Letters to the editor

Iraq and the Insurgency

Kenneth M. Pollack’s suggestions for “saving” Iraq (“The Right Way: Seven Steps Toward a Last Chance in Iraq,” March Atlantic) are warmed-over versions of the United States’ attempt to pacify South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. This attempt failed then and it will fail again.

As with South Vietnam, Iraq has a largely homegrown resistance movement, corrupt central and local governments intent on preserving their power rather than “freeing” their country from the insurgents, and a social structure whose loyalties rest more on family and religion than on some vague concept of national identity. When the United States withdrew from South Vietnam in 1975, both the South Vietnamese army and government tottered on for a short while before collapsing. There is no reason to expect that the current Iraqi army and government would be any different.

Similarly, Andrew Krepinevich’s theory of a “spreading oil stain” is as unworkable in Iraq as it was when the United States attempted it in South Vietnam’s countryside. By day, a strong presence of American troops in Vietnamese villages gave the illusion of control. After dark, cadres of the Vietcong ruled the countryside. In the same manner, American control of Iraqi towns lasts only as long as troops are present. When they pull out, the towns revert to the control of whatever insurgent presence exists.

Also, with the notable exceptions of General Douglas MacArthur in postwar Japan and John Paul Vann during the Vietnam War, the “unified command structure” that Pollack advocates almost never works. The army is seldom willing to risk the lives of its troops on orders from a civilian authority. Similarly, military commanders make poor civil administrators because their training is primarily limited to tactical battlefield exercises rather than civilian affairs.

The corrupt central government in Baghdad will last only so long as it is propped up by American military might. In spite of Pollack’s suggestions, the only way to “save” Iraq is to return it to the Iraqis and withdraw the Coalition armies.

Holmes Brannon
Woodland Park, Colo.

Kenneth M. Pollack, like so many supporters and critics of the war, fails to provide any provision for the Iraqi people to express their will regarding the occupation of their country. As a first step, the United States should offer to fund a referendum asking when the occupation of Iraq should end and when the Iraqi government should assume full responsibility for the security and stability of its country.

Tony Green
Gualala, Calif.

Kenneth Pollack replies:

While I am the first to say that Iraq is not Vietnam, it is equally unfortunate that we have allowed popular misconceptions about the nature of our defeat in Southeast Asia to further confuse the debate over Iraq. Once General Creighton Abrams took over as commander of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, and Robert Komer was brought in to head the civilian side of the effort, the United States pursued an extraordinarily successful counterinsurgency campaign, presided over by precisely the sort of unified command structure that is needed in Iraq. Far from being a failure, as conventional wisdom would have it, the Komer-headed Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program virtually eradicated the Vietcong as a force in South Vietnam by about 1970. At that point, Hanoi was forced to begin mounting conventional invasions. The first was smashed by U.S. airpower in 1972, in the Linebacker II campaign, while the second, in 1975, ultimately succeeded because of the absence of U.S. airpower.

Turning to Iraq, the working group I headed advocated the strategic and tactical approach often described as a “spreading oil stain” because it has been proven repeatedly to work. When American formations have employed versions of this approach—as the 1st Cavalry Division did in north Baghdad, the 101st Airborne did in Kirkuk, and most recently the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment did in Tal Afar—the results have been unqualified successes. Indeed, American military commanders are increasingly pushing to adopt precisely the sort of changes we recommended, and often doing so on their own initiative.

As far as Iraqi self-expression, the Iraqis are constantly being asked what they want—by pollsters, by journalists, and by people like myself who interact with them on a regular basis. The great shame is that more Americans don’t bother to listen to them. The Iraqis’ greatest desire is not to see the American presence ended but to see it actually start to provide them with the safety, jobs, clean water, sanitation, gasoline, and other necessities they need to live normal lives. In fact, the most recent polling data available shows that a healthy majority of all Iraqis (and the vast majority of Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis) do not believe that U.S. forces should leave Iraq for at least two years, although the same poll showed that most were very unhappy with the inability of the United States to provide basic services and public safety.

