Break from the past

Jack McKinney

February 06, 1991|By Jack McKinney

NOW THAT we have almost three weeks of war with Iraq behind us, wouldn't this be as good a time as any to declare a moratorium on the invocation of conventional wisdom?

Allied commander Norman Schwarzkopf already has made it emphatically clear that he has no use for such dated war jargon as "carpet bombing" and "body counts." A man who can break with the past as JackMcKinneydecisively as that doesn't figure to get hung up on conventional wisdom, either.

Carpet bombing was something the Air Force started in World War II and carried on through Vietnam. It was another way of saying we couldn't pinpoint strategic targets but if our bombers just dropped enough tonnage, we were bound to hit a lot of

them anyway.

The concept of body counts was introduced during the Vietnam War to keep Lyndon B. Johnson from going any more ape than he already was. No matter how appalling U.S. casualty figures would be for a given engagement, Gen. William Westmoreland could make it easier for LBJ to take by reporting a disproportionately higher number of enemy dead.

Conventional wisdom is harder to define because no one can say precisely where it came from in the first place. Broadly speaking, you could say it's knowledge derived from a body of experience. But more often, it's a catch-all term for analysts to use when they lack hard supporting data.

During the long buildup of Operation Desert Shield, we were told it was conventional wisdom that a ground operation to capture a territory like Kuwait could not be undertaken without a force ratio of three-to-one.

No one ever reflected on how the Israelis managed to fly in the face of that conventional wisdom when they captured territories like the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula without a force ratio of so much as one-to-one.

In the 22 days since Operation Desert Storm was unleashed, conventional wisdom also has been cited to argue that air supremacy alone is not enough to preclude the necessity of a ground offensive.

The way guest experts on television propound that supposedly indisputable verity, you might think air power has been around at least since B.T. Henry designed his lever-action repeating rifle in 1860.

But in fact, if conventional wisdom does derive from a body of experience, it can't possibly allow for the devastation now being inflicted on the forces of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, since the frequency and intensity of allied air strikes on Iraq and Kuwait far exceed anything the world has ever seen.

The so-called "Rolling Thunder" bombing attacks on North Vietnam escalated from 4,000 to 12,000 sorties a month. But Operation Desert Storm topped that optimal monthly figure by over 30,000 sorties in just two weeks!

Besides having such a stupefyingly varied and specialized range of bombs, missiles and rockets at his disposal, Schwarzkopf also has tank-killing Cobra and Apache helicopters to direct against the Iraqis when they're ultimately forced to bring their mobile armor out from bomb-resistant shelters.

Saddam Hussein may have at least 25 of the most modern, self-sustaining, nuke-proof, underground bunkers that German ingenuity could design. But unless the conduct of war is going to be turned over to junior officers and noncoms, most of his command staffers will have to operate from less sheltered redoubts above ground.

In that case, it remains to be seen how much punishment the top brass will take before some enterprising general orders Saddam's super-bunkers to be sealed from the outside and bulldozed under tons of rubble -- prior to negotiating a surrender by literally going over the dictator's head.

Those guest experts can cite conventional wisdom as long as the networks pay them, but a brigadier general named Aharon Levran says an allied victory can be achieved by air supremacy alone -- if the ground forces don't demand to be in on the kill to justify future shares of the defense budget.

Levran knows something about the theater of operations and the character of the enemy.

All of his practical experience has been gained with the Israeli Defense Force, which hasn't been inhibited by conventional wisdom yet.

Jack McKinney is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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