(Up-front disclaimer: The following is semi-informed speculation based on nothing more than observation of recent publically available information and some idle cogitation. I’m not a soldier or a serious student of military history. Are you one, or do you have a friend who is? I’d love to hear your commments.)
To me, one of the most dubious aspects of the current farce in the Middle East (can we call it Gulf War 2 before it actually commences? has a snappy for-public-consumption operation name been released to the press yet?) is the one thing that seemingly everyone on both sides of the argument agrees on: that the conflict, once it begins, will be brief, and will result in a resounding victory for the US armed forces. This sentiment has been expressed by everyone from Paul Krugman (liberal, vehemantly anti-war columnist for the NY Times) to George Bush and Donald Rumsfield themselves, so it appears to be pretty much a truism.
I have a simple question: what are these people smoking?
As far as I can see, the optimism about the actual militaryengagement stems from a small handful of sources. In no particular order:
1. Gulf War 1 was a complete rout: we ejected the Iraqi army from Kuwait in about a week, while sustaining miraculously few casualties.
2. The Iraqi military has been made even more overmatched in the intervening time by sanctions which have depleted them of supplies and spare parts.
3. We are told repeatedly that the morale of the Iraqi troops is low, that they don’t want to fight for Saddam, and that they may surrender immediately.
1 and #2 are certainly true, but I’m not entirely sure how relevant they are. #3…let’s tackle that now:
At the risk of pointing out the horribly obvious, the terms of this engagement are rather different, and I’m not sure how safe it is to generalize from the last war with Iraq to this one.
For all of Saddam’s rhetoric in 1991 about righting the wrongs of British colonialism and making Kuwait an eternal, indivisible part of Iraq, the simple fact was that the Iraqi army was operating in newly-acquired territory, with a hostile local population. Home was somewhere else for his troops. The emotional attachment of his troops to their newly acquired “19th Province” was likely to be low even among the true believers, and nil everwhere else. The temptation to throw down their weapons and either surrender to the nearest American platoon or try to re-cross the border into Iraq must have been very high, seeing as how many of them did just that. Moreover, they had had only six months to set up their defenses on unfamiliar ground.
But now? We are going into Iraq. Our stated goal is the conquest and overthrow of its government, and the extermination of its loyalists. We have been telling them that we are going to do this for over a year, and any Iraqi official with a pulse has to have known that this was a strong possibility the moment that Bush was inagurated, and a near certainty after 9/11. A year and a half is a good long time to set up defenses inside your own country, to assess your strengths and weaknesses, and to set up all sorts of nasty surprises.
We dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagisaki because the logistics of doing exactly this to Imperial Japan were too horrifically daunting, even when they were clearly in defeat.
Why do people think that this is in any way comparable to the first Gulf War?
Nobody outside of a small coterie of Saddam’s friends and family had much of any personal stake in the disposition of Kuwait. Every Ba’ath party member, every Republican Guardsman, every one of Saddam’s secret policemen, torturers, informers, spies and flunkies stands to lose everything in this war. If the USMC doesn’t kill them, their neighbors will, or they’ll be hanged after the inevitable show trials. They are invested in the ultimate sense, and they have every motivation to fight to the last man and the last bullet.
Okay, but that’s just the loyalists, right? Will the rank-and-file actually fight for Saddam? Our press keeps assuring us that this is ridiculous. Heck, even I don’t think it’s all that likely. But…invasions are funny things, and they do funny things to countries’ psychologies. By the time Operation Barbarossa (the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia) began, Stalin had already murdered literally millions of Russians, either by direct imprisonment and execution, by working them to death in slave labor camps, or by enforced starvation. Millions more on top of that died during the German invasion as a direct result of Stalin’s military incompetance. Yet Russians by the millions more fought and died for him, resisting the Germans to the last bullet, and when bullets ran out, using knives and their bare hands — often despite the fact that their parents, siblings, children and lovers had been taken from them by the same Russia that they were fighting for.
And…rational estimates of the enemy’s strength, morale and resolution are things that over the last 50 years, our government has been caught time and time again refusing to share with the press. Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the “Pentagon Papers” revealed that the Pentagon had known for years that the Vietnam was was essentially unwinnable, yet they continued to publically insist that victory was at hand nearly right up until the end. (Indeed, Lyndon Johnson pronounced the NVA as incapable of winning just a month before the Tet Offensive.)
So…what if it turns out that the Iraqis do want to make this a stand-up fight? Aren’t they completely overmatched anyway?
Sure, if they fight our war. A massive air and armor battle in the Al Ijarah desert would end up in another massacre, but I think it’s safe to say that at least a few commanders in the Republican Guard may have figured that part out by now. But what if they get creative? The plains and marshes are obviously lost to them the moment serious American air power comes into play, but they can make us fight for the cities block by block. We’ve told them we’re coming to Baghdad and Tikrit: we should expect that they’ll bewaiting.
I don’t want to range far afield in thinking up scenarios where this war could bog down: there’s plenty of places where you can find that, and absent any direct military experience on my part, it’s basically just warporn-wanking. But suffice it to say that there are plenty of ways in which it could happen, and that we seem to have set up this situation to give them every motivation and (more importantly) opportunity to see that it unfolds that way.
Our experience in Mogadishu demonstrated that while we can certainly fight that kind of war, we can’t do it without getting our hands substantially dirtier than we usually prefer. Also: Iraq has had ample time to study the Mog engagement and learn from it. (Lesson number one: torture any American troops you capture. Do it in public and make sure that Al Jazeera gets videotape to air.)
Obviously, the point here is not that we are likely to lose. What’s bugging me is that both sides of this debate have accepted the scenario that we will win quick and pretty, when it seems likely to me that we will have to win ugly and slow.
On the eve of this war, the President has finally begun to speak publically about the probable loss of American life. That’s a start, but it ignores what might be a more problematic issue: the number of likely Iraqi casualties. Our ability to prosecute this war is likely to rest entirely on how many Iraqi civilian (and irregular militia) deaths we’re willing to see on CNN every night. The numbers are likely to be higher than anyone expects, and I see no effort to prepare for that at all. This is classic hubris and overconfidence, and I fear that we are going to pay a heavy price for it.