Flip-Flop War: Libya’s Punk Revolution

In the manual [Baron von] Steuben wrote for [George Washington’s] American army, the most remarkable theme was love: love of the soldier for his fellow soldier, love of the officer for his men, love of country and love of his nation’s ideals. Steuben obviously intuited that a people’s army, a force of citizen-soldiers fighting for freedom from oppression, would be motivated most powerfully not by fear but, as he put it, by “love and confidence”—love of their cause, confidence in their officers and in themselves. “The genius of this nation,” Steuben explained in a letter to a Prussian officer, “is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your soldier, ‘Do this,’ and he does it; but I am obliged to say, ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that,’ and then he does it.”

— Passage from James R. Gaines’s recent Smithsonian article “Washington & Lafayette,” brought to my attention by Major Derrick Hernandez of the 82nd Airborne

The color photo showed a young freedom fighter, assault rifle in hand, running with all his might across the Libyan scrub desert. After a moment, I saw what made it interesting: one bare foot, one in a flip-flop.

My first thought was the flash of sympathy I’m sure the photographer intended—the photo was actually a color copy made by the earnest young men in the Media Center in Zwara, documenting their revolution on August 31st, just eight days after their town was liberated.

I was familiar with the freedom-fighter aesthetic. I had gone into battle with them, spent a night at the Sabratha fighters’ camp (far more of a taboo for a woman journalist), and interviewed dozens of them in July and August. “We are civilians,” the conventional conversation went. “I didn’t even know how to shoot a gun until a week ago.”

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Like everyone else, I lapped it up. Dentist turned machine gunner! Clever welder who makes homemade weapons! Tenderfoot who shows up at the grungy Sabratha Brigade training camp with a Louis Vuitton trolley bag! (True.) It helped that many Libyans have considerable charm—not like the Afghans, who have little else to offer, but in a free and easy American way, where one is charming not because one has to be but for the pleasure of it.

But when I finally saw combat myself, at the battle of Sabratha on August 14th, the proudly inexperienced rap suddenly seemed foolish. Within an hour, I understood why the American Army I’d come to know in the course of half a dozen embeds had a chain of command and division of labor. After a few hours more, I was amazed that the whole lot of us hadn’t been killed. (Qaddafi’s troops, it seems, were often as badly trained or led as the rebels.)

And so, my second thought on looking at the photo was: young fool, that’s why people wear boots or running shoes into combat.

“It’s a flip-flop war,” said my friend Helena Obolensky when I told her about the photo a few days later. I knew what she meant: one of those third-world wars where incompetent adversaries skirmish beneath the notice of the world. And indeed it would have been, but for the luck of the Libyan revolutionaries in attracting the attention of the world with their spirit, wit, and visual appeal. 

Why has the Syrian cause not seized the imagination of the world or the attention of NATO? Well, look at the Syrian protestors on Al Jazeera. The demonstrations that are so dangerous to their participants are not very photogenic. But the original Benghazi uprising was, and the young civilians on pickup trucks were. And the Libyan people have a kind of happy wit. Who wouldn’t like kids who held up signs with the Nike logo, saying, “NATO AIR: Just Do It”?

The Revolution of the 17th of February, as it’s known in Libya, was an accidental war, one of plucky, poorly equipped and trained civilians against a monstrous dictatorship: these are the media clichés and they are true. But it is just as interesting that the Libyan revolution was also a deliberately amateurish war. The revolutionaries often had no interest in acquiring a modicum of organization, discipline, or professional division of labor. Afghan insurgents fought in flip-flops because that’s all they had; many did not even know how to tie shoelaces. But Libyan cities were full of sneaker stores. It was a war of men who chose to wear flip-flops into battle because they are much more comfortable than closed shoes in the searing heat of the Libyan summer. And it was so photogenic precisely because the fighters paid attention to their aesthetic.”

