Lessons from Grozny, Belfast


April 10, 2003|By Seamus Martin | Seamus Martin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Seamus Martin, former Moscow correspondent and international editor of The Irish Times, has reported on conflicts throughout the world, including those in Chechnya and Northern Ireland. He considers what lessons they offer for the war in Iraq, where by yesterday uniformed forces of the regime had disappeared and U.S.-led forces were entering an unpredictable civilian environment.

There is no harm in euphoria provided it does not last too long. The victory should be celebrated but this should be done with an eye to the future. The euphoric looters in Baghdad will soon need to be subjected to law and order, and it is the victorious U.S. forces - in the absence of any other power structures - who will have to do so.

That no-man's-land between conventional warfare and occupation by a conquering army has now been entered, and this could lead to a situation more dangerous than the war itself. The prime example of the peace being as dangerous as the war has been the Russian experience in Chechnya, but lessons can also be learned from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the three decades of strife in Northern Ireland.

The town of Pskov (population 197,000) in northwestern Russia has a memorial for its sons killed in recent wars. It takes a similar form to that of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington but since it commemorates only soldiers from the local regiments it is considerably smaller that its U.S. counterpart.

At one time the names of those killed in Afghanistan, Russia's Vietnam, dominated the wall, which is set in a small park just outside the town center. Nowadays, however, the names of those who have lost their lives in Chechnya outnumber those of the Afghan dead.

The most dramatic addition to the number of Pskov's Chechen casualties occurred in February 2000, when 110 young men had lost their lives in a single week. At a memorial service on March 14, 2000, in the town's Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Russia's defense minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, was a chastened man. The soldiers from Pskov lost their lives after the marshal had declared the war to have ended in victory. Today, three years later, Russian soldiers are dying in Chechnya.

In that second Chechen war, the Russian forces had acted as quickly and decisively as the coalition armies did in Iraq. They had taken a leaf out of NATO's book by copying the air campaign of the Kosovo conflict. Conventional victory was rapidly achieved in a short, sharp operation.

The peace, however, has been a bloody one. It has shown clearly that victory in war is not always followed by unconditional surrender and instant peace. There can merely be a decrease in the level of hostilities, an abandonment of the tank and the artillery shell for the car bomb and the sniper's rifle.

In Iraq the United States has waged war in a manner that has been strikingly successful, the conventional victory is now at hand and the struggle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis is about to begin. There are signs that those hearts and minds are there for the winning, but mistakes can be made and early judgments are not always as accurate as they should be.

Hussein's hold

Saddam Hussein's torturing and killings have been abominable. Josef Stalin did even worse in the Soviet Union, yet when he died 50 years ago last month ordinary Russians, and some extraordinary Russians too, thronged the streets of Moscow to demonstrate their genuine grief. Among them was Andrei Sakharov, later to become a Nobel Laureate for his campaign for human rights within the U.S.S.R. He described the scene as follows: "People roamed the streets distraught and confused, with funeral music in the background."

Sakharov, much to his embarrassment in later years, was as emotional as anyone and cried bitterly. In a letter written at the time he wrote: "I am under the influence of a great man's death. I am thinking of his humanity." His words are a testimony to the amazing hold Stalin had over the Soviet people despite the reign of terror he waged upon them.

That hold was achieved through exposure to constant propaganda. It is reasonable to expect that Hussein's propaganda has been effective in certain quarters and that the aftermath of victory could yet descend into what has become categorized as Low Intensity Conflict.

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