The Insurgency in Iraq-A Tutorial in Four Ordnance-Filled Lessons

Mass-Produced Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Unglamorous Death, The Coalition Provisional Authority, Young Republicans, Flak Jackets, Calculus of Terror, Mao Tse-Tung, The Army Field Manual, Doubt, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Multilingual Insurgents, Boredom, The Malaysian Emergency, Giving Up and Going Home, Iraqi Traffic Cops, The Green Zone Café, Cell Phones, Self-Blinding, Choosing Between Fears

The Insurgency in Iraq-A Tutorial in Four Ordnance-Filled Lessons

Charles Duhigg
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Insurgency: the rebellion of a small, ill-equipped group against a government through subversion and armed conflict




The night before my GMC was bombed by Iraqi insurgents, I’d spent hours in front of a U.S.-controlled base in Baghdad. I dawdled in front of the base’s gate waiting for permission to enter while Private First Class Bob Johnson craned his neck to try and see the stars.

“I don’t mind when I get guard duty,” he told me. “It’s the only time I get to be outdoors. Except when we drive around and shoot at people.”

Johnson couldn’t see the heavens because his helmet—clunky and impersonal except for a scribble reading “O + pos” that signaled what to transfuse should tragedy strike—pushed over his eyes.

“We don’t get to go outside much,” he explained. So to pass the time crouched inside Humvees, or waiting in barracks for the next serving of mass-produced grilled cheese sandwiches, Johnson said, soldiers obsessively discussed their favorite preoccupation: how a soldier dies in Iraq. Death usually comes in an unglamorous manner, he noted, following the unexpected flash of a roadside bomb or an unluckily accurate rocket-propelled grenade. Insurgents pointlessly fire at tanks invulnerable to their attacks, they run headlong into machine-gun fire, they hold their rifles so ineptly that only one in every hundred bullets seems to hit a Humvee, much less a soldier. So when an American soldier dies, said Johnson, it seems almost a foolish coincidence.

“This is a weird war,” he continued. “We shoot at the same people we give candy to. It’s like they attack us just to let everyone know they can, just to prove we can’t kill them all. And they are proving it.”

I was passing time with PFC Johnson because I am a journalist, and although he initiated my hearsay education regarding the mechanics of insurgency, my first-hand tutorial began the next day when my GMC was attacked. We were driving down an empty street in Ramadi, a poor town two hours west of Baghdad surrounded by the lush fields and palm groves that give this crescent its fertile renown. I had caught a ride with a military caravan of two SUVs and six Humvees, seeking transport through the city en route to an interview. Based on Johnson’s advice, I chose to ride in an SUV. He’d confided that “all the politicians ride in GMCs when they visit, and you know that means they’re either safe or have free liquor.”

The SUV carried no booze, but it did contain two Americans working for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Iraq’s interim government, which dissolved when sovereignty was returned this summer. The rest of the convoy’s vehicles were filled with soldiers dressed for war. But the two CPAers were decked out in blue blazers and red ties like Young Republicans on a résumé-burnishing holiday. One wore loafers with the tassels pulled off. His companion, however, had boots, and the skinny, small-spectacled look that in movies indicates the guy went to Yale and now works for the CIA.

Our GMC—we were in the middle of the convoy—crossed a bridge and was speeding down a vacant street when the bomb, unseen but probably buried under the roadside dirt, detonated underneath the car. The window next to my head exploded into a beautiful starburst of cracks. The CPAers began shouting at the driver; an Iraqi woman behind me began to cry.

