Don't blame our troubles in Iraq on the Gulf War.

Watching the war.
March 27 2003 4:04 PM

Shia Folly

(Continued from Page 1)

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

3:30 p.m.: Six days into the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell briefed the media on the war's progress. Pointing to a chart, Powell boasted that the United States-led coalition had "killed 19 [Iraqi aircraft] in aerial combat, another 22 confirmed kills on the ground … These numbers will rise over time as we continue the campaign to go after shelters, go after bunkers, and essentially rip up the air force." As for the Iraqi army in Kuwait, Powell calmly predicted, "First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it."

Tuesday, six days into military operations in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers gave reporters a very different briefing. "The resistance that's being encountered … has not affected coalition progress," said Rumsfeld. "Iraqi forces are capitulating by the hundreds. The total now … is something in excess of 3,500 Iraqi prisoners of war, and thousands more that have been part of units that have simply disbanded. … Coalition forces are closing in on Baghdad and will not stop until that regime has been driven from power."

Notice the difference? Cheney and Powell used violent language and tallied "kills." Rumsfeld and Myers focus on progress toward Baghdad and tally desertions. Why the change? Because in 1991 we and the Iraqis were waging the same war: They were trying to destroy us, and we were trying to destroy them. Now we're waging two different wars: Saddam Hussein wants a war of destruction while we want a war of decapitation that leaves Iraq intact. The current "war" is really a struggle between those two wars. If we fight a war of destruction—even if we "win" it—we lose.

Remember this as you're reading the latest news or watching the latest video from Iraq. Many developments that look like gains are really losses, and many that look like losses are really gains. When U.S. or British troops go into Basra, Umm Qasr, or Nasiriyah to finish off Fedayeen fighters, that's a loss, not a gain. Every shot we fire in a city, and every bomb we drop, increases the probability of civilian casualties, which in turn raise the level of civilian anger against us and make it harder to separate Saddam from his people. Every day we spend hunting snipers in outlying cities, even if we kill them all, is a day in which we're stalled on the way to Baghdad while U.S.-friendly regimes in the Muslim world grow more unstable.

Conversely, when you see tanks and armored vehicles rolling through the desert as though on a training exercise, that's good. It may look boring or useless, but war isn't entertainment. Notice that Rumsfeld doesn't say Iraqi resistance has been crushed. He said it "has not affected coalition progress." The point is to get to Baghdad and topple the regime with as little bombardment as possible. Every death of a coalition soldier at the rear of a convoy is tragic, but the most important thing is that those deaths are happening at the rear, not the front. The killers aren't standing in the way of Saddam's decapitation.

War brings out the worst in all of us. We dehumanize our adversaries and begin to speak angrily or casually about killing them. "The deaths of Americans gives us more incentive to fight," a Marine corporal  told the Associated Press Tuesday. "Freeing Iraq is all fine and dandy ... but this gives us a personal motivation to fight." That attitude has always been bad for the soul. Now it's bad for the war, too.

12:45 p.m.: In the wee hours of Monday morning, Iraqi fighters shot down a U.S. helicopter near Baghdad and forced 30 more to retreat. A U.S. commander called the attack "asymmetrical warfare. … You have 10 guys lying on top of a building firing [rocket-propelled grenades] and small arms." If the U.S. were to bomb the building, the commander explained, civilians would die. So, the Iraqis blasted away, knowing that for moral reasons, the Americans couldn't.

Similar incidents have been reported all over Iraq. British Lt. Col. Ben Curry told reporters that in Umm Qasr, near Kuwait, some Iraqis fought in civilian clothes, making it hard to distinguish them from noncombatants. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Iraqi leaders "put their communications systems in downtown Baghdad and commingled … civil activities with military activities … in very close proximity to large numbers of innocent men, women and children." According to the Washington Post, "Allied troops poised to seize the key port city of Basra were stalled at the city's perimeter by defenders who stationed heavy weapons in civilian neighborhoods."

The Associated Press added, "In two episodes Sunday near An Nasiriyah, Iraqi forces deceived Americans into believing they were surrendering or otherwise welcoming them. U.S. officials said one Iraqi unit indicated it was giving up, but as the Marines approached, the Iraqis opened fire, killing about 10 Americans." Today, Marines in An Nasiriyah accused enemy soldiers of "pushing women and children into the streets" and "leaping out of the buses and taxis to shoot at them." In Karbala, American pilots said they took fire "from tree-lined suburban streets and backyards."

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.