoke with NPQ in early June.
NPQ | We’ve been down this road many times before, in the Malay peninsula, Algeria, Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan. Does counterinsurgency inevitably lead to the massacre of civilians?
Daniel Ellsberg | Such massacres are extremely likely to happen. It is in the nature of occupying forces fighting insurgents who live indistinguishably among their own people and who melt in and out of combat at will, striking only when they have a tactical advantage.
The dynamics of counterinsurgency strategy lead to murders like those in My Lai, Vietnam or now Haditha in Iraq because the essence of that strategy is to try to stop local cooperation of a sufficiently sympathetic public—whether they are active supporters or just looking the other way—with the insurgents.
Maj. Gen. Muhammad Abdullah al-Shahwani, director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, has said what anybody involved in a counterinsurgency knows: “The United States occupation has failed to crack the problem of Iraqi support for the insurgency among the Sunni population (in Al Anbar province). Most do not actively support the insurgents or provide them with material or logistical help, but, at the same time, they won’t turn them in.”
It is therefore highly frustrating for American troops because they are always at risk and they can’t find the guys, who they know are there somewhere in a village or town, who plant the roadside bombs. This is what Robert Jay Lifton has referred to as “an atrocity-producing situation.”
I don’t accept the idea, however, that the murders of civilians in My Lai or Haditha are somehow a result of the breakdown of ethics and discipline, or because soldiers under stress “snapped.” My direct experience in Vietnam as a counterinsurgency strategist and “pacification” planner, as well as the historical record from the British efforts in Malaya to the French in Algeria, suggest they usually happen under orders. Often, the most contested areas are designated “free-fire zones” where you shoot first and ask questions later.
Indeed, in response to their frustration and lack of effectiveness, an American military source was quoted (in Newsweek) as calling for new offensive operations in Iraq by special forces to “create a fear of aiding the insurgency.” Another source concurred, saying that, as it is now, the population is paying no price for support it is giving to the terrorists. From their point of view, it is cost-free.
So, when you see an atrocity like Haditha, look for a tactical order. When you find an order like that, which you virtually always do, as was the case in Vietnam, look for a policy approving such actions as moving people out of their villages so they can’t support the insurgency, or terrorizing or torturing them to inform on the insurgents—as we saw in Abu Ghraib. When fighting a guerrilla force, the high command will tend to discard the ethical rules of conventional war and adopt policies that necessarily target the civilian population who hide and support the insurgents.
In a counterinsurgency war which is failing, as this one is in Iraq, expect such a policy to exist. Expect the orders to be given. And expect the orders to be carried out. Anyone who has been on the ground in counterinsurgency wars knows that most “incidents,” as the military likes to call them, are not “discovered” publicly and no one is punished.
Troops on the front line understand the message: Somewhere among innocent-looking villagers are those waiting to kill you, or those who will assist them with information or in some other way. Only if you show them there is a price to pay will you enhance your chances of survival. Counterinsurgency always leads to this kind of desperation.
“Accidental” bombings from the air, which are the largest cause of civilian casualties, are also a warning that collaboration will bring destruction down upon a population. We saw more of this in Vietnam, but there may be more to come in Iraq.
The problem is all this doesn’t work. Terrorizing a population always deepens their collaboration with the local insurgents. It forces people in the middle of the road to take sides.
Remember the Battle of Algiers? The French brutally put down the nationalists, some of whom used terror tactics like blowing up cafes. It was said that almost every family knew someone who had been tortured by the French. But that brutality turned the country against the French. Nobody could remain neutral. So the French were finally forced to leave. They lost the war.
NPQ | Now that Zarqawi has been killed and some others rounded up, is there light at the end of the tunnel, as they used to say in Vietnam?
Ellsberg | There is no light at the end of the tunnel in a war being fought this way. As in Algeria, as in Vietnam, counterinsurgency is counterproductive. There is one big difference with Vietnam. In the end, the Americans left when they couldn’t win. But the US# will never leave the oil resources of the Middle East behind. So the insurgents can’t win. But neither can the Americans put them down. So there will be one long, very bloody stalemate.
Where Are Iraq’s Pentagon Papers?
A January poll found that 64 percent of Iraqis believe that crime and violent attacks will decrease if the US leaves Iraq within six months, 67 percent believe that their day-to-day security will increase if the US withdraws and 73 percent believe that factions in parliament will cooperate more if the US withdraws.
