A war like no other

“Breathtaking precision”? Get serious. For weeks now American military chiefs have been waxing poetic about their new, super smart weapons. They are going to stage a magnificent show before the whole world, and this in such eloquent terms the odds are the script was lifted from the promotion brochures prepared by the marketing department of Lockheed Martin or some other of the multi-billion dollar defence contractors, with whom — as everybody knows — the generals and politicians are in cahoots. American military chiefs are, after all, no more articulate than their commander-in-chief.

Yet besides the obscenity of elegies sung in praise of instruments of death and destruction (courtesy of the CNN Web site, and with the appropriate plug-in, you can see pretty pictures in glorious 3-D), all we’ve seen, and I write on day six of the invasion, is bungling and stupidity.

The “target of opportunity” was missed by miles, providing, in the midst of tragedy, a bit of comic relief as “coalition” officials hummed and hawed, trying to explain why Saddam was looking hale and hearty when, if one had believed their earlier assurances, he should have been lying under tons of rubble. Meanwhile, missiles have dropped in Iranian territory (Americans, I’m told, have some difficulty distinguishing between Ayran and Ayraq); a civilian bus carrying 37 Syrian civilians was “regretfully” mistaken for a bridge, killing 10 people; a Patriot missile downed a British plane; a US F16 attacked a US Patriot missile battery; and Iraqi children are being killed. There is a silver-lining, naturally: inventories are being drastically reduced; stocks need to be topped up; R&D departments need to go back to the drawing boards to make the weapons a little bit smarter; and if you happen to be on the board of an investment firm for which the arms industry is a significant portfolio item you stand to make a lot of money. Nothing to sniff at in these recession-ridden times. (George W, on Tuesday, asked Congress for $74.4 billion in additional military spending).

That is not to say that all the Pentagon’s promises have been puerile. They promised us a war the likes of which the world has never seen before and that is exactly what we got. On day six of the war the invasion forces were barely able to back-up their claims of having taken Umm Qasr.

Look it up. Even the dumbest victim of the dumbed down corporate media will by now be familiar with that irregularly shaped blot, covered in arrows and little red flames, that daily features on TV screens and front pages across the world. The little port town lies smack on the border with Kuwait, where over 170,000 coalition troops, armed with the most advanced weaponry were stationed, backed up by satellites, aircraft carriers, B-52s flying all the way from the UK and cruise missiles shot from planes and way out there in the Red Sea. It was taken, we were assured on day one. And what of Basra, about which senior British military officials on day six made the fantastical statement that the southern Iraqi city had now become a “legitimate military target”, allegedly to facilitate the sending of humanitarian supplies. That CNN and co. could report this kind of rubbish with a straight face is testimony to the fact that the great corporate media of the US is nothing but a slavish mouth piece of the Pentagon. On day one we were told by US military officials (reported by CNN and all other news services in the world) that “one of the first objectives [of the invasion forces] will be to overwhelm regular Iraqi army units and take the Iraqi city of Basra,” which was to serve as the major bridgehead in the drive towards Baghdad. Basra had another, even more significant role to play in the invasion. The majority Shi’ite city was to be the site where TV cameras would provide us with footage of Iraqis welcoming their liberators. Conveniently, British military officials soon began talking of a civilian uprising in Basra. In Washington, a US official said: “It’s more like chaos than anything else.”

Whatever is and will be taking place in Basra in the coming hours, the simple glaring fact revealed by six days of massive onslaught by the most powerful military machine in history, deployed against a shattered and devastated Third World country, is that the Iraqi people, who have very little love for Saddam Hussein or his regime, are resisting the invasion. And it is this glaring truth that lies behind the seemingly ridiculous, but in fact pernicious, protests that have been issuing from American and British military officials and their political chiefs during the past hours.

“We are fighting against an enemy that knows no rules of war, that wears civilian uniforms,” complained George W on Tuesday. This from the leader of a country in flagrant violation of the UN Charter, pursuing an illegal invasion of a sovereign state, promising to “shock and awe” the people of Iraq with thousands of bombs and missiles, including “the mother of all bombs”, even as it frees them. British Labour MP and former actress Glenda Jackson put it succinctly in the Guardian this week: “Modern warfare kills civilians and, yes, death is a form of liberation, but war as mass mercy killing surely cannot be acceptable.”

What lies behind the absurd protestations is an attempt to legitimise the indiscriminate killing of civilians by blaming the slaughter on Saddam’s “deadly deception”.

And there is much more to it than this. Whether it takes days or weeks (“We cannot know the duration of this war; yet, we know its outcome,” said Bush), the war has been as unpredictable as US military officials promised us, though in ways that neither them, nor indeed anyone else, anticipated. On the basis of the experience of the last decade, Bush Jr and his New American Century hooligans could not, in their wildest nightmares, have expected that tens of millions of people would go out on the streets to protest their prospective war, even before a single shot had been fired. The world has never seen anything like it before. If there was anything to be awed about this week, it was not the bombs and missiles dropping on Baghdad, or the artistic shots of handsome marines, captured in profile, guns at the ready, bomb smoke in the background. What I, and I may add many Egyptians, found awe-inspiring this week was the scene of over 100,000 New Yorkers on the streets protesting the war. Yes, the very New Yorkers who have suffered the agony of 9/11, losing friends and loved ones to Bin Laden’s rabid and futile vengeance.

And it has made a difference. Jonathan Freedland, in the Guardian, summed it up perfectly. Operation Iraqi Freedom “did not come as previously advertised”, he wrote. “Instead, it seemed to have been devised with one eye on the concerns of the anti-war movement.” Freedland wrote this on day two of the invasion. As I write on its sixth day, I believe his early guess has proven right on the mark.

We’ve yet to see Shock and Awe, inspired as is openly declared, by the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet here is the rub. The Americans and their British allies have been prevented by the scale of global opposition to the war, from unleashing massive death and destruction. They have been obliged to try a different strategy, hoping against hope that the Iraqi regime will crumble. It hasn’t, and the reason that it hasn’t is not due to Republican Guards and Fedayee Saddam under every bed, but because of the simple fact that Iraqis, Shi’ites or Sunnis, are resisting the foreign invader. To suggest that they’re doing this with Republican Guard guns at their backs is absurd.

So this particular strategy has failed. Now they’re speaking of weeks rather than days, complaining all the while of how the Iraqis are not playing fair and forcing them to urban warfare. There is no hope, though, that the war-mongers in Washington and London will cut their losses and bow to international will and legitimacy. “We shall prevail,” declared Bush. He should have added, “even we have to kill tens of thousands of Iraqis”. For that, ultimately, is what it will take.

Israel provides, as ever, the model for the new American militarism. It too would not engage the Palestinians in urban warfare in Beirut in 1982. For Sharon, aptly named the butcher ever since, the way out was simple. If fighters are hidden among the civilians then bomb them all. And as he was swilling Champagne with his Phalangist allies, that is exactly what was done. Shock and Awe may yet lie in store.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 launched the US on the road to empire, heralding what came to be called “The American Century”. The invasion of Iraq, as I have suggested before, brings that century to a close. It also presages that there will be no New American Century, despite $400 billion annually in military spending. Wolfovitz et al will have to kill us all. But then, who will they rule over?

Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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