Still good advice: No land war in Asia

Paul Greenberg

December 28, 1990|By Paul Greenberg

AT THIS POINT, American military strategy in the Persian Gulf is about as clear as a sandstorm:

Retired generals and admirals sound more like chief executive officers of corporations fighting a hostile take-over as they give their businesslike advice to congressional committees.

L The commander-in-chief seems as undecided as he probably is.

Newspaper pundits fight wars and make peace to their own immense satisfaction in bloodless prose.

Former presidential advisers fight old battles in the new context of Iraq and Kuwait.

Armchair strategists are plentiful, volunteers few. Great campaigns are fought in the abstract but in the desert, it's still sitzkrieg.

American generals do more talking than fighting, often to their own detriment.

In short, the strategic situation is decidedly normal, that is, all fouled up.

The vocabulary in which this debate is being conducted is so high-tech, and the participants so sophisticated, and the speculation so thick, that the simplest, surest guide from the past is being overlooked:

No land war in Asia.

And Iraq is in Asia. The maps all say so. It's a location to remember.

Here we have as illustrious a galaxy of commanders, politicians, commentators, think tanks, senators, barroom Napoleons, kibitzers and military correspondents as ever replayed the battle of Gettysburg on a dining room table . . . and not a one repeats the simple phrase that represents the ultimate condensation of what should have been learned from Korea, and then Vietnam:

No land war in Asia.

Oblivious, strategic planners prepare to wage one. At last count, some 300,000 American troops were being assembled in the deserts of Araby along with a patchwork of allied forces. The early talk of devastating air strikes against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq has given way to plans for the invasion and conquest only of Kuwait. Some speak of a 15 percent casualty rate. The term "body bags" becomes a staple of American political rhetoric. The commander of the largest American expeditionary force since D-Day warns that, if the objective is to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, "it's going to take time and it's going to be bloody." Somebody somewhere in all this great array of talent, leadership and calculation needs to remember what was once the simple, conventional wisdom:

No land war in Asia.

A land war is just what Saddam Hussein is prepared to fight. Didn't he just win one against Iran? Iraq's military force is the sixth largest in the world -- not counting the reserves now being mobilized. It is being deployed in standard, Soviet-style defensive formations designed to lure the attacker into a series of killing fields. American planners talk of the war taking weeks, months . . . and resulting in tens of thousands of casualties. It sounds a lot like a land war in Asia.

Who needs it?

Have the Western powers spent all these years, not to mention resources, building the most devastating weapons of mass destruction in order to start sacrificing GIs again? Why send a single American or allied soldier into combat without destroying Saddam Hussein's capacity to make war? Why should American men -- and women -- pay the price for Saddam Hussein's aggression? Let his army, his regime, his economy and his country pay.

The object of war, as American generals used to know, is not to die for one's country but to make the other fellow die for his. Now, instead of Shermans and Pattons and MacArthurs, we seem to produce managers in uniform who seem at home with ideas like protracted conflict, rules of engagement, graduated escalation . . . and all the other euphemisms for a land war in Asia.

Saddam Hussein knows us much too well. He is playing on our divisions and for time. Let's stop playing his game. The Iraqi strongman talks tough but he might grow sweetly reasonable in no time if, one after the other, military and strategic targets in Iraq started disappearing.

There is no lack of firepower available to assure swift and certain victory in the Persian Gulf, but where is the willpower? That is the key ingredient.

"It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it." -- Douglas MacArthur in July of 1952.

"If we are together nothing is impossible. If we are divided all will fail." -- Winston Churchill in September of 1943.

Where is today's Churchill? George Bush is more of a corporate cheerleader for an unwieldy coalition, and Maggie Thatcher is out of office. The counsel of bitter experience goes unheard:

No land war in Asia.

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