Casualties Up



SecDef Robert Gates admits that U.S. military deaths are back on the upswing in Iraq. McClatchy reports that “April has been the bloodiest month for Americans in Iraq since September, with 44 troops killed, compared to 39 in March and 29 in February.” Spencer Ackerman offers analysis:

To make a calmer, more substantive point about what we’re seeing in Iraq. The rhythm of any protracted war goes something like this: you do stuff; the enemy responds; you adjust; so does he; and on and on until a point of decision is reached. An Air Force colonel named John Boyd once coined a useful (if jargony) term for this: The OODA Loop, where “OODA” stands for “Observation / Orientation / Decision / Action.” Boyd reasoned that the initiative in war goes to he who can achieve a faster OODA Loop than his enemy, and who can disrupt his enemy’s Loop.

At the risk of saying something disputable, from 2003 to mid-2007, the insurgencies in Iraq had faster OODA Loops than the U.S. did. That’s not to say that there weren’t discrete tactical successes: there were, and lots of them. But those developments are coterminous with the concept of the Loop — you adjust and inflict pain on the enemy; but the enemy does so faster and more powerfully. Once Operation Phantom Thunder began in the late spring of 2007, lots of people on the right and on the fake-left declared, without using Boyd’s term, that Petraeus and Odierno had finally broken the enemy’s Loop.

Spencer thinks instead that it was merely disrupted but “the rise in U.S. and Iraqi civilian casualties demonstrates that the insurgencies’ Loops have now closed.” I’m not 100 percent happy with that characterization (more on why later), but I think it does capture the important point that in war a successful tactical shift is no guarantee of strategic victory since other players get to change tactics as well. A broader point I would make is that one thing I was reminded of while researching and writing Heads in the Sand is exactly how many times we’ve won the war in Iraq.

Today we’re celebrating “Mission Accomplished” day but that was only one of several occasions on which war skeptics were thought to have been decisively refuted. A similar attitude pervaded the mainstream in the wake of the capture of Saddam Hussein, then again to a lesser extent when the occupation was declared officially over and Iyad Allawi put in charge, and then again to a huge extent during the “Arab Spring”, and then to a lesser extent when Ibrahim Jafari was forced out of office in favor of Nouri al-Maliki, and now again to a greater extent as a result of the “surge”-related decline in violence.

In every instance, though, the optimists have ultimately proven wrong because the United States has continued to pursue basically unachievable strategic goals in Iraq. Sometimes when the situation gets desperate, the U.S. government has proven capable of shifting our posture in order to better-accommodate Iraqi realities (see, e.g., Bush giving in to Ayatollah Sistani’s demand for elections) but instead of building on these successes by opting for strategic retrenchment, success tends to breed a new round of self-defeating hubris.

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason T. Bailey