The Nuclear Imbalance

Benjamin Schwarz’s piece on nuclear weapons (“The Perils of Primacy,” January/February Atlantic) suggests that the United States should seek to re-establish a nuclear stalemate with Russia and China, and that until this is done, the U.S. will remain the primary threat to the stability of deterrence. But it is exceedingly difficult to agree on an acceptable measure of what constitutes a “nuclear stalemate” or a “nuclear balance.” Witness the years of strategic arms control negotiations and the convoluted, byzantine treaties that resulted. Schwarz leaves out the fact that Russia has a significant advantage in “non-strategic” nuclear weapons. He also fails to mention that both Russia and China are currently developing new ICBMs and SLBMs. The United States, on the other hand, has destroyed almost all of its non-strategic nuclear weapons, is not producing new ICBMs or SLBMs, and lacks the capability to produce new weapons.

Brad Walker
Alexandria, Va.

Benjamin Schwarz replies:

Mr. Walker asserts, correctly, that Russia has more (but not better) “non-strategic” nuclear weapons (designed to be used on the battlefield), but these tactical weapons are by definition irrelevant to the strategic (intercontinental) nuclear balance, which is what my piece was concerned with. It’s also true that Moscow and Beijing are “developing” some new intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic- missile systems, but these are in the (for the most part incipient) planning stages, and in most cases it would take decades before they’re operational, if they ever are. Owing to staggering financial problems, Russia’s nuclear arsenal has, as I detailed, deteriorated hugely; Moscow is in no position to develop and deploy new systems. And Beijing would have some trouble with those submarine-launched ballistic missiles it’s “developing,” since it has no operational ballistic-missile submarines on which to deploy them. Mr. Walker writes that the United States isn’t producing new ICBMs and SLBMs, but as I explained in my article, the United States has vastly improved its nuclear capabilities since the end of the Cold War by upgrading its existing systems.

It’s true that the nuclear balance was difficult to measure during the Cold War. But the United States isn’t simply pulling ahead of Russia on some meaningless yardstick devised to measure nuclear arsenals; the change is much more profound. The United States will soon have the capability to initiate and win a nuclear war against Russia by destroying all of Moscow’s long-range nuclear forces in a first strike. This is nothing less than nuclear primacy.

Israel and Palestine

Ted Conover’s article (“The Checkpoint,” March Atlantic) zeroes in on one specific aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spends time with both Jews and Arabs under the guise of objectivity, and then seems to blame Israel for most of the difficulties. Even when Israeli soldiers are describing their point of view, Conover’s sympathies are clear: a powerful Israeli military is intimidating innocent civilians.

But it is a distortion of the truth to describe only Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers, and to present that as an entire picture. For every Palestinian hurt by the Israeli occupation, there are Jews who have lost children, brothers, and parents as a result of a terrorist attack. Probably every one of the soldiers he interviewed has either a friend or a family member who has been injured in such an attack. Where are these innocent civilians in Conover’s article?

Jon Zimmerman
Chicago, Ill.

Ted Conover replies:

As we are seeing in Iraq, long-term occupation is a very difficult thing, corrosive to the well-being of both those who enforce it and those on whom it is imposed. Soldiers (in this case, Israeli) who trained to fight a military enemy are presented instead with civilians, among whom a few enemies lurk. It is hard to do one’s duty without harming innocent people; the meaning of heroism, in such a context, remains obscure. That’s why I felt considerable empathy for the soldiers I got to know, and whose work was patently the focus of my piece: the dangers they faced and the frustrations they felt reminded me, in exaggerated form, of my own work as a prison guard.

Are the Israeli victims of Palestinian violence part of this story? Of course: it goes without saying that they, and the fear and anger their deaths have spawned, are the occupation’s raison d’être. But my main focus was on the soldiers, and it seemed impossible to understand their role without speaking also to Palestinian noncombatants. I try hard to see both sides. It is difficult to have a dialogue with a reader who does not.