A great cloud of smoke and dust obscured us from the other trucks in the convoy, which quickly sped away. Everyone in the car was yelling, shouting at the driver to keep driving, just drive forward, whatever you do don’t stop. But the engine was dead. The car rolled slowly, and after about ten feet, stopped. The Iraqi woman began to scream. The dust was such that we couldn’t see more than a foot or two outside the shattered windows. Then a small jeep appeared next to our car, and a bearded American in civvies with a gun that looked very strange and serious—all soft edges and smooth tubing, like it was designed to shoot Frisbees—jumped out and tried to open my door. (Only later did I fathom the courage of this act. Terrorists usually wait for bombing-victims to exit a car and then open fire. The smoke, however, was probably too thick for waiting gunmen to see through. Had our car been visible this rescuer probably would have been killed.) Mr. CIA donned his flak jacket awkwardly, a strange dance of long-limbs-floundering-in-a-small-space, with a dose of fear tossed in for tempo. I felt a small laugh build until he pulled out a long Kalashnikov. The driver also produced a gun, then Mr. CIA’s door was open and the bearded man was shouting at us to get into the jeep, just get in it doesn’t matter how and we all jumped in, the bearded man, too, the door slammed, and the bearded man yelled drive.

Miraculously, no one was killed. But the scary part was far from over.


Understanding the First Lesson


Although this bomb attack felt like just another random bit of violence in a war-torn country, there is a science to the Iraqi insurgency.The rebels’ methods are specific and efficient, utilizing a calculus of terror with proofs worth studying. If poets are right, and war is a dance, then it is not flailing gyrations, but rather a waltz—ordered, at times stately, and to the practiced eye, beautiful in its grace.

In On Guerrilla Warfare, Mao Tse-tung’s 1937 treatise guiding Chinese communists in a war against the Japanese, Mao limns the bedrock intention of revolution: to cast doubt among the population that government is the best protector. In this calculation, all decisions regarding battles are made for political, rather than military, goals. As the U.S. Army Field Manual,Vol. V, Operations Other Than War explains, “the first thing that must be apparent when contemplating the sort of action which a government facing insurgency should take, is that there can be no such thing as a purely military solution because insurgency is not a primarily military activity.” In political battle in which bombs replace ballots, perception is everything. So an insurgency’s first goal is to create doubt. Doubt that the government can protect you; doubt they are just; doubt the revolution will end. Insurgents need not prove they offer more security than the government—that comes later. But they must present a legitimate question: am I safer with the government, or its enemies? Once the question becomes real—and it became startlingly real as soon as the smoke began to clear from around our GMC—the insurgency has scored a victory thousands of bodies cannot rival.





Months later, in a hospital in Iskanderia, south of Baghdad, an Iraqi man began my second lesson in insurgency by explaining how bombs work: the secret, he said, is desperation.

“My family needed food and clothes,” said the man, so when he heard the police were hiring, he showed up at 6 a.m. to get a good position in line. Kids on their way to school walked past the hundred-odd people gathered in front of the police station. It was a sunny day. The air was quiet and still.The man noticed a white car driving towards them, maintaining a conservative speed. When it reached the entrance to the station, it exploded—forcing metal shrapnel through the air so powerfully it pushed through the bodies of the adults in line and the children on their way to school and embedded bits of flesh deep in the station’s cheap brick walls. Children were later paid to dig the human remains and shrapnel out. The physical bombs—the actual explosives—are the easiest part of a bombing, victims and bombers alike will tell you. But if a bombing is to succeed, people must be killed—preferably desperate people, people already in need of food and clothing, people willing to line up in a known spot to catch the blast.

Fifty people died.

I visited the police station in Iskanderia a few hours after the explosion. Hundreds of Iraqis milled around, shouting anti-American slogans, looking at bent wire and destroyed sandbag walls. A human stomach—like a red-gray deflated balloon—lay in the dust. People stepped around it until an Iraqi man shot me a pained, embarrassed gaze and covered it with a piece of cardboard.

Typically, bomb sites are confusingly tranquil, given the flames and gore we might expect. The bodies and limbs are quickly removed.The holes in the pavement indicating where the car detonated are surprisingly rectangular and orderly. Buildings are damaged— masses of bricks, tumbles of sand and blackened metal—but the destruction is not extensive. There are pools of blood, but they quickly lose their red hue and become a dullish brown.

