A few random thoughts about the war in Iraq, and warfare in general

With the announcement that President Bush had met with the on-the-ground commanders in Iraq and discussed changing tactics, a lot of people immediately leaped on it as a concession that Bush had, finally, started to “come to his senses” on the Iraq campaign in the war on terror.

That was fairly amusing. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with military thought (and I come pretty darn close to having that passing acquaintance) heard the news and shrugged. It was worth maybe a casual “BFD” at best.

As I understand it, there are three levels of planning in the military: objectives, strategies, and tactics. Objectives describe what we wish to do. Strategies describe how we will do that. And tactics are what we will do.

In Iraq, as I think it goes, the objective was to remove the Baathist government from power, help the Iraqi people establish a new, freer government, and work to make sure that new government was not the threat to its neighbors and vital US interests that Saddam had been.

The strategy was to invade Iraq, defeat and disband the military, and then establish a new civil and military structure that could maintain its own security without threatening others’.

The tactics involve careful use of airpower and ground power against select locales, groups, and individuals; establishment of civilian institutions and governing bodies; national elections; and rebuilding of key elements of Iraq’s infrastructure.

There is an old saying that no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, and it is true. It is true in a way that almost never translates into non-military matters, because only in actual warfare is there a real enemy determined to foil your plans, to the point of being more than willing to destroy, kill, or die in the attempt.

With that in mind, sticking to a set of tactics is stupid. The enemy will eventually figure out a way to counter them. Tactics need constant re-evaluation and revision, sometimes even need to be tossed out entirely as circumstances change. That is the normal way of things, and has virtually nothing to do with changing strategies or goals.

There are many ways of winning a war. Originally, it was simple: kill enough of your enemy that they simply can not fight any more. As warfare grew more technologically advanced, a second way developed: destroy your enemy’s ability to fight. This was used most successfully in World War II, where wholesale attacks on the enemy’s industrial base was done with great success against Germany and Japan. The mass bombing raids on Germany, along with the near-total destruction of Japan’s merchant marine, starved both Axis powers of their ability to sustain their war machinery.

Then, in Viet Nam, a third way of winning arose: destroy your enemy’s will to fight. The North Vietnamese knew they could never defeat the US in a face-to-face battle; every time they tried, they lost and lost decisively. They had no chance of attacking our ability to wage war; our industrial base was thousands of miles out of their reach. So they, instead, attacked our resolve. That was a key factor that led to our eventual withdrawal from Viet Nam, followed shortly thereafter by the abrogation of the peace treaty and the final conquest of the South.

For literally years, the opponents of the Iraq war have tried to force it into the Viet Nam pigeonhole, drawing as many parallels as they possibly can. And now it seems that our enemies have decided to give it a whirl themselves.

The latest is the upsurge in attacks in Iraq against civilians and US forces. And it illustrates precisely why I think that setting deadlines is a bad idea.

Like it or not, there is a deadline rapidly approaching. The midterm elections in the United States are less than two weeks away. And for better or ill, the war in Iraq is a major issue. In fact, many are trying to make these elections a de facto referendum on the war.

With that in mind, the terrorists, insurgents, Baathist holdovers, and other enemies of ours are employing a new tactic. They are escalating their attacks as much as they can, causing as much carnage and destruction as they can, to keep the violence on the front pages and in the lead stories in the media. They want the American voters to think of nothing but the daily bloodshed in Iraq.

I don’t have any kind of inside information, but I’d be willing to bet that their efforts are unsustainable. I don’t believe they have the manpower, the resources, the munitions to keep up these attacks for very long.

But that’s all right. Much like the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam turned out, it’s not expected to be a battlefield victory. It’s aimed at the support for the war, not the actual combatants.

And it perfectly illustrates precisely why I think setting a timeline for our withdrawal from Iraq. The enemy currently knows that it can’t sustain its current efforts. They are spending their resources far faster than they can replenish them. But they believe they don’t need to sustain them, just hang on until November 7. They think that if they can kill enough American troops before the elections, enough American voters will give their support for anti-war candidates and will help them achieve THEIR goal — the driving out of Americans from Iraq. Their bullets are aimed at our ballots.

Will it work? I don’t know. The Democrats are trying desperately to make the war the main issue in the elections, but we simply never have national elections and national referendums. During presidential years, we have 51 different elections for the presidency. And this year is even more fragmented — we have 33 states holding elections for the Senate (I finally looked it up) and 435 districts in all 50 states choosing Representatives.

In my case, my “voice” in this “national referendum” is whether to vote for my current representative, Jeb Bradley (R), or his opponent, Carol Shea-Porter (D). As Shea-Porter’s main issue is the war in Iraq, calling for exactly the kind of timetable I just spent considerable effort deriding, I’ll most likely vote for Bradley again. Or I might just toss my vote towards the Libertarian candidate, Dan Belforti — it depends on how the polls look closer to election day. I’m not too thrilled with Bradley, but the thought of letting Shea-Porter win is just too repugnant.

But I’ll be damned if I’ll let the guys who are killing American troops and slaughtering Iraqi civilians sway my choice and vote the way that they want.

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