Fast-forward war

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Well, let’s start with yesterday’s march in New York City. I was there. It took place only three days after an American war was launched, the day after a New York Times poll announced that over 70% of Americans backed the war; a day after the first application of “shock and awe” — a phrase that couldn’t be more in the tradition of imperial threat and power — and a day after the Baghdad version of “A-day,” a violent light-and-sound show, was displayed on maybe a billion TVs worldwide, while scores of embedded reporters checked in from their square inch of sand as an American advance swept through the deserts of Baghdad, taking Iraq’s port of Umm Qasir, being greeted by happy Iraqi children, and accepting major surrenders in the desert — or so yesterday’s news had it.

Given this, one might perhaps have expected massive pro-war or pro-Bush or pro-victory rallies, though the ones that did occur seem to have remained remarkably small. One certainly wouldn’t have expected a rally that, according to the New York Times, the police estimated at 125,000 or more. My own guess — and I’m not generally a numbers inflator — was 200,000-plus on this basis:

Twenty to thirty minutes after the group I was with ended our march at Washington Square and dispersed, I called my son — thanks to the glories of the cell phone — and he told me he was stuck at the end of the march over 30 blocks north of us. And we hadn’t even been near the front of the march. That’s a lot of people and there were sizeable crowds of onlookers, cheering from the street side as well as people waving or offering V signs from windows all along the way. It was a remarkably upbeat experience. We were all, perhaps, stunned by the evidence of our existence. Many, many young people. Wonderful signs. Drums and music. Roaring waves of cheers at the end. I think we felt something like shock and awe — of the genuine kind — that we had not gone away, that we were not likely to go away. This, I guarantee you, was a small shock for the administration, just as I believe they were surprised to discover that the onset of the war did not lead to a lessening of opposition among our former friends (including the recalcitrant Turks) and a rush to board the gravy tank churning the sands toward Baghdad.

In On the Diplomatic Front, U.S. Makes Few Inroads, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday, “After months of angry confrontations among allies over the Bush administration’s drive to oust Saddam Hussein, diplomatic relations were further strained Friday amid talk of plans for rebuilding Iraq after the anticipated fall of Hussein’s regime.” The French and Russians threatened to veto any UN resolution that would leave the U.S. and England in charge of the postwar administration of Iraq (as well as the handing out of all contracts for the country’s reconstruction) and many countries refused to throw out Iraqi diplomats as more or less ordered by Washington.

In the meantime, in England, there was another public resignation. The Guardian reports,

“A senior legal adviser to the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has quit the Foreign Office because of a difference over the legal advice sanctioning the war against Iraq, it emerged last night.

“Elizabeth Wilmhurst, 54, deputy legal adviser, is understood to be unhappy with the government’s official line that it has sufficient basis for war under UN resolutions. Ms Wilmhurst has been a legal adviser at the Foreign Office for 30 years, and deputy legal officer since 1997. Her resignation will be an embarrassment to Tony Blair as well as to Mr Straw and raises new doubts about the legal basis for the war.”

“Elizabeth Wilmhurst, 54, deputy legal adviser, is understood to be unhappy with the government’s official line that it has sufficient basis for war under UN resolutions. Ms Wilmhurst has been a legal adviser at the Foreign Office for 30 years, and deputy legal officer since 1997. Her resignation will be an embarrassment to Tony Blair as well as to Mr Straw and raises new doubts about the legal basis for the war.”

This issue of legality is no small matter. While the issue of war crimes only arose late in the Vietnam War period, it’s already on the table at least in England.

The polls in this country don’t surprise me, by the way. I’ve long written that the American antiwar movement is a minority movement. But 20-plus percent of the population is, if you think about it, a lot of determined people. The change in the polling figures was undoubtedly among those who had been uncertain about a war in Iraq, or wanted to wait a little longer, or wanted more allies, or a UN mandate. They are likely to prove a weak reed for this administration the minute anything goes wrong.

You would think, of course, that in New York a march of this size at this moment might be worthy of a front-page piece in the hometown paper of record. But war is so much more alluring. The Times assigned the global antiwar movement and the local one to three articles on page B-11, deep inside its already mind-numbing new “A Nation at War” section, which alone must be responsible for denuding the globe of trees. A dead body or two might have helped, of course, but no such bad luck. I suppose we’ll have to await a future peace offensive and the urge of the Times to launch a new “Nation at Peace” section. (By the way, as far as I can tell, Congressman Waxman’s direct challenge to the President — see Friday’s dispatch — on a key foundational argument for the war has as yet been covered by no one.)

My own observation is this: As with the issue of the war’s legality, there are already aspects of this war reminiscent of the Vietnam era, but of the end of that era, not its early days. It’s as if we’re experiencing all this in fast-forward time. Already today, the first “fragging” (a Vietnam-era term for the use of fragmentation grenades by enlisted men in attempts to threaten or kill their officers) took place in a camp in Kuwait, a phenomenon of the late Vietnam years in the US military. It may even be a “political” act, if early reports are to be believed, by an African American sergeant who was a recent convert to Islam. The “Christmas bombings” of Hanoi and Haiphong with which Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger attempted to shock and awe the North Vietnamese leadership into better peace terms (it didn’t work) have started, not ended, this war. And, as recent demonstrations in San Francisco indicated, there is quickly rising anger — and worrying trashing behavior and the like — at the fringes of the antiwar movement (as happened only at the end of the 1960s).