Pushing Drugs

Carl Elliott’s article (“The Drug Pushers,” April Atlantic) contains little if any new or useful information. I am the “pharmaceutical liaison” for my clinic and privy to the conversations of the “reps” who detail from my small office space—the only space available to reps within my clinic. Most of their conversations concern the frustration they have in achieving a “face-to-face” with prescribers, not the gala events they have just sponsored or the expenses they run up. While I do accept fruit or vegetable trays and pens and sticky notes from them on behalf of my clinic’s staff, most of these gifts are passed on to the local nursing home, to the adjacent hospital’s nursing staff, and, on occasion, to the local animal shelter. Our patients are probably better supplied with pens than we are in the clinic. We also gladly accept the medication samples, because our uninsured and underinsured patients appreciate them; it is not at all unusual, in my acute-care setting, to be able to supply a “needy” patient with an entire course of short-term treatment for an illness using only the samples.

Mr. Elliott’s article paints with a broad brush to suggest a picture of widespread collusion. But the article’s “revelations” apply equally to every successful profession—and I know that my patients derive significant benefit from my willingness to accept the fact that “business is business.”

Edwin A. Novak
Akeley, Minn.

Carl Elliott replies:

It is sad that a physician can read about a drug rep buying a doctor a swimming pool in exchange for writing prescriptions, or a medical-school professor giving lectures to students with slides provided by Eli Lilly, and find no surprises. “Business is business”? Yes, that is exactly right. A business is what American medicine has become.

What’s Left of the Left?

It is curious that Christopher Hitchens retains such admiration for Perry Anderson’s intellectual prowess (“What’s Left?” March Atlantic). Marxist thinking has always been a dullard’s pursuit, and those still consumed by it are far from the intellectual vanguard. Hitchens lauds Anderson for facing developments “as they actually were”—for instance, by admitting that radical ideas are/were coming from the Right, not the Left. Had Anderson predicted such circumstances in, say, the 1970s, his vision would have been impressive. Had the prediction come a decade or two earlier than that, it would have been an intellectual achievement of the first order. However, coming as it did, in an editorial in New Left Review in 2000, it was simply braying the obvious. There is no basis for the label “the most profound essayist wielding a pen,” if the essayist in question is merely crafting an epitaph.

Steve Stringer
Los Alamos, N.M.

Advice and Consent

Benjamin Schwarz, in his review of Peter Richmond’s new biography of Peggy Lee (“Editor’s Choice,” April Atlantic), suggests that great white female jazz singers other than Lee are practically nonexistent. But, to anyone familiar with jazz singers of the 1940s and 1950s, several names should spring to mind: Anita O’Day, June Christy, and Chris Connor, for example, and one could add the immensely versatile JoStafford.

Jody Williams
Austin, Texas

Benjamin Schwarz replies:

My review hardly suggests that other white women jazz singers are nonexistent. And for what it’s worth, but for lack of space I had planned to make clear that O’Day is my fave (her recording of “Alreet,” with Gene Krupa, seems to be the second-most-played song now on my iPod), though she lacked Lee’s cool detachment.

What might have been an interesting piece on the proliferation of home-decorating magazines (“Home Alone,” March Atlantic) instead became a forum for Terry Castle to show off—Cliffs Notes–style—her great big brain. The author’s obscure allusions (Vita Sackville-West, John Pawson, Miss Plaster Caster) and ten-dollar words (ensorcelled, parlous, ructions) were so distracting I could barely sustain interest.

I know Zurbaran; I even know Boethius. The best illustration of Et in Arcadia ego is in a Poussin painting, and it also described the first half of the novel Brideshead Revisited. But “the female Fauntleroy”? Does it even make sense?

Here are two fifty-cent words for Ms. Castle’s handiwork: pretentious and boring.

Clare Malloy
Chicago, Ill.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In