But the hospital and morgue offer convincing evidence of the power of a bomb. In Iskanderia, the bodies were too numerous for the morgue to handle, so they were piled outside, heaps of clothing with a leg sticking out or just a head, perfectly preserved but half flattened, as if a grape squeezed by massive fingers. Outside the morgue, I saw a black torso recognizable as human only when it was handled too roughly and the skin tore, revealing the blood-red tissue beneath the char. An old man in a turban walked from pile to pile picking at the tattered clothes to figure out if one of the otherwise-unidentifiable bodies was his son. The man cried and beat his forehead; other families grew angry and shouted in helpless rage.

Inside the hospital, things were in some ways worse.

“I was walking outside because it was sunny,” said Howrice Sabah Mohammad, a sixteen-year-old boy in Kirkuk, in the north of Iraq. “My mother told me to buy some dates.” Mohammad lay in a hospital bed, his eyes rolling white as he passed in and out of consciousness. Family members crowded the emergency room, filling hallways and shouting at doctors. I stood and watched. There is no greater shame than intruding on someone’s pain to ask questions, particularly when you know their answers probably won’t make it into the story. There are a limited number of woes the distant reader is willing to confront.


Understanding the Second Lesson


Most of the remainder of Mao’s book, after his discussion of doubt, addresses the more mundane tactics of guerrilla warfare. So in the late 1960s, General Vo Nguyen Giap of the People’s Army of North Vietnam dealt with the obvious question left unanswered by Mao: how does one force the citizenry to become involved?

Guerrilla warfare is pursued in an attempt to transform asymmetric resources—an imbalance of guns, power, and organization—from a liability into an asset. But without the citizenry’s help, the insurgency will wither. So a rebel’s primary conundrum is: how does one force innocent bystanders to participate?

The answer, like most in war, is violent. The insurgent uses car-bombs and mortars to convert their citizens from bystanders to participants. These explosions achieve two goals: they kill Iraqis, forcing them to become involved in the war, and they draw retaliatory American attacks, transforming innocents into dead fighters, and emphasizing the futility of remaining aloof.

You might suspect this doesn’t make sense. Why would an Iraqi civilian side with the insurgent who killed his father, or the rebel who drew an American war-helicopter to fire on his house?

But now you see the brilliance of the first rule. The desire of the citizenry in this instance is not to mete blame or responsibility. It is to seek safety. And if you, a citizen of Iraq, doubt the efficacy of the Americans in stopping the violence, you will side with the insurgents, no matter how bad they are, because maybe, just maybe, if you can convince the Americans to go home, the insurgents will have no one left to attack.





During the summer months of 2004, the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Kufa, in Iraq’s south, exploded in rebellion (a rebellion that continues as I write this in August). After protracted begging and incessant phone calls to military Public Affairs officers, I was allowed to join the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 1st Armored Division, at a base between the two holy cities. Most of the soldiers I joined were serving their fourteenth month in Iraq.

The basic American method of warmaking is the “recon mission.” I received a note each day telling me where to report. At the assigned place I’d find about sixty soldiers standing around semi-armored Humvees, waiting to mount a “recon patrol,” a fancy name for driving through areas where you know people will shoot at you, and thereby present themselves as deserving to be killed. Most Humvees have back doors but no front ones, and the roof sports a hole for a soldier to stand behind a .50 caliber machine gun, which fires bullets about six inches long.

I’d don a flak jacket (helpfully emblazoned with “PRESS” in English, to assist multilingual insurgents) and helmet, and sit in the Humvee’s backseat behind a nice metal door and thick window, and the convoy would proceed off the base. Two tanks led, followed by about ten Humvees. The enlisted soldiers and their officers were filled with a nervous energy they expelled via foot-tapping or songs, talking, and jokes. My notes from a patrol recount one such conversation, periodically interrupted by loud and unintelligible radio chatter and annoying beeps from malfunctioning communication equipment:

A: Sergeant Hall, I need a song to sing, sir. Give me one.

