Several readers have pointed out James Bennet’s article in today’s New York Times on “The Mystery of the Insurgency.” We’ll turn the floor over to Dafydd ab Hugh for an extended analysis of why Bennet’s myopic approach, which is typical of most mainstream commentary on the “insurgency,” is so wrong-headed:
Probably harder to figure out than Freud’s plaintive cry. At least, the New York Times is completely befuddled in “the Mystery of the Insurgency.”
The insurgents in Iraq are showing little interest in winning hearts and minds among the majority of Iraqis, in building international legitimacy, or in articulating a governing program or even a unified ideology or cause beyond expelling the Americans. They have put forward no single charismatic leader, developed no alternative government or political wing, displayed no intention of amassing territory to govern now.
Rather than employing the classic rebel tactic of provoking the foreign forces to use clumsy and excessive force and kill civilians, they are cutting out the middleman and killing civilians indiscriminately themselves, in addition to more predictable targets like officials of the new government. Bombings have escalated in the last two weeks, and on Thursday a bomb went off in heavy traffic in Baghdad, killing 21 people.
This surge in the killing of civilians reflects how mysterious the long-term strategy remains – and how the rebels’ seeming indifference to the past patterns of insurgency is not necessarily good news for anyone.
The Times should have given me a call; I know exactly what the “insurgents” want… and the Times’s befuddlement is to a large extent because of how they frame the question — the mystery of the insurgency.
The Times assumes that the killers in Iraq are, in fact, “insurgents.” But insurgents have a political plan; no matter how brutal they may be, they see their violence as leading to a political change — the government will be cast out to be replaced by a new government, typically themselves. Thus, they tend to create shadow directorates that mimic the functions of a government; they have spokespeople who explain their political goals; they try to seize territory to prove they can run it better than the current regime, solving for the people there whatever burning issue is driving the insurgency (land distribution, famine, whatever).
But this is to assume what the Times purportedly wants to discover. If you begin by assuming the killers are “insurgents,” then you have limited your conclusions to some Vietnam-style political revolution. Put another way, if you start by assuming that they are insurgents — then you must wind up concluding that they are insurgents.
But if you look with a more open mind, the closest-fit historical model is not that of the followers of Uncle Ho in Vietnam from the 50s through the mid-70s, or the Algerian insurgency against the French in the 1950s, or the attempts at independence by the Kosovars against the Serbs in the late 90s.
Rather, the best historical precedents are the Aztecs, who turned mere human sacrifice into an art form by killing more and more and more people until they literally may have slaughtered an end to their own empire. Their intent was not to achieve some political goal; they already ruled. Rather, they developed the theological notion that the more people they butchered, the more pleased their bloody gods would be.
With that gloss, the Iraq “insurgency” comes suddenly into crystal-clear focus, like the beginning of the TV show the Outer Limits: the killers in Iraq have no political goal. That is not the point.
The point is to kill. They have invented a whole new kind of murder… they are serial spree killers.
The distinction between a serial killer and a spree killer is that the first kills methodically over time, trying to evade capture so he can continue his murderous pastime; while the second has one violent incident in which he kills a bunch of people, then often kills himself or expects to be slain by the police. What we see today in Iraq is a combination of the two: terror bosses who methodically, over time, set up mass killing events, usually carried out by others who will die in the attempt, but sometimes remotely by themselves (sending a chained driver cruising the streets, then detonating the driver’s car when he nears a target of opportunity).
But like serial and spree killers, like those who commit human sacrifice, the motivation is found not in the external world but in his own internal hell, in the voice that only he can hear, from his bloody, eldrich gods, who demand blood and souls, blood and souls in the name of Moloch, or Arioch, or Cthulhu, or Huitzilopochtli, who demand mass sacrifices in the Grand Pyramid (or the Great Mosque — and it is significant that one of the favorite targets for the killers are mosques full of worshippers, as if they saw their red-dripping thunderclap as an explosive “amen” to the service).
This has significance in strategy. If this were a political insurgency, we would expect it to respond to changes in the political weather, even disbanding when it becomes clear that they have failed to win the hearts and minds of the people. But if the point is a holocaust of human sacrifice — if instead of winning the people’s hearts, they want to cut them out and display them to the cheering crowd, not particularly caring who the victims may be — then they are like the Terminators of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: they cannot be bargained with, or reasoned with; they will show no pity or remose; and they absolutely will not stop until all in Iraq are dead… or until they are destroyed themselves, every last one of them.
Widen your mind. Let’s not try to shoehorn every “mysterious” event into the gloss of twentieth-century liberal ideas about political revolution and leftist insurgency. In Iraq, we are not fighting Ho Chi Minh; we are fighting modern-day Aztec priests who want to kill their victims for no reason other than to cut their hearts out and offer their bleeding, still beating hearts to Huitzilopochtli… so let us set our strategy accordingly.
I think we have, actually.