Joe Conason's Journal

For the U.S. military, this war -- a "cakewalk" according to ultrahawks -- is turning into a minefield.

Published March 24, 2003 11:54PM (EST)

Cakewalk, with black coffee
If the war's most eager enthusiasts got their way, we could have no honest discussion of the situation in Iraq or the events leading up to armed conflict, because they have decreed that candor is equal to comforting the enemy. It would be impermissible to discuss the disastrous diplomacy that deprived the U.S. of international support, to demand truthful answers about his alleged nuclear weapons programs, to doubt the exaggerated connections between Iraq and al-Qaida, and even to wonder whether the price we and the Iraqis are now paying to destroy the Baathist regime will be far greater than the benefit. But of course the hawks' angry accusations about "enabling Saddam" only prove that their argument is, and always was, too weak to prevail without resort to demagogy.

(Andrew Sullivan posted a fine example of this hysterical style last Saturday, in which he predicted that I will be "politically annihilated." The clinical experts over at Sullywatch wonder why he spews poison at me; I can only speculate that I'm receiving my deserved cosmic comeuppance for defending Salon's decision to hire Andrew, not once but twice.)

Even those of us who regard the ultrahawks as unprincipled, foolish and potentially dangerous could only hope, nonetheless, that their predictions of Saddam's swift disintegration were accurate. "Shock and awe" in the wake of an unprecedented air assault would undoubtedly crush Baghdad's will to fight. Fear of postwar reprisals would quickly divide the regime and leave Saddam isolated. Joy at the prospect of liberation would turn the Iraqi people into allies rather than adversaries. Liberating Iraq "would be a cakewalk," in the phrase attributed to Richard Perle (but actually written by former Reagan official Kenneth Adelman). Ordinary soldiers and civilians alike might consider such prattle tasteless as well as stupid, but that phrase reflected a blasé attitude toward other people's suffering and sacrifice among certain luminaries of the pro-war lobby.

This Reuters photograph on the front page of today's Financial Times represents a rather different and more unsettling reality. It shows an Apache attack helicopter downed near the Shia holy city of Karbala, surrounded by celebrating Iraqis who told a reporter that "a farmer" had scored the hit with a rifle. Whether or not that's mere folklore, the pilots of other choppers who escaped the hail of anti-aircraft and small arms fire in that battle certainly hadn't expected such trouble, especially not from the restive Shiites. Said one veteran who flew combat missions during the first Gulf War, "In Desert Storm, we didn't have a firefight like this."

For its stateside promoters the war is still a cakewalk, I suppose. (Though at the American Enterprise Institute, they have evidently foresworn cream and even Coffee Mate for the duration. Everybody is doing his bit.) For the U.S. military, which was always able to restrain its enthusiasm for this project, the cakewalk is turning into a minefield. As they prepare to confront the Republican Guard outside Baghdad, while trying to pacify other cities in the rear, our generals must again consider the difficult choices that were foreseen by thoughtful military analysts months ago.

Minimizing civilian casualties, as the U.S. command is trying to do, means avoiding the use of heavy weaponry in populated areas. But that inevitably creates sanctuaries for Republican Guard, militia and guerrillas still loyal to the regime. In Basra, where easy victory would have prevented damage to water and electric utilities, the coalition has now been forced to use artillery, with collateral effects that may precipitate a serious humanitarian crisis. Winning Baghdad is likely to require more of the same and worse.

The Iraqis are weary with a decade of suffering, and many of them must hate Saddam. But that doesn't mean they want to be ruled by an American military governor or that they like seeing American flags raised over their cities. Such complexity isn't compatible with the fantasies of Adelman, Perle and Sullivan, but that is what our military now confronts on the battlefield.
[4:00 p.m. PST, March 24, 2003]

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