American Sardaukar? Best combat picture from Iraq, anyway

lthough Susanna seemed to like it, my analogy back on this post — comparing American troops to the Atreides in Dune — wasn’t quite perfect.

Truth be told, the overwhelmingly superior efficiency, dedication and effectiveness of U.S. troops today is more closely comparable to the Sardaukar. That’s not an analogy I like to make, because the Sardaukar were the bad guys — or at least, allied with the bad guys. They were arrogant, and received their comeuppance from the little-regarded, fanatical desert people they thought they could easily crush. So you can see how I wouldn’t like that analogy at this particular point in history. It doesn’t fit with my worldview at all.

Probably the best way to put it in Dune terms (if one is to be so frivolous as to draw such analogies) is that the U.S. military has the virtue of the Atreides combined with the competence of the Sardaukar. (And now that I think about it, I seem to recall that the reason the emperor sent the Sardaukar after the Atreides was that the Atreides troops under Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck had been trained to the point that they were almost as tough as the Sardaukar, and the emperor saw that as a threat. So maybe our guys are the Atreides after all — or what the Atreides might have been. That makes the sci-fi nerd in me feel so much better.)

This brings me, through a leap that probably makes sense only to me, to a photo I grabbed from AP back during the fighting in Fallujah in 2004, and never used. If I had been blogging then, I would have posted it, but I wasn’t.

It’s the best photo I can remember seeing from the fighting in Iraq. Actually, when you think about it, it was one of the LAST photos of actual fighting I’ve seen. You don’t see pictures of action any more on the wires. You see portraits of soldiers and marines who have died, and pictures of caskets and funerals. You see pictures taken AFTER something happened — say, the aftermath of an IED. Or you see pictures of soldiers on routine patrol, or aiming their weapons from a fixed defensive position, but not firing them.

What you don’t see is American troops inexorably, irresistibly advancing the way they are in this photo. This photo is classic, and illustrates a standard offensive infantry tactic in the act. Maybe some of you with infantry experience will correct me on this, but what I see is one soldier laying down covering fire down a street with his M-240 Bravo (which, as James reminded us Monday, is likely manufactured right here in Columbia SC, at FN) while the other men in the squad cross the street. Another soldier (actually, I’m guessing these are Marines; someone with sharper eyes than mine can probably tell for sure) backs up the machine-gunner, prepared to shoot with aimed fire at any enemy who stick their heads out, using his standard rifle.

The second man to cross the street is another machine-gunner, who will no doubt establish a base of fire from the opposite side of the street in order to allow the first MG operator and the last of the squad to cross.

The squad seems to be operating with a relentless, almost mechanical efficiency that is terrible to behold — if you are the enemy. In fact, it’s probably the unusual perspective of this photo that created the literary (if you can call sci-fi "literary") allusion in my mind: This is probably what it looks like when you are the enemy, and the U.S. Marines are coming to get you — like the Sardaukar with their "hard faces set in battle frenzy."

As I said, you don’t see many pictures like this one. It’s impressive. It certainly made an impression on me.

25 thoughts on “American Sardaukar? Best combat picture from Iraq, anyway

  1. bud

    This illustrates what’s wrong with our country today. Every problem has a government solution, often involving the military. That philosophy has become so engrained in the psyche of many, like Brad, that they simply cannot understand how all this killing we do in the name of making the world a better place simply does not work. They can see how Russian aggression is wrong, but somehow cannot make the same connection with our own killing.
    So what to do? First, we absolutely must stop the killing machine from engaging in ever more foreign adventures that merely serve to slaughter innocent people. We can set an example for the rest of the world to follow. Next, we should cut our military down to about 1/3 the size that it is now. A force that size would be more than adequate to defend our nation but would not be nearly large enough to engage in dangerous missions of imperialism. Third, we should weem our way off of the addiction of fossil fuels. That way we don’t need to rely on oil sources that must be defended. That would eliminate the largest source of friction in the world. We may have to do without that SUV or, gasp, walk into a fast food restaraunt rather than sit in our idling car in the drive-thru. But isn’t that a small price to pay for a little peace of mind.
    With a little bit of common sense and a change in mindset we can make this country great again. But we will never be a great nation until we come to grips with this imperialistic mindset. Brad could have just as easily shown a group of people engaging in a peaceful endevour aimed at making the world a better, more peaceful place. But no, Brad finds killing, death and destruction somehow grand and glorious. And he wonders why the Russians are so concerned about western ambitions. Please, isn’t it obvious.