B: I don’t fucking know.

A:You’re no fucking help, sir.


A: I want to know if I killed that guy yesterday. I saw blood spurt from his leg, but I want to be sure I killed him.


A: [In response to my question] I came to Iraq for three reasons. I wanted to see what it was like, for the money, and because I wanted to kill someone. I’ve been training to kill someone for years. It’s pretty much what I expected.

B: Yeah, it’s weird. Contact with the enemy is kind of what you live for. If you don’t have contact, everything else is so boring and hard.


A:The song of the day is “Lucky Man,” sir.

[B and C begin to softly sing:“Oh, what a lucky man you are…”]

A: I guess that’s a bad song because he dies at the end. [Grins]

B: [Grinning] Yeah.

We approached the Kufa mosque, at which point the tanks were fired upon, as they always are, and the .50 cals fired back,as they always do, and it was finally battle time.

A few observations about battles,which are fascinating for unexpected reasons. For one, they are slow.There are long periods when everyone just listens to the noisy radio and talks amongst themselves, staring intently at their surroundings and searching for bad guys. Soldiers get out of their cars, walk to other soldiers, shake hands and make conversation, scan a small section of the trees and then shout “I see someone!” and raise their weapons. If they can see that someone is holding a weapon (or, frankly, doing anything suspicious) they open fire.The calm is punctuated briefly by a barrage of noise and energy and the scent of cordite, which makes the air smell like the fourth of July.

Another interesting thing about battles is that you don’t actually see your enemy. We sat in Humvees, or stood outside them, until we heard the loud cracks that meant someone was firing at us. (Alternately, bullets make a “zing” sound when they ricochet. Rocket-propelled grenades sound like a “whoosh,” and mortars make two noises: a soft “pufft” when they are launched, and a boom and crash when they finally land.) But it’s totally unclear where the enemy is firing from, or even where the bullets are aimed, so everyone crouches and scans the buildings or trees, and then eventually someone thinks he sees something and every single gun starts firing on that target. So many bullets are expended—big ones, with phosphorus tracers on every fifth round that make very pretty red streaks in they air before they make walls spit bricks and dust—that it’s amazing anyone could survive the barrage. But in a few minutes the cracks and zings begin again, and the pattern repeats itself until the insurgent is either dead, or has come to his senses and escaped.

A final captivating aspect of battle is how bored I always got. During one fight, I sat in the Humvee parked in a dirt alleyway as soldiers stood around waiting, praying to see some movement to fire at. A pudgy sergeant in his late thirties or early forties ran up to my Humvee, holding his weapon, sweat rolling down his face. He told the captain he was going to proceed down the alleyway to throw a grenade over a wall, and he trotted off, threw the grenade, all the while scanning the bougainvillea-covered walls and palm groves, then returned to his vehicle. If that description is unexciting to read, imagine what it’s like to watch, when you are sweating like crazy in a flak jacket, in the mild shock that accompanies all of these missions, with nothing to do but scribble in a notebook, hoping you see something new and don’t get killed.

It took no particular bravery or courage for me to go on these missions. But the boredom was dangerous. I made a firm rule for myself—I would not leave the vehicle—but on the second mission, once the Humvee was a relative distance from gunfire and before I even knew what I was doing, I was out of the vehicle, walking with the captain, having no idea how I came to be outside except that loneliness and curiosity had driven me there. I watched mortars land relatively close by, and tanks fire—the air above them goes wavy, like over a road on a hot day—and I pulled out my satellite phone to call the Baghdad bureau to tell them I would be filing a story. I would have called a friend back home, but the time difference made it too early to call anyone in the United States.


