Reality intrudes on rosy visions of quick victory

March 28, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Nobody ever said, and for good reason, that "war is heck." It's a brutal, deadly resort to force, no matter how justified it may be deemed.

Even as the Pentagon low-balls casualties, both U.S. military and Iraqi civilian, television and the press are confirming that the much-heralded "shock and awe" strategy of overwhelming firepower to oust Saddam Hussein has come at a costly human price.

The Bush administration, after floating the notion that Iraqi soldiers and civilians might well greet American troops with open arms, and encouraging them to do so with an aerial bombardment of "surrender" leaflets, is now singing a more sober song.

The president, addressing military families Wednesday at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, scrapped a line in his text declaring the American war effort was "ahead of schedule." He settled for telling his audience that "our military is making good progress in Iraq, yet this war is far from over." While reassuring the crowd that the enemy was "a doomed regime," he said, "We cannot know the duration of this war."

Such remarks are a sharp contrast from the optimistic prewar declaration from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that the Iraqi dictator is "finished" and liberating U.S. and British forces poised to advance on Baghdad might have an easy stroll on the sunny side of the street.

He also speculated that Iraqi military leaders, concluding Mr. Hussein was a dead duck, might toss their weapons and join the welcoming committee. To foster that outcome, he sent them a message via television that they would have heck to pay if they didn't, especially if they ordered the use of chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops.

These projections may yet come to pass in a war that is barely more than a week old. But the administration cannot honestly refute that it sought at the outset to convey the impression that its invasion of Iraq would be a lightning bolt achieving a swift "regime change." Old sports fans with long memories could conjure up the image of Joe Louis charging Max Schmeling, darling of the Nazis, and destroying him in the first round of their rematch in 1938.

The impression was also fueled by the decision to pursue an unanticipated target of opportunity to take the beast of Baghdad out even before the "shock and awe" assault began, with what some clever Pentagon wordsmith labeled a "decapitation" attack. As far as we know, the head of the Iraqi leader continues to sit on his shoulders.

There is little reason to question that, with overwhelming American power, the ultimate outcome will be as Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld have confidently declared. In the meantime, the inevitable results of war - photos of killed and captured Americans and reports of Iraqi civilian casualties, coalition deaths by friendly fire and plans gone awry due to weather or enemy strategy - will take a toll.

The deputy commanding general of the coalition ground command, Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., acknowledged the reality the other day in the midst of a huge sandstorm and shifting Iraqi forces. "The enemy adjusted," he said. "The conditions changed. And we are staying on the balls of our feet," indicating an alertness to the challenge.

More opposition to, or at least skepticism about, the president's decision to invade doubtless will grow in light of a pace of success slower than Americans had been led to expect, especially by Mr. Rumsfeld.

The Pentagon policy of "embedding" reporters with U.S. troops has yielded much information and insight into the war, most of it favorable to the administration. Other sources, however, some of them clearly anti-war, are feeding an impression of early missteps in U.S. planning and strategy.

Accordingly, the administration will be wise to put excessive cheerleading on the shelf and give the American people straightforward assessments of the war's progress, as Commander in Chief Bush now seems to be doing.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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