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The Sapper in the Sewer

The enemy was nowhere, but everywhere.” Dan Rather, CBS news report, Saigon, 1968.

As the world approaches a period of unmanned systems, automation and perhaps in many fields human obsolescence, warfare marches into its own future of certain uncertainty. Despite the great leaps in technology, warfare is very much the domain of the imperfect human. Perhaps in the not to distant future artificial intelligence will guide and “man” killing machines against one another and human beings. Engineers and geniuses will create and devise such killing machines to ensure that governments stay standing and expand their reach while always ensuring that there is profit from the techno violence. But technologically inferior humans will resist and perhaps overcome as they always have.

The Vietnam War has been described as a ‘technowar’, a war of managers and planners who utilised their technological supremacy against a peasantry and second class enemy that resisted despite any short comings. For the planners and engineers, technology and complicated systems were the answer. Technology and superior ideas and methods is often the wisdom and hubris by which great powers wage wars. At times they will achieve victory, eradicating the enemy and absorbing them into their nation or empire. And when the great fail against the weak, a litany of reasons are sought but never is the will and resilience, determination and conviction of those defending ever properly appreciated, until it is too late.

Twenty years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the US military went home, in many ways the status quo returned to the region despite so much effort and loss. A horrible war. The objectives for the invaders, whether Soviet in the past or NATO in the more recent era was never truly distinct. The basic goal was to prevent the capitulation of a proxy government, one that was never popular, after which Kabul and Saigon still fell. Wars where wisdom and hubris existed alongside the other, those on the ground and who were observing from afar could see in the living minutes what was wrong, the experts and planners persisted regardless. Ever so confident and certain of victory, despite the uncertain aims. The powerful empires, Soviet and American, wrapped in the armour of resources and armed with immense weapon system, failed under the incompetence of their own arrogance. And a determined human enemy won.

In the jungles of South East Asia or the caves of Central Asia, the objective was often simple for the defender. Eject the invader and reject the invaders puppet government. What bought the insurgents to such a cause may at first have been deviant self interest or religious idealism but for many it was a patriotism that the invaders in their own histories had romanced and experienced. The Soviets had once been those ejecting a powerful invader, the Americans were once proud insurgents, greatness changed their perspectives.

The well armed invaders view the native populace as threats or the enemy. Whether walking through a village or observing via screens far away, the natives are unfamiliar. Regardless of how benevolent the invaders claims are, the natives are often considered as being inferior. For the locals, the strangers from afar may as well have come from another planet, alienated by ignorance of local customs, language while heavily relying upon superior technology and academic central plans of subjugation. Their perspectives would have been as different even if they were from off planet.

During the 1968 Tet Offensive, it is argued that the US did not lose militarily, only politically. It was a coordinated offensive between insurgents and North Vietnamese military personnel attacked key targets of the US and their allies. The impressive and expensive US embassy in Saigon came under attack, a handful of insurgents managed to infiltrate and give the US government a symbolic bloody nose. The flea had bitten the dog.

The Gardener and the Warrior

There is a samurai saying, “Better to be a warrior in the garden than a gardener in war”. And while this may be true for individuals, it ignores the importance of will and perspective. The gardener is not always just a gardener, when circumstances call upon them, whether through vengeance or a need to defend the home and garden they become the warrior. Ones craft is defined by how they ply it, most great warriors did not commence their lives with the ambition of being a war fighter and many who are practice the martial trades in peacetime do not necessarily achieve victory in war. Most warriors by trade serve a master, this is their duty. Often duty requires them to venture into the gardens of the gardener and face a man defending his everything, regardless of any peacetime trade and his tools at hand.

There is footage of a slender man, perhaps in his early twenties almost naked being dragged from a sewer drain. His body is drenched in slime, he is armed with a pistol and perhaps a grenade or explosives. He had been crawling through the narrow sewage pipes of Saigon. With great discomfort and risk, he did this in the hopes of gaining entry into the government buildings during the 1968 Tet offensive. One could never imagine that a man would be able to make the journey through such filthy pipes, would risk their life and health while enduring discomfort in the hope that they may plant explosives or shoot a government official. Determination.

