Iraq: The “People’s War” is Just Beginning


The death and mutilation of four American private contractors in Falluja and the subsequent rising of the Shiites suggests the insurgency has taken another step toward people’s war. Iraqis indicate the violence in Faluja was in retaliation for the First Marine Expeditionary Force’s attacks last week on the Fallujans to “put them in their place.” While the Marines did not intervene yesterday to halt the carnage, fearing an ambush, the American high command has indicated “we will pacify that city.” The Shiite uprising was caused by the U.S. occupation authority’s closing of a Shiite newspaper for printing allegedly false stories and the arrest of a militant cleric’s chief aide.

Only a little over a year ago, neo-conservative pundits were assuring the American people that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq would be a piece of cake. (General Eric Shenseki was sacked from the Army for suggesting otherwise.)

One of those was Max Boot, a journalist formerly with The Wall Street Journal and now with the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Boot’s fame rests upon his book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (2002), which made him, apparently, a kind of instant neo-con guru on these kind of interventionist counter-insurgencies. One chapter in that volume recounted the U.S. defeat of the Filipino insurgency a century ago. Few seemed to disagree when Boot put that forward as model to be followed in Iraq. In the early months of the occupation of Iraq, he visited there, returning with glowing accounts of U.S. success.

But the two are very different. For example, the insurgents in Iraq, while apparently lacking the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration claimed existed, have no shortage of conventional weapons. The Filipinos, on the other hand, were extremely short of them. One might argue that the turning point in the Filipino insurrection came before it had actually begun—when U.S. diplomatic pressure was sufficient to dissuade the Japanese from shipping the 5,000 rifles to Emilio Aguinaldo’s insurgents. The result was the annihilation of 220,000 Filipinos, with 2,000 Americans killed.

How is it that the United States again finds itself in an incipient insurgency with so little real study of past conflicts? The Filipino revolutionaries were not that committed to their cause, and the United States exploited fissures among them to quash the rebellion. The U.S. counterinsurgency also was helped immeasurably by the Filipinos’ choice to fight a more conventional war rather than a real guerrilla insurgency, or people’s war.

But a people’s war is what the Iraqis, especially the majority Shia, are now preparing to execute in the face of a continued American occupation.

The first step in such a war, as can be seen in the destruction of the Iraqi village of Kiwali, is to make certain that the Iraqi population understands that there will be no “free riders,” and that the population will commit to the side of the insurgents. That process will take a while, as it did in the American colonies. (The Americans and their court historians have so little studied their own revolution from a guerilla-war perspective.) If it succeeds, helped by a popular reaction to U.S. counter-violence, it will be a very long intervention and occupation.

The insurgents are now also making it clear that coalition partners and contract companies will not have a cheap ride either. With insurance rates facing independent contractors going up by 300 percent, how many besides V.P. Cheney’s old company, Halliburton (now KBR), will choose to stay the course? And, our service men and women, not paid $100,000 to $200,000 for enlisting as are private contractors, are becoming increasingly disillusioned as well.

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William Marina was a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.