Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Only 1,000 Soldiers"

cross-posted from Dagblog

One of the frequent talking points about the Libyan rebels is that they only have about a thousand trained soldiers in their ranks. As the meme went around, it sometimes turned into only 1000 soldiers, period, which is clearly not true. And the "1000 men" meme has been used to shore up certain anti-intervention talking points, even though it undermines others.

The most obvious use of the "only 1000 soldiers" point was to imply that intervention was hopeless, because there was no way the rebels could win. That argument doesn't look as good this morning, after the rebels have taken Ajdabiya and pushed onward, but things might swing against the rebels again in a few days or weeks.

On the other hand, the "only 1000 soldiers" talking point doesn't go entirely well with the argument that the rebels are just another bunch of bastards for Qaddafi's own security forces. In fact, I'm sure that plenty of people in the emerging rebel leadership are bastards, of one kind or another. I don't expect that Libya is about to produce any leaders that I would vote for myself. But on the other hand, it's also pretty clear that the rebels aren't just a breakaway faction from the Libyan army and police. If this were a bunch of Qaddafi's generals going out on their own, they would have a lot more of their old troops with them, or they wouldn't do it at all. If only 1000 veterans are in this mix, that fits with a genuine ground-up popular revolt. (That doesn't mean that the revolutionaries are completely right and noble. But it might mean they represent a big chunk of Libyan society.)

That said, I don't doubt that a lot of those 1000 trained people got their training in the Libyan army or other parts of the regime. That's where the training happens. If the rebels didn't have anybody who'd ever worn one of Qaddafi's uniforms, they wouldn't have anyone trained at all, or anyone who could train the others. We may not be happy with those guys when the dust clears, but there's no way any of this could happen without some people who've worked for Qaddafi at some point.

In one way (and only this one), the Libyan army resembles the Continental Army circa 1776. Almost none of the American Revolutionary soldiers had much military training, and it was years before Washington could build up a small nucleus of trained soldiers. The rest knew how to fire their weapons, but that was mostly it. They had trouble moving as a group on the battlefield without breaking up (which is an easy way to get killed); they didn't have the tactical skills or the discipline that the British had. Washington's artillery commander was a guy who had owned a bookshop before the Revolution and read all the military science books he could find. (He did okay in the end; they named Fort Knox after him.) And the few people with military training or experience that the rebels had were people who had put in time fighting for one King George or another ... guys like Washington, who'd been a militia colonel in the Seven Years' War, or Horatio Gates, who had been a major in the British Army and who some people originally considered the Americans' best potential general. (He didn't live up to the hype. Don't try putting your gold in Fort Gates.) That's your basic profile of a revolutionary army: a bunch of recruits who need to be shown where their elbow is, and a few people who have military experience but used to work for the regime.

I'm not saying that the Libyan rebels are the American rebels, or that we should view them as morally equivalent to the Continental Army. All I'm saying is that they look pretty much the way you expect an emerging revolutionary army to look.

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