Medieval Sieges and the Politics of Casualties;
Which Side Will Give Up First?; Prescient Counsel from Osama bin Laden; Hitchens in Huge Crystal Balls-Up; Embunkered Bush: Scary Glimpse of C-in-C
by Alexander Cockburn
April 3, 2003
Through the murk of battle, the fog of US/UK military communiques and the more deftly presented Iraqi bulletins, we can begin to descry the shape of things to come, and the basic question posed by war: the powers of endurance and capacity for sacrifice of the two sides. If it comes to a medieval siege of Baghdad (and other Iraqi cities to the south) can the US take the casualties before the Iraqi defenders succumb to starvation and thirst?
But wait! Surely the ferocious B-52 bombardments of the Medina and other Iraqi divisions on the southern perimeter of Baghdad is already degrading them seriously, and a few more days of softening up will render them mere skeleton forces, shell-shocked and ready to surrender?
This seems unlikely. Remember first what happened in 1991. The Republican Guard was battered by six weeks of bombardment, after which time these divisions emerged from their foxholes and efficiently suppressed the Shi'a rebellion in the South while George Bush SR ordered US forces to stand aside.
Already in 1991 the Iraqis were showing great skill in camouflaging their equipment and in deploying dummy targets. Reports from various military sources suggest that they didn't waste the following twelve years, either in preparing for guerilla operations or in readying their defenses around Baghdad by a vast system of trenches, dug-outs, decoys, plus more robust communications networks.
In February came some very practical words of advice and encouragement from Osama bin Laden, in a tape regarded by many as authentic, discussing in vivid terms the experience of being bombed in the Tora Bora fastness in eastern Afghanistan:
"I will recall one part of such a great battle to prove how much they (American soldiers) are cowards, in one side, and how effective are these trenches in depleting them from another side. We were 300 mujahideen (holy fighters). We were digging 100 ditches spread over an area of one mile only. The range is one ditch for every three brothers. The American forces were bombing us with smart bombs, cluster bombs, and bombs which invade caves. B-52 aircraft were flying every two hours over our heads and throwing each time, 20 to 30 bombs.
"The conclusion is an enormous defeat for the coalition of the international evil with all its forces facing such a small group of mujahideen, 300 only in ditches in an area of one mile, in a temperature of 10 degrees below zero. The result of that battle was six per cent injuries among the individuals, whom we ask God to consider as martyrs, and injuries inside the ditches were two per cent only, thank God. So go and dig many trenches as it was mentioned before in the holy book, 'Take the earth as your shelter.' Such a way will deplete all your enemy reserves in a few months.
"We advise about the importance of drawing the enemy into long, close and exhausting fighting, taking advantage of camouflaged positions in plains, farms, mountains and cities. The enemy fears the most the town fights and street fights. Such fighting would cause the enemy huge losses of souls. We stress the importance of martyrdom operations against the enemy"
At the start of this week the US-based Stratfor site, reasonably well informed from military and intelligence sources, abruptly changed its somewhat complacent "sure and steady advance" theme, and directly challenged the U.S. command's claims that bombing has degraded the Republican Guard divisions' combat capabilities by 35 to 85 percent. Stratfor cited "foreign intelligence services" as estimating that air attacks have degraded the combat capabilities of the Republican Guard Al Medina Division by 5 percent, the Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar divisions by 5 percent to 10 percent and the Baghdad Division by 10 to 15 percent. (Note as of April 2, the Pentagon was claiming to have "destroyed" the Baghdad division, an assessment vigorously disputed by Iraq's military spokesman.)
Most targets in Baghdad available to precision-guided missiles have already been hit more than once in the enormously costly barrages that have now seriously depleted the US missile arsenal. Furthermore the smoke from oil fires is making it harder for US satellites to assess damage and assign targets to the GPS satellites governing the missiles' trajectories.
So the target sets are being steadily widened, with increased civilian casualties as a consequence, which of course means a hardening in Iraqi civilian resentment. But bombs alone, even if the US had enough, can't do the job. As German military strategists, looking back at the siege of Leningrad and at Stalingrad, are reminding the world, the only way to take a large city with determined defenders is to fight through it block by block, inflicting and incurring tremendous casualties in the process. Saturation bombing in advance only makes the task more difficult, with every pile of rubble offering obstructions and foxholes.
The other way is simply to hunker down outside the city, destroy the water supplies, try to prevent food getting in, and install a medieval siege, while being harassed by guerillas along that extended supply line.
The furious finger-pointing between the uniformed military and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his aides misses one fundamental point. Rumsfeld, a vain and foolish man, may have made a huge blunder in forcing his concept of a lighter force on Gen. Tommy Franks, despite the latter's pleas for a far larger one. But even if Franks had prevailed, it would have been next to impossible to have massed the numbers that General Schwartzkopf was able to command in 1991.
