Imagining the horror of war

Dan Rodricks

February 01, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Listening to the radio, late in the night, I hear the voice of a man report that B-52s have been dropping bombs on columns of Iraqi tanks in the desert of Kuwait. I don't hear the bombs, of course. I don't see them, either. I can only imagine them.

Like most of my fellow citizens at home, I can only imagine what the B-52s do to those Iraqi soldiers in or near those tanks and armored personnel carriers on the ground. Somewhere in my head, in that special place reserved now for snapshots of the Persian Gulf war -- along with Israeli children in gas masks and U.S. troops in desert camouflage -- I can see file video of a B-52 demonstrating its power. I've seen it on TV several times.

The B-52 slices through the pale blue Arabian sky, looking, at first glance, like a dark and oversized passenger jet. Then, it releases bombs, which appear on the TV screen as a descending row of small oblong objects. They seem to wobble and drift to earth, as if a crosswind were slowing them down. Then, one by one, as the bombs reach the sand, the tan desert explodes in jagged plumes of gray smoke, each with a fireball at its center. The explosions appear to freeze for a moment in time, forming a hedge of dark smoke across the dunes.

From this distant and safe vantage -- watching a telecast of a videotape of a demonstration made, I'm sure, miles away from the blast zone -- the power of the B-52 is still ungraspable. Especially in the vast, naked plateau of the desert. On the TV set, there is no scale, no tiny diagram of a tank or human being to indicate how large and awesome these bombings really are. The experts tell us about the miles-long swath of destruction B-52 carpet-bombing can create. The commander of allied forces in the gulf gives us a running tally of the hundreds of tons of bombs the B-52s have dropped in the last two weeks. But all that, even when enhanced by file video, can't create a true appreciation of the killing force of the B-52s.

I guess you have to be there.

But we are not there. So we are left to our home-front imagings.

For two weeks now, we've been hearing about the carpet bombings of the elite Iraqi troops at the Kuwait-Iraq border. How many of them can be left? In 1916, the British hammered German trenches with 1.5 million shells fired from more than 1,500 guns for a solid week before the battle of the Somme. When the shelling stopped and the British troops swarmed out of their trenches along a 13-mile front, they faced a horizontal hail of machine-gun fire from Germans who had survived the artillery barrage in deep dugouts. Sixty thousands British soldiers were killed or wounded on the first day of battle.

How deep can the Iraqi troops have dug themselves in since August? Deep enough to survive the saturation bombings of the B-52s? Most experts doubt it.

The Pentagon tells us that the Iraqi air force has been unable to protect them. The few times Iraqi planes have come to the south toward Saudi Arabia and the gulf, they have been knocked out of the sky. More than 80 Iraqi planes have passed up combat for one-way flights to Iran. The B-52s usually fly so high they cannot be seen. The Iraqis have been unable to reach them with missiles. The Pentagon says only 20 percent of Iraq's air-defense radar remains intact.

All of which indicates that the B-52s have free access to Saddam Hussein's troops in the desert. The only protection, the experts say, is in dispersal across the vast sands of Iraq and Kuwait. To form a column of any kind would seem, from this vantage, suicidal.

But that's what the man on the radio reported late last night. Iraqis were forming columns for attacks and the B-52s were bombing them. One imagines the highly trained airmen inside a B-52 using their computers to navigate the bomber directly over a line of Iraqi armor and troops. One imagines the bombs being released in that neat, descending row, then exploding furiously in rapid succession, mangling machinery, killing everything within hundreds of yards to either side.

It seems so simple, so precise, so quick and conclusive. For the Iraqis to assemble anywhere in significant numbers under skies ruled by the B-52s must be insanity. "They have no protection," retired Army Col. Art Blair, a defense analyst at Texas A&M, said flatly the other night.

If all that is true, with the multinational force in control of the skies, with the skies wide open to B-52s, then Saddam Hussein could be sending thousands upon thousands of his men to their deaths by assembling them for attacks into Saudi Arabia. How many will die in this war for the liberation of Kuwait? We can only imagine.

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