Mustafa Sagezli, the jeans-jacket wearing, American-educated deputy interior minister of Libya’s new government and before that the deputy commander of the Martyrs of the 17th of February brigade, told me in mid-May that only two hundred of his roughly three thousand frontline fighters at the Brega front line had body armor. (By July, the fighters in Zintan and Jadu had a lot more body armor and even helmets. It was mainly provided by Qatar and the US, which delivered five thousand flak jackets.) But I saw not one fighter wearing a helmet, and few with body armor.

“They think that helmets make them look like old men,” Dr. Tarik Alatoshi, a forty-three-year-old scientist in the Zwara brigade, told me at their training camp in Jadu. And, he added, exasperated, no matter how much he told them that they are needed alive to build a new Libya, they think that putting on body armor is tantamount to admitting to fear. I also heard men say that if Allah willed it, they would be killed, so wearing body armor didn’t make sense—exactly the same argument almost all men in Libya make against using seat belts.

Even a highly educated, sophisticated young friend, Lou’ai, gave me a version of this, saying that he enjoyed the sensation of bullets dancing overhead because he knew that if he died he would go to heaven. A former rapper turned architecture student from a prominent family that has lived overseas, Lou’ai is westernized enough to have added, “I probably shouldn’t tell you this.” On the other hand, not everyone was brave and responsible. In Zwara, a medical student with exactly one day of fighting experience complained to me that the equally inexperienced commander of his small unit had fled in his car from the front line at the first incoming fire, leaving many men stranded without transportation.

In fairness, some of this isn’t as irrational as it sounds when you see how both sides fight. The M.O. seems to be, you fire the heaviest weapons you have in the general direction of the enemy, and when you don’t receive return fire, you jump on your pickup trucks and into your family sedans and race forward shouting “Allahu Akbar!” The rebels—and probably Qaddafi’s forces—were firing more or less blindly in the direction of the enemy’s fire, but they couldn’t aim their homemade combinations of gunship weapons and Russian machine-gun parts, mounted on pickup trucks.

The range of the most coveted of these weapons, the outmoded but still effective ZSU-23-4 “Shilka” antiaircraft weapon, was four kilometers, so no one was keen on getting much closer than that. Occasionally someone was killed by a sniper or more gorily by a lucky shot from one of Qaddafi’s Shilkas, but it wasn’t clear that wearing body armor would have kept these men alive. These deaths often had the feeling of random events, confirming many fighters’ sense of fatalism.

The failures of discipline and organization were harder to explain than the equipment isssues. Many of the fighters confused the freedom they were fighting for with a do-it-yourself ethos in war. Seat belts again: I was in a car in Uzbekistan in 1999 shortly after the partial liberation from the Soviet bloc. I urged the driver to wear his seat belt, and he laughed. “In Soviet times, we were not free, and we had to wear those things. But now we are free!” 

Many of Libya’s young freedom fighters labored under a similar delusion, behaving as though chains of command, divisions of labor, and discipline were part of the hated Qaddafi regime rather than neutral practices that make many organizations work better. It was the downside of the inspiring, euphoric cultural revolution I’d seen in Benghazi this spring. A former Libyan National Army colonel with the Zwara fighters, Abdullah Dinbawi, said, “It is very very difficult to work with the men. It is, ‘Please sit down’ and ‘please stand up.’ They like democracy but an army must be a dictatorship.”

The chain-of-command issue was a serious one. There were maybe two or three professional soldiers per hundred fighters and no one automatically accepted their authority. If fighters objected to an order from the brigade commander, they took it up with him directly, often at the top of their lungs and in public. I saw this happen as I trailed Senussi Mohamed Mahrez, a fifty-four-year-old former general in the Libyan National Army who defected to the rebels in April and ended up commanding most, but not all, of the fighters from his hometown of Zwara. (I had the sense that I’d chosen the right commander to follow when I saw him putting on running shoes in the car as we drove toward Sabratha. He couldn’t decide whether to wear one of the two sets of body armor in the trunk of his black Hyundai Tucson—his family car—but he had brought them.)

