That was the week that was

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This war couldn’t be grimmer, but who could deny that there was also a farcical element to the last week of war. After all, this was the week when, among other things, a US mine-hunting dolphin went AWOL; all but one of our chemical-sniffing chickens died; we couldn’t name our forward outposts for oil companies without an embarrassing debate; we raised an American flag over the wrong idea of a successful war in a town we hadn’t actually taken; the Army’s senior ground commander complained that this war didn’t measure up to the war games; oil prices rose; the stock market began to slump again; Kenneth Adelman and Richard Perle rushed to defend their “cakewalk” predictions, even as Perle was forced to resign as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, and Vietnam reared its ugly, inappropriate head right there in the Middle East.

Today, for instance, was my first spotting of “the credibility gap” embedded right in the middle of a New York Times article (John M. Broder with Eric Schmitt, 2 Views of War: On the Ground and at the Top): “The descriptions of the war from Centcom are leading to grumbling here and in Washington about a credibility gap between what reporters see and hear on the battlefield and what the top brass at headquarters are saying, or not saying.”

In the same article Centcom briefer Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, whom the Times writes was “auditioned and rehearsed for the role by communications aides assigned to Central Command by the White House,” managed to claim that he and his colleagues weren’t on our planet. “And so that’s what we’re talking about at this level, at the Centcom level. There’s a different view down on Planet Earth, if you will, as you describe it. The closer you get to the line, the more precise the realities are.”

Put that another way: The closer you get to Washington, the more imprecise reality is. That brings us to what the Army’s senior ground commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace said yesterday. In a March 28 Washington Post piece, General: A Longer War Likely, Rick Atkinson had this to report: “‘The enemy we’re fighting is different from the one we’d war-gamed against,’ Wallace, commander of V Corps, said during a visit to the 101st Airborne Division headquarters here in central Iraq.” In talking of a longer war, Wallace particular complained of the guerrilla-like struggle in the south: “The attacks we’re seeing are bizarre — technical vehicles [pickups] with .50 calibers and every kind of weapon charging tanks and Bradleys. It’s disturbing to think that someone can be that brutal.We’re dealing with a country in which everybody has a weapon, and when they fire them all in the air at the same time, it’s tough.”

Wallace’s comments were backed by those of other field officers like Col. Ben Hodges, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne who said, “I personally underestimated the willingness of the Fedayeen to fight, or maybe overestimated the willingness of the Shiites to rise up.” And the piece ended with a classic Vietnam era comment from an unidentified general: “I feel as though the corps has been punching with one arm.”

Nine days into the war, while calling for 120,000 reinforcements who will evidently not all be in place until the end of April, the military wasn’t waiting. It was already striking back vigorously – at the civilian command in Washington. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had to field questions at his news conference yesterday about Wallace’s comments and he promptly and generously offered full authorship of the war’s battle plan to — come up and get your Oscar, Tommy – General Franks.

To put this in perspective, let’s return for a moment to those war games that proved so much easier than the present war. Last August, the Army Times reported that they were “rigged” so that “we” could win and the “enemy” commander, one retired general Paul Van Riper, was playing the “unpredictable enemy” so well that he was reined in and so stepped down halfway through the games.

War games rigged?
General says Millennium Challenge 02 ‘was almost entirely scripted’
By Sean D. Naylor
The Army Times,
August 16, 2002

The most elaborate war game the U.S. military has ever held was rigged so that it appeared to validate the modern, joint-service war-fighting concepts it was supposed to be testing, according to the retired Marine lieutenant general who commanded the game’s Opposing Force.

That general, Paul Van Riper, said he worries the United States will send troops into combat using doctrine and weapons systems based on false conclusions from the recently concluded Millennium Challenge 02. He was so frustrated with the rigged exercise that he said he quit midway through the game.

He said that rather than test forces against an unpredictable enemy, the exercise “was almost entirely scripted to ensure a [U.S. military] ‘win.’ ”

To read more Army Times click here

Oddly enough, it turns out to be harder to have your battle plan go right when you can’t write the rules for the “unpredictable enemy.” And then there was that matter of naming outposts. As Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian reported today (“US army’s desert filling stations add fuel to fire”),

“In a war where public perceptions are arguably as important as the military strategy, the US army appears to have handed a huge public relations victory to those who believe the conflict in Iraq is all about oil. The 101st Airborne Division has chosen to name two of its main outposts in the desert Forward Operating Base Exxon and Forward Operating Base Shell.

When US troops seizing the port city of Umm Qasr raised the stars and stripes there last week, they were swiftly ordered to remove it for fear of giving the impression of being conquerors, not liberators.

But Forward Operating Base Shell has caught on so comprehensively that the Washington Post is now carrying it as the dateline in its news reports from the base.

