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Wham, bam, thanks Saddam; sorry for the mess we left behind.

Katherine Boo is an editor of The Washington Monthly. Research assistance was provided by Deborah Yavelak Sieff.

The headless corpse of one of the [Iraqi] soldiers was on its back a short distance from the truck. Another body was wedged inside the engine compartment. Two more lay face up in the bed of the truck, their feet sticking grotesquely over the side.

-The Washington Post, March 3

As the ground war drew neatly to its close, it seemed the most perverse and peripheral of causes: a group of left-leaning reporters suing the government in federal court to open Dover Air Force Base to the public. They wanted us to see the body bags roll in. And in that desire, they were remarkably alone.

Just after the luckless plaintiffs lost the first court battle, the war in the Gulf was over, the issue all but moot. Yet, in a way, no episode better signifies the distance we've come since Vietnam. This time, we have no time for body bags. We're in love with the splendid little war.

A few years ago, prophets like John Mueller and Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that, in the future, first-world nations, obsessed with their economies, would recoil from costly warfare. Today, Americans bear witness to the other extreme: a renewed faith in the power of the short, clean war-restorative, affordable, and preferably a few thousand zip codes away. It's a faith at least as old as Agamemnon, who believed Priam's city would be captured in a day. Yet as American troops suit up to become the world's policemen, historical parallels should make us a little nervous. "Fool," chided Homer, "who knew nothing of all the things Zeus planned to accomplish." From Troy to Tel Aviv, Berlin to Baghdad, leaders' faith in short, clean wars has wreaked havoc on humanity. In the midst of the revelry, one couldn't help remember the s ate of brisk little conflicts-the Schleswig-Holstein, the Franco-Prussian, the Seven Weeks War-that convinced Kaiser Wilhelm that every modern war might be resolved in a matter of months. So in August 1914, he waved his troops off at Berlin Station, promising they'd be home before the autumn leaves fell. I guess we could probably [estimate Iraqi casualties] if we really tried hard, but we don't really have that requirement.

-Brig. General Richard Neal, February 9

Politicians, particularly, have had a hard time resisting the appeal of clean and easy wars; you could stock a dissertation with hapless folks like the Alabama congressman who in 1861 volunteered his handkerchief to mop up all the blood that would be spilled for Confederate independence. Still, most leaders have been unable to forego the optimistic forecast, for obvious reason. Effective war-making depends not just on military and administrative rowess, but on widespread public support, as Clausewitz pointed out two centuries ago. And clean wars are the easiest sell-a truth Saddam Hussein himself understands. He started his war against Iran by promising his people a brief, decisive blitzkrieg. By war's end eight years later, there were 200,000 fewer Iraqis to remember that empty promise.

In the wake of Vietnam, the courting of public support for American warfare has become a virtual religion-one that includes such odd rites as open letters from the president to campus newspapers, pleading just cause. "Media campaigns increasingly decide whether or not there will be a war and, if there is one, how long it will last," reports James Dunnigan's manual, How To Make War. "The will to fight' can be sold like cornflakes, and increasingly it is." That lesson was not lost on Bush.

It is now clear that the president was committed to war as early as October. The critical question was how to market the idea to the American people. So, like the makers of Fords or antiperspirants, he had to establish the obsolescence of the existing product -diplomacy. In December, the president who had touted sanctions a few months earlier suddenly declared that he had never believed they would work. By January 16, when Bush announced the air strike, five months of sanctions had evolved into an "endless diplomacy." We've "exhausted all reasonable efforts," Bush intoned. "Exhausted every means." Consumers demanded a change. "The world could wait no longer."

The antidote to all this restlessness was, of course, war, which is not a simple sell, especially when it involves the liberation of an emirate 7,000 miles away. Fortunately, Bush's agents in the military, press, and the White House had been doing the advance work for months, peddling victory at discount prices. "It will be quick, massive, and decisive," declared Vice

President Quayle in December. And quick, it was understood, would mean clean-a fact conveyed in the constant bandying-about of "clean sweep," "precision bombing," and "surgical strikes." As the war got under way, Lt. General Charles Homer, commander of the U.S. Air Force in the Gulf and architect of Desert Storm, promised "a very efficient military campaign." And even General Colin Powell grew uncharacteristically giddy. "First we'll cut off the Iraqi army, and then we'll kill it." Victory in two fell swoops.

