Friday, July 09, 2004


I probably should not write this. I will only write it once. But it has been nagging me for two months now. I hope I'm wrong -- I pray I'm wrong. But I think we muffed the Iraq campaign of the War on Terror.

We lost it at the end of April, to be precise, in Fallujah. Our soldiers and Marines did wonderfully. Our political leaders failed us. All the good will we have, all the hard work of reconstruction our people are doing, even the rise of a democratic Iraq, won't make our enemies forget our leadership blinked that day. Whatever may come in Iraq, and I hope for the best, we have lost, and I predict history will mark Fallujah as the place of our defeat.

Probably most Americans already have forgotten. Since then we've had Abu Ghraib and the 9/11 commission and a thousand distractions. But that non-battle of Fallujah won't leave me. Remember? The mob slaughtered our citizens and mutilated their remains and strung them up from bridge trestles like meat. Our leaders vowed to go into that city and track down the killers and quell the insurgency.

The mess in Fallujah in April set a collision course between our two main goals in Iraq: 1. convincing West-hating Islamic terrorists that we will defeat them and kill them without tiring, and 2. convincing average Iraqis that it really is their country now, and setting them up in self-rule.

We ended up seeking a mixed solution. But more and more it becomes clear to me that the second goal was impossible without achieving the first. And we failed to accomplish the first goal at Fallujah, our best chance. Since then, things have only gotten worse.

By April 27, the Marines had the Battle of Fallujah half won. Individual Marines were writing home about it as a defining victory for their generation. They had an estimated 1,500 enemy hemmed in from the north and south, contained in the northeast corner of the city. This is an old-town warren of blind alleys and mosques. It could have been one big booby trap, like Jenin was for the Israelis. The USMC had begun handling it the correct way, with small probes that forced the enemy to react. When he showed, they killed. And over time, and attrition, they would have pinned the Islamist militias in a pocket, and then one big punch with overwhelming force would have ended it.

Three days later, in a surreal development, a defunct Republican Guard major general appeared, seemingly pulled from a hat, at the head of a newly formed Fallujah Protection Army. The USMC handed over control of Fallujah to him. The U.S. pulled back. Since then, the Sunni radicals and the Baathists have run Fallujah as a festering un-free free city within liberated Iraq. The clerics who have taken over Fallujah have installed a Taliban-style regime. Women who don't cover their hair and faces are beaten in the streets. Beauty parlors have been shut down. Men have been ordered to grow beards and barbers have been warned not to shave customers. Booze dealers have been flogged naked in the streets. Meanwhile, according to Chalabi, "the terrorists in Fallujah are enjoying themselves, sending one car bomb after another."

Better to have beat them down right there, where they chose to make their stand, with the cameras running and the world watching. Undoubtedly the jihadis would have fought suicidally, and taken many civilians with them. We backed off in part because of the bad PR that goes with killing people. Guess what? I'm willing to wager, based on history, that more people will die because we didn't finish that fight than would have died if we did. If the motive was to minimize death and mayhem, peace at any price was the wrong choice.

War is horrible. Like many horrible things, if it is to be done, it is best done as swiftly and firmly as possible. Do it with conviction, or don't do it. Else you simply drag and compound the horror.

For some people the horror of even the most careful war will simply be intolerable. Very well. For others, anything done by a capitalist nation-state will send them tumbling out of their air-conditioned dorms into the streets with "no blood for oil" signs.

The mewling and cries of "atrocity" began even before the battle. Had we pursued victory into the city, the howl would have grown deafening. But a real leadership would have understood the stakes. The anti-war howlers think we're just a pack of oil-addicted baby-killers and torturers, or "crusader" dupes of the Jews. They thought so before, they think so now. Holding back our hand, as we did in Fallujah, certainly won us no friends.

The last editorial I wrote for my newspaper was in April, as the Fallujah battle gathered. "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," it said. "Our forbearance in such situations only is interpreted as weakness by the enemy. ... 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."

They never ran it. I never have been asked to write another. My newspaper's editors are relentlessly against Bush and "his" war. Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky are heroes here. In the newsroom that week, we had many stories to work on. But in the crucial places in the Middle East, all eyes were on Fallujah.

