Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Battle Lessons

America wove two tragic mistakes into its victory in the Gulf War of 1991.

The first was fighting a half-war. War is terrible; to pretend it can be anything else is naive. To leave a battlefield with the enemy half-beaten, as Colin Powell did in 1991, may seem merciful in the moment, but it costs far more lives and woe in the long run.

Hannibal, after he smashed the legions at Cannae, paused instead of pressing on to Rome and bringing the republic to its knees. One of his generals told him, "You know how to win a battle, Hannibal, but not how to use your victory." After the next war, the Romans leveled Carthage and sowed its soil with salt.

At the end of the rout in Kuwait in 1991, American and British ground units cut off the loot-laden Iraqi army, and Allied warplanes killed them by the thousands, along with their tanks, trucks and howitzers. Poor-boy soldiers, mostly conscripts, were cut to shreds in the middle of a 60-mile traffic jam on the two-lane highway back to Basra.

Seeing graphic pictures of the "Highway of Death," Powell decided to halt combat. The Iraqis had been chased out of Kuwait; a goal was met.

Which points to the second mistake of 1991: an over-emphasis on mutilateralism. U.N. resolutions had authorized only the liberation of Kuwait, not the ouster of Saddam. Arab and Muslim allies, who contributed little to the actual fighting, grew restive as a major power in their region, however despised, fell to the might of the Americans.

And so the vast army that had marched against Saddam Hussein in 1991 stopped short of victory. When the smoke cleared, his head was still on the statues around his palaces, not in a noose, where it belonged. No enemies had set foot in Baghdad. His Republican Guards still existed. Saddam interpreted this as a victory, and it's hard to argue with him.

Powell could have pressed on to total victory, aided by Kurds and Marsh Arabs, and ground down the ideology of Baathist fascism. He could have rolled over Iraq with a sufficient force to insure order and stability in the wake of conquest. That was our last best chance to do what we are struggling to do now. Instead, an estimated 30,000 Kurdish and Shiite civilians paid with their lives for Powell's moment of mercy and statesmanship.

We did not make the second mistake this time. The British, Australians, Italians, Danes and Dutch are a core of reliable allies. The rest of the current "coalition of the willing," with the exception of newly emerging Poland, are a list of names offering little real help.

But are we making the first mistake again? Start-and-stop drives against the insurgents in Fallujah and al-Sadr's brigades suggest our leaders have failed to learn the bitter lesson of '91. Our forbearance in such situations only is interpreted as weakness by the enemy.

In 1918, the German army limped home, beaten in the trenches but with its homeland unbloodied. Within months, the whisper of of a "stab in the back" had grown to a murmur, and within a generation the Great War was fought all over, with deadlier force and tens of millions of casualties. This time, when it ended, there was no doubt about defeat. And Germany has been a force for peace, unity and stability in Europe for the half century since.

War is a brutal, bloody, destructive business. People who understand that -- Sherman, Patton -- are not men you would want for your secretaries of state in peacetime. But they succeed at war. Victory first; unconditional victory. Then mercy.