  2. bill

    When there’s no one else in sight
    In the crowded lonely night
    Well I wait so long
    For my love vibration
    And I’m dancing with myself

  3. Brad Warthen

    bud believes the Russian invasion is our fault — ours and Mr. Saakashvili’s.

    bud should enjoy the op-ed piece in the WSJ today written by a kindred spirit — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who writes that his country will "continue to seek to deprive the present Georgian regime of the potential and resources to do more mischief."

    That the Russians can act and think this way with impunity is only part of the problem. The other part is that when they spout this nonsense, there are Americans listening and nodding and saying, "Damn straight!" Or maybe something that doesn’t sound quite so verbally violent, such as "Yes, of course!"

    Wait a sec — I didn’t organize those thoughts correctly. The REASON they can get away with it is that there are people in this country, and in Western Europe — people who don’t know what they’re talking about — agreeing with them. That’s what I meant to say…

  4. Doug Ross

    I was 11 years old when I saw this photo
    on the front page of the Boston Globe. This is what war is.

  5. bud

    Those of us who want to stop U.S. imperialism must ban together to stop our meddling in European affairs NOW! To continue provoking the Russians will only escalate this situation. Why are we putting missiles in Poland? Why are we extending NATO membership to Georgia? Damn straight the Russians are pissed. Rembember when they tried to put missiles in Cuba? We didn’t exactly cotton to that. It’s time we disbanded NATO, brought our troop home from Europe and make some sort of attempt to do our part to end the cold war. The Bush administration has done nothing but poke a stick at the Russian bear. And when they finally, predictably lashed back a bit the war monger crowd shouts FOUL!
    Bush and company blew a great chance at creating a peaceful world. After 9-11 the entire world was on on our side. Thanks to Bush and the people who endorsed (some foolishly did so in 2004) and voted for him we now have a big pile of crap to deal with.

  6. bill

    The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity – much less dissent.
    Gore Vidal

  7. Herb Brasher

    There is an interesting sequel to that story. The girl in that picture eventually came to the U.S. and graduated from Columbia International U., and is a committed Christian.
    Doesn’t take away from the horrible facts of napalm, but sometimes there is a tiny silver lining to the cloud.

  8. Herb Brasher

    There is a link here to the story here. I looked on the CIU website, but I don’t think it was ever posted there, or if it was, it has been taken down.

  9. Doug Ross

    And an additional anecdote related to the girl’s story is that when Nixon’s tapes were released, he was heard to say that he suspected the photo was doctored.

  10. Brad Warthen

    Doug, the photo you cite is a very dramatic example of one of the commonest types of pictures of war. It’s an aftermath photo. There are all sorts of aftermath photos, and one subcategory is casualties, military and civilian. Even the most alert photojournalist is seldom able to capture combat itself. If he tries really hard, he can get an IMMEDIATE aftermath photo such as this horrific one. But an action photo realistically showing combat itself — such as the one above — is very, very rare.

    The ultimate example of this sort of rarity is Robert Capa’s famous shot of the death of a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. He captured the very instant the soldier was struck by the bullet, in mid-fall.

    Capa went to great lengths to capture the essence of combat. He was in the second wave on D-Day. Unfortunately — and this is probably the greatest example of lost photographic history I can think of — he sent his film back to England to be processed, and a technician accidentally MELTED THE FILM, so it was all a loss.

    As he ducked under the withering fire at Omaha, Capa kept repeating to himself a phrase he’d learned in the Spanish war: "Es una cosa muy seria. (This is a very serious business.)" That sort of sums it up.

  11. Doug Ross

    The “aftermath” you speak of was the result of a U.S. sanctioned exercise to DROP NAPALM ON HUMAN BEINGS.
    What society can justify doing that? To win a “war”???
    If war is hell, then the people who do these types of things belong there.

