No sensible pundit makes predictions at the best of times — April Fools’ Day is certainly not the best of times. But the current elite media epidemic of doubt and defeatism about the course of the war in Iraq sorely tempts me to stick out my neck and state firmly that Iraqi resistance will soon crack — and crack so completely that, as at the fall of Kabul, we will be astonished at the gloomy forecasts of “quagmire” and “endless” guerrilla warfare that preceded the collapse.
One reason for believing this is the dramatic progress of the Anglo-American forces in only 12 days’ campaigning. In every engagement thus far — including the largest British tank battle since El Alamein — the allies have defeated Iraqi forces and inflicted heavy losses in men and equipment on them. They have secured the southern oilfields without significant environmental damage. They control vast areas of both southern and northern Iraq — and have persuaded the Turks not to intervene against the Kurdish-controlled north. It took them less than a week to reach the gates of Baghdad — perhaps the quickest advance of a heavily armored column in military history. And these extraordinary gains have been achieved with the loss of about 60 American and British lives, and of approximately 40 other soldiers either captured or missing in action.
These figures represent a tragedy for 100 families, but they prefigure a military triumph rather than a disaster.
Critics argue, however, that they are short-term gains in contrast to the long-term disasters foreshadowed by two other developments: first, that there is stronger Iraqi military resistance than expected and, second, that ordinary Iraqis have failed to welcome the invading allies as liberators with flowers and kisses. What these setbacks allegedly foreshadow is a long-running guerrilla warfare campaign against the allies that will continue long after Baghdad has fallen and Saddam Hussein has been dispatched to enjoy his 70 virgins. What we face, in the jargon, is a “quagmire.”
What should be first said is that this stronger-than-expected Iraqi resistance is still not very strong. It consists of irregular soldiers, generally disguised as civilians, harrying the armored column and picking off the occasional straggler. It manifestly failed to halt the allied advance and, if it delayed that advance slightly, it still failed to prevent the allies from setting a new world record in seizing enemy territory. This falls several notches below the defense of Stalingrad on any scale of heroic resistance.
Such resistance would be even less effective if the allies had embarked on a conventional strategy of merely defeating the enemy by the unconstrained use of superior firepower and the destruction of the enemy’s infrastructure. But the novel strategy, adopted by the allegedly ruthless figure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, consists of defeating the enemy while safeguarding civilian lives, protecting his ordinary civil and economic infrastructure, and even minimizing those enemy casualties that are not strictly necessary to gain military objectives.
Fighting a war in this “compassionate conservative” way has its drawbacks: it takes longer; it may suggest that the allies lack the necessary toughness to carry them through to victory; and it may encourage the other side to keep fighting. That would be an additional explanation for the Iraqi resistance.
On the other hand, it reduces the likelihood of a future “quagmire” by minimizing the harm and destruction that might otherwise stimulate a desire for revenge among the Iraqis. At present, the “Arab street” outside Iraq, that sees the air attacks on Baghdad through the distorting lens of al-Jazeera, seems more likely to harbor resentment and revenge than the city’s inhabitants who know just how precise the targeting has been.
Still, together with the fact that ordinary Iraqis have not generally welcomed the allies, Iraq’s continued military resistance requires some explanation. Why has Iraq not yet cracked?
The conventional explanation — advanced to CNN by any passing Arab ambassador — is that the Iraqis are inspired by nationalism. However much they hate Saddam, they prefer him to an invader and will fight to defend their land.
But the evidence for this explanation is very thin. It is either circular logic — nationalism is inspiring their resistance. What is nationalism? It is what inspires people to resist — or it rests on patriotic public statements made to television cameras by Iraqi civilians.
But what happens when the cameras are switched off? Here is what a journalist from Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s English daily, discovered when he took aside a young Iraqi man who had been chanting “With our blood, with our souls, we will die for you, Saddam” to television crews filming a Red Cross handout of food in an area under allied control. The young man later explained in private:
There are people from Baath here reporting everything that goes on. There are cameras here recording our faces. If the Americans were to withdraw and everything were to return to the way it was before, we want to make sure that we survive the massacre that would follow. … In public we always pledge our allegiance to Saddam, but in our hearts we feel something else.
