Stephen M. Walt

Why They Hate Us (I): on military occupation

Why They Hate Us (I): on military occupation

One of the many barriers to developing a saner U.S. foreign policy is our collective failure to appreciate why military occupations generate so much hatred, resentment, and resistance, and why we should therefore go to enormous lengths to avoid getting mired in them. Costly occupations are an activity you hope your adversaries undertake, especially in areas of little intrinsic strategic value. We blundered into Somalia in the early 1990s without realizing that we weren’t welcome; we invaded Iraq thinking we would be greeted as liberators, and we still don’t fully understand why many Afghans resent our presence and why some are driven to take up arms against us.

The American experience is hardly unique: Britain’s occupation of Iraq after World War I triggered fierce opposition, and British forces in Mandate Palestine eventually faced armed resistance from both Arab and Zionist groups. French rule in Algeria, Syria, Lebanon, and Indochina spawned several violent resistance movements, and Russia has fought Chechen insurgents in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The Shiite population of southern Lebanon initially welcomed Israel’s invasion in 1982, but the IDF behaved badly and stayed too long, which led directly to the formation of Hezbollah. Israelis were also surprised by the first intifida in 1987, having mistakenly assumed that their occupation of the West Bank was benevolent and that the Palestinians there would be content to be governed by the IDF forever.

Military occupation generates resistance because it is humiliating, disruptive, arbitrary and sometimes terrifying to its objects, even when the occupying power is acting from more-or-less benevolent motives. If you’ve ever been caught in a speed trap by a rude or abusive policeman (I have), or selected out for special attention crossing a border (ditto), you have a mild sense of what this is like. You are at the mercy of the person in charge, who is inevitably well-armed and can do pretty much whatever he (or she) wants. Any sign of protest will only make things go badly — and in some situations will get you arrested, beaten, or worse — so you choke down your anger and just put up with it. Now imagine that this is occurring after you’ve waited for hours at some internal checkpoint, that none of the occupiers speak your language, and that it is like this every single day. And occasionally the occupying power kills innocent people by mistake, engages in other forms of indiscriminate force, and does so with scant regard for local customs and sensibilities. Maintain this situation long enough, and some members of the local population will start looking for ways to strike back. Some of them may even decide to strap on explosive vests or get behind the wheel of a explosives-laden truck, and sacrifice themselves.

It is sometimes said that Americans don’t understand this phenomenon because the United States has never been conquered and occupied. But this simply isn’t true. After the Civil War, a “foreign army” occupied the former Confederacy and imposed a new political order that most white southerners found abhorrent. The first Reconstruction Act of 1867 put most southern states under formal military control, supervised the writing of new state constitutions, and sought to enfranchise and empower former slaves. It also attempted to rebuild the south economically, but the reconstruction effort was undermined by corruption and poor administration. Sound familiar? However laudable the aims may have been, the results were precisely what one would expect. Northern occupation eventually triggered violent resistance by the Ku Klux Klan, White League, Red Shirts, and other insurgent groups, which helped thwart Reconstruction and paved the way for the Jim Crow system that lasted until the second half of the 20th century.

Nor should we forget how long a profound sense of anger and resentment lasted. I was recently discussing this issue with a distinguished American journalist who grew up in the South, and he told me that one hundred years after the end of the Civil War, he was still being taught songs that expressed a lingering hatred of what the Yankees had done. Here are a coupl of stanzas from one of them — “I’m a Good Old Rebel” — written by a former Confederate officer and first published in 1914:

I hates the Yankee nation, and everything they do,
I hates the Declaration of Independence too.
I hates the glorious Union, ’tis dripping with our blood   
I hates their striped banner, I fought it all I could.

Three hundred thousand Yankees lie stiff in Southern dust;
We got three hundred thousand, before they conquered us
They died of Southern fever, and Southern steel and shot,
I wish they was three million, instead of what we got.

Or to take a more recent (1974), less poetic example, from Lynyrd Skynyrd:

Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her,
Well I heard old Neil put her down.
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember,
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.

This is what defeat in war and prolonged occupation does to a society: it generates hatred and resentment that can last a century or more. Hatred of the “party of Lincoln” kept the South solidly Democratic for decades, and its political character remains distinctly different even today, nearly 150 years after the civil war ended. (Among other things, Barack Obama has favorable job approval ratings in every region of the country except the South). And don’t forget that unlike our current presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the occupying forces of the North spoke the same language and had been part of the same country prior to the war; in some cases, there were even strong family connections on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Yet defeat in war and military occupation were an enduring source of division for many years thereafter.

The bottom line is that you don’t need to be a sociologist, political scientist, or a student of colonialism or foreign cultures to understand why military occupation is such a poisonous activity and why it usually fails. If you’re an American, you just need to read a bit about Reconstruction and reflect on how its effects — along with the effects of slavery itself — have persisted across generations. If that’s not enough, visit a society that is currently experiencing occupation, and take the time to go through a checkpoint or two. Then you might understand why the local population doesn’t view the occupying forces as benevolent and isn’t as grateful as occupiers often think they ought to be.  

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