In Iraq, the first American POWs were just displayed on state television — also a much later phenomenon in Vietnam — and reporters are beginning to die awfully quickly. All, I think, are “unilaterals,” not “embeddeds” so far: an Australian in a suicide bombing by an Islamic fanatic in the North, a British journalist at Iraqi hands in the South and possibly a Russian in the American bombing of Basra. And an unexpected word appeared in a news briefing about fighting in the port city of Umm Qasir, supposedly already liberated and secured, according to Victor Mallet of the Financial Times (Ominous Signs for Coalition in Battle for Umm Qasir):

“In an ominous sign of the military and ultimately political – difficulties that may lie ahead for the invasion force if it seeks to capture urban areas, the word “guerrilla” was used at the weekend by Colonel Chris Vernon, chief UK military spokesman in Kuwait, to explain the unexpectedly stiff resistance encountered in Umm Qasr.”

Mallet also noted: “Reporters traveling independently in southern Iraq say some residents of Safwan, another town on the Kuwaiti border, were openly hostile to the coalition forces, although others said they were happy that President Bush was seeking to end the rule of President Hussein.”

Jon Donvan of ABC News offered a similar report, Doubts and Questions:

“They were unforgettable images: Residents of this southern Iraqi town openly welcoming coalition forces. They danced in the streets as a picture of Saddam Hussein was torn down.

“That was yesterday.

“Traveling unescorted into Safwan today, I got a far different picture. Rather than affection and appreciation, I saw a lot of hostility toward the coalition forces, the United States and President Bush.

“Some were even directed towards the media. (It was the first time I heard somebody refer to me as a ‘Satan.’) In speaking with them, the newly-liberated Iraqis ask the same questions that seem to nag many outside Iraq.

Why are you here in this country? Are you trying to take over? Are you going to take our country forever? Are the Israelis coming next? Are you here to steal our oil? When are you going to get out?”

And then, of course, there was slaughter, an ever more prominent feature of the Vietnam War. Here’s a Reuters report, Iraqi bodies litter plain as U.S. Troops Advance, that highlights the unequal nature of this war:

“Burned-out vehicles and incinerated bodies littered a plain in central Iraq on Sunday after U.S. forces overwhelmed Iraqi militia fighters in a battle south of the holy city of Najaf. U.S. armored infantry and tanks took control of the plain in the early hours of Sunday after a battle of more than seven hours against Iraqi forces who were armed with machineguns mounted on the back of Japanese pick-up trucks.

“‘It wasn’t even a fair fight. I don’t know why they don’t just surrender,’ said Colonel Mark Hildenbrand, commander of the 937th Engineer Group. ‘When you’re playing soccer at home, 3-2 is a fair score, but here it’s more like 119-0,’ he said, adding that the Iraqi sport utility vehicles (SUVs) stood no chance against tanks. ‘You can’t put an SUV with a machine gun up against an M1 tank — it’s heinous for the SUV,’ Hildenbrand said.”

The other side of slaughter, of course, is that intangible, resistance. How many times in the Vietnam era did American officers speak with shock and awe of Vietnamese resistance. There was an odd moment at Rumsfeld’s news conference the other day. A reporter asked him if “shock and awe” might not actually cause Iraqis to hunker down and resist like the Japanese and Germans in World War II or the Vietnamese. Momentarily thrown off by the question, he answered (as I recall it) that the reporter had to keep in mind that the Iraqi regime wasn’t a benign one (and so, assumedly, wasn’t supported by its people). This was a slip obviously, given the German and Japanese comparison. But the point is worth considering. After all, the Russians at Stalingrad were not fighting for a benign regime either. The real question is, will Iraqi nationalism kick in among many thousands of well-armed men embedded in a major city? The endpoint will be the same, but far more horrific for both the Iraqis and the Bush administration.

In his Sunday column in the Toronto Sun, Eric Margolis makes a comparison between the present war and the 19th century British slaughter of the Mahdi’s troops in the Sudan that highlights the crucial question — not, is this a colonial war, but will armed Iraqis consider it as such and, as seems to be happening in some places, resist fiercely, even against overwhelming odds?

Let me make a small prediction now. I suspect that, not so far down the road, the phrase “shock and awe” will enter the same lexicon as the Vietnam name for what turned out to be a massive CIA-run assassination operation “the Phoenix program,” or the Japanese “three-alls” (burn all, loot all, kill all) campaigns from their occupation of parts of China in the 1930s. Tom

The moment of truth for Iraq
Will Saddam Hussein’s forces stand and fight, or bow to the imperial might of the U.S. and Britain?
By Eric Margolis, Contributing Foreign Editor
The Toronto Sun
March 23, 2003

The fearsome Sudanese nationalist leader known as the “Mahdi” was a dire threat to his own nation, the neighbouring Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Egypt and the entire Christian world, proclaimed Britain’s Imperial government. The Mahdi’s Dervish army had taken Khartoum by storm and killed the saintly Sir Charles “Chinese” Gordon, British sirdar, or proconsul, of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

So the British Empire sent a “coalition” army of white troops and Egyptian native units up the Nile under the command of Lord Kitchener with orders to crush the Mahdi before his calls for freedom from British imperial rule for Muslim peoples might infect all Africa. The Dervishes mounted the first major Islamic resistance against European colonial occupation.

To read more Margolis click here