Bush’s Conflict: Military Methods At War For Iraq

Military history is not a discipline congenial to one-way-or-the-other interpretations or for-us-or-against-us philosophies; and the examination of the Iraq crisis in this column will be derived, above all, from military history. Intellectual nonpartisanship is not popular with ideologues on either side of the current war debate, even those of the supposedly more outreaching left: Among the many ironies of this historical moment is the manner in which the antiwar protesters have slavishly parroted President George W. Bush by declaring that those who are not their friends are their enemies. In my experience, the group most ready to hear unorthodox and controversial ideas are those civilians currently in charge of formulating policy at the Defense Department-the very people most often accused, here and in Europe, of gross intolerance. Military history holds some potentially hard lessons for this group, but I have yet to find any of their number, from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on down, who is unwilling to consider and discuss those lessons-or willing to show the kind of gross hostility to philosophical and historical heterodoxy that characterizesthe averagecommentatoron NationalPublic Radio.

I was recently asked by a group of left-leaning intellectuals, academics and artists to lend funds and a signature to a group advertisement in The New York Times -“a very simple statement” of opposition to “the war against Iraq.” (Exactly which war against Iraq they meant-the one carried on for eight years by the Clinton administration or the one being planned by President Bush’s advisers-the ad’s organizers did not specify; but more of such irritating distinctions later.) When I inquired if, in fact, it was not the job of scholars and artists, in a complex situation already overburdened by “very simple statements,” to offer more nuanced interpretations, I was met by a very polite stone wall: The effect of the message would only be diluted, said the organizers, by qualifications.

But surely the American public is screamingly weary of such simplicity-both the smirking moral simplicity of President Bush and the childish antiwar movement, which apparently believes the Iraq crisis can be analyzed and addressed with 40-year-old folk songs. Even a nation as characteristically unreceptive to irony as ours has not been deaf to the subtleties, both humorous and tragic, of the moment. (Consider our complicated and often contradictory responses to naïvely simple questions about Iraq.) It is time for the leaders of both factions to start addressing the American public as adults; and above all, it is time for the elucidation of third ways to understand this crisis.

Third ways are not the same as prevarication disguised as solutions, which is what we have been hearing of late at the United Nations. Now we have yet another date for yet another progress report by U.N. weapons inspectors-by which time, it is hoped, Iraq’s obfuscation and obstinacy (and one begins to wonder whether Saddam Hussein’s capacity for both tactics is not infinite) will be visibly diminished. Should that change not materialize, early March would certainly suit America’s more conventional military planners as a jump-off date for invasion: The season is right and the moon is new.

But before this latest campaign gets under way, it is imperative we realize that success for coalition forces will depend not on convincing Iraqi opposition leaders and citizens that our goals have changed (after repeated American betrayals, the people of Iraq have grown understandably numb to lofty statements of objectives by Washington), but rather on demonstrating that our methods have evolved: For it is only by our methods that our true motives will be revealed.

Because almost all sides in the current debate presume that this Gulf War will closely resemble the last, there has been little discussion of the political implications of military methods. But right now, the possibility of a repeat performance is perhaps the greatest danger that Americans face.

In 1990-91, the artless, bludgeoning tactics of Desert Shield and Desert Storm began the process of alienating even friendly Iraqis, and helped limit feasible coalition goals to the liberation of Kuwait. While there was scarcely a member of George H.W. Bush’s administration and military team that did not believe that the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator was their additional and greater mission, the methods they chose to employ-emphasizing as they did the often indiscriminate destruction of civilian infrastructures and civilian lives (carefully selected television displays of laser guidance notwithstanding)-so alienated huge numbers of the Iraqi people that the possibility of liberating Baghdad to the accompaniment of a cheering citizenry rapidly devolved into the prospect of a forceful military occupation of the city, the political and economic costs of which were incalculable. Faced with that prospect, the elder Bush abandoned those Iraqis who had been brave enough to respond to his exhortations to rise up against Saddam, leaving them to twist in the harrowing wind that was and remains Saddam’s insatiable appetite for vicious revenge, and thus breeding further anti-American hatred.

This betrayal was followed by an embargo that famously punished the Iraqi people without noticeably altering Saddam’s ability to build either weapons of mass destruction or palaces and other facilities in which to hide them. Iraq’s conflict with the United States and its most staunch allies then moved into a lower-profile, but still deadly and alienating, phase. Bill Clinton’s trepidation at the prospect of allowing Special Forces troops or even C.I.A. cowboys to assist the Iraqi opposition inside Iraq, along with his inclination to rain down supposedly surgical missiles and bombs without reliable eyes on the ground to tell him exactly where those weapons should fall, was in many ways as morally indefensible as Bush père ‘s methods had been. The consequences were entirely predictable. Not only did Saddam’s grip on his nation tighten, but the United States was revealed as a country willing to inflict indiscriminate death from great distances and high altitudes in support of its President’s moral posturing, but unwilling to risk the life of even one of its soldiers in the same cause. (This impression was underlined by the American air campaign in the former Yugoslavia, where U.S. diplomats and air commanders merrily and falsely announced that they could enforce their will through air power alone; meanwhile, on the ground, civilians died, wrong targets were destroyed, and indigenous opposition groups, along with fretful Russian diplomats, did the dirty work of actually bringing down Slobodan Milosevic.)

