The Junk-Shop Pragmatism of Asymmetric Warfare

Like any mere bystander, I'm always at risk of getting etherized by the abstractions of war. So there was something compelling and arresting about hearing writer Mark Danner detail the junk-shop pragmatism that goes into making a roadside bomb and waging so-called "asymmetric warfare."

Danner spoke to radio host Christopher Lydon late last month. The exchange went like this:


Lydon: Your book keeps raising the question of what is power in a world where an IED may represent a few hundred dollars worth of effort that can blow up a multimillion dollar tank. And it happens all the time.
Danner: I remember distinctly finding an IED when I was with some troops in Dora in southern Baghdad. This thing, when we finally were able to get it out of the plastic bag — it was disguised as a bit of garbage — was as simple as you can imagine. It was a little mortar shell — millions of which, literally, are around Iraq, Sadaam bought millions of these things — that had been duct-taped to the base of a phone, the kind of mobile phone you have in your house and you can press button on it that will beep the handset if you lose it. An insurgent would stand up in a building, take the handset and beep it. That would blow this thing up. Simple as can be. Easy as can be to make it. Probably cost a couple hundred bucks, depending how you value the mortar shell. And these things are incredibly effective.

Danner's account really just gives fresh details to something I knew already. But reminders such as these shake me up every time. You can stop a random angry guy who needs a nuclear warhead to carry out his plans. You can't stop a random angry guy who murders with a box-cutter or a cordless phone.

Or, as Danner put it, "You cannot stop all of the IEDs from being made. You cannot stop that. You have to at some point stop the people from wanting to make them. You won’t succeed in stopping all of them, but you might succeed in stopping most of them. It is one thing that I think Americans have learned in the last eight years, that the road toward killing every Jihadist is not the road that the United States has to take."

Danner built on that idea by citing an issue I wrote about here last month:

We read everyday about these drone attacks. Another theme in the pieces by David Rohde in the New York Times was the extreme anger caused by the civilian deaths that are a side effect, a direct effect of using these missiles to attack targets on the ground in parts of Pakistan. And we think this is surgical warfare, but in fact it is people standing on the ground, suddenly being blown up. And blaming this directly on the United States. So these things do have a political cost.

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