The great planners with their war games, think tanks and millions of dollars in research and technological marvels could seldom conceive that such a factor is important. It is not calculable, you can not duplicate it in training and among academic discussions it is not understood by those who are insulated by academia. The will to overcome and not just survive but to kill the enemy, to outlast and destroy them. Such will is important, it can not be trained. It needs to come from purpose and perspective. While the insurgent captured in the sewer tried to crawl his way to fight, some of his comrades had blown holes in the US embassy’s walls and rushed into the compound. Fighting to the death. They did not destroy the US embassy, but they had bitten an empire.

The many governments of the world often invest time and resources into training police and military units that then become the elite. The elites, that train hard and are made up of individuals of great will and skills. Those who are often depicted in fiction as being nearly super human, the men of the special forces. Unique humans that are expected to perform with inhuman ability, to act as tool for their government.

The modern over reach of many governments has exhausted and over utilised these elite warriors, expecting them to perform missions that are almost impossible and then requiring them to do it again. In retirement some become celebrities while others may be lost to the strain and injury of their profession and experiences. These usually men can perform great tasks, are expected to be both mathematicians and elite athletes, operate complicated weapon systems while also performing paramedical acts under great stress. They are the warrior to the gardener.

Their enemy usually do not have such training, skills or logistics. The government elites usually have regular military forces on standby, ready to back them up, aircraft and maritime vessels to extract them and provide support. Their enemies may at best have converted trucks and in the past bicycles and mules. It is uncertain how skilled that man in the sewer was, what he had done before the war, perhaps he was a gardener? As he crawled the sewer he had become a ‘combat sapper’. In that moment he was the machete inside the jungle of conflict, his utility was his simplified focus. His logistics was resilience and will. Though captured, his failure was in some ways a victory. As he was filmed and dragged into custody his pathetic state of sewage slick nudity contrasted with the uniformed men of the government, inside a decade Saigon fell.

The Engineer

In a recent episode of Dan Carlin’s podcast titled ‘Engineering Victory with Elon’, Elon Musk discussed the importance of the engineer in warfare. How the engineer was often ignored as far as

by the historians. Musk made some interesting and relevant points. The engineers were crucial, they are often downgraded after the fact, compared to the strategists and political leaders of war. Musk went on to make the case that technological supremacy is the key to victory, that the US government could have won in Vietnam if it had of ‘wanted’ to. Musk claimed that the US government fought the war with the aim of preserving civilian life. Carlin politely mentioned the fact that the US had destroyed nearly every building and village in North Korea, during that war. But the issue was not pressed. Carlin did not mention the extensive civilian death count, not only in Vietnam but in neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. Instead the conversation returned to the importance of technology and air supremacy.

The mindset that any great power could win any war if it really wanted to, is one that is held by engineers like Musk, strategists and it is also the self preserving declaration of the defeated imperialist. How does one win an insurgency? Wars between governments is one things but against the ‘people’ it becomes a harder to define path to victory. If the goal is to kill every person in a region, to turn a nation into glass, then certainly the United States or any nuclear armed nation could do this. Is that victory though? And was that the aim and intention during the South East Asian war that the United States waged?

What was the actual goals in the wars on Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc? To kill so many people from that region, that they would love and assimilate? To kill those who opposed the presence of a foreign invader and anyone that fit the profile of such a defender? And then what? To turn the survivors into allies and proxies who must obey the ultimate aims of the invader? In that case then mass destruction and death is anti-thesis to such aims. But to an engineer the problem is simple, to kill. To make weapons that kill as efficiently as possible. But to conquer and win an invader requires a degree of humanity and interactions with the population, there is more to it than lonely fortresses, checkpoints and ‘firing lasers from space’.

If one can not define the war itself, it is hard to define who the enemy actually is. For the man and woman driven by hatred, revenge, fear, ideology, faith, patriotism and even love, the aim is seemingly simple. They will endure so much just so that they can kill, to kill the invader becomes survival itself. By the end of the century drones and robots will likely dominate the modern battlefield and their utility as a police and anti-insurgency weapon will be paramount. Those rejecting such control and the invader will fight with the ancient will that has stretched all of human history. They will find a way, not through anticipation or academic conjuring but in the moment, after gaining experience and loss.

Those who talk about war from afar, it is academic or a problem to be fixed by engineers and strategists. Comfortable and impersonal puzzles to be solved, where human lives are digits. To them technology alone is the crucial element, it is the trump card for dominance. Technology will not make the conquered love the invader and it can not make them yield, only incarcerate or kill. Such defiance and determination, the crude ingenuity of the peasant can and has overcome. If victory requires killing as many as possible, then the serial killer is life’s champion. From the armchair or the tables of a think tank the blood and carnage is absent, so technical details are the fascination of calculation. For those on the ground it is never so simple. The engineer is important, and often neglected but so is the human of purpose or seemingly no other choice.

