WASHINGTON. — This war was less than four hours old when somebody reported on television that Allied air attacks had ''destroyed'' the Iraqi air force and the Republican Guard, the hard core of Saddam Hussein's army.
It was understandable that those first hours produced rumors that were passed on as news, because officials in Washington and on the scene were offering no specifics at all. It was inevitable that with so many reporters who have so little military experience, some of their reports would be totally unrealistic.
The bulletins about destroying the Iraqi air force and the Republican Guard were in that category. Nobody at the Pentagon or in Saudi Arabia was making those claims. Wiping out a widely dispersed armada of hundreds of aircraft, doing away with a six-division ground command deployed in the desert in one night are dreams, not realities. When those reports circulated, no damage estimates at all were available. Wisely, after being launched those stories were left to fade away.
But that one extreme example illustrates the absurdity of the euphoria that so often blossoms when battle begins. History is full of incidents teaching that lesson, but it has to be learned over again and again, by each generation in each war.
Over-optimism is a specialty of the world's air warriors. People flying above the battle, eager to drop their load and get home, are prone to report much more damage than they have actually wrought. Their habit is to assume that their bombs struck their targets, and everything went as planned.
In our last war, the United States committed what was then high-tech weaponry against the most primitive enemy facilities, and took the results seriously. I went along on a number of such missions over South Vietnam, where the bombing and strafing was easy, compared to that above Hanoi and Haiphong. One against suspected Viet Cong emplacements near Tay Ninh, along the Cambodian border, was typical.
Four F-100 fighter jets flew the mission, guided by an air controller in a light plane below. The target was a treeline beside a dirt road. We swooped in, dropped cans of napalm, then pulled up above the treetops. Around we went, then in again to drop 500-pound high explosive bombs. On our third and fourth passes, we strafed with 20-mm cannon. As we headed back to Tansonnhut airfield, the controller credited the flight with ''destroying three foxholes and covering 35 percent of the target area.''
What it cost to destroy those three foxholes, whether any Viet Cong were in them or anywhere nearby, I cannot say and the pilots could not say. But they chalked up their mission as a success.
That happened hundreds of times in Vietnam. In World War II, U.S. Flying Fortresses took devastating losses in daylight raids against Germany, yet after the war, the Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that they had done much less damage than estimated to Hitler's war industry.
Marines and soldiers on Pacific atolls laughed bitterly at Air Force reports of how bombing had destroyed Japanese defenses. Repeatedly, high-flying bombers missed not only specific targets, but entire islands. I hasten to add that many fighter pilots worked so closely and effectively with infantry that they were riddled by small-arms fire, in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Since Vietnam air tactics and weapons have improved dramatically, enabling pinpoint bombing in the dark. Guided bombs and cruise missiles have entered the picture. Thus reports of unprecedented accuracy and minimal losses against Iraq are not necessarily fantastic. But to assume such early successes mean quick and painless victory is a mistake. To their credit, some journalists and officials made this point in the early going.
Cable News Network's trio of reporters in a Baghdad hotel wiped out their TV competition by staying on the air with eyewitness descriptions as bombing went on around them. But all three were not equally restrained. When Bernard Shaw, looking out into the darkness, said these were surgical strikes that spared civilian targets, his colleague Peter Arnett, who covered the Vietnam war for 10 years, cautioned him to wait till daylight to make such assessments.
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, after hearing some of the initial reports, prudently cautioned reporters to be careful about claiming victory or making assumptions about casualties. Time will prove how right he was.
Premature euphoria is not a modern phenomenon. Long before airplanes, Union Gen. Joe Hooker moved his huge, splendidly equipped army across the Rappahannock onto Robert E. Lee's flank before the battle of Chancellorsville. ''The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac!'' Hooker crowed. ''God have mercy on General Lee, for I shall have none.''
I sincerely hope I am as wrong in my skepticism as Hooker was in his optimism.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.