Progress? Open to interpretation

Perspective: How war is going depends on who is asked, who believed.

March 29, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUWAIT CITY - The war yesterday: good for American and British forces, who pummeled important military targets in Iraq while sparing civilians, - only it was a bad day, because their claims of success were lies, or so Iraq insisted.

Bad day for Saddam Hussein, because many of his soldiers were killed and his troops had to shoot their own people to keep them from fleeing Basra, according to journalists at the scene.

But the Iraqi government said otherwise - that there were no significant military casualties and that there were no problems in Basra because people there love Hussein.

The Pentagon? Officials there pronounced themselves satisfied by developments because the war is going just as planned - no surprises - only their claim was said to be untrue not by the Iraqis but by British military officers. And by a U.S. general in the field.

The contradictions are not born of the cliche of "the fog of war."

How the war in Iraq went yesterday, how it has gone so far, is shaped by the officials who package the information about it and to what extent they are believed.

And, most of all, it depends on what piece of the battlefield mosaic is being examined, the whole of Iraq being the battlefield.

For some people yesterday, the country was actually a relatively peaceful place. For others it was a place to die, which meant for still others it was a place to mourn.

As for the overall war, the only clear conclusion that could be drawn yesterday was known long ago but was reinforced by new pictures of dead troops on both sides of the conflict and video of wounded Iraqi civilians: War is not only chilling but is also profoundly, unflinchingly brutal.

`Frightened to death'

Other than that, most of the war, now in its second week, is open to interpretation and arguments about whether it is being fought correctly and whether the fight is worth it at all.

"I am frightened to death by what we've gotten ourselves into," said Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's Army in London. "We do not have enough troops on the ground, and for that reason we could be looking at disaster."

But said Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies: "I guess I would say it's going reasonably well, given that there's always a divergence from plans when you undertake military operations. It's the so-called inevitable friction, and the Americans are making the proper adjustments."

That Iraqi officials and those from the United States are sizing up the battles with different conclusions is no surprise.

Differences of opinion

But while Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was telling reporters in Washington that the war was going precisely as planned, British officers in Kuwait were acknowledging that Iraqi forces were putting up more resistance than expected and that capturing southern cities was taking longer than expected - and costing more lives.

When Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks spoke to reporters yesterday in Qatar and denied that Central Command had underestimated Iraq's fighting ability, sitting on the front pages of American newspapers were comments from the Army's senior ground commander in Iraq, who said that unexpected tactics by Iraqi fighters and stretched supply lines were slowing the campaign.

"The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against because of these paramilitary forces," said the commander, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace of V Corps.

"We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight."

Matter of perspective

The differing views could be explained by where each man sits.

From the perspective of Brooks, in Qatar with maps that show coalition forces have reached within 50 miles of Baghdad in just over a week, the war, overall, might well be going according to plan.

For Wallace, who spoke from a forward operating base in Iraq, the view is obviously much different.

His soldiers have been killed. He has had to divert some of his combat force to protect a 250-mile supply line from Kuwait because it has come under sporadic attacks from Iraq's "irregular" army, the fedayeen.

More coalition troops have been killed along and around these supply lines than have been killed in battles for the cities of Basra and Nasiriyah.

Those assessments aside, no part of the war yesterday was good, just bad in different ways and to different degrees.

The worst of it: maybe that 60 or so people were killed, and while each of the dead is probably known to somebody, nobody knows the identities of all of them, because this is a war.

Tanks and ships

The war meant little more than a nervous ride aboard a tank for some, an easy day compared with the ferocity that bore down on others, killing troops and civilians and surely a fair amount of hope.

And yesterday military people on a ship had to get through a memorial service, had to face the task of talking about the qualities of some of their friends in the past tense because the young men who possessed those qualities are now dead.

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