  12. Mike Cakora

    While its author is no big fan of Bush 43, Bing West’s The Strongest Tribe has a bit to say about process and aftermath the modern US military way:

    By any historical standard, Mr. West argues, the average U.S. grunt is the model of humane professionalism and, when challenged in open combat, ruthless military efficiency. It enrages him that defeatist American critics seize on isolated incidents such as the Abu Ghraib prison fiasco and civilian deaths in Haditha to portray American soldiers as war criminals. “No nation,” he writes, “ever fought a more restrained and honorable war.”

    War’s pretty unpleasant, but we’re finding ways to minimize suffering by better targeting bad guys. Our guys risk their own lives by holding fire pending better target ID. That’s not only impressive from a technological point of view, it’s honorable to boot. That’s all good.
    What’s even better is that when there is something worth going to war for, we can have greater confidence in our ability not only to fight well, but also fairly. So fairly, in fact, that journalists may even notice.

  13. Mike Cakora

    A lot of folks posting here seem to overlook that the aftermath of most wars is best depicted by a picture like this. The aggressor seeks simply to conquer and subjugate, sometimes eliminate, the enemy. Look at the differences in methods and outcomes between the two most powerful victors of WWII. The US built democratic institutions within Japan and Germany to allow their citizens to join the community of free states; while we still have troops in both countries, they’re not their to interfere with domestic tranquility.
    The Soviets, on the other hand, conquered, looted, and vanquished their charges, putting native puppets in place in what was merely a show of national independence as the Hungarians found in 1956 and the Czechs in 1968.
    No one here could possibly believe that our plan has ever been to rule Iraq, enslave its population, and loot its economy. Were that the case, we’d have done things much differently and not worried about sparing too many lives. The odor of napalm in the morning would have been pervasive.
    Some things are worth fighting for, but heroes are hard to find. Is the absence of war what’s really best for the folks in Burma? Should we take up a collection to save folks in Darfur? Or should we just sit back, pop a brewski, say again that “war is hell” and just get on with our lives?

  14. Doug Ross

    Can you pinpoint for me the moment when the United States was appointed the world’s policeman? Did I miss that amendment to the Constitution?
    Our foreign policy is guided more by economics than humanitarian interests.

  15. bud

    Mike, what a bunch of BS. Our invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in thousands upon thousands of innocent civilian deaths and maimings. We’ve drenched the country in spent uranium tank rounds, cluster bombs and a host of other military hazards.
    As for the isolated nature of Abu Ghraib, how in the hell do you know that? It’s a miracle of stupidity that it ever came to light. Perhaps there are many other incidents that have gone unreported. We’ll likely never know.
    Sure most American soldiers do a pretty good job in keeping civilian casualties low. But the whole mission was handled so sloppily it’s no wonder that as many as a million Iraqis have died as a result. But this is to be expected. This is war. It’s a cruel business that we shouldn’t get into unless we are threatened. We were certainly not threatened by Iraq, far from it. Iraq was completely incapable of threatening anyone. And the biggest losers are the Iraqi people themselves. Please don’t try to sell me on this whole notion that this war is somehow more humane than others. That’s just a pile of crap.

  16. bud

    Since Mike believes we can fight a “humane” war maybe we can accomplish some other oxymoron tasks:
    Maybe Hollywood could make a G rated porn movie.
    Or perhaps we could imbibe on a little non-intoxicating 100 proof vodka.
    Let’s try some good ole non-addictive heroin.
    Perhaps some clean mud-wrestling would be nice this afternoon.