If that’s true, then what are we doing there? If Iraqis don’t believe that we’re making things better or safer, what does that say about the legitimacy of prolonged occupation, much less permanent American bases in Iraq (foreseen by 80 percent of Iraqis polled)? What does it mean for continued American armored patrols such as the one last November in Haditha, which, we now learn, led to the deaths of a Marine and 24 unarmed civilians?
It was questions very much like these that were nagging at my conscience many years ago at the height of the Vietnam War, and that led, eventually, to the publication of the first of the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971, 35 years ago.
That period had two similarities to this one.
First, though it was known to only a handful of Americans, President Nixon was making secret plans, two years earlier in September 1969, to expand, rather than exit from, the ongoing war in Southeast Asia—including a major air offensive against North Vietnam, possibly using nuclear weapons. Today, the Bush administration’s threats to wage war against Iran are explicit, with officials reiterating regularly that the nuclear “option” is “on the table.”
Second, also in September of 1969, charges had been brought quietly against Lt. William Calley for the murder 18 months earlier of “109 Oriental human beings” in the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai.
This went almost unnoticed until mid-November of 1969, when Seymour Hersh’s investigative story burst on the public, followed shortly by the first sight for Americans of color photographs of the massacre. The pictures were not that different from those in the cover stories of Time and Newsweek from Haditha: women, children, old men and babies, all shot at short range.
But what prompted me in the fall of 1969 to begin copying 7,000 pages of highly classified documents—an act that I fully expected would send me to prison for life (my later charges, indeed, totaled a potential 115 years in prison)—was something else.
The precipitating event was not Calley’s murder trial but a different one. On Sept. 30, I read in the Los Angeles Times that charges brought by Creighton Abrams, the commanding general of US forces in Vietnam, against several Special Forces officers accused of murdering a suspected double agent in their custody had been dismissed by the secretary of the Army, Stanley Resor.
The article made clear that the reasons alleged by Resor for this dismissal were false (and that the order to dismiss the charges had most likely come directly from the White House). As I read on, it became increasingly clear that the whole chain of command, civilian and military, was participating in a cover-up.
As I finished the article, it hit me: This is the system I have been part of, giving my unquestioning loyalty to for 15 years, as a Marine, a Pentagon official and a State Department officer in Vietnam. It’s a system that lies reflexively, at every level, from sergeant to commander in chief, about murder. And I had, sitting in my safe at Rand Corp., where I was working as an analyst, 7,000 pages of documentary evidence to prove it.
The papers documented in stunning detail a pattern of lies and deceptions by four presidents and their administrations over 23 years to conceal their war plans—along with internal estimates of the high costs and risks of these plans (and their low probabilities of success), never meant to reach the public and provoke debate. They showed very clearly how we had become engaged in a reckless war of choice in someone else’s country—a country that had not attacked us—for our own domestic and external purposes.
It seemed to me that to be doing that against the intense wishes of most of the inhabitants of that country was not just bad policy but morally wrong. Moreover, it became clear to me that the justifications that had been given for our involvement were false. Vietnam was not a just war and never had been. And if the war itself was unjust, then all the victims of our firepower were being killed without justification. That’s murder.
As I read the story in The Times that morning about the cover-up of the Special Forces murder and compared it with what I’d been reading in the secret history, I came to see it as a microcosm of what had been happening since the war began. And I thought to myself: I don’t want to be part of this lying machine anymore. I am not going to conceal the truth any longer.
Today, there must be, at the very least, hundreds of civilian and military officials in the Pentagon, CIA, State Department, National Security Agency and White House who have in their safes and computers comparable documentation of intense internal debates—so far carefully concealed from Congress and the public—about prospective or actual war crimes, reckless policies and domestic crimes: the Pentagon Papers of Iraq, Iran or the ongoing war on US liberties. Some of those officials, I hope, will choose to accept the personal risks of revealing the truth—earlier than I did—before more lives are lost or a new war is launched.
Haditha holds a mirror up not just to American troops in the field but to our whole society. Not just to the liars in government but to those who believe them too easily. And to all of us in the public, in the administration, in Congress and the media who dissent so far ineffectively or who stand by as murder is being done and do nothing to stop it or expose it.
It is past time for Americans to summon the civil courage to face what is being done in their name and to refuse to be accomplices. We must force Congress and this president, or their successors if necessary, to act upon the moral proposition that the US must stop killing men, women and children in Iraq, and must not begin to do so in Iran.
Neither the lives we have lost, nor the lives we have taken, give the US any right to determine by fire and airpower who shall govern or who shall die in countries we have wrongly attacked.