WASHINGTON. — Baghdad's assertion that an allied prisoner of war was killed in an air raid will fuel anti-war protests and concern all Americans. That is a weakness on our part.
The display of captured airmen on Iraqi television -- their faces battered, their voices strained, their words forced -- has done as much as anything so far to determine Americans to carry through this war.
Dumping of millions of barrels of oil into the gulf is described as an act of massive eco-terrorism, which Saddam Hussein probably takes as a compliment. It may even turn around some protesters who happen also to be environmentalists, persuading them that Mr. Hussein is their kind of enemy.
He is trying to discourage allied public opinion by making war visible and unacceptably cruel. Up to now, that has backfired, because by focusing on individual faces he emphasizes the human-rights aspects of this war, rather than crasser objectives like oil for Japan.
But in the long run, his propaganda will continue to concentrate on individual victims, because that jabs at America's emotions. The more U.S. servicemen in captivity are thought of as men with faces, as husbands, fathers, sons, the greater their usefulness to Mr. Hussein as a weapon of psychological war.
In this country, most of us take pride in treating our servicemen as human beings rather than automatons and statistics of war. Indeed, we are proud that we treat enemy prisoners as we would like our own troops to be handled in captivity.
We also go to great lengths to find and bring home our own when fighting is over.
In the Korean war, negotiations over POWs dragged out the fighting for many months.
Sixteen years after the war in Vietnam ended, we are still searching Southeast Asian jungles for their remains, still tracking down rumors that a few are alive in former enemy hands. More than anything else, that issue prevents normalization of U.S. relations with the government of Vietnam.
While this concern is an admirable American trait, in war it is a weakness.
It provides the enemy with a pressure point, a vulnerable spot he knows he can exploit as the war slogs on and casualties mount -- or if he should decide eventually to try negotiating an end to the fighting. He knows U.S. public opinion will respond to whatever he does with those prisoners.
True, to date he has miscalculated in his use of them. Displaying bruised fliers on television arouses anger. Threatening to spot those prisoners at military targets to deter attacks does the same thing. Reporting that one of them has been killed in that process is unconvincing, so far.
The first Iraqi report that this had happened did not offer the
dead airman's name, country, rank, unit or serial number.
Pointing this out, of course, enables the Iraqis to remedy their error by filling in those blanks -- perhaps even by providing a body for the camera. A ruler with demonstrated disregard for the lives of his own citizens surely would not hesitate at murdering a captive for display purposes.
We must assume, however, that the Iraqis will learn as they go along how to play this game more successfully against their Western opponents. Putting mistreated fliers on TV may have won Mr. Hussein points among the Arab masses elsewhere who have been brainwashed into thinking all non-Arabs are agents of Satan. If he is aiming his propaganda at the West, he must and surely will become less heavy-handed.
Americans must expect this, and see it for what it is. Mr. Hussein succeeds if we let the publicized fate of a few brave prisoners outweigh the aims for which the president took us into war, or the lives of thousands of anonymous soldiers whose names and faces never make it onto enemy television.
One of the wiser aspects of Mr. Bush's pre-combat handling of the Gulf confrontation was his refusal to wax hysterical over the hostages held by Iraq. Seeing that holding them was not paying off, Mr. Hussein let them go. He will not do this with prisoners of war, but the less hysteria about them here, the less he is tempted to taunt us with them.
If, as Time magazine's latest poll reports, 93 percent of Americans support the goal of forcing Iraq out of Kuwait, and 92 percent support removing Saddam Hussein from power, at least that many must face the fact that doing it will be messy.
In war, it is foolish to let anguish over a few prisoners, or a few hundred or thousand, overrule cold calculation about winning.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.