We were about four kilometers from the epicenter of the battle for Sabratha on August 14th, and for good reasons Mahrez didn’t want his fighters to go any farther. Some of the young men argued with him and others shouted at him. Time that could have been used to secure the area, question townspeople about the whereabouts of Qaddafi’s forces, or search houses or cars for weapon stockpiles was consumed arguing. I kept wondering why the enemy didn’t send snipers to kill us, and how many of the townspeople in this pro-Qaddafi city of fifty thousand had hidden caches of weapons. (Mahrez wasn’t keen on wandering around town; Sabratha, he told me, was home to a crack Libyan army unit, the 219th Brigade, and many officers could pick him out by sight—he’s a tall, very dark-skinned man in a part of Libya where most people are olive-skinned.)

Just as bad, there was hardly any division of labor within the ranks. In most armies, there are separate branches for personnel, intelligence, operations, logistics, and so on. This translates down to the battalion level in the US Army, with majors doing planning, captains commanding companies, and lieutenants commanding platoons. Down at the company level, there is an executive officer, a fire support officer, and intelligence and logistics teams. And even on the platoon level, some fighters have responsibility for communications. The Libyan rebels ignored any such system. This was most harmful in terms of battlefield communications, and often there simply wasn’t any. It was no one’s responsibility in particular and so it didn’t get done. 

During the fight for Sabratha, Mahrez asked me to take his sat phone to call “NATO” (which he endearingly referred to as “him,” as in, “Can you call NATO and tell him . . . ”). The general wanted to bomb the Qaddafi forces’ heavy weapons. I said I had no contacts in NATO but could call Mustafa Sagezli. We would try to use the sat phone to reach Sagezli for a while and then give up, or someone would run up to Mahrez demanding his attention to some other issue. It wasn’t anyone’s job to call Sagezli, so it became mine. After all, I didn’t have a weapon. Hours later, the bombing eventually came through, hitting a camp in a sports center; some of the Qaddafi militia were also holed up in the city’s famous Roman ruins, which of course NATO would not bomb.

I doubt that anyone in Benghazi knew Mahrez was in Sabratha, where his men were, and that he had lost touch with his allies in the Sabratha Brigade and even with the other units from Zwara because his walkie- talkie stopped working. At 10 p.m., Mahrez’s men retreated all the way back to Jadu—a three-hour drive—in the belief that fifty trucks of Qaddafi soldiers were on their way to reinforce Sabratha’s Qaddafi troops. Out of touch with just about everyone else, Mahrez didn’t learn until the next day that the Qaddafi trucks never arrived, and that Sabratha was free. (It remained a dangerous place for about a week, and on August 17th a group of Zwara fighters were almost killed by friendly fire from a Zintan brigade sniper while they were searching a Sabratha house.)

Avoiding professionalism looked at least partly conscious on the part of the freedom fighters—a sort of punk or DIY aesthetic for a liberated Libya. But it was a weird mistake. A guitar is not an army, and do-it-yourself doesn’t work very well outside the arts. After all, if you had to become a chef or a dentist or a ship’s captain under emergency conditions, you would probably try to learn as much as you could and imitate the way professionals function. You wouldn’t take off on your own and argue and pout. But many of the fighters did the equivalent of ignoring a ship’s captain in a heavy storm, saying, “We are revolutionaries! We’re not afraid to die!” The best insurgents—like the Viet Cong and the Tamil Tigers—have had tremendous discipline and a passion for training and self-improvement.

The freedom fighters also have trouble respecting military professionalism because of how poorly Qaddafi ran the Libyan armed forces. At the time of independence in 1951, the Libyan army was one of the fledgling country’s few functioning institutions. But as Mahrez explained, after Qaddafi came to power in 1969, he starved the regular army of weapons and equipment. It was just “for show,” in Mahrez’s words. Mahrez and other generals attended foreign military academies and staff colleges and went to conferences overseas. Mahrez himself went to Pakistan’s military academy, which accounts for the sprinkling of old-fashioned Briticisms (“young chaps”) in his speech. But as a “seven-star” general—a rank the Tunisian and Egyptian armies also have, he says—Mahrez earned just $400 a month.

