In the heat of the summer

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From the Publisher/Arnold G. York

The heat this past weekend was unbearable. I can’t remember a Labor Day weekend in Malibu hotter than this one. It got me thinking about our soldiers in Iraq living in the 115-degree summer heat, wearing body armor, inside armored vehicles, which I suspect are not air conditioned, and trying to keep their cool in all of this.

It’s not just our soldiers. It’s also the Iraqi citizens. I can remember really hot summers in New York, late in August, with humidity so high everything you wore stuck to you. Tempers get short, patience wears thin and the murder rate jumps.

You can imagine what it must be like in Baghdad or outside Fallouja in this kind of weather. Everyone must be on a hair trigger.

Just this past weekend a suicide car bomber blew himself up outside Fallouja, which is the center of the Sunni Muslim, pro-Saddam Hussein territory, killing seven U.S. Marines and three Iraqi national guards. The Marines must be enormously disciplined because I’m sure that every natural reaction is to want to go in and level Fallouja, but it also points out the difficulty in fighting a war in a hostile foreign country, during a presidential political campaign, with an American population that is significantly risk-adverse.

Much as we don’t like to think about it, you simply can’t fight a war without American casualties. I suspect we’ve calculated in advance that there is some tolerable level of loss. Now, no politician can ever say that. Imagine an American president standing up and saying that as long as we keep our dead under 1 percent that’s an acceptable level of loss. Go explain that to some mother whose son was just killed. But the concept of an acceptable level of loss-and that’s not really a military term, it’s a political term-also determines our strategy on the ground. It’s the level of loss the American population will accept before it turns against the war-and the president when we go to the polls in November. So, of course, war strategy is impacted.

A few months ago we were talking about invading Fallouja, but now that term has all but disappeared. Why? Because first, it quickly became apparent there was a considerable level of insurgency, which is what we call it now. Now they’re no longer called terrorists, or a handful of disgruntled ex-Saddam people, or outside Arabs from Al Qaeda. We’re beginning to call them what they are-an army, organized, with centralized command even with Hussein gone and still willing to fight.

It quickly became apparent we could not take Fallouja without a significant level of casualties, both theirs and ours. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to take Fallouja. However, to do it we’d have to do it as if this was World War II. Sure we beat Germany and Japan. But what people forget is that we leveled Germany. We firebombed its cities until they were nothing but rubble. We killed a vast number of civilians in the process. We conquered Japan with atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which made it apparent to the Japanese that we were prepared to annihilate their entire population. Kokura and Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo were the next targets, and the Japanese knew it and finally capitulated. Original estimates were that we would suffer 1,000,000 casualties taking the Japanese home islands. Could we achieve that kind of victory today? Could we really defeat the Iraqis to the extent that we could totally impose our will on them? I doubt it, unless we are prepared to carpet bomb Fallouja and a dozen other cities like it. You can imagine the world reaction if we did.

So, effectively, I suspect, we have tied our military hands until after the election, to keep it on as low a level as possible, without, of course, appearing wimpy.

The new strategy appears to be to contain Hussein’s old supporters in certain areas in the triangle. To sort of, pardon the analogy, throw an Iron Curtain around them and contain them.

The ultimate solution obviously has to be a political one, but it appears now the only way that will work is if we can take the Sunni out of the process, which is what I think we’re planning on doing. At the same time we have to keep cleric Muqtada Sadr supporters under control, but that seems more doable because they appear to be more of a political movement. I suspect they can’t bring Saddam’s old cronies into the political process, and we might not want to. Will we pull it off? Will there be an election, a new government that most people accept, enough of an Iraqi Army that we can ultimately pull out? I suspect not for several years. In the interim, we’re going to spend a fortune, and a significant part of our future, in a war about which I am beginning to have more and more doubts.