Are roadside bombs a 'last measure'?

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What’s there really to say about the numbers coming from Afghanistan on roadside bombs? Per the AP:

  • Insurgent use of roadside bombs in Afghanistan has surged 80 percent this year, remaining the No. l killer of foreign troops, a NATO official said Thursday.
  • Last year, improvised devices and other roadside explosives killed 172 U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. At least 31 American soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs this year, according to the Defense Department.
  • NATO reports that roadside bombs have caused 60 percent of the deaths in Afghanistan and severely wounded thousands of troops.
  • Part of the reason for the increase, [Military Spokesman] Blanchette said, is the militants’ understanding that they can’t confront the military in direct action. “They are using this as a last measure,” he said.

First, a word about lanuage. ‘Roadside bomb’ is one of those terms that will always be associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s sort of a quaint word, not too menacing sounding. Like a roadside stand selling lemonade. Repetition of the term in headlines and news stories has taken away its oomph. It conjures up some vague image of dust enveloping a Humvee. The roadside bomb is one those iconic-ish symbols that will probably linger in America’s collective memory from these wars, in the same way that whooshing rotor blades and napalm stick with us from Vietnam.

But I wanted to raise a question about Gen. Blanchette’s claim.   He says the “insurgents” (another one of those tricky terms) are using the bombs because of “…the militants’ understanding that they can’t confront the military in direct action. “They are using this as a last measure,” he said.”

I hope General Blanchette doesn’t really believe this, and he’s just saying this for its propaganda value. The roadside bomb has been the first resort, second resort, third resort, of the guerilla/insurgent/terrorist folks, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. The booby trap is always a favorite for guerillas. Why? Because it is cheap and effective and kills lots of Americans. Also, you can set up and detonate bombs without losing your own life. So it’s smart and deadly, and you can live to fight another day, which is the whole point of fighting a guerilla/insurgent campaign.

But look how Gen. Blanchette frames the issue, in a lame attempt to get some kind of positive spin out of what’s clearly bad/neutral news. He’s right, the militants won’t win in ‘direct action’–if direct action is defined as the militants gathering in a field or building with their AK-47’s and RPG’s and Taliban headbands on, waiting for NATO to drop an air strike on them. Hunh, I wonder, why the militants don’t fight in a way that gives their enemy(that is, NATO) a total and complete advantage?

So saying the insurgents are using roadside bombs as a ‘last measure’–implying that it’s a desperate tactic–is misleading at best. More worryingly (but am I really worried?), it’s a statement that still, to this day, is indicative of the military’s thinking on the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan that goes back to Vietnam. That a guerrilla opponent is somehow “cheating” and “fighting dirty.” If Charlie would just come out and fight, we’d kick their ass! Or, more recently: It’s unfair that the Taliban are hiding behind civilians!

These complaints have as much merit as the Taliban whining about our helicopters and predator drones and air strikes. If you infidels would just throw off your body armor, grow beards, and get a day job at the opium field, we’d smoke y’all quick! (In fact, folks have complained about America’s unfairness before. After we dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, a Japanese officer complained to journalist George Weller that it was an “unfair” thing to do.)

This kind of mentality is best summed up in a line that gets repeated all the time about Vietnam: we won every battle but lost the war. Okay, so what? “Winning” every battle while “losing” the war suggests we were fighting the wrong battles all along, perhaps fighting the wrong war. It suggests that our own puffed up sense of pride in our technological superiority is often misplaced. (Winning while losing–that’s Army Strong!) Anyway, it’s something one says to heal wounded pride, not to get a realistic understanding of the situation. And I think that’s what’s going on with General Blanchette’s line–trying to say something that takes the sting off of our struggles to deal with roadside bombs, billions of dollars and thousands of lives later.

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About michaelhastings

Journalist
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One Response to Are roadside bombs a 'last measure'?

  1. Completely agree with you, Michael. One of the silliest points to be made both in Iraq and Afghanistan. How someone is killed doesn’t make them any less dead or make the US or NATO forces look any less vulnerable. And, since the ambush model was used so effectively by the mujahadin against the Soviets, using roadside bombs–unmanned ambushes, as it were–harkens back to the glory days of homegrown Afghan resistance, meaning it can be a PR boost for the insurgents, rather than a shortcoming.

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