Meanwhile, Qaddafi created autonomous brigades reporting to his sons and intimates, and paid them well. They also got better weapons—Mahrez said the regular army’s weapons were thirty-year-old Russian junk. I saw the ancient “14.5” machine guns the rebels had captured from Libyan army units. Mahrez also noted that his men didn’t even get sleeping bags when they went into the field. “A well-equipped army,” he summarized, “performs well in the field. And you can judge the performance of Arab armies in the field.” One fact in particular summarizes the shocking archaicism of the Libyan national army: no one used e-mail. Indeed, Mahrez has never sent an e-mail in his life. The officers were forbidden to go to many websites, and no one wanted to send e-mails “because they were always watching these things.”

In another remarkable aspect of the Libyan war, insurgents and “forces of order” seemed to have swapped their traditional approaches. Libyan revolutionaries forswore the use of improvised explosive devices and almost never used suicide attacks. They wore uniforms when possible and almost always tried to identify themselves with the tricolor independence flag. Qaddafi’s forces, on the other hand, used mines very heavily at Brega, often did not wear uniforms, and were reported to use human shields. The rebels were trying to gain legitimacy while the Qaddafi government ignored theirs, or simply believed decades of propaganda and carried on without any pretense of offering Libyans anything more than the status quo.

Finally, this flip-flop war marked a departure from the “classic” or Mao-pattern insurgency in which the guerilla fighter does not care about capturing territory but about controlling the people. This is important because the American Army has spent the last ten years revamping itself to fight against this very approach—crudely speaking, “hearts and minds” wars. The idea has been that future wars would either be “small wars or stupid wars” (as the brilliant Conrad “Con” Crane, former colonel and author of the famous Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24, put it). And you could argue that the Libyan war was both small and, from Qaddafi’s standpoint, stupid; he could be basking on a beach right now had he exited in February. But you could also argue that the Libyan war showed that old-fashioned ground combat is far from obsolete.

The Mao cliché that the revolutionary must win the people’s support, and that the front line exists in the minds of the people, certainly applied to parts of the Libyan war. Locals fed and housed fighters in the Nafusa Mountains, Misrata, and other front lines. Yet the ubiquitous use of the term “front line” suggests that this was a pre- or post-Maoist insurgency. It was very much a war for territorial control, not merely for Libyans’ headspace. At times, it looked like a parody of World War II maneuver warfare—history repeated as farce, with ancient weapons operated by people who hardly knew how to use them.

But to fight for one’s country is no farce. My sense is that the Libya of the future will be much stronger for the broad participation of Libyans in their liberation. (I do not mean to imply that most male Libyans of military age fought for their freedom—in fact, only a small percentage did. I’d guess fewer than ten thousand. But many times that number supported them more or less actively.) Yes, there are those who will be filled with a foolish bravado—ignorant of just how poorly they would fare if they had faced a real army—but there are also those who will have a new respect for an understanding of the military and its role in guaranteeing the freedom of a free land. Some young fighters have even found their vocation by their accidental soldiering.

Twenty-year-old Bendeq Bendeq (an unusual name, even in Libya) was a college dropout who played guitar when the revolution happened. From a broken, troubled home in Zwara, he joined the brigade commanded by General Mahrez. During the months of preparation and the couple of weeks of fighting, he served as Mahrez’s unofficial aide-de-camp. He was often his driver, and at other times was constantly in motion delivering ammunition to frontline fighters, phoning other commanders for Mahrez, and, of course, fighting. Bendeq looked very punk rock, with cutoff sleeves on his camo uniform top and badass sunglasses. But in a development that follows a familiar American script, Bendeq has now decided he wants to be a professional soldier—an officer in the new Libyan Army. On my last night in Libya, I promised Bendeq that if he makes it over here, I will take him to visit West Point. For the first time since I’d met him, he really smiled.

Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Affairs blogger.

Photo Attribution: Magharebia

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