On Saturday, an Iraqi man drove a bomb-laden taxi into a U.S. checkpoint and killed four American soldiers.
Today, U.S. troops fired at an Iraqi van that failed to stop at a checkpoint. It was full of women and children. Seven to ten of them (the reports are conflicting) are dead now.
Why are we in Iraq, again?
Oh, right. We’re there to disarm Saddan Hussein. That’s sometimes what the Bush administration has declared as its goal for the war. At other times it has said we aim for “regime change.” At other times it has said that we are fighting to “liberate” the Iraqi people, or to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq. Still other times, it has painted the war as an extension of the post 9/11 “war on terrorism.”
This war is still young — as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld puts it, there’s more of it ahead of us than behind us — and it is certainly too early for anyone to foresee its outcome. But it has been underway long enough to see how catastrophically these 13 days of combat have narrowed the possible positive outcomes for the U.S. Unless some lucky U.S. pilot manages to drop a smart bomb directly on Saddam Hussein’s head — and, this time, hits him — there are now very, very few ways this conflict can conclude well for the U.S., and there’s a constantly widening universe of bad endings.
That’s because war has its own dynamic, in which violence easily proliferates while limits are constantly challenged and restraints erode. U.S. forces entered Iraq apparently expecting Iraqi citizens to greet them as liberators, throw down their arms and dance in the streets. There was only one chance for that to happen, and it is now past. Instead, we have an army surrounded by foreign civilians — who Americans must assume are hostile until proven otherwise. That assumption, necessary for U.S. soldiers’ self-defense, will lead to more accidents like today’s shot-up van. More slaughter of civilians, in turn, will lead to more Iraqi anger at Americans, and more suicide attacks.
Whether on the small scale of the drama at a checkpoint or the large scale of the bombing of Baghdad, this is the U.S.’s dilemma: The harder we push for victory by unleashing increasingly indiscriminate force against Saddam and the Iraqis, the more we stiffen the resistance of Iraqis defending their country, and the more we lay the groundwork for a disastrous postwar military occupation — a tragedy in which American soldiers will be cast in the role of the Israeli patrols in the West Bank or the British troops stationed in Belfast.
Let’s figure that there are Iraqis who are diehard Saddam Hussein supporters; Iraqis who are indifferent; and Iraqis who hate Saddam. The U.S. war plan — apparently influenced by the perspective of Iraqi exile leaders — assumed that the diehards would be limited to top government officials and the pampered legions of the Republican Guards, and that the Saddam-haters would predominate, particularly in southern Iraq (where the Shiites had already rebelled once against Saddam, and been brutally repressed as a result).
Instead, it looks like there is a significantly broader group of diehards — Baath party officials, fedayeen irregulars, Iraqis who for whatever reason have tied their fortunes to Saddam’s regime and are willing to fight and die for it. And the Saddam-haters are awfully quiet — whether because they have been intimidated by the diehards or because they dislike foreign invaders more than they dislike their dictator, we can’t know.
And then there are those indifferents in the middle — the undecideds. The U.S. is now bombing their country and killing their neighbors. They may not love Saddam. I don’t think they’re going to like their “liberators” a whole lot, either.
As former C.I.A. officer Robert Baer tells Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, “The whole nation of Iraq is fighting to defend Iraq. Not Saddam… If we take 50 or 60 casualties a day and they die by the thousands, they’re still winning.”
I’ve tried to imagine the best-case scenario for the U.S. from this point forward: The Marines and the Third Infantry resume their march north to Baghdad and defeat the Medina division of the Republican Guard, while the British slowly pacify Basra and the small U.S. force in the north secures Kirkuk and Mosul with the assistance of the Kurds. Then, somehow, we manage to move in to Baghdad, defeat the forces defending it with a minimum of civilian casualties and apprehend Saddam Hussein himself — who never resorts to chemical or biological “weapons of mass destruction” as the noose closes.
This is certainly within the realm of possibility. But it seems as dangerously close to wishful thinking as the U.S.’s original war plan. In order for it to happen, everything has to go right for the U.S. And if we’ve learned anything from the first 13 days of war, it’s never to assume that everything is going to go right.
More likely, one or many of the following will happen somewhere along the line: Guerrilla warfare against U.S. forces and supply lines will increase. U.S. reprisals will kill more Iraqi civilians. Saddam will deploy chemical weapons and the U.S. will retaliate with a wider campaign of bombing against Baghdad. Civil war may break out between pro-Saddam and anti-Saddam factions in regions over which the invading forces have not yet achieved full control. Terrorist attacks against Americans, abroad or in the U.S. itself, will proliferate. Al-Qaida will win over a whole new generation of recruits weaned on the image of the U.S. as murderer of Iraqi Arabs.
Somewhere amid all this bloodshed we will also supposedly be helping Iraqis build a new democracy.
Vietnam bequeathed us the bitter remark, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Every day the Iraq war continues we march a little closer to playing out that paradox on the scale of an entire nation.