A New Kind Of War?

Lessons from Iraq

To the surprise of many if not most Americans, Operation Iraqi Freedom turned out to be, in many respects, an old-fashioned war. Just when we had bought into the notion that for U.S. forces, at least, old-fashioned wars, fraught with waste, carnage, miscalculation, and massive destruction, had become obsolete, we watched our soldiers marching on Baghdad run smack up against the past.

To see the war as depicted by the Pentagon or at Central Command Headquarters in Qatar was, of course, to miss that collision. At the operation’s outset, General Tommy Franks had promised a war "unlike any other in history, a campaign characterized by shock, by surprise, by flexibility, by the employment of precise munitions on a scale never before seen, and by the application of overwhelming force." His forces would deploy "across the breadth and depth of Iraq, in some cases simultaneously and in some cases sequentially," implementing a plan that offered Franks the "latitude to build [a] mosaic...in a way that provides flexibility so that we can attack the enemy on our terms."

The theater commander’s reassuring vision meshed neatly with Washington’s political requirements. So, in the days and weeks that followed, for the most part, the war plan became a script. At daily press conferences, officials announced that all was proceeding precisely as expected. They rejected suggestions that one development or another had caught coalition forces by surprise. Everything had been anticipated in advance. Events, they doggedly insisted, were on or ahead of schedule. Progress was being made every day.

To prop up this narrative, briefers in Qatar and at the Pentagon revived a practice first used during the famous press conferences of Operation Desert Storm. They punctuated their presentations with photographs and video footage demonstrating the capabilities of high-tech U.S. weaponry. What made the fuzzy, all but unidentifiable objects targets was not always apparent, but the unerring accuracy of the precision bombs or missiles striking them couldn’t be questioned. The subtext was obvious: this was indeed a new kind of war, defined by the technology we alone had mastered, and thus it was being fought "on our terms."

Back in 1991, these images, combined with limited direct access to the battlefield, had dazzled-and to a degree misled-reporters and the public alike. As a byproduct, the first war against Iraq had given rise to expectations of future wars that would be antiseptic, impersonal, and risk free. Henceforth, with its high-tech warriors flying high above the battlefield or cruising swiftly across it, the United States would vanquish its foes effortlessly.

Many in Washington, liberals no less than conservatives, found this to be an alluring prospect. As a result, in the aftermath of Desert Storm, illusions about the nature and effectiveness of the use of force spread. In some quarters, large ambitions of capitalizing on America’s unmistakable military supremacy to create a benign global imperium began to germinate.

A decade of increasingly unreal military activities ensued. U.S. forces were busier than ever-bombing Bosnian Serbs, bombing Belgrade, enforcing the "no-fly zones" and occasionally bombing Baghdad, and bombing Afghanistan-but all of this took place in the distance. Americans barely glimpsed these events. We seldom knew what the bombs hit (and seldom bothered to inquire). All that we saw of "combat" was more flickering images of precision weapons and their now fully-to-be-expected accuracy. We were gratified-and came to take for granted-that American soldiers emerged unscathed. (One episode of genuine combat did occur during the 1990s-the famous firefight in Mogadishu. But Americans did not see it in full, at least until a Hollywood version appeared years later.)

By the second week of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the images of high-tech weapons had long since lost their novelty. As a consequence, they also lost their persuasive power. More important, for the first time since Vietnam, other images were available and suggested a strikingly different narrative. These images of American soldiers at the front, which appeared on television and in newspapers, directly contradicted the claims made in Qatar and in Washington. In these images, we saw weary, grime-encrusted GIs collapsed on their cots in the middle of sandstorms. We witnessed heavily laden infantrymen crouching under fire, peering warily around corners, kicking in doors, and carrying wounded comrades to the rear. We watched marines dashing across a sandy expanse that could be mistaken for the beach at Iwo Jima. We saw perplexed field commanders grappling with the unexpected. We contemplated the fear in the eyes of a nineteen-year-old POW.

The impact of these images was-and is-profoundly subversive. Their message is unmistakable: for all the claims of flexibility, precision, and "shock and awe," the true nature of war remains immutable. Even in a high-tech age, war remains the province of chance and uncertainty. Violence is anything but antiseptic. Clausewitz’s fog and friction continue to haunt the battlefield.

Moreover, long after the torrent of spoken and written commentary offered by officials, journalists, and talking heads is forgotten, these images will remain. They will fill scrapbooks and Web sites. They will be collected in commemorative volumes that celebrate the liberation of Iraq and remember those who gave their lives in that cause. As such, these images will constitute a permanent warning against reviving the illusions about war that flourished since the last time the United States unleashed its forces against Saddam Hussein. They may well puncture a decade-long national infatuation with military power.

Beyond that, these tangible reminders of war’s true face will pose an obstacle to those yearning to use U.S. military supremacy as the basis for creating a global Pax Americana. And that will be all to the good. [end]

Published in the 2003-04-25 issue: 

Andrew Bacevich is the author most recently of Twilight of the American Century, published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

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