The ferocious spectacle being played out in the desert, marshes and cities of Iraq is a complicated psychological and spiritual gamble, one that may culminate, during the next few days, in a battle across a ring of chemical fire thrown by Saddam Hussein around Baghdad-his “red line”. This last redoubt may or may not exist, but coalition forces and their civilian commanders have promised to move on the capital regardless, breeding fear throughout the world that civilization’s cradle may soon become its coffin: The historical forces of modernism and medievalism, after scouting and probing each other over the last few decades, may well have begun the first formal battle in a decisive war.
In planning for this battle, both the American-led coalition and Saddam Hussein have drawn inspiration and methods from the Middle Ages as much as from the Information Age. Yet with a perversity that is not entirely surprising, neither modernism nor medievalism has consented to wear the uniform of just one side-and both have manifested themselves in unexpected agents and behaviors.
Consider, for instance, the ambitious opening effort by coalition forces to kill Saddam Hussein, his sons and their top advisers with cruise missiles and bunker-busting bombs. The move was referred to by the American military as a “decapitation attempt,” a suitably anachronistic title for a tactic that (while certainly legitimate) looked for its inspiration and validation not to the modern age-during which such behavior has generally been viewed with distaste-but to medieval and even ancient times. (The decapitation strike was the brainchild of the American institution that most resembles a cabal of the Middle Ages: the Central Intelligence Agency.)
Subsequent attempts have been made to cut off all the many heads of the monstrous Iraqi Republican Guard, as well as those of the perhaps even more reprehensible state security apparatus, Saddam’s supposedly suicidal fedayeen and the various armed Baath political militias. The coalition relied again on its seemingly unlimited supply of technologically complex bombs whose “smartness” has done nothing to temper their essential and spectacular violence. Images of the resulting destruction were soon being shown-to singular psychological advantage-by newspapers and television networks throughout the Muslim world. Exploiting the tools of information technology, these media organs worked hard and with considerable success to demonstrate that the allied coalition had returned to the old Western (for which read “crusading”) habit of grinding enemy populations into the dust.
In the opening round, the coalition chose the weapons of modernism and the psychology of medievalism; the Iraqis reversed the equation and gained a momentary advantage (witness the increasing frequency and violence of anti-war demonstrations throughout the world).
Yet the thunderous explosions and images of the miniature mushroom clouds produced by the bunker-busters could not forever obscure the fact that the Iraqi assertions were perfidious manipulations. In truth, while coalition bombs were indeed falling on Iraq’s cities relentlessly, they were doing so with an accuracy that matched coalition-and specifically American-pledges: Iraqi fighters, in all their various guises, were certainly enduring a hellacious firestorm, but by Saturday night (the second of the “Shock and Awe” air campaign), an official of the Iraqi Information Agency was telling CNN that he had received reports of only 200-plus civilian casualties throughout Saddam’s domain-and the official made no mention at all of fatalities. Even if this seemingly incredible tally (made by a representative of a group with an interest in exaggerating the savagery of the coalition invaders) is only roughly accurate, it would mark a miraculous achievement.
Miracles, of course, are never orphans. In this case, the U.S. Air Force, always adept at claiming credit where little or none is due, rushed to announce its paternity. Retired and active officers-who for weeks prior to the opening of the campaign had voiced grave doubts about the abbreviated role their service was to play in the coalition battle plan-began to rhapsodize about the improved targeting technology of their bombs. What they mostly failed to mention (perhaps to protect the men themselves) was the ongoing work of coalition Special Forces operatives inside Iraq, who for months have been identifying targets as legitimate or out-of-bounds. In short, it was another ancient weapon-almost astounding human daring-that actually swung the pendulum of psychological advantage back toward the coalition side.
Demonstrating that their embrace of progressive military methods in Afghanistan hasn’t been a passing fancy, the coalition launched its ground attack into Iraq at the same time that its bombs were falling on the country’s urban areas, in line with the fundamental principles of modern mobile, mechanized warfare established by the great armor campaigns of the Second World War. From the first, coalition forces emphasized speed and maneuver over attrition, the need to bypass enemy strongholds rather than subdue them, and a rampaging drive to get at the enemy’s vitals before an effective defense of any one part of Iraq (outside of the long-since established fortifications around Baghdad, that is) could be managed. The effort was not without bizarre mishaps or lamentable casualties; but none were significant enough to slow appreciably the pace of advance, and it soon appeared that the Iraqis were on the verge of being seized by panic-exactly the result sought by the great 1930’s theorists of “lightning war.”
But with dreadful suddenness, the age of the coalition campaign’s operational ethos was revealed (the interwar period is now some 70 years gone) by Saddam’s defensive plan, which is based on a more contemporary belligerent tactic: terrorism. Elements of the dictator’s most vicious fighters had been detailed among the forlorn Iraqi regulars in the south, who were bypassed by the allies. As the armored columns sped towards Baghdad, the fanatics-per Saddam’s long-standing orders-kept their weapons trained on their countrymen even more than on the invading enemy, and when the coalition lines of supply and communication had been stretched tight, they ordered the regulars to strike. If those hapless (and sometimes weaponless and shoeless) men would not obey, the Republican Guardsmen and fedayeen simply tore off their own uniforms and blended into the civilian population. They waited until the coalition had sent all but slender garrison forces ahead-and then struck murderously themselves.
Lethal ambushes and false surrenders abounded. While the effect on coalition military might and progress was minimal, the psychological effect was maximized by a weapon that the coalition itself had unwittingly brought along, as if to allow Saddam some sort of handicap: the “embedded” television press corps.
