Power trips

Do coalition forces want to take Baghdad, or to demonstrate that they can?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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On Saturday lunchtime’s ITV News, the presenter in the studio said US troops had ‘stormed’ into central Baghdad to take the city. His correspondent on the ground wasn’t so sure. ‘That may be so’, he said, though he couldn’t see them ‘right now’.

Coalition forces did storm Baghdad over the weekend – first its suburbs, and in later incursions the city centre. But they seemed less interested in ‘taking the city’ than in demonstrating their ability to take it. In this war of image over substance, even the weekend’s incursions into the Iraqi capital appeared to be about displaying American power rather than actually asserting it.

According to one report, America’s ‘daring and dangerous raid into the centre of Baghdad’ was not done to ‘gain terrain, as is traditional in wartime, but just to prove to the Iraqis that they could’ (1). Apparently, 60 heavily armoured US tanks went through Baghdad, before coming out again, as part of this ‘proof’ of American power.

For one military official, if taking Baghdad airport was a demonstration of American dominance, then driving through the middle of Baghdad topped it off. The procession ‘put a bit of an exclamation point on the fact that coalition troops are in the vicinity of Baghdad’, he said. ‘And that they do in fact have the ability to come into the city at places of their choosing.’ (2)

Other officials talked up the psycho-impact of the Baghdad incursion. ‘It’s important that we do [these things] for psychological reasons’, said Jim Wilkinson at US Central Command in Qatar. According to New York’s Newsday, ‘US officials said the shows of force were designed to send a message of dominance to both citizens and the loyalists trying to protect Saddam’ (3).

The symbolic nature of the ‘procession’ through Baghdad was summed up in some of the coalition’s targets. US forces apparently ‘seized’ Saddam’s New Presidential Palace in Baghdad. But, as officials explained, this was more a symbolic than a strategic target; the New Presidential Palace, like most others, has been largely deserted since the war started.

US forces also reportedly blew up a 40-foot statue of Saddam in Baghdad’s Zawra Park – again, in the words of one US official, to ‘send a powerful message to the remnants of the regime that we can go where we want, when we want’ (4).

As well as destroying likenesses of Saddam, the coalition forces’ ‘symbolic’ attacks reportedly resulted in hundreds (‘if not 1000’, says one report) Iraqi deaths – mostly among the troops defending the city, but also among civilians too. Exactly what ‘message’ does that send to the people of Baghdad?

In wars gone by, it was usually after declaring victory that the winning side put on massive displays of ‘symbolic force’ and toppled symbols of the defeated regime. After winning cities, conquering armies would often drive through them in huge convoys to demonstrate their command of territory, and destroy statues in order to demonstrate the obliteration of the old.

Now, such gestures seem to be taking place before the war has ended. In a war where the very aims are to ‘send a message’ and project a positive image of the coalition forces, driving through Baghdad in displays of force is seen as being as important as actually taking control of Baghdad.

But why does the most powerful nation on Earth have to ‘project’ its power in Iraq, instead of asserting it? Why do mighty US forces ‘show off’ in central Baghdad, instead of taking the city from the inferior Iraqi forces that are half-defending it?

The Baghdad procession captures the continuing caution of the war, where coalition forces still hope that, having shown their hand, the capital will implode from within – with the help of Baghdad’s residents, turncoat Iraqi forces or more coalition bombing from the skies.

And it shows up the hole at the heart of the war. With no clear sense of what American power is for today, of the values and aims that motivate it, US forces simply demonstrate their might in Iraq. Today’s uncertain US elite seems happier sending a message of dominance, rather than enforcing dominance itself.

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) Baghdad raid by US meant to send message, Pamela Hess, United Press International, 5 April 2003

(2) Baghdad raid by US meant to send message, Pamela Hess, United Press International, 5 April 2003

(3) US says military would run Iraq at least six months, John Riley and Tom Brune, Newsday, 7 April 2003

(4) US forces storm through Baghdad, CNN, 7 April 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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