In the Middle East, as far back as Alexander, battles have been fought as much by bluff as by blood. They called our bluff, and we blinked. We began the battle, then we left it. Were we really serious about this Iraqi venture? We swept the Taliban from Kabul, we danced over Saddam's army, but the Islamists had reason to doubt our commitment. We blinked. And they know it.

Some of our leaders say it's better that Fallujah played out this way, because now it can be a rat-trap for the insurgents, where we can watch them and isolate them. To an extent, that is true. But the other alternative would have been far better. No matter how we spin this, the jihadis call it a victory, and their recruits across the Islamic world proclaim it one. And they're essentially right. The most potent army in the world said it was going to go in there and kill them, but they're still standing.

Now they know they will just have to outwait us, to keep the heat on us, and eventually, though much more slowly, Iraq will be Mogadishu and Beirut. They know that, even after the slaughter of Sept. 11, we lack the will and patience for a long, real war on terror. They also know they do not lack these qualities.

Now comes the storm. If Fallujah represents the watershed moment in the Iraq war, and I'm afraid it does, then this is another Vietnam. And it will have not only the effect of drawing more recruits to the terrorists (now that we have revealed we aren't serious about exterminating them), but it also will have consequences for the next time U.S. men and women go into battle. They'll not only have to think ahead to their enemies, but look over their shoulders to see if the politicians aren't going to pull the rug out from under them when they're halfway to victory (or, worse, dead in a fight they thought was going to save America).

Furthermore, the suspicion of our enemies has been reinforced that Americans don't do urban battles. And this is an awful because that kind of fighting is not an aberration in modern warfare. It is modern warfare. The world is urbanized in a degree impossible to conceive 100 years ago. Tank battles like Kursk, open-field maneuver like Normandy, that's all as "ancient history" as Cannae.

After Vietnam, as bad as that was, the Western nuclear deterrent kept the Soviets back and gave us a decade to nurse the military and social hangover. We don't have that luxury with these enemies. The Islamists are at least holding their own against us so far in this war. And the breakdown of the international system of nuclear weapons containment (which began to crumble in the 1990s) is going to give our vicious enemies a serious equalizer in a few years. The West had better get its shit together, and I mean the French and the Germans and the American universities as well as us cowboys.

It may well be that, come November, all those "anybody but Bush" voters will wake up with big grins caked on their faces because their nemesis is gone. But guess what? "Bushie Boy" may go, but Jihadi boy will still be here, times ten thousand, and following our troops home. Then what are you going to do? Then it's your problem. Trotsky had the right line for these people: "You may not be interested in war, but war is very interested in you."

Do you think they'll let up on us if we have a president who speaks French and says nice things about the World Court? Do you think it matters to them that he wants to "consult with our allies?" They want to blow up our allies, too. The hell they unleashed on us three years ago was planned while amiable Bill Clinton was still in the White House, urging Israeli concessions and trying to give the Palestinians a real nation.

Yet still, today, our press and politicians are fixated with the parsing out the details of the decision to overthrow Saddam, more than a year ago. Let history debate that. The war's begun. It doesn't matter what was the right decision then, unless you have a time machine. The right decision now, is what matters.

But we've completely lost that. Domestically, the country is heading into 1968 again. The "baby-killer" shouts already have been heard by returning soldiers. As odious as I find Bush, I can't yet stand on the other side, so long as its pre-eminent message is crocodile tears over American loss and failure and death. I think we're going to see enough of that -- the real thing, not the manufactured version -- in years to come.

I need Kerry to do something -- anything -- to convince me he understands the seriousness of this situation better than the current incumbent does. I see nothing like that from him. In fact, I can't even see him at all, because right now there's a fat, stupid white man clotting up the election. Kerry is so devoid of a message that his campaign has been hijacked by a damned movie.

And, no, my practical pessimism is not the same thing as the media's, which is a far darker and more traitorious commodity -- infected with the Chomskyite poison that views any exercise of power by a capitalist nation-state as always evil and any resistance to it inherently good.

I will keep working for a free Iraq, in every way I can. I will give time and money, and lend my words and support to the good people in that country and the good people in my own who are working to set them on the path to freedom. I try to keep a generally positive even-keel attitude. This is a war, after all, and this is a democracy, after all, and everything is, at least in theory, a co-operative effort. Even if most of my fellow citizens persist in acting like it's a gladiator match in which the president does the work and we sit in the stands and point our thumbs.