This weekend, as the bombs fall on Baghdad, stop by your local video store and rent one or both of these movies. Rent either “Stalingrad” if you can find it, which is the more accurate film, directed by Wolfgang Peterson, or the Hollywoodized version of the same battle, called “Enemy at The Gates”. Then prepare yourself for what is tragically in store for Baghdad.
In 1942, after several days of bombardment by dive bombers of the German Luftwaffe pulverized Stalingrad, an army numbering more than 250,000 men attacked that Russian city. Ironically, the collapsed buildings from the air bombardment blocked the advance of Hitler’s armored columns and provided Russian soldiers with an intricate maze of concealments to inflict a bloody revenge. The German soldiers fought bravely but the Russians fought even more fanatically, vengefully, not from any loyalty to their ruthless dictator, Stalin, but for survival.
Block by block and street by street the battle raged for weeks, and then months, as the weather worsened. Winter crippled the German supply lines while the Russians strengthened. If you watch the movie closely, you may find yourself sympathetic to the soldiers of both sides, and angered at those leaders who sent them out to die. Almost a half-million Russian soldiers died in this ONE battle (about the total of all American deaths in World War II), while the encircled German soldiers starved or froze to death. Of the 90,000 German soldiers who finally surrendered only 6,000 ever returned home.
Urban warfare is among the cruelest form of human violence. “Never before had a civilian population suffered so much,” wrote British historian Anthony Beevor of Stalingrad. Over 40,000 civilians were slaughtered in the first week but the likely civilian death toll in the bombardment of Baghdad may actually exceed that number. Beevor called the Battle of Stalingrad “The city where World War II was won and lost” but no such significance will ever be affixed to the destruction of the Iraqi capitol.
South of Stalingrad lies the city of Grozny.
In the winter of 1994 the Russian army attacked that Chechen city, perhaps having forgotten the lessons learned in the Battle of Stalingrad. Air strikes pulverized the central core_more than 4,000 detonations per hour–knocking out water and power but also leveling schools and hospitals, wrecking an urban area with less than one tenth the poopulation of Baghdad. Still the city did not surrender. Tens of thousands of civilians were either killed or rendered homeless in the middle of winter but Chechen fighters dug in and resisted the block-by-block attack.
The BBC reported that various human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, accused the
Russians of war crimes but the battle continued. According to the Federation of American Scientists , the Russian Government announced on December 28 that ground forces had begun to “liberate” the city of Grozny one district at a time. Before the war Grozny had 450,000 inhabitants and was considered one of the most beautiful cities in the Caucasus; now only a fraction inhabit the ruins. Not surprisingly, Russians claimed that fewer than 20,000 civilians were killed in the war, while a Chechen spokesman said the number exceeded 100,000 killed and a quarter-million wounded. This in a country far smaller than Iraq.
The encirclement of Baghdad, for that is what it is, closely resembles the epic battle of Stalingrad. When the command comes from Bush and Rumsfeld to attack, American and British bombers will pulverize the city in a matter of hours, killing thousands, just as the Luftwaffe leveled Stalingrad and the Russians ruined Grozny. In effect the war with Iraq will be won, but the battle in the ruins of the city may have just have begun.
The hellish house-to-house fighting won’t be shown on television. Pockets of resistance will likely be obliterated by satellite-guided missiles after US commanders radio GPS coordinates to offshore ships or circling warplanes. God help any family hiding deep inside a targeted building; the entire obliterated block will become a tomb in this war of “liberation”.
Saddam Hussein, who closely resembles Stalin in looks and manner, may have less to do with that resistance of his troops than how the average Iraqi soldier feels toward an American foe who has firebombed his family. Stalin, a far more ruthless dictator than Hussein, executed 36,000 army officers from 1936-1938, according to historian Beevor, but the average Russian soldier fought bravely for his beleaguered country, just as the average patriotic Iraqi may do. But Hitler, like Bush, listened not to his generals but to Air Marshall Goering, who like Donald Rumsfeld shares a background as a fighter pilot and believe cities can be pounded into submission. The final irony of the Battle of Stalingrad and the encirclement of Baghdad is the prize itself.
In a twist of fate, Hitler diverted part of his army from the coveted oilfields of the Caucasian region of southern Russia to attack Stalingrad. The Nazi Reich, like the present American Empire, demanded an uninterrupted flow of oil, but Hitler’s reach exceeded his grasp. God help us all if diplomacy, and public opinion, cannot avert another aggressive, immoral war with oil as a similar objective.
Douglas Herman, a USAF veteran, served during the Vietnam War. Captain James Herman, the author’s father, served during World War II, and loaded bombs on B-24s destined for Germany. He can be reached at: email@example.com