21 Days to Baghdad

The presidential debates have reignited interest in the Iraq War, now in the seventh month of it sixth year. Not surprisingly, those who opposed it from the start cite the costs of the war and those who started it cite its benefits.

The opponents state that in addition to the gargantuan treasure that it has taken from American taxpayers, the war has led nearly 5,000 Americans to their deaths along with more than 100,000 Iraqis. And for those Iraqis still living, life has been one long nightmare. Caught in the cross-fire between US troops and insurgents and face power cuts, street garbage, kidnappings, beheadings and suicide bombings on a daily basis, their quality of life has plummeted. They were better off under Saddam’s dictatorship.

The opponents of the war remind us that the war was fought on false pretenses. No weapons of mass destruction were ever discovered in Iraq nor was any connection ever established between the Iraqi regime and the terrorist acts of 9/11. In other words, Iraq posed no threat to the national security of the United States so even under the Bush Doctrine the war was fought in vain. It has caused tremendous damage to the international credibility of the US. Moreover, by unleashing a new, fiercer generation of terrorists, it has worsened the security of Americans throughout the globe.[1]

Those who supported the war say that an evil regime has been taken out and replaced by a democratic one. They cite this as a major benefit for the citizens of Iraq even though one would be hard pressed to find much evidence of this in Iraqi opinion polls. In addition, they argue, the grave threat that Saddam posed to Israel has been eliminated. Of course, they know better than anyone else that the war has changed the power balance in the region decisively in favor of Saddam’s nemesis. Without firing a shot, the real victor in this war has been Iran. And reading their books and papers, one sees anxiety about the Iranian nuclear program writ large in the minds of the neocons. Not to be deprived of a silver lining, the war proponents assert that the surge launched by General David Patraeus has worked.

But even the hawks have given up all hopes of achieving a clear and decisive victory in Iraq. It would be a bit gratuitous to declare victory twice. They had already proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” on May 1, 2003 on the decks of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast off San Diego. Now the best they hope to accomplish is a graduated withdrawal from Iraq. Gone is the swagger and boasting. No one talks of Iraq as being an extended outpost of the American Empire from which democracy and peace would radiate forth through the Arab Middle East.[2]

A likely scenario is that US troops will first be withdrawn from all urban areas and sequestered in the safety of the vast Iraqi desert. Then the bulk of the American garrison will be pulled out from Iraq with a few brigades left behind for the long haul.

In a sign of the times, the Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has begun talking tough with the forces that brought it to power. It has called for a specific time table for an American withdrawal. The tension will become more pronounced in the next two months as the UN mandate for the American presence nears expiration.

All of this appears to be a fry cry from the euphoria that surrounded the initial victory in war. The invasion began on the 20th of March, 2003 as US troops punched through into southern Iraq from Kuwait. As the western bank of the Tigris was pounded, towering plumes of reddish-yellow smoke framed the night sky, causing one observer to note that it could have come out of the “Disasters of War” sequence of paintings by the Spanish artist Goya.[3]

The war culminated three weeks later when a Marine engineering vehicle commonly used to tow disabled tanks pulled down a giant statue of Saddam Hussain in al-Fardous Square in Baghdad on the 9th of April, 2003. Prior to pulling down the statue, Marine Corporal Edwin Chin climbed to the top, put a chain around the statue and “hooded” it with an American flag. His fiancé noted, “He wanted to show the Iraqi people that they were free, that they were liberated, that the US was there to help them and that Saddam is over.”[4]

Several months later, encomiums to American generalship began to be published. John Keegan, whom Tom Clancy has termed “the best military historian of our generation,” was quick to put out his book, “The Iraq War.”[5] General Tommy Franks, the US commander who directed the war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, promptly published his memoirs to capitalize on the moment, “American Soldier: It doesn’t take a hero.” And there were many others that followed.

It suffices to quote from Keegan, who begins his book by saying: “Some wars begin badly. Some end badly. The Iraq War of 2003 was exceptional in both beginning well for the Anglo-American force that waged it victoriously.” Referring exultantly to the 21-day duration of the war, he says: “Campaigns so brief are rare, a lighting campaign so complete in its results almost unprecedented.” And in the fall of Baghdad, he finds “a model of a modern military operation, cunningly planned with every electronic aid, skillfully executed by highly trained troops.” Keegan concluded by saying that the war was won at the cost of only 155 British and American lives.

But these were “macro” assessments. The job of providing a “micro” assessment was left to Evan Wright, an American reporter who was embedded in the Second Platoon of Bravo Company of the First Reconnaissance Battalion of the US Marine Corps.

His book about the invasion, “Generation Kill,” based on articles he had written for Rolling Stone magazine, was published in 2004.[6] But it did not quite seize the public imagination. That honor was left to a mini series based on the book that was shown this summer by a major cable TV channel.

The image of war that emerges from Wright is anything but glorious. As the Marines in this platoon rolled off into Iraq in their lightly armed Humvees, they only had a vague idea of who they were fighting.

They knew that the enemy had no air cover and that his capability had been seriously eroded by sanctions that were put in place after the Gulf War of 1991. But even then, the Marines know that the war would not be a slam dunk. Saddam’s army was equipped with several thousand tanks, artillery pieces and it probably possessed nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Danger lurked in the sands of the vast Iraqi desert.

The Marines were young men drawn from Camp Pendleton, California, on a par with the Navy Seals or the Army’s Special Operation Forces. But their exposure to the outside world had been limited to jaunts south of the border, to places such as Tijuana, Mexico.

