Neither Our Bombs Nor Our Media Are As Smart As We Thought They Were
by Doug Ireland
March 29, 2003
The huge, fiery-orange mushroom cloud rising over Baghdad on March 27 -- which you saw on your TV screens thanks to the much-maligned Al Jazeera network's cameras -- signaled the intensification of the rain of death. The siege of Baghdad has begun, announced by the lobbing from great heights of a pair of two-ton GBU-37 "bunker buster" bombs launched at a communications facility surrounded by residential neighborhoods (as the indefatigable Peter Arnett reported on MSNBC).
Hailed at the war's beginnings by TV's gushing heads for their precision, our "smart" weapons have already failed to distinguish between Iraq and Iran (hitting two Iranian cities), taken out a British aircraft, and hit a civilian Syrian bus near the Iraqi-Syrian border (killing five). These weapons, of course, are only as smart as those who deploy them, something the ill-informed chatterers on the little box had forgotten -- until now.
The bomb that destroyed Abu Taleb Street and its marketplace in the heart of a working-class corner of Baghdad on March 27 took at least a dozen innocent lives and left dozens more shredded and crippled for life, as The Independent's Robert Fisk reported graphically in the kind of war reporting hardly ever seen these days in U.S. papers:
At least 15 cars burst into flames, burning many of their occupants to death. Several men tore desperately at the doors of another flame-shrouded car in the center of the street that had been flipped upside down by the same missile. They were forced to watch helplessly as the woman and her three children inside were cremated alive in front of them. The second missile hit neatly on the eastbound carriageway, sending shards of metal into three men standing outside a concrete apartment block with the words, "This is God's possession" written in marble on the outside wall.
The building's manager, Hishem Danoon, ran to the doorway as soon as he heard the massive explosion. "I found Ta'ar in pieces over there," he told me. His head was blown off. "That's his hand." A group of young men and a woman took me into the street and there, a scene from any horror film, was Ta'ar's hand, cut off at the wrist, his four fingers and thumb grasping a piece of iron roofing. His young colleague, Sermed, died the same instant. His brains lay piled a few feet away, a pale red and gray mess behind a burnt car. Both men worked for Danoon. So did a doorman who was also killed.
The Pentagon, in the person of General Vincent Brooks, insisted in a CENTCOM briefing the next morning that the United States refused to accept responsibility for this civilian slaughter. A BBC reporter asked him, "The TV pictures [of this bombing] have gone all around the world. Surely you must be able to tell us something about what bombs were used on what targets, and why it went wrong?" Brooks' laconic response: "We're not sure they're ours." And in the hours that followed the tube's lapdog talkers loyally relayed yet another Big Lie -- that the carnage had been caused by an Iraqi missile which had fallen back to earth. You might have missed the refutation of this mendacious claim, since it came at 2:11 a.m. EST on Thursday in a live report from the BBC's excellent Rageh Omaar, the British network's man in Baghdad. He had arrived at Abu Taleb Street shortly after the massacre, and was able to interview dozens of on-scene witnesses untroubled by the censorious presence of Iraqi minders. They reported not one but two spaced explosions, and Omaar himself saw the two large craters -- nullifying U.S. claims that a single malfunctioning Iraqi weapon was responsible.
"It is impossible to say what could possibly have been the military target in this heavily populated area," the usually modulated reporter told his BBC audience with ill-concealed emotion (even ABC News, which has a synergy deal with the BBC, failed to pick up this startling report).
The slaughter in Abu Taleb Street will be repeated many times in the coming days, and weeks, as the Anglo-American invading force facing Baghdad tries to compensate with massive weaponry for Washington's political miscalculations. "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against," Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commander of the frontline V Corps, told The Washington Post's Rick Atkinson in the March 28 edition of the paper.
The chief CIA analyst on Iraq during the Gulf war, Judith Yaphe, said it all in a must-read Los Angeles Times report on March 28 by Bob Drogin and Greg Miller on how U.S. miscalculations will prolong the war. "It was a fantasy," Yaphe, who now teaches at D.C.'s National Defense University, said of Washington's view of Iraq. "They had a strategic vision that we would face no opposition, that everyone would surrender, that Iraqis would throw rose petals and rice, and people would welcome us as conquering liberators. Clearly those judgments were not based on reality." Especially when, as the BBC's Omaar put it, America's bombs "have made victims of those they wish to liberate."
The missing voices on American television in the weeks leading up to the war and during it belonged to Iraqis. To hear them, one had to tune in to TV5, the international Paris-based francophone consortium of Swiss, Belgian and French public television, which is available on cable systems reaching some 40 million Stateside viewers. Paris has long been a mecca for anti-Saddam Iraqi intellectuals fleeing the Ba'ath regime's bloody repressions, and a parade of them on TV5 have been warning before and since the invasion that it would only inflame Iraqi nationalism, even among those who detest and fear Saddam.
The failure of Iraq's Shiite majority to rally to Bush's "war of liberation" and, indeed, their joining in guerilla actions against U.S. military supply columns in the last 72 hours came as no surprise to TV5 viewers, particularly if they'd been listening on March 25 to a discussion with Antoine Sfeir, a French intellectual of Arab descent and the editor of the prestigious review Cahiers de l'Orient: After telephoning Arab correspondents in the region just before going on-air, Sfeir reported that the spiritual chief of the Shiites in Southern Iraq had issued a fatwa "condemning anyone who cooperates with the U.S. and British invaders" (a salient fact I've as yet heard reported nowhere on American television).
These range from misreading Iraqi society to failing to wait for the arrival of "overwhelming force" on the ground before launching the drive to the outskirts of Baghdad.
Bush knows this is his political Achilles' heel domestically, which is why White House leakers are beginning this Friday morning to growl to reporters that U.S. media have "stabbed our boys in the back." If the American electorate ever collectively decides that Bush rushed into this war ignoring his own intelligence community's analysis, and failed to provide the kids on the front lines adequate backup in force strength because of it, we're back in what became known as the "Vietnam syndrome" -- and voters could turn against the president two years hence.
And if you want to know what's in store for our sons and daughters in the streets of Baghdad -- not to mention the hapless Iraqis -- rent yourself a cassette of the movie Black Hawk Down, whose Technicolor portrayals of U.S. forces fighting an urban war in the inhospitable streets of Mogadishu in Somalia have been used as a virtual training film by Saddam to inspire his fighters. And there's no comparison between the considerable havoc wreaked by the ill-equipped Somalian warlords and the infinitely greater mayhem which Saddam's well-armed, militarized cadres -- supported by an angry civilian population hostile to the United States -- are capable of inflicting.
But the most disturbing question of all is not being raised on TV. If Saddam actually has chemical weapons and decides to use them in the last days of his inevitable defeat, will the U.S. commanders counter -- as the Pentagon has threatened to do -- with "battlefield nukes," for the use of which Bush signed an authorization months ago?
The eventual military victory of the invading force is not in doubt. But, as is now unmistakably clear to even the most casual follower of war news, the post-war political battle facing the American occupier in Iraq, and in the region, once Saddam has been deposed has already been lost. Thanks, in large measure, to those deadly "smart" bombs, like the ones that landed on the innocents in Abu Taleb Street.
Doug Ireland is a New York-based media critic and commentator. This article first appeared in Tom Paine.com (www.tompaine.com)