Monday, March 19, 2007

"Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and the Big Fool Says to Push On"


The heading of this editorial is taken from the allegorical song composed by Pete Seeger during the Vietnam War--a needless conflict that caused the public to recoil from the carnage in which 58,000 American troops lost their lives. It is an appropriate choice because another stubborn, incurious, single-minded President insists on pursuing a similarly foolish and futile war to an inconclusive end.

Today marks another grim anniversary as this country begins the fifth year of this latest unpopular war. On March 19, 2003, the U.S. launched a preemptive attack on Iraq. A badly planned invasion of dubious legality, it was based on intelligence that had been "fixed" to suit the desired objectives of neocon operatives who controlled the President's thinking. The true reason, of course, was to guarantee continued U.S. access to Iraq's oil reserves, the second largest on the planet. A secondary consideration was to remove Saddam as a potential threat to our ally, Israel. Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction was the "big lie" offered to and swallowed by the American public. The same tall tale was elaborately presented at the U.N. by a naive Colin Powell with a tissue of supporting lies woven by Bush administration war mongers. When no evidence of weapons of mass destruction was found, Bush & Company hastily cobbled together another face-saving lie--we were "bringing democracy to the Iraqi people."

Surprisingly, the number of U.S. troops assigned to the invasion force was remarkably small in an attempt to attain victory on the cheap by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Notably lacking were linguists, military police and civil affairs specialists. Planners who questioned how occupation duties would be managed--interception of across-border infiltrators from neighboring countries, suppression of looting and the inevitable insurgency--were quickly silenced by the Pentagon. The war itself was conducted in a most peculiar fashion.

It is not generally known, but American units in battle had orders to move to and seize preselected targets. They could only fire upon regular Iraqi military units if they were fired upon first. As a result, most Iraqi units held their fire and emerged from the war intact--without having fired a shot and without having been engaged by U.S. troops. Saddam's military simply melted away and returned to their homes with their weapons to join the growing insurgencies of Sunnis and Shiites. Our easy victory became the lead-up to a nightmare disaster scenario that engulfs our inadequate occupying force to this day.

Our poorly planned occupation of Iraq quickly morphed into a singularly unsuccessful pacification effort, with high troop losses in killed and wounded. In 2003, during the 41 days of active combat in Iraq preceding "Mission Accomplished," American forces lost 140 killed (at the average rate of 3.7/day); during the 31 days of December just past, 112 soldiers and marines were killed. Thus, losses during the month of December 2006 (3.6/day) were about as high as they were during the most intensive fighting to defeat Iraqi forces 45 months earlier. Such losses belie administration claims that "We are winning."

Skeptics will inevitably ask, "Winning what?" In any campaign to pacify an unruly populace, so long as one exploding roadside bomb takes the life of a single American soldier, we have won nothing. The only realistic solution may be for us to encourage Iraq to form a Swiss-type tripartite self-governing confederation melding Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis under a slimmed-down central government that would collect taxes, distribute oil and gas revenues and defend the country's borders.

For the record, since the war began, 3,218 American troops have died, and there is still no end in sight. Since the elaborately staged "Mission Accomplished" ceremony, 3,079 troops have died. The official count of wounded now stands at 24,042, but because military authorities lack an accurate system to track troops wounded in Iraq, the number may be considerably higher. And the wounded come home to a mismanaged military and veterans hospital system so poorly run it is a national disgrace. In the meantime, other crucial issues at home such as illegal immigration, hurricane cleanup, factory closings, unemploy- ment, health care, inflation, a burgeoning deficit and a decaying infrastructure have languished unaddressed by the Bush administration.

We were first saddled with the problems of the twin regions then called the Near East and the Middle East in 1947, when the British, exhausted by the enormous price it had paid in men and money to defeat the Axis nations, turned over to the United States the task of defending the two areas. President Truman asked Congress for funds to aid Greece and Turkey to combat Communist infiltration and terrorism. Unlike the British who had managed their vast empire for centuries from their tiny homeland, the U.S. lacked linguists and regional experts familiar with the areas to be protected. Six decades later, we are only slightly better equipped with specialists able to cope with this nation's responsibilities in this part of the world. Among the problems we inherited were those stemming from the arbitrary boundaries drawn after World War I to create artificial countries. Iraq is a prime example. The wonder is that Saddam Hussein managed to rule this seething cauldron of religious and tribal enmity for as long as he did.

Readers surely have become tired of being reminded of Santayana's wisdom about learning from the lessons of history, but consider the following excerpt, written about what Napoleon called "the Spanish ulcer"--the wars in the Spanish peninsula between 1809 and 1814 that led to his abdication: "Napoleon's campaign included a rapid conventional victory over Spanish armies but ignored the immediate requirement to provide a stable and secure environment for the people and the countryside. The French should have expected ferocious resistance. The Spanish people were accustomed to hardship, suspicious of foreigners, and constantly involved in skirmishes with security forces. The French failed to analyze the history, culture, and motivations of the Spanish people, or to seriously consider their potential to support or hinder the achievement of French political objectives. Napoleon's cultural miscalculation resulted in a protracted struggle. The Spanish resistance drained the Empire's resources and was the beginning of the end of Napoleon's reign."

What is remarkable about these words is their source: They are taken from the draft of a field manual, FM 3-24, jointly written by the Army and the Marine Corps, reading copies of which were passed around in military circles for comment. Such interservice cooperation between the Army and Marines is a giant step forward. Titled Counterinsurgency, this field manual finally embodies lessons learned forty years ago in Vietnam--and then forgotten. Substitute "Iraqi" for "Spanish" and "Americans" for "the French," and you have described our Iraq experience. Unfortunately, today's American military leaders have yet to discover the wisdom of their new field manual.

The Iraq misadventure marks the third time that the United States has gotten itself involved in a land war on the continent of Asia against the advice of military leaders. The first was in 1950 when North Korean troops poured into South Korea. Gen. Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called it "the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." By 1952, the last year of his presidency, Harry Truman recognized that victory was no longer possible. U.S. forces were not losing, but neither were they winning. As in Iraq, they were caught up in a vast, bloody and expensive holding operation. Two-thirds of the American public disapproved of the Korean War in which 34,000 Americans died. Paradoxically, the Korean War has never officially ended; both sides still maintain an armed truce and no peace treaty has ever been signed.

We fought another "wrong war" in Vietnam, where the U.S. armed forces contributed to the eventual stalemate by fighting the war they wanted to fight instead of the war they had been thrust into. Something like the deadlocked outcome of these two wars may be the best we can hope for in Iraq now, giving the U.S. an opportunity to withdraw and turn its attention to solving our own problems. The alternatives in remaining can only be an expanding civil war and an attendant bloodbath, political fragmentation, a torrent of refugees, and surging global terrorist attacks.

We have now had four dreary years of promises of imminent victory, changed tactics in the conduct of the war and exuberant sloganeering. Mismanagement has been rife. The Pentagon revealed recently that of more than a half million weapons turned over by the U.S. to agencies of the Iraqi government, only 12,128 had their serial numbers properly recorded. Some of these missing rocket propelled grenade launchers, assault rifles, sniper rifles and machine guns are now being used to shoot down helicopters and to kill American troops.

Coming on the heels of a succession of rigged no-bid contracts and evidence of graft and corruption, this gross error is disquieting. It makes appropriate John Kerry's searing question to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1972: "How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Thirty-five years later, the question that must be asked of our government can be paraphrased to: "How dare you present a reverently folded flag to a family at a military funeral without telling them that their son or daughter died defending a lie?"

Yes, little has changed. We are still "waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on."

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