Understanding the Third Lesson


General Vo Nguyen Giap, drawing on Mao’s writings, initially argued there are three stages in an insurgency: In phase one, the movement establishes viability and gains adherents. In phase two, guerrillas launch attacks to harass the government, destroy morale, and capture villages and supplies. In phase three, the guerrillas band into more conventional military units and seek to destroy the enemy.

But Giap soon ran up against an inescapable fact: phase three was impossible to achieve. The Vietnamese were hopelessly out-matched in military training and access to weapons and resources. So Giap fell upon a desperate but clever alternative: extend phase two until the enemy simply leaves.

Extending the second phase, it turns out, is a lot easier than one would think, because ending an insurgency is so desperately hard. The textbook manner for successfully quelling a rebellion was perfected in Malaya, now Malaysia, in the 1950s. To kill an insurgency, said Brigadier Richard L. Clutterbuck (one of the foremost chroniclers of the Malaysian Emergency), you must make it impossible for insurgents to exist. You must shut down towns with curfews so insurgents cannot move.You must only hand out food through ration cards so insurgents cannot eat.You must raid homes and interrogate innocent prisoners and treat everyone as the enemy, until the enemy cannot exist. Eventually, the insurgency will die. Otherwise, conventional wisdom says, you might as well give up. The hearts-and-minds campaign? It doesn’t mesh with fighting an insurgency, Clutterbuck would say.

It took twelve years to end the Malaysian revolt. So beginning with Vietnam, counterinsurgency experts developed another way to end an insurgency: you can just  give up and go home.

But to make the Americans want to go home, the insurgents must make life awful for them in Iraq. Random violence, and the gut-wrenching anxiety that accompanies never knowing when you will be attacked or who will be killed, does wonders in this regard. After our GMC was bombed in Ramadi, after we piled into our rescuer’s jeep, we drove to where the military convoy had stopped, about a quarter-mile down the road. Soldiers were shouting at one another from Humvee to Humvee. The soldiers had sped away when they heard the bomb as per standard operating procedure, so they did not realize that (a) a disabled car was still back in the smoke; (b) there might be people in the disabled car they should save; and (c) the people in the disabled car were actually here, now, in a white jeep with absolutely no armor on it.

“What the fuck is going on?” one soldier screamed, slamming his fists on the top of his truck.“Why the fuck are they attacking us?” Slam. “DON’T THEY KNOW WE ARE SAVING THEM?!”

Another soldier, who had been riding in an open-air vehicle in front of our car, was hit in the back of the legs by shrapnel, and lay in the car’s bed, with blood slowly dotting his fatigues.

“I wanna fucking go home,” said a soldier who sat, exhausted, in a Humvee next to our jeep.“I hate this fucking place.”

We remained in our jeep, waiting for someone to tell us what to do. I had assumed the jeep’s driver and the bearded man were part of the military, but they were, in fact, independent security contractors who’d arrived the previous day. They made a decision to get away from all the stopped vehicles, so we sped away from the protection of the military’s large guns and young men willing to catch bullets, in search of the American base in Ramadi.The driver asked if any of us knew where we were going, and CIA said he thought he knew the way, maybe. Which, of course, was wrong.





We drove for about five minutes, taking wrong turns and backtracking, anxiously speeding next to alleyway entrances as everyone tensed for a sudden attack. I began looking for bad guys, with the intention of yelling helpfully if I saw any.

The roads twisted and turned, we got lost and rerouted, until suddenly we spotted the base. We rounded a corner and thought we were home free until an Iraqi traffic cop abruptly stepped out, right into the middle of the road a few blocks from the base’s main gate. He wouldn’t let us proceed, he said, because we didn’t have the right license plate.We were certain the insurgents were pursuing us, certain we were only moments away from death, but this calm, intractable Iraqi police officer wouldn’t let us through, no matter what we told him. The insurgents were nowhere near, he assured us, and protocol must be followed. Unless we had the right plates, we could not pass. So we backed up and began zipping down dusty streets, screeching around corners, twice circling the complex until we finally found another gate with an officer who believed our story and let us inside.