  17. Brad Warthen

    Doug, how about July 26, 1945?
    On that day, the British rejected Winston Churchill’s party for control of Parliament.
    Seems like as good a day as any for marking when the mantel was passed to the U.S.
    Here’s the thing, Doug — the United States has the power to intervene and stop bad things from happening. Not absolute power, and not in all circumstances. But it is more empowered to do so than any country in history, in a global sense. Others who approached that kind of power — say, the Romans, were very different entities, built on very different ideals. Not only do we have greater global reach, but we cherish liberal values that would have been unthinkable to the Romans, and which the British never quite applied to native peoples during their time of empire.
    People who want us to turn away from tyranny, genocide and other forms of injustice like to speak sarcastically of our being the “world’s policeman.” But the fact is that beholding suffering under circumstances in which there is a realistic prospect of intervening effectively and doing NOTHING is morally reprehensible.
    Now if I don’t stop I’ll be quoting Uncle Ben (from Spiderman, not from the rice): “With great power comes great responsibility.”
    We have the power. Not to use it for good when we can is wrong. Abdicating the power itself, as many would have us do — thereby leaving a vacuum that invites far more atrocities — is also wrong. You can’t put this responsibility back in the bottle.
    But while we can’t just lay this responsibility, others may someday be able to take if from us. So those who are horrified at the prospect of U.S. power exercised in the world can comfort themselves with the knowledge that the Chinese are on track to become the world’s dominant power, probably within the lifetimes of some who are reading this. Just wait until THOSE guys are the “world’s policeman.” You’ll look back on this as the Good Old Days.

  18. Brad Warthen

    You know what people who didn’t want the Atreides to take over Arrakis from the Harkonnens said?

    • "It’s all about the spice."
    • "Hawat lied, people died."
    • "Muad-Dib equals a third term of the Old Duke."
    • "The Lady Jessica for Duke."

    Oops, that last one is the slogan of an ardent band of Clintonistas who are still fighting for Hillary 10,000 years in the future. They form a dissident branch of the Bene Gesserit.

  19. Herb Brasher

    Methinks Brad confuses authority and power. Authority is the right to rule. Power is the military “shock and awe” capability.
    There are school teachers who have authority, but no power, and the kids run the classroom. There are, on the other hand, kids, or “bullies” as we used to call them, who have power without authority, but as long as someone in authority lets them, they will usurp authority.
    Our power is pretty “awesome” — maybe, if we don’t run out of money and resources.
    But we need to think long and hard about what our authority position really is. Is it to force our version of democratic government (or some version of it) on other countries? Is it to prevent extreme suffering? What is it? Once we establish that, then we have something to go by. But then we have to be consistent in our application of it.

  20. bud

    This question must be addressed: If we are powerful enough to do the people of some foreign country good then how many American lives and how much treasure should we be willing to expend to accomplish a particular task? Even if (a huuuuuge if) we made the Iraqis better off has it been worth the huge price we’ve paid? Without a bit of bean counting this whole business of doing people abroad a good deed is simply just talk, and arrogant talk at that. Are we willing to allow 10,000 Americans to die in order to keep the Georgian’s in control of South Osettia. How about 20,000? 30,000? If you’re not willing to ask these kinds of questions then your whole argument is utterly meaningless.

  21. Brad Warthen

    You’re right, bud (don’t faint because I said that), such things must be realistically taken into consideration.
    The main factor in that direction, however, is achievability. There has to be a realistic chance of success. That’s actually one of the checkpoints in Just War theory.

  22. Stephen Daugherty

    I’m sure nobody relishes a needless tangle with our troops, but the way our leaders have engaged the military strategy from the top, our enemies may not have to worry as much as they might once have.
    We don’t use the methods of the Sardaukar to train our soldiers; it’s not that deadly. It doesn’t take Fremen fanatics to make it difficult to maintain a war like ours in Iraq indefinitely. It just takes poor justification, an unfinished war elsewhere most people can agree on, unrepentant incompetence, and 4000 deaths and 30,000 wounded in what was originally supposed to be the post-war phase of the fight.
    Before I submit this, let me comment on something: yes, our soldiers are trained to be far more humane than others, and we have our reasons for this. At the same time, a soldier’s job is to kill, is to win a battlefield, and when that battlefield is in the middle of a densely populated city, bystanders will get hurt.
    Also, you could say that our critical absence in certain places was cruel enough as it was. We let the country get out of control, and its nobody elses fault than our own.

  23. Space Ghost

    > They were arrogant, and received their comeuppance from the little-regarded, fanatical desert people they thought they could easily crush.

    In retrospect your analogy was spot-on! Major props on that.

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