To read more Burkeman click here

Little wonder, given the week that was, that, as the (British) Times reports, Takoma, one of our mine-hunting dolphins took off for parts unknown. Right now, I think many in Washington might like to do the same.

Takoma the dolphin is Awol
By Daniel McGrory in Umm Wasr
The Times on line
MARCH 29, 2003

THE US Marines have suffered an embarrassment with reports last night that one of their most prized investigators may have defected.

Takoma, the Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin, had been in Iraq for 48 hours when he went missing on his first operation to snoop out mines.

His handler, Petty Officer Taylor Whitaker, had proudly showed off Takoma’s skills and told how the 22-year-old dolphin was among the most pampered creatures in the American military.

Takoma and his fellow mine hunters have a special diet, regular medical checks and their own sleeping quarters, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of the military whose domestic arrangements are basic, to say the least.

The wayward Takoma set out on the first mission with his comrade, Makai, watched by the cameras as the pair of dolphins somersaulted over the inflatable dinghy carrying their handlers.

To read more about Takoma click here

But it’s been a hard week for the whole animal corps. As Al Kamen in his Washington Post In the Loop column reports,

“The administration has even turned to the animal kingdom for help in the war. First came the dolphins, those really smart mammals recruited to help clear mines at the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. Then came word that Morocco was offering 2,000 monkeys to help detonate land mines.

“Then there were reports of 43 chickens being raised over there by the U.S. military to act as canaries in case of chemical attack. Problem was that after 10 days, all but one had died, either from the harsh desert conditions or maybe from fright. So now the troops have turned to pigeons, a much hardier lot of fowl, to do the job.”

I suspect we have a situation here where a decade of incestuous planning and interbreeding among a small group of cons and neo-cons in Washington has produced dreams which bear a distinct relationship to those rigged war games. They wrote the rules, won all the battles in their brains, and then loosed their plans on the world. How’s that for a recipe for long-term catastrophe, no matter how the battles turn out? Has no one noticed, for instance, that, after messing around with the fractious Iraqi exile community for years, the Pentagon has evidently finally entered Iraq without any Iraqis in tow?

Perhaps the only good news this week for the administration is a new Washington Post poll indicating that almost 75% of the American people still back the war to unseat Saddam, though not the tax cut or most of the rest of the Bush agenda. It’s such a natural reaction, I think, to be supportive of your country, your leaders, and your own soldiers, even if you sense, as prewar polls indicated, that the actions being taken can’t be good for America or the world. But given how quickly those leaders are at each others’ throats, and given the fact that I’m on a rare successful prediction streak, let me push the limits here. Another week or two faintly like this and those figures will begin to drop. In the meantime, here’s a remarkable lead editorial from today’s Guardian, the sort of summary you still can’t find in the American press. (“That the Pentagon has been obliged to double its ground combat forces after only a week, and must now wait for them to deploy, is a matter for considerable political shock and awe.”)

America in the vise
Lives and careers are on the line in Iraq
The Guardian
March 29, 2003

A vise is slowly beginning to close on US and British political leaders who ordered or justified the launching of war on Iraq. This potentially fatal squeeze is the product of two opposed dynamics. One is the dawning realisation that the war will not be over quickly, may indeed drag on for months, and will certainly not be the “cakewalk” predicted by Kenneth Adelman of the Pentagon’s infamous defence policy board. The other is the prospect of an accelerating humanitarian crisis.

Several factors, notably fierce Iraqi resistance and US miscalculations about the number of ground combat forces required, have forced a slowdown in the offensive. Around Basra, indeed, and south of Baghdad, the advance has effectively been halted for several days. A tactical reassessment is now under way against a backdrop of escalating political recriminations in Washington and increasingly, between London and the US. political careers.

To read more of the Guardian leader click here

A final note: On the Bush administration’s request, mentioned in yesterday’s dispatch, for $4.5 million dollars for Slovenia in the war budget – summarily rejected by Slovenia’s prime minister – it seems there was an understandable confusion. The administration evidently meant the governmentally very willing Slovakia, not the thoroughly unwilling Slovenia. You’ll note that only two letters differ in each name, that pesky “ak” in Slovakia versus that annoying “en” in Slovenia. Who knew that two everyday letters could make all the difference in some country’s “willingness” to be willing? As Al Kamen informs us, in the same column mentioned above, this isn’t the first time such an understandable error has been made. Bush was evidently questioned about Slovakia in the midst of the presidential campaign and said, “‘The only thing I know about Slovakia is what I learned firsthand from your foreign minister, who came to Texas. I had a great meeting with him. It’s an exciting country. It’s a country that’s doing very well.’ Turns out it was the prime minister of Slovenia.” This is an easy enough problem to solve, however. Taking a cue from the 101st Airborne, why not give confusing countries new names – perhaps Bechtelia and Haliburtonia? Tom