Sunday, March 30, 2003

And now for some point-counterpoint:

Point, from Dubya's radio address yesterday:

In the last week, the world has ... seen the nature of the young men and women who fight on our behalf. They are showing kindness and respect to the Iraqi people. They are going to extraordinary lengths to spare the lives of the innocent. Our forces are delivering food and water to grateful Iraqi citizens in Safwan and Umm Qasr. The contrast could not be greater between the honorable conduct of our liberating force and the criminal acts of the enemy.

Counterpoint, from The Times of London, a generally conservative paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, describing a little collateral damage inflicted by American forces near Nasiriya:

One man's body was still in flames. It gave out a hissing sound. Tucked away in his breast pocket, thick wads of banknotes were turning to ashes. His savings, perhaps.

Down the road, a little girl, no older than five and dressed in a pretty orange and gold dress, lay dead in a ditch next to the body of a man who may have been her father. Half his head was missing.

Nearby, in a battered old Volga, peppered with ammunition holes, an Iraqi woman -- perhaps the girl's mother -- was dead, slumped in the back seat. A US Abrams tank nicknamed Ghetto Fabulous drove past the bodies.

This was not the only family who had taken what they thought was a last chance for safety. A father, baby girl and boy lay in a shallow grave. On the bridge itself a dead Iraqi civilian lay next to the carcass of a donkey.

As I walked away, Lieutenant Matt Martin, whose third child, Isabella, was born while he was on board ship en route to the Gulf, appeared beside me.

"Did you see all that?" he asked, his eyes filled with tears. "Did you see that little baby girl? I carried her body and buried it as best I could but I had no time. It really gets to me to see children being killed like this, but we had no choice."

Martin's distress was in contrast to the bitter satisfaction of some of his fellow marines as they surveyed the scene. "The Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy," said Corporal Ryan Dupre. "I am starting to hate this country. Wait till I get hold of a friggin' Iraqi. No, I won't get hold of one. I'll just kill him."

These folks had tried to leave Nasiriya over a bridge guarded by Marines with orders to shoot anything that moved, so, awful as this may be, it's not as if they're knowingly firing on civilians. For that, you need to go to the New York Times:

"We dropped a few civilians," Sergeant Schrumpf said, "but what do you do?"

To illustrate, the sergeant offered a pair of examples from earlier in the week.

"There was one Iraqi soldier, and 25 women and children," he said, "I didn't take the shot."

But more than once, Sergeant Schrumpf said, he faced a different choice: one Iraqi soldier standing among two or three civilians. He recalled one such incident, in which he and other men in his unit opened fire. He recalled watching one of the women standing near the Iraqi soldier go down.

"I'm sorry," the sergeant said. "But the chick was in the way."

Now, let me first say here that the initial hope that Iraqis would rise up to support the invaders was not completely unreasonable. The regime doesn't have universal support in the country even now. The Arab News, for instance, reports that at least some of the people picking up food supplies on TV were chanting pro-Saddam slogans only because they were terrified of a Baathist purge -- a point on which I'm inclined to give that generally unreliable source at least a little more credit than the spokesmen for any government. And there are even reports of Iraqi refugees feeding American Marines, which certainly speaks to some degree of sympathy for the invaders, at least as much as it speaks to the stunning failure of American logistics.

But there are also the persistent reports of Iraqi exiles, even regime opponents, wanting to come back to fight against the invasion, even if that involves lending temporary support to a regime which they loathe. "I am anti-Saddam, but I wish him all the best in defending my country", explained one Iraqi living in Cairo who I heard this morning on the BBC, adding that his regime is a problem, but "it's our problem".

I wouldn't expect a statistically reliable poll to come out of Iraq anytime soon, but support for the invasion seems tentative at best, and probably can't take much of Corporal DuPre's chemotherapy. I think it could actually take a bit, if it were part of a quick campaign followed by the equally quick establishment of decent law and order -- this is, after all, a war. But that's not how things are shaping up. Which is why it's important for our forces to keep Dubya's promise to "[go] to extraordinary lengths to spare the lives of the innocent", even if it puts them at risk, as it pretty much has to; if the Iraqis get the impression that we value our lives more than theirs, we are setting ourselves up for an occupation that will make the West Bank look like a theme park. But if any Iraqis saw what The Times calls "the bridge of death", they could draw no other conclusion. Let alone Marine sharpshooters who fire on civilians just because "the chick was in the way."

But that's all of a piece with the general unreality of what's coming from the leadership of the campaign these days, with assurances that there is "no pause" in the advance of American units towards Baghdad, even though those units have ceased to advance, and that the operation is, in the words of CentCom spokesman Gen. Vincent Brooks, "on plan", as if any reasonable plan would have soldiers short of water in the middle of a desert, only days into the operation. He went on:

General Brooks drew a distinction between the grunt's war -- the "tactical level" -- and the generals' war -- the "operational level." He said things might occasionally go awry for the soldiers and force changes in the war-fighting plan. "But at the operational level," he said, "with what we seek to achieve, it remains unchanged."

He elaborated, "And so that's what we're talking about at this level, at the Centcom level. There's a different view down on Planet Earth, if you will, as you described it. The closer you get to the line, the more precise the realities are."

Lacking a full transcript, I don't know if any reporter posed the obvious follow-up question -- what's the weather like on their planet? Perhaps there aren't any sandstorms.

Last October, I wrote a piece suggesting that Iraqis might put up more of a fight than Dubya's hawks were expecting. I can't claim all that much credit for that insight; I was riffing on a column by Robert Novak, which obliquely raised the same issue. But I can, perhaps, claim a bit of credit for this:'s not as if Cheney and Rumsfeld are just Bush I retreads trying to redo the Gulf War. It's important to remember they're older than that. They are, in fact, Nixon administration retreads trying to redo Vietnam --- a war where technical superiority and early large set-piece victories (the lonesome cry of the cold war hawk: "The Tet offensive was a military defeat for the Viet Cong!") didn't exactly prefigure success.

The degree to which Vietnam-era patterns have reasserted themselves is stunning -- and profoundly worrisome.

Many links courtesy of the lively comment sections at The Daily Kos and The Agonist.

Late edits: Added a bit more of the BBC quote, thanks to a rebroadcast; also added some clarification elsewhere.


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