Rhetorical questions

The recent chest-thumping by a top US Army officer about slaying ISIS fighters with shovels inadvertently captures the pitfalls of Washington's policy in the Fertile Crescent, writes James Snell.

Whatever else he is, Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, is at the very least appropriately named. The élan with which he recently wrote about the American campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) would be worthy of the protagonist of any Hollywood Western.

In a post on Facebook earlier this month, Troxell wrote that “ISIS needs to understand that the Joint Force is on orders to annihilate them.”

Troxell continued: “They have two options should they decide to come up against the United States, our allies and partners: surrender or die!” He notified ISIS fighters that, if they chose not to surrender to the Global Coalition, they would be killed with “extreme prejudice.” And the extremity of that prejudice would be manifested “through security force assistance, by dropping bombs on them, shooting them in the face, or beating them to death with our entrenching tools.”

That last suggestion took hold of a few imaginations. To aid others, Troxell later posted a line drawing which serves as a guide, explaining exactly how to dispatch an aggressor with a modified shovel. He insisted that the entrenching tool is a “versatile and formidable weapon.”

It is easy to simply scoff at this language, or indeed to feign horror and outrage that military men speak in this way. But there is something to be learnt by resisting the temptation.  This particular rhetorical exercise is part of a broader American strategy within the global campaign against ISIS, for better, or, as the case may be, worse.

In discussing ISIS casualties, American policymakers and diplomats can be casually brutal. Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to that coalition, frequently invokes ISIS fighters not only killed, but rotting in the streets. During the denouement of the Raqqa campaign, McGurk tweeted with satisfaction that the bodies of ISIS fighters were “still visible along some roadsides.”

This rhetoric may seem the result of extreme confidence and security—the hardness of winning a necessary fight. But there is more to it than that.

These rhetorical excesses, which are greater in intensity than American officials have tended to offer in other recent conflicts, are noteworthy. They’re noteworthy because the Americans feel the need to assert that they are fighting ISIS and doing so with real violence. This language not only documents a campaign in progress, but serves to emphasize what Americans hope onlookers will take to be its brutal effectiveness.

If this were simply being done, and ISIS fighters were being killed en masse by American soldiers on the ground, it would not need to be said so loudly. But there lies the problem, and it relates to what came at the beginning of Troxell’s list.

Sure, the Americans are “dropping bombs” on ISIS; they are doing so constantly and with success. Tens of thousands of American bombs have been dropped each year of the campaign; they have likely accounted for thousands of ISIS casualties. But the role which the United States’ military is playing in the present drama is, essentially, that of a supporting character. The most powerful nation on earth participates in ‘security force assistance’ more than anything else.

Proxy forces do the heavy lifting. In Syria, this part is taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). In Iraq, the peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) were given extensive American support in pushing ISIS out of the north of the country. The Iraqi state was assisted in retaking major urban centres, including fighting hard for the city of Mosul, ISIS’ Iraqi capital. And the Americans must also accommodate with the militias operating within Iraq, many of them openly sectarian and backed by Iran, collected under the Hashd al-Shaabi umbrella, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). These alliances are fragile and often uncomfortable.

Instead of documenting a conflict in which American soldiers are directly participant, government and military men talk about the actions others performed with American support.Troxell’s comments unintentionally highlight that the United States is leaning on local actors to fight the Islamic State. Because so much of the fighting has been delegated to partner forces and proxies, the Americans almost need to demonstrate that they are involved, and to do so with visceral language.

This tic can appear in odd ways. When the United States attacks an enemy in Syria which is not ISIS, its representatives do not use language approaching Troxell’s. This happened when US forces struck an attacking column of jihadists aligned with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which looked likely to threaten an American base near al-Tanf that was also occupied by CIA-vetted rebels. After this strike, a spokesman said, “now that they’ve backed off, we’re not going after them.” Compare this to the above.

Because the United States is providing the airpower and the rhetoric, it feels chained to the fight against ISIS. This manifests itself in a monomaniacal focus on the anti-ISIS campaign, minimising all other conflict and disharmony. When the Iraqi state seized territory from the autonomous KRG after the latter held a referendum on independence, the United States appealed for calm and peace not with the authority of the world’s sole superpower, but with a rather sullen suggestion that this internecine conflict put the fight against ISIS in jeopardy.

Rhetoric of this kind is also part of a more general American problem. Its political leaders have no real enthusiasm for instituting local governance in the areas ISIS held. Their focus is solely given to defeating the caliphate. This perhaps explains McGurk’s lingering on the deaths of enemy fighters. For the Americans, tabulating ISIS casualty counts takes precedence over a truly sustainable strategy, which would engender and require an entirely different use of rhetoric.

Troxell’s language is not necessarily shocking and ought not to be seized upon as an indication of American barbarism. But it does point to a surprising irony of the American position in the present war: it is a participant, but at a distance; bearing the costs financially and deploying extensive airpower, but not shouldering burdens on the ground in significant numbers. This is so evident that the Americans have to compensate rhetorically, assuring onlookers of the prejudice with which US forces will “terminate” ISIS targets. This linguistic directness stands in direct contrast to the confused state of American policy in Syria and Iraq. And both the rhetoric and the confusion look set to persist.