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The War Nerd / September 13, 2008
By Gary Brecher

America’s chickenhawks are ready to turn Georgia into a nation of missing-relative-seeking refugees.

I’d hate to be Georgia right now. So many American pundits have plans for the Georgians, brilliant schemes designed to get Georgia into a big war with the Russians. “Here’s what you oughta do….” It’s like listening in on bar talk—some drunk trying to talk a 98-pound weakling into a rematch with the hulking thug who just put him on the floor. Funny thing, they never want to prove their theory themselves.

The backseat generals started early. On August 16, a week after the fighting between Russian and Georgian troops started, the neocon magazine Weekly Standard featured a chirpy, upbeat article listing all the hardware we could ship to the Georgians to help them fight a nice, long, bloody guerrilla war.

It was classic Tom Clancy stuff, all based on the idea you make war with stuff, not people. These guys just won’t face the fact that for the guerrilla, the key weapon, the only weapon that matters, is people—and starting a guerrilla war means sentencing most of the people in your address book to a very nasty death.

Now we’ve got Sarah Palin, everybody’s favorite sniper-mom, volunteering to go to war with Russia over South Ossetia.

As far as I know, Palin isn’t volunteering to go there herself. She sticks to targets that don’t shoot back, like moose. But then that’s what all these eager volunteers have in common: none of them are actually going to go over and fight the Russians themselves, and as far as I know none of them even thought about asking the poor Georgians whether they’re up for the sheer Hell of a guerrilla war. All the Georgians wanted was to join NATO, make a little money and maybe get a used car. They’re like a guy who joins the Army for a college scholarship and finds himself on the front lines—except they’re not even in NATO yet. We’re volunteering them to make the ultimate sacrifice and we haven’t even let them in the club yet.

The absolute craziest cheerleading came out of an article in DoD buzz by Greg Grant, quoting an anonymous Department of Defense source who wants Georgia to become the new Hezbollah.

Greg’s anonymous warmonger got a big, way-too-enthusiastic boost from Noah Schachtman who writes for this lame-named war site, “The Danger Room,” in Wired magazine. His article, “Should Georgia Become A Black Sea Hezbollah?” seems to come up with a gung-ho answer, basically, “Sure! Do it!” Wrong question, and definitely wrong answer.

I’m pretty sure if you asked any Georgians, they’d screech, “Agh! No! We don’t want to live like Hezbollah, cowering in our huts under constant bombardment, raising kids with no prospects but martyrdom!” But then the neocons haven’t asked anybody in Georgia. Safe in their living rooms, they think it’d be a great idea for Georgia, a very unwarlike little middle-class country, to try to imitate the Lebanese Shia who make up Hezbollah’s suicide squads.

The strangest thing about these articles is that they just drip admiration for Hezbollah. It’s weird to find American defense pundits praising Hezbollah all of a sudden. I’ve been talking up Hezbollah’s military wing for years, and all I got was a lot of abuse.

Back when Israel and Hezbollah fought in 2006, every mainstream military pundit was assuring America that Israel would soon drive Hezbollah out of South Lebanon. I said no chance, and eventually, without admitting they were wrong and I was right, the pundits have changed their minds. Now they just love Hezbollah and want our poor Georgian allies to imitate Hezbollah. But these armchair Rambos just don’t get it. You can’t take a peace-loving, middle-class Georgian and make him into a Hezbollah guerrilla. You have to start with the right kind of people, because guerrilla war—I keep having to repeat this—is about people. It’s not gadgets, it’s not clever strategies, it’s not a McGyver episodes. It’s being willing to accept a level of misery and death the average American can’t imagine. Won’t imagine. That’s what it takes. That’s why I knew Hezbollah would win the 2006 war with Israel: because they have been through decades of misery, cluster bombs raining down on their miserable villages, raids by the proxy-force South Lebanon Army—and through it all, Hezbollah has been doing the slow, boring work of organizing the dirt-poor Shia, providing basic services, suffering with them and preparing them for the big fight. That’s what makes a good guerrilla army: misery channeled into paramilitary organization. That’s what made it possible for the Shia to force the Israelis out of Lebanon, and then fight them to a stalemate when they tried to come back in 2006: because they’d been living rough, poor and hopeless for a long time, then had that misery turned into a coldblooded willingness to die. That’s the un-cool, no-fun side of guerrilla warfare: the guerrillas lose way, way more people than the armies fighting them.

And it’s not just the terrible deaths, it’s the sheer misery, years of it, that leads up to those deaths. Maybe these gung-ho guys who want the Georgians to start a guerrilla war could just stop a second and imagine what it’s actually like to live through that kind of Hell. We’ll start with the relatively light stuff. If you’re a family from an insurgent area, the first thing you notice is that you no longer have electric light or running water. It’s standard counterinsurgency practice to bomb insurgent communities’ water and power sources. We generally just flick past that part of the news stories to more “serious” things, like casualty figures. But it’s not so trivial if you’ve ever tried to live without water and power, especially when you’re trying to take care of kids. They don’t bomb the power plant by accident, or because they’re bad people. It’s standard counterinsurgency pratice to make life unbearable for the civilians who back the guerrillas. The enemy escalates your misery, day after day, from cutting off your medical supplies, power and water to random artillery strikes and air attacks on anybody who goes outside to get a loaf of bread.