In this respect, the insurgents themselves were kind enough to provide me with my final lesson in the mechanics of insurgency. This lesson would hit home months later, when I was walking around the Green Zone, the enormous military base in the center of Baghdad where the CPA, and now the U.S. embassy, reside.

Troops jog in the Green Zone, and men and women walk or ride bikes in the cool dusk. It is a small American city, except that almost everyone carries a gun, even the joggers, a sidearm strapped to a thigh over sweaty gray shorts. At the Green Zone Café Iraqi boys walk from table to tableselling over-the-shoulder holsters, like children selling gum in Mexico City.

It’s surreal entering the Green Zone after passing through Baghdad, because it seems so normal. In the Green Zone, one can understand, for the first time, how a reservist from L.A. could ask, “Well, things are getting better in Iraq, right? They have cell phones now. That’s a big step forward.”

The reservist didn’t know that Iraqis need cell phones because the central telephone exchange, destroyed by a bomb at the war’s start, is still a pile of rubble. And he didn’t realize those cell phones are so expensive they cost more than many plans in the United States.

And electricity is unpredictable, and the water is bad, and innocent civilians are killed by American troops—there is a whole list of wrongs every Iraqi can recite without pausing to think. They are all problems Iraqis never had before the war, they protest, comforts not returned in more than a year, in spite of promises made by the invading Americans.

And so blindness begins among the occupying forces. Things are getting better for the Iraqis, right? But blindness among the occupiers isn’t enough. To win an insurgency, you must also blind the citizens, and yourself. Self-blinding for a rebel isn’t difficult, given the large numbers of ideologies to choose from. If I kill for Al-Qaeda,Hamas,Muqtada al-Sadr, life will be better, right? An insurgent can choose a blind hatred like a cocktail. Blinding the average Iraqi, however, is more difficult. To create widespread blindness, you must kill the hope that sight will ever return.


Understanding the Final Lesson


Mao and Giap understood blindness. They realized occupying forces must become blind to where the insurgent hides. They understood rebels must be blind to the weakness of their numbers and arms. But the third, most important blindness—the sightlessness that inspires a nation to believe submission to the rebels is the only way to survive—well, that’s the lesson Iraqi leaders are perfecting.

At a park in the north of Baghdad, amid paltry trees and more concrete than grass, Iraqis walk and watch the sunset. An American reporter asking questions will find two consistent opinions. First, most park-goers are happy Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Second, they are now frightened almost every day of their lives, many more frightened than when they lived under Saddam.

“This country is terrible now,” said Said Zathoum, who walked through the park on his way home. “I am scared to be alive. I am scared to breathe.”

There was fear before Saddam, say Iraqis, and fear after. The fears are not the same, and people disagree about which is superior.

“Everyone in Iraq is scared to go outside now,” explained Hanna Mansood, a young mother, as she walked through the park. “Before we were scared to speak about Saddam, now we are scared to leave our house.”

Hanna told me her husband was a traffic cop in Baghdad, and I thought of her in Ramadi, after we finally made it to safety, when I learned that the officer who had stopped our Jeep at the base’s gate had been killed, shot by the insurgents who had been pursuing us and were twenty minutes late in catching our trail.

Hanna told me all she really wanted was to be left alone. Against her will, she had been enrolled in the same school of insurgency as I. And although she regretted that her children’s classrooms had been closed since their school was destroyed in the war, she, personally, didn’t want to learn any more.

But she didn’t have the luxury of choice. Instead, she was preparing for her final examination, in which she would have to choose between the fear of the insurgency on the one hand and the fear of the occupiers on the other.

She watched her two children playing on a cracked, concrete slab. “To ask people to choose between fears is not a fair demand.”

She called to her children, and everyone headed indoors.

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