Jewish World Review April 2, 2003 / 29 Adar II, 5763
Rush to judgment in the fog of war
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd stay away.
-- Hughes Mearns
The Bush administration wonders whether a man who is there may say something about a man who is not there.
Intrigued officials have noticed a familiar face in an unfamiliar setting. A man believed to be, or perhaps to have been, Saddam Hussein's personal bodyguard, hitherto was almost always seen standing behind Hussein in televised appearances. Now he has been seen on television standing behind Iraq's defense minister.
Because it is uncertain whether Hussein has been seen at all since the "decapitation" attack that began the war, a senior administration official dryly says of the bodyguard: "It could be that Saddam no longer needs his services." Because it is unclear even whether Iraq's head of government is alive, judgments about the war's course should be tentative.
Because there has not been a wave of uprisings against the regime as coalition forces have approached, some persons have inferred an unanticipated strength in Hussein's regime. This inference ignores two facts. Iraqis remember 1991 and U.S. officials may remember 1956.
When many thousands of Iraqis rose against Hussein after the gulf war in 1991, they may have expected U.S. assistance. Instead they died by the thousands, unassisted. And in the wake of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech to the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress criticizing Stalin, there was anti-Soviet unrest in Poland that reverberated in Hungary. U.S. policy -- broadcasts on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and underground cells that the CIA helped organize -- encouraged a revolt.
But when it occurred, Hungary, landlocked and surrounded by communist states and neutral Austria, could not have been helped by the United States even if President Eisenhower had wanted to act on the reckless rhetoric of some Republicans about forcibly "rolling back" the Iron Curtain, which he did not. This inglorious episode taught the United States not to encourage tyrannized people to put their lives on the line until they can be given more than mere encouragement.
Asked what we have learned in today's war so far, retired Marine Gen. Paul Van Riper tersely replies, "Not patience." He recalls that after the Second World War, the arrival of nuclear weapons coincided with, and may have largely caused, a decline of interest in military history. Indeed, in 1946 a leading strategic thinker, Bernard Brodie, wrote: "Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose."
Ignorance of military history gives rise to facile talk about "battle management," which Van Riper says is "like putting your canoe in a mountain stream and saying, 'I'm not just going to manage my canoe, I'm going to manage the stream.'" And he notes that if it comes to urban warfare in Baghdad, the U.S. military has an institutional memory of fighting in Manila and Seoul. And it has consulted with the Israelis on how they subdued Jenin.
Today the fog of Washington thickens the fog of war. The second-guessing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- for the "rolling start" of the war before all the forces reached the region, and for the composition of the forces -- justifies a permutation of Clausewitz's axiom that war is the continuation of politics by other means.
Today's debate is a continuation of the Pentagon politics agitated by Rumsfeld's plans for moving the military beyond Cold War mass to an increased emphasis on mobility, information and special operations. So as the pursuit of parochial agendas influences the confused assessments of battlefield confusion, remember this:
In one of history's consequential battles, that of Agincourt in 1415, the English force exploited what we now call a high-tech "revolution in military affairs" (archers with their longbows). Near the end of Shakespeare's "Henry V" (Act 4, Scene 7), just as the battle has ended, King Henry receives a herald, Montjoy, from the enemy, the French.
Henry: I tell thee truly, herald,
I know not if the day be ours or no,
For yet many of your horsemen peer
And gallop o'er the field.
Montjoy: The day is yours.
The battle had a "killing zone" only about 200 yards wide and had lasted only about two hours. But such was the confusion that usually attends combat, not even the commander of the victorious forces knew immediately who had won.
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