Methods, then, have been everything in our conflict with Iraq, as indeed they are in any war: Fast friends can be made into mortal enemies and vice versa, depending on how we choose to fight. That relatively simple lesson (which has been lost on generations of unimaginative American military and political leaders going back to our own Revolution) suddenly became, after the attacks of Sept. 11, something of a new American credo, one that was put to constructive and remarkable use during the campaign to topple the Taliban and cripple the power of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Throughout most of that conflict, the traditional American reliance on indiscriminate, long-range, overwhelming force was finally challenged by officials in a position to bring about change: Mr. Rumsfeld’s willingness to risk the lives of American Special Forces and intelligence operatives on the ground before the campaign itself even began represented a radical departure in American military thinking. It was also the crucial phase of the war, during which we earned the trust of anti-Taliban Afghan forces and determined the position of targets that could be destroyed without killing or alienating enormous numbers of Afghan civilians.

We succeeded in Afghanistan not because the fury of American air power was eventually unleashed, but because that fury was (with the exception of several reprehensible examples of Air Force recidivism) discriminate, directed and undertaken in coordination with ground forces. The current Bush administration may have failed to nation-build after the invasion, but when they first arrived, American troops were welcomed by the vast majority of Afghan civilians. No one pretended that the war had been won from the air alone, and Mr. Rumsfeld and his allies in the Pentagon (who had been dismissed as amateurs by the same old-line military bureaucrats who held to the traditional American modus operandi: Level an enemy first and offer the battered survivors a handshake later) emerged as the authors of a new method of American war.

But their achievement was not enough to silence those within the defense establishment and the U.S. Congress who had a philosophical, political and financial stake in the old doctrine of “overwhelming force.” Attributed to Pentagon graduate and current steward of American diplomacy Colin Powell, this doctrine has always carried an enormous budgetary price tag (and with it, the promise of equally enormous kickbacks and considerations from weapons contractors). The doctrine is also popular at home, since its primary emphasis is on avoiding American casualties-but it secures that popularity through an obvious willingness to inflict civilian death on the enemy, and that willingness in turn sows deep and lasting hatred of America. After Afghanistan, the desperate attempts of entrenched military interests to protect the Powell Doctrine became apparent during their very public struggles with Mr. Rumsfeld and his advisers over various weapons systems-notably the Crusader self-propelled howitzer-that were emblematic of traditional American military habits.

Weapons like the Crusader, a long-range artillery piece, are of use only to old-school strategies of massed firepower delivered indiscriminately from great distances. (In other words, not a weapon to use if you’re worried about civilian casualties.) Last fall, Mr. Rumsfeld declared that if weapons such as the Crusader could not be canceled in favor of increased production of the kind of truly discriminatory weapons that had played such a crucial role in the success of the Afghan campaign (for example, the once obscure but now legendary Predator unmanned aerial drone), no systematic reform of either the behavior of U.S. forces in the field or the fabled American military-industrial complex would be possible. He was not overstating the case. All along the weapons pipeline, there remain influential people who are less concerned with the diplomatic and political impact of military methods than with perpetuating a system that allows them to profit from building-but rarely using-overwhelming forces.

The question of what methods will be used in our coming action in Iraq represents yet another, perhaps decisive, round in this ongoing struggle to determine how America projects its power abroad-and how it is perceived as projecting that power. The costs of any retreat by Mr. Rumsfeld and his faction, or of any failure on the part of President Bush to back to the hilt his Secretary of Defense and all other progressive military thinkers, will be high, indeed-higher even than they would have been in Afghanistan. Further victimization and alienation of the Iraqi people by wrongheaded American methods will certainly inspire new terrorist activity, whereas a campaign that is quickly identified by Iraqis and other Muslim observers as designed to spare civilian life-a campaign that looks like a joint effort to depose a tyrant-will steal much thunder from demagogues like Osama bin Laden, just as the forward-thinking victory in Afghanistan did.

We must not expect that such a victory will prevent all terrorist responses; nothing as yet can. But a successful, progressive campaign will reduce their probability-and end the very real danger that Saddam will funnel his W.M.D.’s to terrorist organizations. It will also reveal the United States not as the leader of a new crusade against Islam, but as a consistent crusader against tyranny.

Will we, in fact, wage such a campaign in the days to come? Are our leaders preparing for Afghanistan II, or Desert Storm II? The signs are various and not definitively indicative (as indeed they should not be, at this point, to outsiders). We know, for instance, that American Special Forces units are already at work inside Iraq; but what precisely they are doing only they and their commanders know. Are they sowing trust and arranging coordination with the Iraqi people and opposition leaders, or simply scouting territory and painting a broad range of targets for an indiscriminate allied assault? Will the armada and military units being assembled around Iraq actually be used to their full, overwhelming strength, or will only those elements required to topple Saddam’s regime enter the country, leaving the rest to play the part that they have thus far carried off admirably: that of the force behind forceful diplomacy?

On the question of military methods hangs the fate of many American servicemen and servicewomen and countless Iraqis. At stake, as well, are the legitimacy of American foreign policy in the immediate term; the success of the war on terror; the well-being of the American economy-and possibly the lives of many civilians here at home.

Caleb Carr is the author of The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians , an updated edition of which will be published next month by Random House.

Bush’s Conflict: Military Methods At War For Iraq