Then come the kidnappings, the reprisal killings, the massacres. Again: not accidental “atrocities” but standard military practice. There’s a standard figure for guerrilla warfare that for every soldier the guerrillas kill, they can expect to lose ten people from their own community. But that’s a very conservative figure.  It can go much, much higher. It’s a lot easier to kill the civilians who support the guerrillas than to catch the guerrillas themselves. That’s how the British brought the Boers to the negotiating table: couldn’t catch the Boer guerrillas so they put the whole Boer civilian population in concentration camps to die of every African plague they had going. Worked real well: 25% of the whole Boer population died and the Boer guerrillas out in the veldt went insane with grief, gave up the war—which they were winning, militarily.  Think of all the people you know, everybody in your family, and randomly cross out a quarter of their pictures from your little family album. That’s the price Georgia would pay if they were foolish enough to listen to Wired magazine.

If neocons have their way, Georgian civilians will wind up like Chechens on

It comes down to pure, grim arithmetic: the size of the civilian population backing the guerrillas, their birth rate, and the size and birth rate of the enemy army. And from that perspective things look very bad for Georgia. There are more than 140 million people in Russia and Moscow has had no problem recruiting mercenaries, “kontraktniki,” to serve in Chechnya. They’ve done it so well in Chechnya that they’ve just about killed off all the Chechen males of military age. You can do that with small populations. It’s what we did by proxy in El Salvador, a nice small country, and it’s what the Russians would do in Georgia if the Georgians really were stupid enough to play Red Dawn with them.

Here’s what these American Hezbollah fans’ daydream would mean if you’re a Georgian civilian during an anti-Russian insurgency: the door gets kicked in at 3 am and a squad of mercenaries comes in firing from the hip. If your family doesn’t die in their beds it’s because the contraktniki have a use for some or all of you. The uses can be gang-rape if you’re a woman or girl, ransom if they think you or your relatives have money, or interrogation if you were unlucky enough to grow up with some of the local insurgents. It doesn’t matter to them if you’re a pacifist, if you’ve spent your life avoiding the local hotheads who run the insurgency. They’re going to torture you anyway, and whether you talk or not they’re going to kill you when they’re done, most likely in some way involving power drills or gasoline because that’s also standard counterinsurgency practice.

And even when you’re dead they’re not through with you. They’re going to drive an army truck up to your family’s shattered house next morning and dump your body in the mud outside so your mother and sister can see exactly what they did to you.

Hezbollah was able to endure the misery of guerrilla war for a lot of reasons—none of which apply to Georgia at all. Hezbollah’s backers are impoverished Shia Muslims, who are in love with martyrdom, have no possessions to speak of, and have a very high birth rate. It may sound brutal, but high birthrates are basic to guerrilla war, for the simple reason that a lot of people are going to be massacred—dozens of your people for every enemy soldier the guerrillas kill.

The Georgian bithrate is very low, 10.87 per thousand. That’s barely better than Germany (9.35) and about half of Lebanon’s—and the Shia population has a much higher rate than the overall Lebanese rate. The Chechens are another people with a very high birth rate, the highest by far of any former Soviet people.

But the total size of the population matters too. the Chechen population is small enough that the Russians have simply killed most of the young men willing to fight them, because there are (or were) only about 1.5 million Chechens. Georgia is also a very small country, with a total population of 4.6 million.

The Georgians just aren’t the kind of desperate, poor community that can handle a guerrilla war. Georgians always have had a rep for smart businessmen. All they wanted was to join NATO and have decent lives; they didn’t sign up to go through what the Shia or the Chechens have suffered. They’re not desperate or young or crazy enough for a guerrilla war, luckily for them.

I’ve been wondering why so-called “experts” just don’t understand the sheer Hell involved in starting a guerrilla war. I think one reason is that we take the American Revolution as the classic example of guerrilla fighting. Well, it wasn’t typical. It was the cleanest-fought semi-guerrilla war in history. Except for “Bloody” Tarleton in the Carolinas, the Brits fought relatively cleanly against us, for the simple reason that the rebels were white English-speaking Protestants the redcoats had been going to dances with a few months earlier. That’s not how most counterinsurgency armies fight, and it sure isn’t typical of British counterinsurgency. Ask the Kikuyu, or the Boers, even the Scots, about that. In the English Civil War, both sides fought pretty clean while it was English-on-English, but when Cromwell’s army headed north to crush the Scots’ rebellion, they took mighty few prisoners. And when they crossed over to Ireland—ugh, you don’t wanna know.
The Russians, the opponent these armchair guerrillas are setting little Georgia up to fight, aren’t even squeamish about massacring their own people, let alone foreign insurgent civilians. You’d think people would know that, after what’s happened in Chechnya over the last 14 years of war. The Chechens say they lost at least 100,000 dead in the First Chechen War alone.

Nobody’s sure how many have died in the Second Chechen War, but we know they died in really horrible ways, because this was a war between death squads, Russian and Chechen death squads looking for anybody who they thought supported the other side. Those people were snatched, died in sheer agony, and either didn’t get found or were dumped where their families could find them, just for the horror of it. And those who survived had sufferings of their own. Rape is basic strategy in this kind of war, and so is burning houses and driving civilian populations from their homes. At least one third of the total Chechen population had to flee their homes at least once.

After years of fighting the Russians, there are so few men of military age left in Chechnya that the insurgents have to drop their Islamic rules and let Chechen war widows volunteer for suicide missions, like the group that occupied a Moscow musical theater in 2002.

By the time a “war widow” is ready to take over a Moscow theatre and plant bombs around the exits, she’s seen a lot more than her husband’s death. She’s lived through something that we can’t even imagine. In fact, guys like these so-called experts at Wired seem to be trying real hard not to imagine what would happen to the Georgians if they took this insane advice.  It’s way more fun, I guess, if you don’t think too hard about what you’re asking these people to do.

This article first appeared on Alternet.

Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to

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