Their youthful bodies and minds were overflowing with hormones, profanities, machismo and tattoos. One had a broken smile because two front teeth are missing. Another had an ungainly appearance for which he has been nicknamed “Manimal.” Yet another was believed to have fled the scene of battle at Khafji during the 1991 Gulf War and was called simply “The Coward.” Their leader, who did not command much respect from any of the troops, was called “Captain America.”

As it marched into Iraq, this platoon, like the rest of the Corps, was simply out to “Get Some!” No one had bothered to educate its soldiers about the local culture. So when they saw their first Iraqi around 10 in the morning, and discovered that he was attired in flowing robes, they cussed the “Hajji” for wearing pajamas in daylight.

As the war rolled on, the Marines encountered a few scattered remnants of the Iraqi Army but more often the enemy was the paramilitary forces known as the fedayeen, who had sworn to give their lives for Saddam. These insurgents would descend upon the Marines from no where, making it difficult to distinguish the militants from the civilians. It had turned into a war in the shadows, unlike the war that they had gamed for.

In the cross-fire that ensured, innocent shepherds, villagers and city dwellers were killed. The Marines watched helplessly as a shot-up boy died in his mother’s arms and as a father carried his dead girl whose brain has spilled out to a road-side grave. A Sheikh begged the Marines not to rape his daughters while other Iraqis offered them their boys as an alternative.

As the invasion progressed, large numbers of Iraqi soldiers surrendered, many without a fight. The Marines encountered long lines of Iraqi troops walking past them in civilian clothes. Many carried pink cards given to them by American Army units to whom they had surrendered earlier. With these cards, they had the right to be protected and fed by the conquerors.

However, the Marines were not in a position to feed them. So they did the next best thing. They “un-surrendered” the Iraqi soldiers and found a way to bypass the requirements of the Geneva Conventions which seemed far too onerous to be practical. The Iraqi soldiers complained that the fedayeen had formed hunter killer teams to take them out. However, the Marines refused to provide them protection and sent them in the other direction, knowing that meant certain death for the deserters.

Evidence of Iraqi military incompetence was every where. Their armor would wait until 10 in the morning to begin rolling out, at which time US combat aircraft would take them out with consummate ease given fresh meaning to the metaphor about shooting ducks.

In one night encounter, an Iraqi T-72 tank, the best in Saddam’s arsenal, was taken out by a single Marine with a missile shot from less than 200 yards away. After a major battle with an Iraqi division, a US major general said that his troops won not because of his brilliance but because of the idiocy of his counterpart.

One Marine officer acknowledged that if a foreign force were to occupy a US suburb, the residents would do their best to catch an invader and string him up. Yet, when a Marine was killed, the others resorted to taking their revenge on the nearby village.

The Air Force was called in and dropped thousand pound bombs on the village. The Marines, from a distance, saw Iraqi men evaporate before their eyes. In another encounter, a Marine sniper was sent in to dispatch potential Iraqi spotters from a distance. As he saw them drop to the ground through his scope, he reminded himself not to take pleasure in the act of killing. His pastor had told him that killing was allowed in the Christian faith as long as he did not take pleasure in it.

On the long road to Baghdad, the Marines relieved themselves under the open sky, day or night, and littered the roads with wrappers from their ready-to-eat rations. At night, they were haunted by visions of those that they had killed in the daytime.

Some Marines fell victim to friendly fire, some were run over by friendly vehicles as they slept next to their vehicles and some, who could not take it anymore, stepped into a ditch and shot themselves in the head. Even for the victors, war was one long ride through Dante’s hell.

And yet, somehow, amidst all the chaos and destruction, the Iraqi farmer continued to tend to his sheep and drove his herds nonchalantly through heavily armored US formations.

In a postscript to a newly issued paperback version of his book, Wright revisits the Marines with whom he had invested Iraq in the spring of 2003. He finds that many are despondent. More than four thousand of their buddies are dead.

They won the war but lost the peace. And while they were winning, some of them burned villages in order to save them, bringing back those terrible, terrible memories of Vietnam. The crazier ones just shot guns to blow things up. Even the sensible ones were anxious to “get in the game,” as if war was a game too good to miss out on.

Wright does not moralize about the war. Nor does he tell us how the Iraqis viewed the “shock and awe” that was being meted out to them. But what he does tell makes plain the futility and un-necessity not just of this war but of all wars.

One is reminded of the letter that the Duke of Wellington wrote in June 1815 from the field of Waterloo. It contained a line which has continued to reverberate through history ever since: “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”[7]

AHMAD FARUQUI, an economist based in San Francisco, is affiliated with the University of Bradford’s Pakistan Security Research Unit. His newest book, “Musharraf’s Pakistan, Bush’s America and the Middle East,” has been published by Vanguard Books in Lahore. He can be reached at: Faruqui@Pacbell.Net.


[1] In The Battle for Peace, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, retired Marine General Tony Zinni argues that “The real new threats come from instability…the chaos it generates can spark large and dangerous changes anywhere they land.

[2] Prior to the war, neocons William Kristol and Lawrence Kaplan had opined that if Bush succeeded in deposing Saddam, he would “set a historic precedent—for Iraq, which could become the first Arab democracy; for the United States, which will demonstrate to all the compatibility of its interests and ideals; and for the world, which America will have made a safer and just place.” Quoted in Kevin Phillips, American Dynasty, Penguin Books, 2004.

[3] Life Books, The War in Iraq: The Illustrated History, New York, 2003.

[4] http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/04/11/1049567824980.html.

[5] John Keegan, The Iraq War, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004.

[6] Evan Wright, Generation Kill, Putnam, New York, 2004.

[7] Edward Shepherd Creasy, Decisive Battles of the World, The Colonial Press, 1899.


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