A war with echoes of past campaigns

With war just days old, criticism grows. It isn't the first time that has happened.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

General George Patton outran his supply lines in his race for the Rhine. In Korea and Vietnam, America risked involvement with other countries in the region. The invasion of Panama included a buildup of forces whose attack was preceded by airpower. The first Gulf War saw an intensive air campaign against Republican Guard units before significant ground engagements.

Wars rarely turn out exactly as planned. But not yet two weeks into the war with Iraq, comparisons and contrasts are being made with strategy and tactics from Normandy beaches to the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan.

One similarity with the war in Afghanistan has been political and military criticism during the early weeks by those advocating larger ground forces. There was also the personalizing of the enemy leadership target (Osama Bin Laden) who then escaped from Tora Bora - an approach now being avoided in favor of talking about "regime change" rather than Saddam Hussein.

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Like other analysts, retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner finds similarities between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara, his Pentagon predecessor during the Vietnam War.

"We have a secretary of Defense who finds technology very interesting and looks to technology as almost a dominating dimension of the way he understands combat," says Colonel Gardiner, who describes Mr. Rumsfeld as "a micromanager."

Like Vietnam, he says, "We see the press briefing from [command headquarters] where it seems impossible for the briefer to give it to us straight despite the different images we get from the field and field commanders."

Telling it like it is

But the major difference today, Colonel Gardiner says, is that "we have field commanders and officers in the Pentagon who want the press to know how it really is."

This may be a very important point in this war.

While official briefers are very much "on message," some commanders in the field have not hesitated to talk about being surprised by the level of Iraqi resistance and the unplanned need to detach some forces to secure southern cities.

They've also disclosed that troops have been pausing for several days in some locations, and they've spoken about a growing need for resupplies of food, water, and fuel.

There's no indication - publicly at least - that Pentagon civilians and the most senior officers are upset by this apparent openness.

Besides, many of those field-grade officers, unit commanders, and younger generals took to heart the lessons of Vietnam here - particularly as detailed in "Dereliction of Duty," the 1997 book by West Point graduate H.R. McMaster.

Studying the historical papers of the Johnson administration as well as the archives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant Colonel McMaster concluded that it wasn't just the civilians in the White House and at the Pentagon who failed to adequately address the strength and determination of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. Senior officers were just as culpable for not speaking up, McMaster concluded.

That has been a clear lesson for many commanders in the field in Iraq today - apparently welcomed by the public as it remains riveted to the all-news, all-the-time live TV coverage.

As before, wave of initial support

Meanwhile, public perceptions and emotions are following a predictable pattern as well.

"It begins with apprehension on the eve of fighting, followed by elation when hostilities begin because the waiting is finally over, and then there is a letdown that gradually hardens into grim determination," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Alexandria, Va.

"Public opinion is presently in transit between stages three and four, in other words, from letdown to determination," says Dr. Thompson. "The public now knows it won't be easy, but that hasn't eroded support."

How long will the campaign last?

How will it turn out? There aren't many experts (civilian or military) who foresee anything but military victory for the US-led coalition.

Kenneth Pollack, a former Persian Gulf military analyst for the CIA, predicts that the war will last between four and 10 weeks. Coalition forces may "have lost some momentum," he said the other day, but military victory by the US and its allies is inevitable.

And for all the critical talk of "pause" in the war (strongly denied by the Pentagon) much is going on to indicate coalition progress on the ground in Iraq.

Artillery exchanges with Republican Guard units just outside Baghdad are aimed to "fix" enemy forces in place, making them vulnerable to airstrikes.

Thanks to intelligence information provided by Iraqis in southern cities, Baath Party headquarters are being destroyed and senior officials killed or captured. Clean water is now flowing through a pipeline from Kuwait to thirsty Iraqis in Umm Qasr.

US Special Forces have secured key sites in western Iraq, and some captured airfields (and even stretches of highway) are being used by coalition aircraft. Oil-well fires have been limited to a handful but even those are now being extinguished, with the result that any threat of "scorched earth" tactics by Hussein seems to have dissipated. In all, US and British forces now control some 40 percent of the country.

Why Iraq is unique

While there are some similarities with previous wars, there are clear divergences as well.

"What is significantly different for the US in this war is the need to simultaneously fight conventional and guerrilla wars while providing food, water, healthcare, and in some cases even shelter to ordinary Iraqis," says retired Army Col. Dan Smith.

"The latter are functions the US has not performed until after hostilities ended."

And the lessons-learned, of course, will come much later. President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Meyers, combat commander Tommy Franks all say military and regime changes in Iraq "are not in doubt."

Other close observers are not so sure, and they see connections with other conflicts as well.

"When it is over, if it is over, this war will have horrible consequences," says Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. "Instead of having one [Osama] bin Laden, we will have 100 Bin Ladens."

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