The whole pattern of US military procurement for many years, increasingly so since 1991, has been to degrade basic fighting capacity in favor of the costly hi-tech systems promoted by the "iron triangle" of defense contractors, congressional boosters and their accomplices in the services.
Precision-guided missiles and kindred emblems of US technological supremacy were supposed to render old-style battles and sieges more or less obsolete. So has the US got the man-power?
Ultimately, yes. But there are political constraints, starting with the casualty rate. By March 26 the official coalition losses in Iraq were running at 57 dead, but there's a time lag of three days and often more between a death and its recognition in official statistics. Some estimates, including one well informed Russian site, suggest that the coalition losses, as of March 31, include no less than 100 killed US servicemen and at least 35 dead British soldiers, plus a larger number listed as missing. The normal multiplier for wounded is 10, which give us a possible 1000 casualties for the second half of March, which means a monthly rate of maybe 2000 casualties. (These figures are, it should emphasized, somewhat speculative.)
Some comparisons. In World War Two, average casualties ran at 28,000 a month killed and wounded. In the Korean war the average was 3,000 casualties a month. In Vietnam between 1966 and 1971 casualties averaged 8,000 a month. At the peak of that war, out of a vast force, there were actually 40,000 US soldiers with rifles in their hands, meaning that the risk for these fighters of getting wounded or killed was extremely high, as would be the consequence of any attempt to attack Baghdad by such as the 3rd US Army infantry division, with about 3,500 combat troops.
So the present, inferential casualty US rate in Iraq, at a moment when, according to generals on both sides, the "real fighting" is just beginning, is not out of sight of the Korean rate, which allowed General Dwight D. Eisenhower to run as a candidate who would extricate the US from a costly war.
So even if the Bush administration is ready for a long war, will political opinion around the world and at home, allow him to wage it?
Pages from the Jampot Files
(Just Another Middle-Aged Porker of the Right)
Harken unto Hitchens:
"There will be no war, but there will be a fairly brief and ruthless military intervention to remove the Saddam Hussein regime....What will happen will be this: The president will give an order, there will then occur in Iraq a show of military force like nothing probably the world has ever seen. It will be rapid and accurate and overwhelming enough to deal with an army or a country many times the size of Iraq. That will be greeted by the majority of Iraqi and Kurdish people as a moment of emancipation...and I say bring it on."
The barstool bombardier issued this ringing prophesy in the course of a debate in Berkeley with the New Yorker's Mark Danner, January 28 of this year. Hitchens has been lecturing in Berkeley at the University's widely despised Graduate School of Journalism, where students have been able to use Hitchens as a petrie dish with which to assay the dialectical relationship between alcohol and journalistic production. Last year, amid early reports of US victory in Afghanistan, Hitchens crowed in a London paper at the supposed discomfiture of those who said (correctly, as it turns out) that Afghanistan has always been a graveyard for optimistic forecasts of western victory. "Ha ha ha", Hitchens vulgarly exulted. We'd say "'Ha ha ha' to you, Hitchens", except that the manner in which his forecast is being confuted involves death and destruction on a terrible scale.
In the twilight of his drink-addled brain Hitchens may not have remembered it, but his phrase "There will be no war" is an echo of another notoriously wrong-headed forecast, by London Daily Express, at the end of August, 1939, when the newspaper proclaimed, "There will be no war, this year, next year or any year." War broke out on September 3.
We have no idea how Saddam Hussein is holding up in his bunker, but the picture painted by Judy Keen in USA Today for April 1 sure is distinctly scary. Excerpts:
"Bush believes he was called by God to lead the nation at this time, says Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a close friend who talks with Bush every day. His history degree from Yale makes him mindful of the importance of the moment. He knows he's making 'history-changing decisions,' Evans says."
"Bush copes with anxiety as he always has. He prays and exercises. Evans says his friend has a placid acceptance of challenges that comes from his Christian faith."
"He knows that we're all here to serve a calling greater than self," Evans says. "That's what he's committed his life to do. He understands that he is the one person in the country, in this case really the one person in the world, who has a responsibility to protect and defend freedom."
Beginning of the USA TODAY article:
"People who know Bush well say the strain of war is palpable. He rarely jokes with staffers these days and occasionally startles them with sarcastic putdowns. He's being hard on himself; he gave up sweets just before the war began. He's frustrated when armchair generals or members of his own team express doubts about U.S. military strategy. At the same time, some of his usual supporters are concerned by his insistence on sticking with the original war plan. Interviews with a dozen friends, advisers and top aides describe a man who feels he is being tested."
Alexander Cockburn is the author The Golden Age is In Us (Verso, 1995) and 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000) with Jeffrey St. Clair. Cockburn and St. Clair are the editors of CounterPunch, the nationís best political newsletter, where this article first appeared.