Politics & Policy

Troops & Sports Bras

The problem of armchair and "sweetheart" generals.

I am not going to pretend to be a military expert. We have real experts for that here at NRO. But, when I hear Katie Couric and Matt Lauer talk about how Marines should take a town, I’m mortified for them. This is the same Couric who once said, “When I got this assignment I thought, ‘Whoa, slow news day!’ But the importance of the sports bra to American women can’t be overemphasized.”

At the Pentagon, there is an unwritten rule. If you’ve ever said, “The importance of the sports bra to American women can’t be overemphasized,” you are forever barred from telling American military authorities that they’ve “miscalculated.” Trust me, everyone at the Pentagon knows about this rule.

Anyway, if I were going to share my ideas about what would constitute brilliant military tactics, it would involve all sorts of really cool comic-book-ey stuff, like dropping scorpions onto their trenches. I’d advocate a huge airdrop of dummy paratroopers over Baghdad to create the impression of a Normandy-style invasion behind their lines and force militias into the streets in a mixture of panic and bravado, only to be wiped out by our airpower. And, of course, I’d blast *NSYNC’s greatest hits at the Saddam Fedayeen.

But I should say, using pure common sense, that this talk of quagmire and getting bogged down, etc., strikes me as bogus. As I noted in the Corner already, we must have killed thousands of Iraqis so far. Several military folks and other students of this stuff I’ve talked to — who’ve pooh-poohed the whole “First the scorpions, then *NSYNC” idea — have suggested that the number of dead Iraqi combatants has to be somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 and perhaps much, much more. I’ve been searching for anything remotely like a hard number on Iraqi military casualties and it’s been fruitless. But consider: Today alone, CENTCOM plans 1,400 sorties against enemy positions. There have been thousands-per-day sorties every day of this war. Some experts say that for every bomb that hits Baghdad, nine or so hit someplace else in Iraq. If, on average, each Coalition bomb inflicts just one Iraqi casualty, we are already in the 4,000-5,000 range — and that’s an awfully conservative estimate. Or consider this snapshot, taken almost at random from the war coverage. MSNBC’s Bob Arnot, reporting from Iraq on Sunday:

“Forrest, of course it’s very, very hard to hear you. There’s a C-130 that just landed in the airstrip in Iraq. And it’s a wild, wild air show. We have Cobra and U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters. They have been at it all night long, hot refueling, coming in here, getting ordnance. Some have said [they feel] like they’re in a candy store with the number of targets that they’re [hitting].”

Meanwhile — except in Baathist propaganda, which makes it sound like the Republican Guard is on the outskirts of Minneapolis — few Iraqi soldiers are reporting any visits to an American “candy store.” America has lost 39 heroes. And we’ve got fewer than a dozen Americans being held as POWs. So, at the barest minimum the kill ratio is 1 American for every 100 of their troops. That’s obviously too high, but only in the sense that each American life is precious. Militarily speaking, it’s a picnic. And, this is against troops who’ve had a year to dig in and prepare their own home turf without any hindrance from civilians — this is a police state, after all. I’ve left out many interesting facts which only amplify the impressiveness of the Coalition’s accomplishments. We’re just getting warmed up. We’ve captured thousands more Iraqis, and perhaps tens of thousands have decided it’s not even worth fighting us. We dedicated resources to preventing oil fires and environmental catastrophes. Our plan called for a northern front which, thanks to the increasing and dismaying fecklessness of the Turks, never materialized. There have been sandstorms. And, perhaps most significant of all, we’ve decided not to fight this war like a normal war. The Coalition forces have a near-zero-tolerance for civilian casualties — even though we’re fighting an enemy that hides behind civilian women and children. According to the Iraqis, we’ve killed some 200 civilians in five days of bombing, shooting, and giant advances through or past multiple population centers.

I could go on. But you can read this case from others who have more authority on such things. From John Keegan — considered by some to be the world’s greatest living military historian, from NRO’s own Jed Babbin, or from countless other people who have no opinions about the sports bra but do know a thing or two about killing an enemy army. Suffice it to say that if Franks had said a week ago, “By Tuesday, we will be 50 miles from Baghdad after incurring fewer than 50 casualties while inflicting thousands on the enemy,” people would have said: “Wow. That’s an ambitious plan. I hope he can pull it off.”


The reason I bring all this up is simple: Our morale matters too. And this is perhaps my only criticism of the Pentagon. While it’s obviously too soon to criticize the planning of Franks and Rumsfeld, it’s not too soon to object to the means by which they’ve been explaining how everything is going. Tommy Franks and his crew keep saying, “We will win.” Well, no kidding — we all know that, intellectually. But we want to know that we are winning. This is not a game, but sports can provide a useful analogy. It’s great to hear a coach say with confidence, “We will win!” But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to know the score at the end of the first quarter.

Obviously, the media’s preoccupation with POWs and their bizarre, almost childish shock at the news that the enemy is actually firing back from time to time is a problem. But the press sometimes needs to be led by the nose. It needs to be told — and shown — that we are winning by a huge margin. CENTCOM claims it doesn’t have solid numbers on casualties. Fair enough. But when you watch these briefings, you almost get the sense that they feel sheepish about admitting that the U.S. army is killing lots of Iraqi soldiers. And that strikes me as misguided. Wars involve the killing of soldiers. In any war involving Americans, Americans will want to hear that the other guy’s soldiers are dying. That may not be true of the diehard antiwar types. But these people don’t believe anything the Pentagon says anyway, and will never take any word of success as good news. So screw ‘em. The rest of America — liberals and conservatives alike — want to know that we are winning. They want to know the score.

This is a fact borne out by history. As Walter Russell Mead has written, there is a Jacksonian tradition in America which demands victory. As Mead noted: “When their blood is up, Americans are the fiercest warriors on earth.” We killed 900,000 Japanese civilians in the last five months of World War II — and that’s without counting Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a sobering fact for those who fear that killing a few thousand Iraqi civilians might “cost us the peace” in terms of permanent Iraqi resentment). Limited wars, by Mead’s reckoning, fatally wounded three presidencies since 1945 — Truman’s, Johnson’s, and Nixon’s. Plus, the first President Bush’s high approval ratings after the first Gulf War eroded quickly in part because it was perceived that we had quit the game at halftime. But no president in U.S. history has ever been punished for seeking total victory.

And most of us are Jacksonians now. When it’s over, some will think this war was a bad idea. Others will think it was a good idea. But virtually all of us — the pierced protesters with their clever face-shrapnel notwithstanding — want to win this war decisively. When Americans decide it’s go-time, it’s go-time. I don’t by any stretch think that we should abandon our policy of minimizing civilian casualties. Indeed, I’m not sure we need to change our plans at all. Again, I’m not qualified — and few of us are — to second-guess military judgments five days into a war which has shown so much success already.

But the military cannot rely on the press to make the case that we’re winning. The Tet Offensive was a colossal military blunder for the enemy, but the press turned it into a victory for them. That’s what the press does. It looks for the negative. It obsesses about the “human angle” and it searches beyond all reason to prove that America’s doing wrong or botching things. During the “diplomatic war,” Don Rumsfeld was put in the bad-cop role. He offered plain truths which annoyed those who did not want to hear them. Now, in the real war, we need someone — preferably someone in uniform — to make it unfashionably clear that we are both killing the enemy and winning the war. That might make Katie Couric’s nose crinkle, but they don’t say war is hell for nothing.


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