Making a mess

Has the military campaign gone horribly wrong?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

On Friday the war in Iraq was, apparently, ‘going well’. One report claimed that ‘the success of the US invasion shows that the right course of action has been taken’ (1).

Today, The Times (London) heralds the ‘dawning of war’s harsh reality’, as British and US forces apparently ‘suffered jolt after jolt in their advance towards Baghdad’ (2).

Watching the coverage (and trying to see through the ‘fog of war’), it seems that American and British forces faced some fairly average wartime problems over the weekend: scrappy battles in the south, friendly fire incidents, the death of some troops and the capture of others. Yet some reports now claim that it’s all going horribly wrong, and that the invasion, and the military strategy itself, are on ‘very shaky ground’. What’s going on?

The perception of ‘war gone wrong’ reveals as much about America’s cautious military strategy as it does about events on the ground. Having launched a war with the aim of doing as little as possible to achieve its ends – and a military strategy that stressed avoiding risky action and hand-to-hand combat – military commanders now seem surprised that they may actually have to fight. It is the wishful-thinking element of the military strategy, and America and Britain’s own defensiveness, that makes the current situation seem so very ‘shaky’.

From the outset, the stated aim of the war was to do as little as necessary to get rid of Saddam’s regime. Some US commanders expressed their hope that the Iraqi leadership would simply implode once America and Britain started dropping bombs. According to the Los Angeles Times, Pentagon officials hoped that ‘shock and awe’ bombing would ‘stun the Iraqi system and plunge it into such disarray that mutinies, coups or civil unrest will break out, isolating Saddam from his forces’ (3).

Other US officials hoped that, after coalition forces dropped their loads over Baghdad, Iraqi dissidents would finish off Saddam by themselves. General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, wished upon a star that, having witnessed America’s power, Iraqis would ‘clean their own stable’ (4). In military circles, this became known as the preferred ‘silver bullet’ outcome – where Iraqis would take out their leader once they had seen the ferocity of America’s war machine.

After this strategic emphasis on doing not very much to topple Saddam’s regime, allied forces now face ‘pockets of resistance’ apparently popping up all over the place. When one of the USA’s professed military aims was to show its hand and then wait for things to collapse/implode/work themselves out, the existence of resistance must come as a bit of a shock.

At times, the US military seemed to hope (against hope) that a propaganda war, or a ‘Psy-Ops war’, would be enough to defeat Saddam’s regime, instead of an all-out military campaign. In Washington’s military bunkers, officials discussed the use of ‘effects’ and ‘demonstrations of power’ as means of overthrowing Saddam’s regime. In the run-up to war, one report said: ‘“Shock and awe” is the latest Pentagon buzzword for an American blitz against Iraq that, if war comes, will seek to defeat Saddam Hussein with “effects” rather than the physical destruction of enemy troops or their resources.’ (5)

Having elevated ‘effect’ over engagement, it seems that reality now appears rather frightening. When US commanders hoped that ‘shock and awe’ would be enough to terrify Saddam’s regime into surrender, it must come as a blow to realise that more hard work will be needed – perhaps even scrappy battles on the ground.

Consider Basra. Before the war, US officials talked about Basra as a relative pushover. Basra is a city with a large anti-Saddam Shi’ite population, and American commanders hoped that its residents would welcome Western forces, allowing coalition forces to ‘capitalise on any scene of liberation and beam it to a sceptical world’ (6).

But, like everywhere else, Basra appears to have some of those dreaded ‘pockets of resistance’. Coalition forces have ended up dithering on the outskirts of Basra, uncertain of whether to go in and face urban combat. The difference between the strategy and reality in relation to Basra captures the deep divide between the ‘effects’ of the military planning and reality of the military campaign.

It may even be the cautiousness of the allied military strategy that is buoying up the Iraqi resistance. Many reports claim that small groups of Saddam’s Republican Guard are being sent to towns like Umm Qasr and Basra to hold off the advancing US and UK forces by locating themselves in urban areas with high numbers of civilians. If this is true, then the Iraqis would appear simply to be exploiting the US strategy of avoiding urban combat and civilian casualties.

In the build-up to war, US Marine Corps Major General James Mattis said, ‘We’d much rather go round a city if we can, even if the main road goes through it’, claiming that ‘urban areas will be avoided if possible’ (7). Now that the war has started, the US military has aborted a large number of operations that could potentially put civilians at risk. On 23 March 2003, the New York Times reported that ‘senior American commanders have avoided bombing as many as three dozen high-priority Iraqi targets for fear of civilian casualties’ (8).

Given the caution about urban combat and the defensiveness about civilian casualties, it would hardly be surprising if Iraqi troops exploited such concerns for their own ends. In war, each side exploits what it perceives to be the weaknesses of the other. Perhaps the ‘stiffer than expected’ Iraqi resistance that all the reports now refer to is itself a product of America’s uncertain strategy.

The crisis in the war is of the coalition forces’ own making. What they are finding out the hard way is that risk-averse military strategies don’t translate very well on the ground. So there remain few objective barriers to the all-powerful America storming Iraq and defeating Saddam’s inferior forces; instead, it seems to be a lack of subjective determination that has contributed to the current crisis.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Analysts say Iraq war is going well, Christian Bourge, United International Press, 21 March 2003

(2) ‘Dawning of war’s harsh reality’, Tim Reid and Roland Watson, The Times (London), 24 March 2003

(3) Will ‘shock and awe’ be sufficient?, William M Arkin, Los Angeles Times, 16 March 2003

(4) Will ‘shock and awe’ be sufficient?, William M Arkin, Los Angeles Times, 16 March 2003

(5) Will ‘shock and awe’ be sufficient?, William M Arkin, Los Angeles Times, 16 March 2003

(6) Taking Basra key to strategy, Patrick E Tyler, LA Daily News, 18 March 2003

(7) Civilian casualties a big worry for Iraq attackers, Sean Maguire, Reuters, 12 March 2003

(8) Rumsfeld says important targets have been avoided, Eric Schmitt, New York Times, 23 March 2003

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Topics World


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