Jewish World Review March 26, 2003 / 22 Adar II, 5763
Shields & lances
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | You wouldn't know it from reading most of the papers, but the war in Iraq is going fabulously well. After just five days the U.S. Third Infantry Division and supporting units are approaching Baghdad.
The immense steel column continues to drive reinforcements across the Iraqi desert, while its leading edge rumbles through the fields, villages, and waterways of Mesopotamia. To its rear, the "sleeper cells" of Ba'athist and terrorist hitmen waiting in ambush are being eliminated one by one. Special forces have seized bridges, dams, airstrips, oil and gas fields, and weapons sites all over the country. The U.S. Air Force has devastated leadership targets, military infrastructure, and the physical symbols of the Saddam regime, across Baghdad and elsewhere.
Allied troops have Basra, Nasiriyah, now Karbala, and other Iraqi cities surrounded, and are tightening each noose. Snipers in the towns are being patiently deleted. The "Scud box" of western Iraq is in allied hands, daily more secure, and allied forces are building with endless air deployments to the northern front. In all, the allies have taken only a few dozen killed, and a couple hundred lesser casualties -- many of these from small accidents within the most amazing and vast logistical exercise since our troops landed in Normandy (when we lost men at the rate of up to 500 a minute, liberating France).
In just five days all this has been achieved! And while the most grisly parts of the campaign still lie ahead, all the worst fears have gone unrealized, so far.
More, still, could have been achieved, in this very short time, had the Americans and their allies not been playing to the most exacting moral rules ever devised for warfare. They are restricted by, for instance, a general order not to engage any target at all -- including snipers and saboteurs within towns -- unless they have a clear sight of it. They allowed, for instance, a dozen Republican Guard to fire rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at Apache helicopters from the roof of a building in one location south of Baghdad, entirely unmolested, because the helicopter pilots, who could have taken them out in a few quick keystrokes, couldn't be sure of avoiding "collateral damage" to civilians who might be lurking in the building below. Giving the benefit of the doubt to surrendering soldiers cost most of the U.S. Marine casualties so far, in a single incident near Nasiriyah, as a suicide ambush was mounted under cover of white flags.
But these are details, and while the media dwell dotingly upon every individual allied casualty, in furtherance of the defeatist instincts they inherited from the 'sixties generation in Vietnam, the real issue lies in the heart of Baghdad.
There, about 20 obvious and significant targets remain untouched because of "human shields". The most effective of these shields is the Western news reporters, well over 100 of whom are exploited by what remains of Saddam's regime, often with their complicity in buying safety for themselves. These targets include even the Defence Ministry (which is used as a press briefing centre), Iraq TV (still broadcasting Saddam's propaganda stunts and messages, picked up by Al-Jazeera and distributed through the Arab and Muslim world to whip up anti-American sentiment), and the Rashid Hotel (under which the Iraqis have built their most secure bunker. There may be another under the more humble Palestine Hotel in which the lower-paid hacks are sleeping).
It is thus the last time we will be seeing journalists with protected status behind enemy lines; for the Pentagon is learning from some of these tactical errors. The acknowledgement of such human shields is a crucial mistake because -- like the GPS-jamming machinery and other weapons systems the Russians are now proved to have been shipping to Saddam while the U.S. was stalled at the United Nations -- they cost American lives. In future wars, I expect, journalists will be told the facts of life in a less ambiguous way.
The larger question of human shields is still under debate. My own view is the one I think will prevail: that allied armies should more-or-less ignore such people, in the selection of targets. For the use of such cover is itself among the illicit weapons of the terror regimes, who will abandon the weapon only when it ceases to work. Those who agree to be used as shields, can hold themselves to account for their fates; those who had no choice are tragically unlucky. Unfortunately, the moral decline in the West has robbed many of clarity in the ethical questions raised by war.
If there has been one genuine setback so far -- and I do not count it as very significant -- it is the failure to take Basra by main force. For here, the Saddam regime is learning from Basra a hopeful lesson for the Baghdad fight ahead. The enemy still believe the allies are afraid to take casualties, and can thus be held at bay by relatively small numbers of regime diehards who take up sniping positions. A robust seizure of Basra might well have saved lives by communicating the opposite idea, from an environment more friendly than Baghdad's likely to be. It would certainly save civilian lives, in the balance, by speeding up the importation and distribution of relief aid from freighters waiting offshore.
The point is disputable, however. What the regime's defenders have in common, no matter where they are, is a certain fatalism. Should they throw down their weapons, they believe their fellow Iraqis (especially the Shia majority) will make haste to string them from the lamp-posts; in their own view they might as well die with guns in their hands. There is thus, from this view, no way to influence Saddam's true loyalists within Baghdad. It would be like trying to talk Al Qaeda into surrender at Tora Bora; we are dealing with people resolved to "martyrdom", and who, sooner or later, must simply be exterminated. And sooner is invariably less expensive than later.
Moreover, as we shall soon learn, many of the most accomplished of Saddam's defenders behind the lines are, indeed, members of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and other terrorist groups who have received training in Iraq. We are unlikely to hear much about this, or about the capture of biological and chemical weapons sites, until the war is over (despite several interesting independent reports). This is because the allies are still benefiting from Saddam's hesitation to use weapons that may immediately cost him the support of his few remaining foreign friends. (I invite selected readers to look between my lines.)
Saddam's remaining loyalists are in no way representative of the general population, which has greeted invading forces with wary enthusiasm wherever they have appeared, and open enthusiasm wherever they have clearly prevailed. I have now seen several accounts of Iraqi civilians, voluntarily risking their lives to help allied soldiers locate Saddamite gunmen in concealed positions. The Iraqis themselves are, alas thanks to media attitudes in the West, America's most unsung allies.
In the approach to Baghdad now, what's done is done, and the prospects are
discouraging only to the media. The Republican Guard seems to be mounting an
ambitious defence of the southern arc around the city. This is good news,
for the more of them that can be annihilated where they stand, the fewer to
retreat and cause carnage within the city. I should think every casualty the
allies take outside, will be repaid in lives saved in the streets of
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