Perhaps the oddest phenomenon of the current moment is the insistence by top military brass and their doppelgangers disguised as retired-military consultants on TV networks that the original plan for the invasion of Iraq was just hunky-dory and everything is right on schedule and anybody who suggests otherwise must be some kind of anti-American trying to prop up Saddam or at least somebody who doesn’t understand war.
It is perhaps more curious that they say this even as they are obviously scrambling behind the scenes to change the plan and bring in more troops and supplies. Do they think that any serious person takes them seriously?
I’m not saying there isn’t a small shred of truth in the assertion that what’s going on amounts to minor adjustments rather than major rethinking. I have little doubt that before the war planners considered all kinds of possible scenarios, including something rather similar to what is happening now and probably a number of far worse situations than what the U.S. military is staring in the face.
So somewhere in the depths of the Pentagon there no doubt exists a draft of a war plan that includes contingencies similar to what’s happening now, along with contingency plans to handle them. So in some sense the current situation could be viewed, if you stretch far enough, as just part of the original plan.
But (while I might be prepared to change my mind when the secret stuff is released 25 or 30 years from now) there can be little doubt that the war has not gone the way the planners had in mind. It was hardly wise for Peter Arnett to go on Iraqi television and say anything, and to assert, as he did, that "the first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance" is probably an overstatement. But it contains a good bit of truth, and that, rather than his saying it on Iraqi TV, is almost certainly the reason so many people have their panties in a twist.
Truth can be dangerous to any political regime, but especially during wartime.
For all the chest-beating boasts of advancing 300 miles in four days, there’s virtually no evidence that the U.S. military expected anything like the level of guerrilla and unconventional resistance it has faced in southern and central Iraq. Perhaps nobody but Ken Adelman actually used the term "cakewalk," and most of the top brass, including even President Bush, were cunning enough to warn that it might not be easy.
But the administration, the war whoopers and most of the military clearly expected it to be pretty easy and straightforward, and they conveyed that impression strongly during the buildup. It wasn’t only the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs who were babbling about how the Iraqi people would be dancing in the streets and handing out flowers the moment the first U.S. – er, coalition – soldier showed up on Iraqi soil.
This is pretty clear from interviews in Germany from some of the first American soldiers wounded and taken out of Iraq for hospitalization and treatment. U.S. military leaders led the grunts on the ground to believe it would be a pretty simple and swiftly victorious operation not perfect and not without some pockets of resistance, of course, but not a whole lot more dangerous than a live-fire exercise.
Our leaders discounted to the point of ignoring entirely the possibility that the Iraqi Shia in the south would not trust the Americans much. Did they forget that the Shia had recent experience with American promises?
Having risen up against Saddam back in 1991 when Poppa Bush told them to and then did nothing to help as I recollect because his deep thinkers expected and wanted a military coup rather then a genuinely popular uprising tens of thousands of Shia were slaughtered by Saddam’s regime and their waterways, the center of their ancient culture, were drained. It would take more than a couple of tanks and a steely-eyed speech from Dubya to convince these people that the Americans really meant it this time.
The small-scale harassment of American and British supply lines seems to have taken almost everybody by surprise. The troops were not nearly as well prepared to handle such attacks as they might have been. So the advance was slowed, cities the planners clearly thought should have been centers of assistance have instead become centers of resistance. It looks as if there will be serious resistance to an invasion of Baghdad, and it is increasingly possible that resistance will continue, at some level at least, whether Saddam Hussein is alive or dead.
Good heavens, we’re all human beings and we all make mistakes. What would be so terrible about our military leaders admitting that they made one this time? I can understand (without condoning) the pervasive desire on the part of political leaders to appear to be infallible and pretend that a mistake wasn’t really a mistake. But I had some hope that military leaders, who not only have to deal regularly with life-and-death situations where honesty with yourself is essential but have at various times had something resembling a code of honor and integrity, might be less political this time around. Or is the military now thoroughly politicized and bureaucratized?
In fact, admitting a miscalculation or several might increase both credibility and the ability to carry this war to a successful conclusion. The losses in personnel have actually been rather modest to date, but it would be well to keep them that way. It would certainly be important to the hope of avoiding future mistakes that could result in cataclysmic losses to develop a sense of honesty and realism about how the war has gone so far and what kind of effort might be needed in light of what the leaders have learned from past mistakes.
But so far our leaders not to mention the conservative media have kept the rose-colored glasses on. So far as I know, only Andrew Sullivan, among the more prominent hawks, has admitted on his blog that he miscalculated the extent of Iraqi resistance during the run-up to the war. Most of the others are insisting that the plan is still in place and they never promised an easy victory and those who seem to remember rosy no-resistance scenarios emanating from war-whooping quarters are simply deluded. And articles suggesting that the war could grind on for months, as Billy Kristol recently put it, come close to being disgraceful.
I don’t know enough from my vantage point perched in front of the TV, reading wire stories daily as part of my job, interviewing both military and civilian officials and former officials to know just how much longer this war will grind on. I know more than most people, but I know enough to know that I don’t know anything close to enough. I still hope, as a pragmatic assessment, that it will be over more quickly than I suspect it will be. I still think that will be the least damaging scenario.
If there is any hope to be garnered from the war so far, one may hope that it discredits the war whoopers of the future. The American public has, perhaps, come to understand that war is not just a video game or a move on a geostrategic chessboard. War is about death and destruction, about snuffing out the lives of young people who should have promising futures in front of them, who have wives, husbands and children.
We should have learned enough just from the first few weeks of the outright combat part of this war that future wars are not to be entered into lightly. We should be in a better position to question than we were after the apparently antiseptic wars of the recent past, whether it is worth it to spill American and foreign blood for the deluded, juvenile and ultimately tragically unserious dreams of neoconservative intellectuals with a vision of planting democracies and straddling the earth with benevolent hegemonic power.
This war will give us a platform from which it is possible to question with more credibility whether it is still a wise policy to have U.S. troops in substantial military installations overseas. Is it time to pull troops out of Germany, out of Okinawa, even out of Korea? Having deposed a dictator our leaders told us was a uniquely dangerous madman and tyrant (whether they really believed it or not), will we be in a better position to question the next proposal to depose some run-of-the-mill tyrant? I suspect that memories of this war that went off the tracks (however the hawks would deny it) before ultimate victory will remain in the American psyche for some time to come not as long as the memories of quagmire in Vietnam, perhaps, but a while and deter the next round of open empire-building through military force.
So, are the dreams of remaking the Middle East and establishing a real, honest, open empire instead of the de facto, makeshift empire we have now dying in the sands of Iraq? We can only hope so. Of course, we can be sure that those whose perverse love of war, and especially preemptive war, as the centerpiece of American foreign policy, will not give up their hopes to have our young people fight the next war and the next one and the next one. So we must be more persistent, more intelligent, more sober, and eventually more persuasive than they are.
I have it from somebody fairly well connected in Washington that President Bush himself does not harbor dreams of empire, that he wants to win this war, get rid of Saddam, keep the occupation brief, then turn to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a roadmap for a Palestinian state that he won’t allow the Israelis to veto, and let that be his legacy rather than a series of endless wars. I don’t know if it’s true, and I don’t know if the president can adhere to that course of action, given the complications and temptations that are bound to ensue as the destabilizing consequences of the wake of war manifest themselves. But I permit myself to hope.
But those of us who love peace and freedom and America can’t count on hope. We must redouble our efforts to prevent the next war, even as we try to keep the consequences of this one from becoming too disastrous.