(Now that the “24-hour rule” has passed on the death of Zarqawi, I feel comfortable in discussing his death, and what it may mean in the war on terror.)
When someone is an expert in a field, they tend to apply that expertise to other areas, even if it isn’t always a good fit. It’s human nature, to compare things to those we know most about, in the hopes of making sense of events.
I am no expert on World War II, but it is a bit of a hobby of mine, in particular the war against Japan. So it is to that subject that I make my analogies on the War On Terror, whenever I can make it fit without stretching too much.
The death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi reminds me of two key events during the Pacific war. The first was the Doolittle Raid.
Barely four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States bombed the home islands of Japan. The 16 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers did almost no damage, but it was a great propaganda victory. The Japanese went nuts trying to figure out where the bombers came from, as Mitchells were Army Air Corps planes, land-based, and we had no bases anywhere near Japan.
What had happened was that the United States had done the unthinkable: we had loaded the big two-engine bombers on to an aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet, and sent it within 700 miles of the Japanese mainland. The planes were stripped of all guns and excess weight, and each only carried four small bombs, and even then not one of them made their designated landing areas in China.
The second comparison was the killing of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Yamamoto, the head of the Japanese Navy and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was on a tour of Japanese positions in March of 1943. US Navy code-breakers got ahold of his schedule, and a squadron of P-38 Lightning long-range fighters intercepted his flight. Yamamoto’s plane was shot down over the island of Bougainville, and Yamamoto was killed.
The Doolittle raid was of absolutely no tactical significance during the war. The damage to Japan was minimal. The real affect of the raid was purely psychological. It was seen as the first crumblings of Japan’s sense of invincibility, of the inviolability of their home islands. And in America, it was seen as a stunning victory, a sign that we could — and would — avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor and maybe — just maybe — win this war despite the crushing outset.
Admiral Yamamoto was a hero, a legend among the Japanese. He was one of the most revered leaders, second only to the divine and beloved Emperor. His death was such a shock that the Japanese government kept it a secret for a month.
The death of Zarqawi — so public, so irrefutable — could be a great blow to the terrorists in Iraq. For many, he was almost a folk hero, the swaggering, untouchable warrior. To see him snuffed out so casually, over and over and over again in the media, could very well give some pause, and make them reconsider.
The extent of this factor may never be truly known. One of the strengths of the terrorist insurgency in Iraq is its anonymity, of the enemy’s ability to simply fade into the civilian backdrop. The difference between a retired terrorist and an undercover terrorist is almost indistinguishable, until the undercover one decides to return to work. Zarqawi’s killing might convince a few of them to simply disappear back into the quiet civilian life.
On the other hand, those who were most frequently Zarqawi’s victims — the average civilian populace of Iraq — are seeing his death as a cause for celebration. He will no longer kidnap, torture, and behead people at will. He will not plan and order more bombings. Others may succeed him, but “the Prince of Al Qaeda in Iraq” is dead.
Yes, the “Prince” is dead. Others may succeed him, but there will not likely be anyone to take his place. He was a canny exploiter of the media, a master manipulator of the latest forms of public relations. He carefully sculpted his public persona as the mighty Islamic warrior (certain blooper reels notwithstanding), and that image was irreparably shattered (along with Zarqawi himself) by a couple of 500-lb. bombs the other day.
This does not mean that the fighting in Iraq is over. The deaths of seven terrorists is not that much, overall, when the total number of the enemy is taken into account. If anything, it could even lead to a brief surge in attacks, as Zarquawi’s followers desperately try to prove that they are not deterred by his death. But it is, indeed, a great victory.