Of course, the Iraqi army was a them," not an "it." But after the first few days of the Storm, you'd be forgiven for forgetting. Objects in crosshairs exploded. Tanks were killed." Only rarely-as when an Iraqi conscript, while surrendering, recognized a Marine from his old Chicago neighborhood-did humanity seem to impinge. Ties to Chicago somehow gave value to one Iraqi's life. It seemed strange, then, as British soldiers later sifted through the wreckage, that they found with the Iraqi' corpses, not springs and gears and sprockets, but packets of processed cheese and coffee cups painted with flowers.

War is a blunt instrument. While by the end we could boast of "only" 323 American dead, the words short and clean seemed a little absurd. The war lasted a mere 43 days; cleaning the debris from Kuwait, as estimated by bomb-defusers, will take 40 years. The environmental damage may never be reversed. "I tell you, if I have anything to say about it, we're never going to get into the body count business," said Norman Schwarzkopf early on, now we understand why. News reports tallied up to 150,000 Iraqi dead, thousands of them civilians, thousands more blown up in retreat. Pentagon officials, meanwhile, offered a more palatable summary of the Iraqi casualties: 2,085 tanks, 103 aircraft, 962 armored vehicles, 1,005 pieces of artillery.

I am glad there were so few [American] casualties, but I would have like a little more resistance.

-Sergeant Edward Swanson of Houston, Texas

The revolting carnage shouldn't surprise us; quick wars tend to be as ugly as long ones, perhaps because we've learned how to wage them so well. What should surprise us, perhaps, is our consummate detachment from the human cost-a coolness that begins in the way leaders plan and talk about their wars.

To ascertain the profitability of a proposed military action, the Greeks consulted oracles; the Romans read the entrails of chickens. Americans have cleverer tools: hundred-million-dollar computers on which whole conflagrations can be mathematically modeled. Our military analysts can enter one of a dozen air-conditioned simulation centers across the country, type a complex series of variables into a computer, and stage a dress rehearsal of any given war, deriving precise estimates of weapons effectiveness, troop mobility, casualty counts, and combat duration. So insulating is this sort of systems analysis that as bombs slammed into Baghdad, George Bush could consult his analysts and calmly claim, "We are on schedule," as if warfare were a luncheon with a queen.

Only once during the war did Pentagon officials willingly deviate from their hardware-only accounting of costs to the other side. On February 24, they allowed a select group of reporters to screen-test a videotape of Iraqis being mowed down by Apache helicopters. The reporters blanched. The officials shelved the film, sticking with the tank kills. Today, in some Pentagon cubbyhole, there's an image the rest of us will never have to see: a group of young men dropping their dinners and fleeing in panic, before Apache cannon fire rips them in half.

As the carnage on the highway out of Kuwait further attests, smart wars-even fast ones-can be just as messy as dumb ones. That contemporary paragon of the short war-the Six Day War of 1967-left so many Israelis dead that rabbis were called in to consecrate the parks of Tel Aviv as temporary graveyards. Six years later, the Israelis entered the Yom Kippur War poised for an equally swift victory. Swift it was. "At the canal I saw a company of [Israeli] tanks disappear in less than a minute," wrote General Ariel Sharon later. "An entire battalion was engulfed and destroyed before they had time to report that they were being hit." Thanks to the efficiency of portable antitank missiles, two weeks of fighting produced casualties of more than 20,000.

Perhaps because they happen so often, with little lasting international effect, these deadly, high-speed Middle Eastern wars aren't exactly emblazoned on the American memory. It's easier for us to recall the swift successes in Grenada--or Panama, about which one U.S. general would later boast, "There were no lessons learned." Of course, Bush did learn a lesson there, one that a year later helped propel us into the Gulf: Military bullying gets results faster than wearisome diplomacy. The question is, what results? Though Panama lasted only 14 days, the effort to capture one man left perhaps 4,000 Panamanian civilians dead. (That's the official Panamanian figure; the U.S. still refuses to release its numbers.) As the American press cheered the incursion, D.C.'s Spanish-language El Latino visited the Panamanian capital, where more than 10,000 homeless people were crammed into U.S. army hangars, five to a cubicle roughly the size of a condominium bathroom. A year after that glorious success, The New, York Times reports that Panamanian cocaine exports are as heavy as ever.

You're superhuman. You're invincible. You're rolling into battle, and nothing can touch you.