A stones throw away

It is not that the defender rejecting the invading warriors always succeeds, the past century is littered with examples of might being triumphant. In 1968, the same time that the US was grappling for control in South East Asia the Soviet empire swallowed up those rejecting it in Czechoslovakia. A pin prick of defiance perhaps but the spirit of ‘68 would remain decades later when then Soviet empire collapsed along with the communist rule in Czechoslovakia, succumbing to freer governance and independence. Other peoples are not so lucky and continue to suffer.

Young boys will stand in front of tanks and throw stones, they have nothing else to fight with. In the occupied territories the Israeli government may some day soon utilise drones and non-human combatants to interact with those that it has conquered. Such technology may allow them to convert the region into the worlds largest prison, they may not be about to eradicate the Palestinians for fear of condemnation. They can at the very least imprison them in a dystopian city of walls, cameras, checkpoints and tyranny. It is occurring elsewhere on Earth for those resisting the Chinese, Indian, Venezuelan, etc governments, though their may only be a glimmer but the same instincts of defiance flicker on.

To the very bitter end, as the adults are imprisoned and killed, the children will go on fighting. It is a circumstance of misery and one where technology and an advanced military seeks to overcome an impoverished people. With an ancient spirit they will resist but they will may not overcome. The reprieve in such a circumstance can only come from without, embracing the humanity of those inside. Understanding that one is not an anti-Semite simply because they empathise with a Palestinian family who has lost everything due to the actions of the Israeli government. The child throwing the stone may do little damage to the tanks of the IDF but as a symbolic act of defiance it may as well be a boulder dropped from above. And when it is drone vehicles roaming the streets, children not yet born will cast rocks at them as well so long as they are oppressed.

It is the enduring defiance and the yearning to be free that can give a small cadre of peasants the edge over a professional army of invaders. The drones and AI may not suffer the fatigue that a conscript or a professional soldier may, they may not suffer trauma or moral injury. The imperfections of the human killer will be removed and replaced by a synthetic one. That does not mean that the inevitable human replacement is superior or indestructible. These drones will have their own weaknesses and flaws and those fighting them will find it and exploit it. Because they have to. Unless of course winning means, destroying everything and killing everyone.

There is no moral virtue in resistance alone, just as none exists in conquest. It is not a clear cut case of good and evil. It is the understanding that perspectives drive objectives. When objectives are intangible and unimaginable for those on the ground or who are charged with achieving them it can become almost impossible to ‘win’. This is not limited to warfare but for most government policy. For those resisting, the victims or the others , the objective and goal is simple. An end to occupation, to be left alone, eject the invader or even freedom itself.

To drop the bombs, running the check points, burning down villages and so on the aims may be order, security and to support a ‘friendly’ government. Overtime one must realise that such actions leads to instability and disorder. Feeds the resistance. While the frontiers were conquered, the ‘savages’ were tamed and many aboriginal peoples have been subjugated or wiped away. The great nations have committed their genocides and replaced what was with their own. That was the victory, those who claim “if we wanted to” accomplished. Modern technology also allows us to observe and challenge such a means of victory to shame and expose the violence for what it is. In both victory and defeat there will always be the warrior in the gardeners garden and the and sapper in the sewer.

“Whether the primary cause of revolution is nationalism, or social justice, or the anticipation of material progress, the decision to fight and to sacrifice is a social and a moral decision. Insurgency is thus a matter not of manipulation but of inspiration.

I am aware that such conclusions are not compatible with the pictures of guerrilla operations and guerrilla motivations drawn by the counterinsurgency theorists who are so much in vogue today. But the counterinsurgency experts have yet to win a war. At this writing, they are certainly losing one.

Their picture is distorted because their premises are false and their observation faulty. They assume–perhaps their commitments require them to assume–that politics is mainly a manipulative science and insurgency mainly a politico-military technique to be countered by some other technique; whereas both are forms of social behavior, the latter being the mode of popular resistance to unpopular governments.”

Robert Tabor, ‘The War of the Flea’, 1965.


December, 2021

Published inAll Articles and EssaysPhilosophy, Society and LibertyWar, History and Foreign Policy