From "Plain Sailing" to "Where the Hell Are We?" to "Up the Creek"
by Alexander Cockburn
March 27, 2003
Barely into its second week Operation Easy Sailing is in big trouble. One simple way of measuring just how big is by adding up all the time you hear the phrases “all according to Plan”, and the “Our strategy is sound”.
That’s the captain of the Titanic speaking. At the military level the US/UK force has been forced to suspend its advance on Baghdad. Every single dire prediction of the critics is coming to pass. The stretched lines of communication and supply running up west of the Euphrates past Nasiriya and Najaf, or further east , west of the Tigris past Basra towards Amarah are proving vulnerable to determined harassment by Iraqi forces. The Apache helicopters have taken a fearful beating, as have the Abrams tanks. The Shock and Awe overture saw around 400 cruise missiles, running at half a million dollars a copy achieve less than significant damage.
Already there’s fierce hand-to-hand infighting inside the Pentagon, as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s numerous enemies in the military seek out favored journalist to inflict punitive retaliation for what they describe as his arrogance and folly. Those old lines from the Vietnam era, such as “light at the end of the tunnel”, “credibility gap” and the other scarred veterans are back in active service.
Politically, the damage is equally, if not more serious. The entire strategy of Bush and his counselors, the relatively small military force, the “roll north” (or “roll south” until the Turkish people, bolstered by the world peace movement decreed otherwise) scenario, were premised on disintegration of the Saddam regime and amiable surrender of all enemy forces once the first missiles fell on empty palaces in Baghdad and tanks rolled across the Iraqi border towards Umm Qasr.
That political strategy lies in ruins as instructive as the gravestones of the British force caught and wiped out at Kut by the Turks almost a century ago. From Umm Qasr through to Najaf towards Baghdad Iraqis are resisting fiercely. The credibility of the Iraqi exiles, on call as figleaf leaders has dwindled to zero. Back in the homelands of the US/UK invaders the peace movement proved its durability, with huge demonstrations. Much of the world is revelling in Imperial Reverses, and that in itself is an event of vast political significance. The supposed news monopoly of the American Empire has similarly collapsed. The European audience of subscribers to Al Jazeera surged by four million in the first week.
Anyone with a laptop can find their way to informed sources, such as the daily bulletins of Russian military intelligence, or the knowledgeable commentary of US veterans, that demolish the parrot babble of the Embedded Ones.
Even the core Spokesfolk of Empire like the Washington Post are facing reality. Here’s how the Washington Post addresses the political elites today, with a report by Thomas Ricks:
“March 27 — Despite the rapid advance of Army and Marine forces across Iraq over the past week, some senior U.S. military officers are now convinced that the war is likely to last months and will require considerably more combat power than is now on hand there and in Kuwait, senior defense officials said yesterday.
“The combination of wretched weather, long and insecure supply lines, and an enemy that has refused to be supine in the face of American military might has led to a broad reassessment by some top generals of U.S. military expectations and timelines. Some of them see even the potential threat of a drawn-out fight that sucks in more and more U.S. forces. Both on the battlefield in Iraq and in Pentagon conference rooms, military commanders were talking yesterday about a longer, harder war than had been expected just a week ago, the officials said.
“Tell me how this ends,” one senior officer said yesterday. While some top planners favor continuing to press north, most Army commanders believe that the pause in Army ground operations that began yesterday is critical. A relatively small force is stretched thin over 300 miles, and much of the Army’s killing power, in more than 100 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, has been grounded by persistently foul weather or by battle damage from an unsuccessful pre-dawn raid on Monday. To the east, the Marine Corps advance on the city of Kut was also hampered by skirmishing along its supply line and fuel shortages at the front.”
And amid these reverses, the battle for hearts and minds inside Iraq is taking familiar forms.
Here’s Patrick Peterson of the Knight Ridder news chain, dateline Nasiriya,
“U.S. Marines, moving through this still-contested city, opened fire at anything that moved Tuesday, leaving dozens of dead in their wake, at least some of them civilians. Helicopter gunships circled overhead, unleashing Hellfire missiles into the squat mud-brick homes and firing their machine guns, raining spent cartridge cases into neighborhoods. Occasionally a tank blasted a hole in a house. Several bodies fell in alleys. It was impossible to know which casualties were civilians and which were members of the Iraqi militias that have ambushed Marine convoys here for days as the Marines tried to cross the Euphrates River on a rapid march north to Al Kut, where they are expected to engage elements of Iraq's Republican Guard….”
We are, remember, just past the anniversary of the My Lai massacre, March 16, 1968, when American Gis, part of Operation Phoenix, machine-gunned hundreds upon hundreds of women and babies and old men in a trench in Vietnam, where US forces tried to suppression resistance in an area far smaller than what they propose to control in the Fertile Crescent today. Now roll fast forward to today’s US excursion: “’I saw a lot of bloodshed,’ said Sgt. Ken Woechan, 23, a reservist and assistant Wal-Mart manager from Ocean Springs. Miss. Woechan said at Nasiriya he saw what he believed were militiamen hiding behind women and children. ‘A family would run across and there would be a guy behind them,’ he said.”
