U.S. coming to a difficult moment of truth

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    From the Publisher/ Arnold G. York

    I was going to try and write about something else this week. Perhaps the Oscars or even the Planning Department, but it’s impossible. Ignoring the war is like trying to ignore an elephant standing in your living room. It can’t be done.

    As I write this our armies are approaching someplace referred to in the press as the strategic Karbala Gap, which I take it is a mountain pass 60 miles south of Baghdad. There is something very biblical about this war. I imagine that for hundreds, if not thousands of years, armies have come up this valley to invade Baghdad. On one side of the valley is the Tigris River and on the other, the Euphrates River. I can remember first learning about the area as the place where many thought civilization had begun, even perhaps as the site of the Garden of Eden. And here we are following in these well-worn paths, making our way to Baghdad.

    It began like a TV war movie, almost indistinguishable from many we’ve all seen. The tanks and armed cars roaring north like Lawrence of Arabia. A flag raising like Iwo Jima. Night bombing of Baghdad, ack ack, buildings exploding, and our men and women safely back to their carriers-as we’ve seen in countless movies. But at some point, war stops being a movie and becomes real, and real people start dying. That’s where we are now.

    It’s difficult with all the PR being put out to figure out what’s real and what’s not. Like some, I’m obsessed, so I’ve spent the week glued to a TV screen or reading everything I can get my hands on.

    It looks to me like our armies have moved north fairly quickly against, despite all the drama, relatively light resistance. The Iraqis are not stupid and learned their lesson in the last war. They knew that in the open desert without any air cover they were sitting ducks, so they are determined not to be caught in the open again. That, I believe, led to their decision to defend only the cities, and our decision to bypass the southern cities on the way north and leave the enemy troops behind us. It posed a danger in that we exposed our rear and our supply lines, but in order to really hurt us, they would have to come out of the cities and thereby expose themselves to our air supremacy.

    We hear reports of Iraqi irregulars coming out in plain clothes and ambushing troops but it’s on a relatively small scale and hasn’t really slowed us down.

    The thing that is going to be most difficult for us to understand is what the Pentagon never talks about, and that is what they consider an acceptable level of loss. Every decision Pentagon officials make is going to cost some number of young men and women their lives. Every business has its numbers, and I would bet the military business has its numbers also. They probably anticipate they will lose a certain number of people for every mile they have to travel, and for every battle they have to fight. If they have to attack a fixed position against an entrenched enemy, it will probably cost more. And the costs are weighed. It’s necessary for generals to think that way.

    The difficulty for us at home is that those calculations produce casualties that have names and faces, and grieving families we see in living color. There also are going to be more prisoners paraded on television.

    Soon we’re going to be at Baghdad. We could surround it and just wait. Armies have sieged cities for centuries. I’d guess that Baghdad has been sieged before. You cut off its water and its power, and you starve the enemy out until you come to terms and they surrender. But in today’s global world of instant communication, that could never be done. Just imagine Al Jazeera doing TV interviews with starving children. So the pace of modern life will push us into action and we must attack.

    The Iraqis have a plan also. They know they can’t beat us militarily. But they can force us to attack, and attack brutally. If we don’t attack brutally, we can expect heavy losses of our people. But if we do, the world is treated to a vision of American force being used against soldiers, but also unarmed civilians who are going to be in the center of the mix. They’re counting on our inability to withstand the rioting and protesting that probably will intensify all over the world.

    We can still hope that the Iraqis will overthrow Saddam but I wouldn’t count on it. Saddam really hasn’t shown himself since the beginning when we bombed his home. All we’ve seen are tapes and none are specific enough that you could definitely say he’s alive and well. But it proves that Saddam’s government is more than Saddam. There is obviously a minority, but significant, support for him. And that will probably grow. Countries that are attacked close ranks behind their leader. We have, and there is no reason to believe the Iraqis won’t also.

    Very shortly, when we’ve surrounded Baghdad, President Bush is going to have to make a very hard decision to pour it on. The world will scream and protest, and it will be his, and our, moment of truth. This is not a war we can afford to lose, but unless we get lucky, I suspect it’s going to be ugly and difficult for all of us.