With the decision to integrate both print and television journalists into military units (correspondents and cameramen not only travel but live and train with the soldiers), President George W. Bush and certain of his advisers demonstrated once again their belief that history has begun anew with them. In fact, the history behind this journalistic innovation is long, torturous and important.
Throughout the ages, few phenomena have incubated so much misery as the interaction between soldiers and civilian populations during wartime. From the beginning of organized violence, soldiers have viewed civilians as prey and spoils, while civilians have viewed soldiers as little more than rapacious criminals. So great did this mutual contempt grow that by the Middle Ages, philosophers, legalists and military men had begun to search for ways to limit the impact of the first group on the second.
In the West, this movement led to the professionalization of armies and accompanying codes of discipline for soldiers. (In most of the rest of the world, however, soldiers’ treatment of civilians as sources of food and funds and objects of violent lust went on, as did the average civilian’s fear and hatred of combatants.) Western warriors began to do their work outside the direct view of most civilians. Various legal restrictions on just what and who could be involved in military engagements (culminating in the Geneva Conventions and Accords of the 19th and 20th centuries) dramatically reduced the risk run by noncombatants. Though these codes were often violated, outrages no longer occurred with anything approaching the regularity that they had in earlier centuries. More and more, civilians learned of war from the work of writers who witnessed it rather than by hard experience.
Writers thus accrued a predictably large measure of influence over military affairs, based on how much they did or did not reveal about a given army’s plans and actions. Indeed, so significant did this influence become that, by the time of the American Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman declared that if he could, he would shoot all war correspondents as spies. There was a great deal of logic behind his passion. Nonetheless, by the time of the First World War, the public at home-generally safe but worried about fathers, sons and husbands on the battlefield-had made the war correspondent’s profession profitable and popular to an extent that would likely have caused the irascible General Sherman to revisit his sometime haunt, the sanitarium.
Generals of a different nervous temperament, however, learned not to despise but to manipulate the press: T.E. Lawrence, for example, could never have become the great legend of Arabia without the studious efforts of correspondent Lowell Thomas. Myths were not difficult to manufacture or fine-tune: The public’s appetite for tales of martial valor only grew with its greater remove from the dangers of the battlefield.
Television altered this equation. On the one hand, stories of battlefield excitement could be illustrated as never before; on the other, televised images more often than not revealed that war was a terrifying, dangerous and often psychologically shattering experience. The power of the camera made most modern military commanders shun war correspondents even more assiduously than had General Sherman, and not simply to conceal their own sins: Three centuries of hard experience taught that a little information carefully distributed could encourage public support for an army, while too much information liberally distributed-remember Vietnam-could help frustrate a nation’s (or at least a Presidential administration’s) interests. The relationship between television and the military became singularly ambiguous-an unresolved situation seemingly beyond resolution. But for their new war in Iraq, Mr. Bush and his advisers jettisoned all the old qualms about allowing cameras to show too much. Convinced of the absolute moral rectitude of his struggle against Saddam, Mr. Bush apparently believed that embedded correspondents would only add to the campaign’s glory by allowing the public to see the two undertakings-military and journalistic-as one great and just national mission. Instead, before the first week was out, the administration’s new media policy became the factor most likely to complicate, frustrate and perhaps endanger the success of a military campaign whose brilliance cannot disguise the fact that it is, after all, a military campaign, and as such loaded with death, bloodshed, blunders and acts of betrayal as well as bravery.
Like other nations, we prepare soldiers for weeks, months and sometimes years before they’re exposed to the visual and emotional horrors of combat; evidently, we now expect untrained civilians to make instant sense of these sights and sounds, and to continue to support faithfully both their troops and their government, while at the same time tempering their desire for vengeance against a cruel enemy. This is an enormous amount to expect from anyone, let alone concerned families and mystified children-even when our nation’s cause is just and our methods among the most ethically admirable ever displayed by any armed force.
Worse, the practice of embedding journalists provides our enemy with images that he can prostitute as he likes. Men such as those who currently control Iraq, along with other enemies elsewhere, are unlikely to let the opportunity pass. Already they have made the most, for example, of the sight of a careless Marine hoisting an American flag over Iraqi territory-an image that cannot be erased from the minds of even friendly Muslims. How much greater, then, will the effect of such an image be on a mind already filled with hate? And when an unbalanced member of the 101st Airborne Division attempts to kill his superior officers, what does it matter how we explain his motives? Whatever we say, the pendulum of psychological advantage swings back in favor of our enemy.
The embedded journalist equipped with a video feed is a feature of war more suited to degenerate ancient Rome and its circuses of blood than to a modern, progressive army. Watching actual violence in real time may teach valuable lessons about war, but it spreads fear and eventually inures us to killing. “Embedding,” as the name ironically suggests, is more than mere voyeurism: It is the pornography of the battlefield, and in the hands of amoral criminals such as America’s current enemies, it will prove enormously and enduringly useful. The images born today will take a long time dying-a fact that has nothing to do with landmark journalism and everything to do with national peril.
By allowing the embedding of journalists, then, our modern army is again embracing medievalism. Our enemy, meanwhile, has used the methods of the Information Age to turn the power of televised images against us. This will not be the last reversal of psychological roles that we experience in this war. When we discover weapons of mass destruction, and when we learn just how willing Saddam’s legions are to kill their own merely to gain a temporary advantage, the moral momentum will shift back our way. But embedding has been an unnecessary and foolish experiment; and the sooner we pull the plug on it, the quicker we can go about the final, grueling business of subduing Saddam’s minions.
Caleb Carr’s The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians (Random House) has been published in a revised and updated edition.