Morgue officials in Baghdad on Sunday reported 29 dead bodies; most, they said, showed signs of torture. It is time that we declare the insurgency over, for a civil war has begun. Militias hold neighborhoods and clash in the streets. They take opposing militants and civilians captive, torturing them for information and infamy. Brutality is in force everywhere, no party exempt from the depravity of human nature revealed by anarchy and necessity. All expect death.
In this civil war, the Iraqis have returned to the State of Nature, taking interference as their right, lusting by power after power, disregarding justice and the law. Surely, some say, the Iraqis will join in mutual submission to the purpose of self-preservation. Surely they will establish a social contract to exit the State of War and enter that of civil society. Surely, if only the oppressive Americans would get out of the way, the Iraqis would take responsibility for themselves.
But American troops are already out of the way. So close in proximity, they are still absent, stored up in compounds and bases cordoned off from the streets, lest their boots become bloody. Positioned as a liberating force, the American presence is minimized, felt only in major operations.
Moreover, the Iraqis no longer so esteem self-preservation. The specter of mortality looms over them; the Iraqis are certain only that they may soon die, without warning or justification. Revenge, rather than self-preservation, is the overriding motivation. Brothers seek to avenge the torture of their brothers; mothers, the capture of their sons; fathers, the rape of their daughters. Iraqis accept death, but desire vengeance. In a context where vengeance is the norm, a social contract is impossible, for the context is one in which trust is compromised, promises are belittled, and words lose their meaning.
If not by social contract, how do civil wars end? The answer is evident in history: by victory, complete destruction or separation into multiple states. Either a strong faction imposes order upon the disorder of the conflict, factions battle until one can no longer continue or the factions form separate states. In Iraq, each of these conclusions is possible, contingent largely on American foreign policy.
America has three options: remain in Iraq under the current strategy, leave Iraq altogether or adopt a new strategy in Iraq. The current strategy aims at a democratic country. Thus, it presents American troops as liberators, identifies the enemy as an insurgency and tries to enlist the help of the Iraqis in squashing the insurgency and developing democratic institutions. But it does not recognize that Iraq is in the throes of an emerging civil war. For this reason, the result of the current strategy will be continual conflict between internal Iraqi factions — with Americans periodically stuck in the middle — and the civil war will not end until one side has completely destroyed the fighting capabilities of the others.
If America leaves Iraq, the civil war will develop more quickly. However, barring regional interference, no faction will have a monopoly on power, and no side will be able to impose an order of its own, a la Saddam. Further, the American troops will not be there to hold the single state together. A likely result: the formation of separate states. But this outcome will leave all weak and susceptible to undue regional influence. It will further destabilize the region, and it will legitimize, in the eyes of the majorities, the forced relocation or purgation of internal minority groups. Think the gassing of the Kurds, times 10.
Finally, America could remain in Iraq, adopting a new strategy founded upon the recognition of civil war. Under this strategy, America determines that it will use its own military might to impose order. Instead of being based in outposts and garrisons, the troops would take to the streets — a marine on every corner, imposing martial law, tolerating no dissent. In short, the American troops would understand themselves to be and conduct themselves as occupiers rather than liberators. This may seem ruthless, but what is called ruthless is often in war merely clarity, doing what is necessary when it needs to be done.
An enforced order by American troops would be harsh; indeed, Iraqis would be less free than today. But what use is freedom when it is expressed in mutilated corpses? Under the new strategy, the dream of a democratic Iraq, at least in the short run, would evaporate. But in return, the military would have a defined objective with clear parameters for success, Iraq would regain stability and influence in the region and the days of anarchy and civil war in Iraq would be numbered.
Peter Johnston is a sophomore in Saybrook College. This is his first regular column.