It doesn’t take any imagination to see what’s going to unroll in the next days and weeks, as the US/UK forces try to consolidate their lines through south and central Iraq.
The old Scorched Earth Strategy is already beginning to unfurl, as the talk of Precision Attacks fades, and the B-52s slowly widen their attack patterns, and “softening up” the Republican guard means bombing neighborhoods in Baghdad. Three hundred miles south, the British are already committing war crimes by cutting off the water supplies of Basra, an attack on a civilian population that has not gone unnoticed back in London, where Tam Dalyell, Labor MP for Linlithgow and Father of the House of Commons writes today in the Guardian of Blair as a war criminal who should be sent for trial in the Hague.
“My constituency Labour party has just voted to recommend that Tony Blair reconsider his position as party leader because he gave British backing to a war against Iraq without clearly expressed support from the UN .I agree with this motion. I also believe that since Mr Blair is going ahead with his support for a US attack without unambiguous UN authorisation, he should be branded as a war criminal and sent to The Hague. I have served in the House of Commons as a Labour member for 41 years,and I would never have dreamed of saying this about any one of my previous leaders. But Blair is a man who has disdain for both the House of Commons and international law. This is a grave thing to say about my leader. But it is far less serious than the results of a war that could set western Christendom against Islam.The overwhelming majority of international lawyers, including several who advise the government (such as Rabinder Singh, a partner in Cherie Booth's Matrix Chambers), have concluded that military action in Iraq without proper UN security council authorisation is illegal under international law. The Foreign Office's deputy legal adviser, Elizabeth Wilmhurst, resigned on precisely this point after 30 years' service. This puts the prime minister and those who will be fighting in his and President Bush's name in a vulnerable legal position. Already lawyers are getting phone calls from anxious members of the armed forces.”
One final quote, from a Knight Ridder story describing the Pentagon in-fighting, quoting an anonymous officer:” He added ruefully: ‘As in Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, we are using concepts and methods that are entirely unproved. If your strategy and assumptions are flawed, there is nothing in the well to draw from… If these guys fight and fight hard for Baghdad, with embedded Baathists stiffening their resistance at the point of a gun, then we are up the creek,’ said one retired general. Dr. John Collins, a retired Army colonel and former chief researcher for the Library of Congress, said the worst scenario would be sending American troops to fight for Baghdad. He said every military commander since Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese strategist, has hated urban warfare. "Military casualties normally soar on both sides; innocent civilians lose lives and suffer severe privation; reconstruction costs skyrocket," Collins said, adding that fighting for the capital would cancel out the allied advantages in air and armor and reduce it to an Infantry battle house to house, street by street.”
It all comes from political arrogance. Here’s a story from The Guardian last August, re-run gleefully by LSN. “The biggest war game in US military history, staged this month at a cost of 165m with 13,000 troops, was rigged to ensure that the Americans beat their ‘Middle Eastern’ adversaries, according to one of the main participants. General Paul Van Riper, a retired marine lieutenant-general, told the Army Times that the sprawling three-week millennium challenge exercises, were "almost entirely scripted to ensure a [US] win".
We always have a little space for him. Here’s a story from the British Daily Telegraph by Tony Harndon in Washington DC, March 20.
"Last week, in a private and unpublicized lecture at the White House, Hitchens, a former Trotskyite who has called for Henry Kissinger to be indicted as a war criminal, addressed officials about the moral imperative to unseat Saddam Hussein.”
Gee, maybe soon we’ll be able to script The Trial of Christopher Hitchens. And here’s a note of mine that the Washington Times just published.
From Alexander Cockburn
To Washington Times Letters editor
March 24, 2003
Sir, In their piece of March 21 about Christopher Hitchens' transition to the right your reporters Galupo and Wattenberg write that "Mr. Cockburn is publicly accusing his old friend of homosexuality." This is entirely untrue. I did recently comment on Hitchens' notorious enjoyment of alcohol, a taste on which he dwells at some length in a recent column in Vanity Fair, saying (optimistically in the view of many of his acquaintances) that it is his servant, not his master. Maybe in the virtuous offices of the Washington Times the two tastes are regarded as synonymous. In an effort to account for Hitchens' increasing seclusion in fantasy I discussed Korsakoff's syndrome, a condition of advanced drinkers where delusions attain paramountcy in the drinker's brain. Back in Clinton-time when Hitchens tried to get his close friend Sid Blumenthal nailed by Congress on a perjury rap I did allude in a column to Hitchens' habit of greeting friends with a proffered kiss on cheek or even lips, but my allusion there was to Judas Iscariot, not to Athenian practices.
Alexander Cockburn is the author The Golden Age is In Us (Verso, 1995) and 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000) with Jeffrey St. Clair. Cockburn and St. Clair are the editors of CounterPunch, the nation’s best political newsletter, where this article first appeared.