Iraqi “resistance” can be similarly explained. Iraq’s regular forces are stiffened by the special security forces, in reality licensed thugs, that Saddam has recruited to sustain his regime against both popular discontent and military mutiny. Ordinary soldiers, not excluding officers, are forced into battle either with a gun at their backs or by threats to their family at home if they should fail to fight. In these circumstances surrendering may require more courage than advancing against a militarily superior enemy.
As the Arab News reporter concluded: “the people of Iraq are terrified of Saddam Hussein.” And that includes the ordinary Iraqi soldier.
Those who predicted that resistance would collapse and the allies welcomed as liberators, as I did, made the reasonable assumption that this universal fear would dissipate when allied tanks came into view. But Saddam had reached exactly the same conclusion and, as the months of U.N. diplomacy dragged on, he set in place a structure of repression that would survive the mere arrival of the U.S. and British armies. He instilled in the Iraqi people a fear, rooted in the memory of how the first President Bush betrayed the Shiite uprising in Basra immediately after the Gulf War, that the liberation would be strictly temporary. He persuaded them in advance that the allies were mere birds of passage who, after an interval, would fly off and leave them to the ruthless revenge of a returning Baath party. He made them passive and suspicious of their own hopes.
It may seem odd that this should work in the face of overwhelming allied power. But it is an inventive variation on two established totalitarian practices. All totalitarian parties — and Saddam’s Baath party is a blend of fascism and communism-rely on politicized security units to enforce their will. That is especially so when their power is dying and the regular troops can no longer be relied on.
It was true of the Vichy regime that in its last days recruited the ideological paramilitaries of the Milice to crush the Resistance; it was true of Hitler, whose bunker was defended against the Russians by non-German fascist volunteers of the Charlemagne division of the SS; it was true even of the Soviet regime which as late as the perestroika period used the thuggish “special forces” of the Soviet Interior Ministry against the Baltics.
Such forces tend to be recruited from the dregs of society who enjoy not only the perquisites of power but power itself-the more brutal the better. Or as Orwell described the totalitarian ambition: “A boot stamping on a human face forever.”
Power itself is their ideology, justification and drug. As long as they can exercise it, they are loyal to the only kind of regime that would ever give them authority. Once it is removed from them, they lose all motivation. The reverse of the power wielded by such creatures is the fear of everyone else. And such fear lasts as long as the paramilitaries are a visible presence wielding power.
Saddam’s variation on these themes was to realize that the paramilitaries could continue to inflict fear-and thus to uphold his regime’s power-even in the territory occupied by the invading Anglo Americans. But for how long? And will the paramilitaries remain a terrorist threat after the Coalition establishes its rule clearly and without doubt?
History has some lessons to teach us here. In 1945 Germany resisted the allied advance to the bitter end, relying on the fanaticism of the SS and calling up elderly men and 14-year-old Hitler Youth, despite the deep war-weariness of the German people. There were even plans for a campaign of guerrilla resistance-the so-called “Werewolves”-after a formal German surrender. The wartime allies took this threat very seriously.
With Hitler’s death, however, the Nazi myth of totalitarian power evaporated and the entire apparatus of terror collapsed. Those who had acted from Nazi conviction — like Saddam’s thugs — vanished into the shadows, deprived of the drug of power that had sustained them in their wickedness. Those who had acted from fear — like ordinary Iraqis today-were suddenly released from a living nightmare. Not a single “Werewolf” emerged from his lair. And the allies, who had arrived as conquerors not liberators, soon found themselves handing out food parcels to a grateful German population.
That will happen in Iraq too. When? That no one can predict with certainty. But happen it will — and not long after the battle of Baghdad is joined.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of United Press International. This piece was originally written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.