by Gordon Taylor | 2/29/2008 02:20:00 AM

That's how cold it has been at night in the mountains of Kurdistan this past week: minus 26 degrees C. As someone who winces at frost and has never been close to combat, I cannot begin to contemplate the horror of it. As American news channels dissected every nuance of Hillary and Barack's statements, as well as the Incredible Importance of Obama's Middle Name, as Hollywood cavorted and necklines plunged, a pitched battle of almost mythic savagery has been raging in the canyons east of the river Zab.

After a week, the outcome of the battle between the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is still in doubt. The mountains are sealed, and no independent observers can get in. The Turks claim well over 200 "terrorists" have been killed in the fighting, including the PKK leader who planned the 21 October raid near Daglica (Oramar) which left 12 Turkish soldiers dead. The PKK responded that this was a lie. This mythical "commander" did not exist, they said, and he was certainly not dead. They claim to have lost five guerrillas in the fighting, and they have posted their names on their website. In their latest communiques they claim that the number of Turkish dead has gone over 100. The TSK, they say, is withdrawing toward the Zab. One of their leaders, Murat Karayilan, has sent his congratulations to the "heroes" of the battle. In other news, the PKK claims to have ambushed a TSK column in another sector.

One thing is certain: the Turkish Army has not rolled to some overwhelming victory. In fact, they are under pressure from the Americans (who supply their intelligence and AWACS planes), as well as the Iraqis, to get out. Remember, this is guerrilla warfare. If the PKK survives, they win. If the Turkish Army does not win, it loses. The PKK appears to have done more than survive. The TSK has had a week to do its worst. They have sent in their elite mountain commandos, the toughest fighters they have, men infamous for their practice of cutting off the ears of their fallen enemy, soaking them overnight in Coca-Cola, and using the remaining cartilage as key rings. [see Nadire Mater, "Voices from the Front"] They have hit the PKK with F-16s, with heavy artillery, with bombs guided by American and Israeli intelligence, with helicopter gunships and aerial drones. And still the men (and women)of the PKK have withstood the assault. If a feat of arms such as this had been performed by the U.S. Marines or the French Foreign Legion, they'd have relics of it preserved in a glass case in a museum.

All of this reminds me of one of the best things I.F. Stone ever wrote, a piece which he called [and I have no source to cite other than memory], "What's Really at Stake in Vietnam." At that time, in the middle of the Vietnam conflict, things were not going well. We weren't losing any battles, and yet we weren't winning the war. Lyndon Johnson had just given a speech in which he referred to the evil Communist guerrillas, sneaking around in the night, not playing fair and coming out for a real fight. Many people ridiculed this, of course, for what else had the Minutemen done after Lexington and Concord, and why else was Francis Marion called the "Swamp Fox"? I.F. Stone analyzed our official reasons for Vietnam--the fight against godless Communism, Munich analogies, domino theories, etc.--and found them, not surprisingly, to be mere rationalizations. The real root of our frustration, he found, lay in that most famous of quotes by General Curtis LeMay, the one about "bombing them back into the Stone Age."

This, Stone said, lay at the heart of our real terror. We couldn't imagine that any people so primitive that they lived in pre-Industrial conditions, wearing only black pajamas and subsisting on a bowl of rice a day, fighting without jet planes, heat-seeking missiles, or radar, could really challenge us on the field of battle. What was at stake, he said, was not our belief in God but our belief in General Motors. Without technology, what were we? With all these modern weapons, why weren't we winning?

To this, of course, the Right always has an answer. It was a plot. It wasn't fair. The politicians screwed us over. They didn't let us win. Resentments like these were rife in Germany after World War I, they will be the same when Turkey withdraws, and talk radio will be alive with them as we retreat from Iraq. Mark my words. Even now Rush Limbaugh is writing the script in his head.

[Note: Again I emphasize that the I.F. Stone essay is quoted from my memory. I stand ready to be corrected if anyone can do so.]




Anonymous Anonymous on 2/29/2008 11:35 AM:

Well said. Empire seems to be an addiction. The excuse for failing to successfully invade another land is always the critics at home, as far as the imperialists are concerned; it's always the people who believe, as the founders did, as Lincoln did, that the military is for defense, not offense.

If the Turks follow the American model, they'll end up paying the PKK to leave them alone and withdrawing.


Anonymous Anonymous on 2/29/2008 4:31 PM:

Thank you mind the Kurds and their legitimate struggle
Greetings from Champagne Region in France



Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/29/2008 11:53 PM:

Two thoughts. First, I may never drink Coca-cola again. Second, I'm not sure that survival really is a victory for the PKK any more than I'm sure that anything less than victory is a loss for the Turks.

In fact, I think the difficulty of the campaign is as good for the Turkish Army's propaganda as it is for the PKK -- remembering that hardly anyone in Turkey is going to get both sides. Fallen heroes are much better for the Army than captured and returned soldiers; forcing the PKK to respond or relocate provides substantial intelligence (if they're paying attention) which will be used next time.

This isn't a short-term game: Empires grind slow, but exceedingly fine.


Blogger Gordon Taylor on 3/01/2008 3:36 AM:


Yeah, it certainly isn't a short-term game. Both sides are implacable, stubborn, immovable, and violent. The PKK has survived the capture of their leader, Ocalan, and despite his rather poor performance (by their standards) in custody (saying, basically "Hey, I didn't really mean it, I love Turkey, I love Turks," etc.), he remains their leader and symbol. Their ideology is, by my middle-class liberal Democrat standards, an absurdity; and yet, the brutality and stupidity of the Turkish authorities continues to drive young Kurds to their cause. And believe me, the Kurds continue to pour into the streets holding up PKK banners and yelling for Apo when it comes time for demonstrations.

I know that both sides will spin this episode to their advantage, but based on the evidence I've weighed so far, it seems that the PKK has achieved a major victory by holding out against a horrendous onslaught. I think it's telling that the BBC's correspondent is reporting that the reaction of Turks is "bafflement" at the Army's sudden withdrawal. I mean, Gates comes and the Turks are adamant: "We'll withdraw when the job is done." A few hours later, they pull out their troops. This does not sound like a big victory to me. And I don't think that the returned soldiers are going to brag about it as a victory. They've been to hell and back, and the looks on their faces show it.

And last, I haven't drunk Coca-Cola since high school, after my chemistry teacher told us that you could dissolve a nail in the stuff. Nails, ears...the miracle-working ingredient for axe murderers.


Blogger Unknown on 3/01/2008 5:58 PM:


This is a really interesting piece. Would you be willing to cross-post it over at We are just sort of getting off the ground as a group blog and I'd love to have this go up over there. I don't know how much response it will get (we are all pretty swamped, etc.), but I'd love to have some stuff on Iraq written by someone who actually knows something about it circulating through the site.



Anonymous Anonymous on 3/03/2008 3:23 PM:

"Empires grind slow, but exceedingly fine" - I like that. It's true, to a point. It's also true that mere survival is victory when under the grinding of an Empire, because Empires have to expend so much effort holding themselves together.