Lieutenant Eric Drake of Wilsie, West Virginia

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Thucydides described another democracy's swelling infatuation with war. A swift, decisive onslaught by the Athenian superpower against the "mixed rabble" of Sicily, Alcibiades declared, would make his people master of all Hellas. The Athenians were quickly convinced.

All alike fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund of pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that liked it not feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet.

The Athenians got creamed.

"By God," exclaimed President Bush a week after the war, "we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." It wasn't hard to miss the subtext: This victory has restored our faith in weaponry as the wisest political tool. Yet as we retool and replenish for further world policing, it's worth remembering that most countries facing an alien army put up more resistance than the allegedly fearsome Iraqis were able to muster. Nowhere are predictions of clean war more misleading than in what historians call "asymmetrical wars": wars between Davids and Goliaths. To the weaker, conflict is not a cool calculus of risk, expense, and expectation, but a fight for national pride in which restraint and compromise are not options. A century after the fact, no military historian can adequately explain how, in the first battle of the Zulu-British war, 1,500 highly trained English riflemen were slain by native warriors bearing spears.

A few years later, American soldiers faced their Zulus in the Philippines, a place where, after the "splendid little war" in Cuba, few U.S. leaders expected to do any fighting at all. The object, explained Colonel Frederick Funston, was simply to "sit on and hold down the little brown brothers for a few months" until the Filipinos decided they didn't want independence after all.

Four months into the conflict, a stunned General Arthur MacArthur warned the White House that victory would be anything but easy. How in the world, he demanded, could one combat "the united and apparently spontaneous action of several millions of people"? (MacArthur's grim report caused the Springfield, Illinois, Republican to marvel, "Why did all this 'truthtelling' become available only after the election?")

Virtually the same sound track played in Vietnam, where boys in pajamas somehow managed to kill 60,000 exquisitely armed American troops. We won in the Philippines; in Vietnam, we lost. In both places, we earned an animosity that still haunts us. Yet as bridges and buildings smoldered in the Baghdad suburbs, as limbless corpses poked up through the sand, Bush could claim with finality a day after the Gulf war cease-fire, "This war is now behind us."

We don't find the [dog] tags around the neck very often--they've been blown away.

-A British lance corporal on burial detail in Kuwait, March 3

In late January, a senior Iraqi official was asked by the BBC how it felt to be losing so badly. "We have already won," the official responded coolly, "because it wasn't a two-day war after all."

That assessment, of course, doesn't touch us. For if the history of war is written by the victor, so is the definition of winning. At about the same time, Charles Krauthammer could define the impending U.S. conquest in terms, not of the Middle East, but of ourselves-a national psychotherapeutic cure: "If the war in the Gulf ends the way it began-with a dazzling display of American technological superiority, individual grit, and, most unexpectedly for Saddam, national resolve-we will no longer speak of postVietnam America. A new, post-Gulf America will emerge, its self-image, sense of history, even its political discourse transformed."

But as we revel in our psychic kill, it's worth considering the 12th-century Normans who, self-image enhanced by their easy conquest of England, planned a brisk overrun of the farmers and peasants of Ireland. Almost 900 years later, Irish bombs explode in Victoria Station.

If history has anything to teach us about war, it's that we should be wary of the term "clean victory," skeptical of mantras about kicking ass." Victory, as the Israelis learned in Lebanon, may be just another word for bellum interruptum. When we finally "won" it, the Gulf war had cost us perhaps $30 billion and 91 lives. For the Iraqis, the casualties may be more than a thousand times higher. Yet true victory-political stability, respect for human rights, democratic leadership, even stable oil prices-is no more assured in the Middle East, a region with more conventional weapons than all of NATO, than it was before we dropped 10 times the tonnage of Hiroshima on the Gulf.

In late February, Palestinians gathered on the rooftops of the West Bank, cheering the Scud missiles as they arced toward Tel Aviv. A week later, Shiite fundamentalists stirred in Basra, armed by their Iranian brethren. Could it be that this new war, like the old ones, suggests another meaning for the Greeks' winged victory-something neither fleet nor transcendent? A promise, rather, that hovers just out of our grasp.
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Title Annotation:Saddam Hussein, Persian Gulf War
Author:Boo, Katherine
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Words:2600
Previous Article:Casualties of war.
Next Article:On the home front: all glory, no guts. For most of Americans, freeing Kuwait was just another free ride.
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