Overtaking History

Turns out it’s a real war. America is coming to grips with a foe who shoots back, foolish though it may be. Enemy troops are not rolling over as if they were a cinematic collection of Schwarzeneggers and Bonds. But will the underlying cause of this war — the logic of empire — be enough to sustain widespread support among a public with remarkably little awareness of war, or its deeper reasons?

This war has been sold on a variety of reasons which don’t quite stand up to scrutiny. Yet the unacknowledged basis — the logic of empire — can be largely divined from studying a map. We aren’t invading Iraq because of its tenuous ties to al Qaeda, nor have we proven Iraq’s role in 9/11. We still haven’t found Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, though it would be surprising if Saddam didn’t have some, given his past eagerness to gas Iranians and even his own citizens. The future threat of Saddam? That could have been handled in a plan offered by former Senator Gary Hart — whose national security commission predicted major terrorist attacks in 1999 — under which all of Iraq would have been a no-fly zone and massive teams of weapons inspectors backed by troops would have scoured the countryside for offensive weapons.

What we really want is Iraq. With Iraq, we can do many things. For one, we can exercise a substantial degree of control over oil markets as the Saudis — who are opening up a big oil field in anticipation of a postwar struggle for market share — now expect. Iraq and Saudi Arabia have the world’s two largest oil reserves, as former Reagan Energy Secretary John Herrington gleefully points out. Coupling this with recent moves against California’s new anti-global warming law, it’s pretty clear that the Bushies are hell-bent on perpetuating the petro-based economy.

With control of Iraq, as Pentagon sources point out, the U.S. can have a tremendous leg up in combating Islamic fundamentalism. Iraq is bordered by five countries, three of them important hotbeds of anti-U.S. hostility, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Having large bases in Iraq would enable the U.S. to more easily back Israel, its most reliable ally in the region, intimidate Syria out of the terrorism business, conduct raids against terrorist bases and, if need be, the budding nuclear weapons program in Iran, and help convince the Saudis to be more amenable and helpful in the Terror War.

Conquering Iraq also would send a message about screwing with America that Team Bush evidently does not think was made in Afghanistan, where the U.S. accomplished in three months what the Soviet Union couldn’t do in 10 years. It’s not just Saddam who is supposed to be “shocked and awed.”

Of course, this could all backfire horribly, with America becoming further entangled in religious and political webs that predate the Vikings arrival in America, stoking a powerful backlash of terror and perhaps igniting a world war. But this is the upside view. Rome was never loved but it was feared and admired.

“We began this war with Operation ‘Head Shot,’” quips a Pentagon source. The fact that we still don’t know how effective this surprise first strike was against Saddam Hussein and top Iraqi leaders shows the limits of our knowledge, even with regard to a nation studied for more than a decade, upon which our surveillance technology is focused. This, alone, should give us pause as we move forward.

Would the Bushies ignore the dangers of overstretch and next launch a war against that neighboring member of the “Axis of Evil,” Iran? Probably not anytime soon. At least not deliberately. Iran has no Saddam, no universally recognized villain. Its politics are complex, with strong pro-Western as well as pro-fundamentalists tendencies. U.S. forces will be tired, international opinion must be revived, and Iraq must be rebuilt and governed.

Before the logic of empire can play out, giving America decisive influence over the world’s oil markets and the military whip hand in the back yards of its enemy, the war has to succeed. So far, in spite of some casualties and setbacks, the campaign is going well. As American and British forces reach the outskirts of Baghdad, consider some of the questions of just a week ago, any of which were quite dangerous.

Would the Iraqis use chemical weapons against our troops massed in Kuwait or as they surged into Iraq? No. Would U.S. anti-missile systems work? Yes. Would the Iraqis torch their oil fields before we could get to them, creating an ecological catastrophe, as they torched Kuwaiti oil fields in 1991? For the most part, no. Would the Turks move forces en masse into northern Iraq, setting up a clash with the Kurds and possibly taking over oil fields? No. Would Iran move Iraqi exile proxy forces into northern Iraq? Yes, but only in small numbers. Would there be an enormous crush of Iraqi refugees? So far, no.

Other problems have more troubling answers. Turkey’s refusal to allow its use as staging area for a northern front against Baghdad leaves much of our forces badly out of position and the assault on Saddam’s capital, which is the size of Paris, coming primarily from one direction. And the front from that direction, south to Kuwait, is relatively narrow and relies on a 300-mile supply line. The truth is there are not enough troops to secure the U.S. and British flanks, which is why unwary U.S. troops are taking more casualties than expected to date. And the lack of more troops for force protection means the supply lines will be prone to hit-and-run attacks by Iraqi forces bypassed in the dash to Baghdad. Some believe there are not enough troops, and more particularly, not enough tanks for the siege of Baghdad.

Rumsfeld, an aficionado of an avant-garde new doctrine of high tech, air power and special operations, had initially wanted a war plan involving a much smaller force, which the Joint Chiefs of Staff, especially the Army brass, opposed. The current force is a compromise. It could have been worse.

The lengthy and ultimately largely ineffective diplomatic maneuvers gave the slow-to-deploy Army time to get its ducks in a row. But hardly all of them. The Marine Corps, a much smaller service, deployed its ground forces much more quickly than the Army, which trailed the Navy and Air Force as well. Unfortunately, the Army has the bulk of the heavy armored and mechanized units needed for the assault on Baghdad. The 4th Infantry Division, bobbing uselessly for weeks off the coast of Turkey, has just arrived but is missing most of its equipment. The tank-heavy 1st Cavalry Division and 1st Armored Division are finally en route, but the Battle of Baghdad will be well under way before they arrive and will rely more on British forces, less well-equipped than the Americans, than U.S. officers prefer.

The absence of these units means that most of the airborne units have been largely held back rather than opening up major new fronts to the north and west of Baghdad. And despite a fortunate alliance with tens of thousands of Kurdish troops in the north, the absence of sizable air mobile units there backed up by airlifted armor makes it difficult to really secure those oil fields, much less take the northern cities.

With Saddam’s old friends in France and Russia failing to stop the invasion, his hole card is the assumption that America is impatient and can’t stand seeing its boys and girls killed and wounded. But though spoiled by Gulf War I, the equivalent of a long weekend, public opinion was more than patient enough to allow the U.S. military three months to take down the Taliban. Casualties are another question. America quickly withdrew from Somalia in 1993 after 19 Rangers and Delta Force operators were killed after being trapped in Mogadishu during the backfiring raid depicted in the film, Black Hawk Down. (The heavily outnumbered U.S. forces killed a thousand Somalis — most, though hardly all, combatants — in the course of extricating themselves.)

But the recent trend of bloodless (for Americans, that is) little wars is very atypical in our history. One in every 15 service members was killed or wounded in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. My father was wounded three times. We may soon see how much history America can stand.

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