Should the U.S. Announce Bomb Targets in Advance? WAR IN THE GULF

February 17, 1991|By CHARLES W. CORDDRY

WASHINGTON — Washington.--A SEEMING PEACE FEELER from Iraq quickly evaporated at the weekend, dismissed by President Bush as a "cruel hoax" and by British Prime Minister John Major as a "sham." There would therefore be no let-up in the air war.

But there might be some changes in the way it was conducted in order to spare civilians as much as possible, and to go on with preparations for a ground offensive if necessary.

The U.S. military command in Saudi Arabia said it might begin sending Iraq advance notice of the targets it intended to bomb. Indicating contempt for Baghdad's air defenses, the move would be designed ostensibly to reduce civilian casualties and avoid uproars like that caused by bombing a reinforced bunker last Wednesday.

For a military command as obsessed with secrecy, and news management, as this one, the dispatch of target lists to the enemy might seem bizarre. War -- not to put too fine a point on it -- is deadly serious business. Commanders ordinarily go to great lengths not to telegraph their plans when sending soldiers in harm's way.

And civilians do get killed.

But if Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf now decides to alert Saddam Hussein to the next days' bombing targets, there is historical precedent for it. And there would not be unalloyed advantages ** for the Iraqi president; quite the contrary.

In mid-March 1945, five months before Japan's unconditional surrender in World War II, the fire-bombing of Japanese cities had become the primary aim in the bombing campaign. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, who already had removed defensive guns from his B-29s in order to increase their bomb loads, began calling his shots in advance.

"To accelerate the disruption of Japanese life, American bombers began dropping leaflets listing cities likely to be destroyed 'in the next few days,' " military historian Russell F. Weigley recounted in "The American Way of War."

Japan's air defenses were then as feeble as Iraq's appear to have been throughout the Persian Gulf war. The object of announcing targets was not then, nor would it be now, entirely humanitarian, though the United States clearly has suffered a propaganda blow in the present case and hopes to avoid repetition if it can.

What happened in Japan -- where cities, rather than specific targets within cities, were being bombed -- was monumental casualties and disruption.

"Thousands fled their homes," Mr. Weigley wrote, "dislocating war industry more than the [Royal Air Force] terror bombing of Germany had ever done, swelling the ranks of an eventual eight and a half million refugees of the American aerial campaign and spreading fear throughout the land."

Washington endorsed the campaign in the hope that Japan could be forced to surrender without invasion -- which it did in August, after two atomic bombs were used, though General LeMay was convinced it would have had to do so anyway by October.

Historians and strategists will point to great differences between the no-holds-barred air war against Japan and Germany and the fine-tuned campaign over Iraq.

Recollection of the earlier war's carnage and of others that followed should put in better perspective the enormous effort of the allied air force to hold down civilian casualties in attacks on Iraq. Apart from B-52 bombing of Iraqi military formations, most of the strikes have been with high-tech weapons of great precision.

But a decision now to announce specific targets in advance -- and maybe to threaten others with possible attack -- could cause similar disruptions to those that Japan suffered as populations fled.

Iraq claimed the fortified bunker blasted by a precision-guided, penetrating bomb Wednesday was a civilian shelter. The United States asserted that it was a command and control center, sending directions to military forces in Kuwait.

Whatever it was, it would not have been easy to herd 500 civilians into it if the allies had announced that it would be targeted in the next few days.

In deciding how to continue holding down civilian casualties, allied strategists will have to weigh the advantages of such measures as announcing targets against the possible disadvantages of facing remaining Iraqi anti-aircraft weapons, and the continued use by Mr. Hussein of cover and deception.

Brig. Gen. Richard Neal, the U.S. command spokesman in Saudi Arabia, said advance listing of targets was "one of many options that we're exploring and we continue to explore."

He said at Thursday's press briefing: "Obviously we're not fighting the Iraqi people, and any option that we can pursue that might lessen any civilian casualties or collateral damage, we're going to pursue that aggressively."

The administration here nonetheless declared that it would retain its right to hit military targets even if Mr. Hussein deploys such targets among civilians or vice versa.

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