Broadband and Abu Ghraib

October 18, 2004

THE WAR in Iraq in the spring of 2003 was supposed to be a showcase for the new computerized wireless real-time American military, and it halfway worked. Information poured into the commanders at their computer screens as never before, but dust storms, sand dunes, topography and the sort of computer clog-ups all of us are accustomed to disrupted the outward flow of orders and data to units in the field. The front-line troops had to fight (very successfully, as it turned out) the old-fashioned way: Make contact with the enemy, and start shooting.

A new, mostly classified study by the Rand Corporation, as reported in MIT's Technology Review, suggests that there's still a ways to go before the art of war is completely reduced to a matter of gigabytes. It describes one unit that had to come to a halt every time the commander wanted to download e-mail from headquarters, and every time it halted the Iraqis attacked it.

Such problems, however, seem eminently surmountable, given enough time (and dollars). A true broadband army could be light on its feet, deadly but small, unencumbered by heavy equipment - just what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been talking about for three years now.

There is one drawback. However effective such an army might be against another army in the field, once the conflict shifts to an insurgency, all that high-tech gear becomes next to superfluous. Computers couldn't stop the looters who swarmed over Baghdad once the Americans got there last year, and they can't stop the men who are beheading kidnap victims this year. They can't stop roadside bombs or car bombs or cafM-i bombs.

That's why the United States still has 138,000 troops in Iraq, why National Guard and Reserve deployments are being extended, why stop-loss orders are being issued to keep soldiers from leaving the service, why back home people are worrying about the need for a draft. That's why Brig. Gen. Oscar B. Hilman told The Sun's Tom Bowman that he needed another 500 to 700 troops to secure the perimeter of a base dubbed "Mortaritaville;" he won't, by the way, be getting them, despite President Bush's assertion that he will supply as many troops as his generals say they need.

An overstretched and undersupplied military, dealing with an insurgency that refuses to be pinned down, begins with digitized warfare and ends up with torture and humiliation at a prison called Abu Ghraib. Computers couldn't do anything to stop that, either.

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