Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

We were waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the damn fool kept yelling to push on.

--Pete Seeger, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

I don't recall, even during Vietnam, such momentum towards war. Our president is beating a really big drum, and he is doing it very strangely: he is announcing all his intentions, strategic, tactical and even for the aftermath, in advance.

While those opposing the war on absolute grounds are bathed in a moral clarity I do not possess just now, I am very worried that we are leaping into a bloody adventure based on misplaced enthusiasm and bad information.

Some wars are immoral per se, and others are just badly executed. International legal precedent gives some guidance on the legality of our upcoming pre-emptive war on Saddam. A frequently quoted authority is U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, whp wrote in the Caroline case in 1842 that to justify pre-emptive war it is necessary to show "a necessity of self-defense....instant, over-whelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation." We clearly do not meet this standard today--not in the case of a war which will have been exhaustively discussed for more than a year before it is actively commenced.

Michael Walzer, in Just and Unjust Wars, suggests that the Webster standard has to be relaxed to meet present day circumstances. His formulation is that the enemy must show

a manifest intent to injure, a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger, and a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk.

Walzer cites as his example of a just pre-emptive strike the Israeli Six Day War, which came on the heels of several very threatening Arab actions: Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran (regarded by everyone else as international waters) to Israeli shipping, kicked a U.N. buffer force out of the Sinai and Gaza, began a military build-up on the border, and signed treaties with Syria, Jordan and Iraq that each would commit its forces in the event of war with Israel. "Egypt," writes Walzer, "was in the grip of war fever, familiar enough from European history, a celebration in advance of expected victories"--eerily evocative of the mood of our leadership today.

Even if we determine that the attack on Iraq meets the criteria established by Walzer, a second question is whether the attack, even if moral, is well-conceived and likely to succeed. Since the same evidence bears on both questions, in the balance of this essay I will discuss them together.

In 1991 I regretted that we did not go the distance and remove Saddam Hussein, an action which would have been justified by his attack on Kuwait and his use of chemical weapons against segments of his own population. He has not expressed any remorse, made any attempt to rejoin the community of nations, or acquired any renewed legitimacy since then. Therefore, under the moral rulebook by which I play, I cannot get worked up about any substantive injustice in removing him now.

But timing is everything, and not every missed opportunity can be seamlessly taken after its moment has passed. If a criminal points a weapon at a police officer, who would be justified in shooting him but disarms him without doing so, the officer does not then have carte blanche to shoot the criminal at any later time. So the question is why now, when nothing new has happened in Iraq, will we finish the job we failed to complete in '91? Especially why does it make sense to do so now, when the Al Quaeda threat is resurging, when Sharon's wild careen in Israel will make this seem to many millions of people a U.S. and Israeli world war against Arabs?

It is painfully hard to answer these questions in the current fog generated by the rush to war. We are told that Iraq is allied with Al Quaeda, but no proof has been presented. While it would not be shocking to find out this is true--both parties are geopolitical opportunists who would team up with any devil to fight us--we do know that in 1991 Bin Laden volunteered Al Quaeda to fight Saddam, an offer turned down by the Saudi government. Saddam is a secular leader and Al Quaeda an Islamic fundamentalist organization dedicated to the eventual overthrow of secular Arab governments. Therefore, it is not enough to tell us they are in bed; we should be shown some proof.

If we are not really rushing in to fight Saddam because of an Al Quaeda connection, than a convincing explanation should be offered as to why this must be done right now. He seems like a subsidiary problem, one really not greatly more urgent than he was five years ago. If we have substantial intelligence that he is close to acquiring a nuclear capability or some other weapon of mass destruction he didn't previously possess, the president should tell us this in specific, not generic terms and should explain why a targeted strike, like the Israeli raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in the '80's, is not sufficient to end this effort.

The American people should be told why we are going to war, and no convincing explanation has been offered so far. This leaves too much room for very nagging thoughts about psychological and political motives. There may be material for a future tragedist to write a play about a president driven to complete a job his father left unfinished--disregarding his father's warnings not to do so. We may also be hitting an opponent who is rooted in a traditional nation state because we have been unable in a year to finish an enemy who lives in the interstices of many nations.

In the days after September 11, I imagined an elderly Japanese military officer marvelling at the fact that Al Quaeda had done more damage with far less resources than Japan was able to do at Pearl Harbor. His monologue would go something like this: "We had to train thousands of soldiers, sailors and pilots, and give them ships, planes and munitions costing millions of dollars. We then had to bring them undetected from our side of the world, to mount an attack on American soil that we were never able to repeat in four more years of war. Al Quada killed more people with nineteen attackers than we did with our thousands, and at a cost of about $500,000, using stolen planes instead of having to build their own. And at such a minor cost in personnel, they will be able to do it again and again."

The bombing in Bali, which killed more people than the attack on the Pentagon, clearly shows that the Al Quaeda war is not over. Unlike Saddam, we do not know where Bin Laden lives or even if he is still alive. This matters very much from a simplistic moral perspective--the strong and highly justified desire to hold him responsible for the deaths he ordered--but not very much at all from a tactical perspective. The enemy we are facing is probably not hierarchical, directed from the top down like the Japanese empire. Instead, it is an Internet-like structure of loosely linked "servers" with no central core, across which information and resources are freely shared. A local group with a little explosives knowledge imparted by Al Quaeda and perhaps a little cash contributed by them becomes capable of an attack killing hundreds instead of tens. Many thousands in the future when the opportunity again presents itself to try a September 11 scale action.

When we fought Japan, we knew where Japan was and we generally were able to locate very large and visible hardware--destroyers, aircraft carriers, troop transports--on the open ocean. Since Al Quaeda doesn't live anywhere in particular, it cannot be invaded, carpet-bombed or nuked the way Japan could.

During World War II, despite widespread panic about sabotage, the Nazis made only two attempts to infiltrate saboteurs into the United States--submarine landings in Amagansett, New York and Jacksonville, Florida in 1942--then ended the effort after the arrest of both teams. By contrast, Al Quaeda operatives don't need expensive submarines to get here; they come here on visas or, in some cases, are born here. While the Nazi teams were hoping to affect U.S. morale by blowing up a few factories, train stations and department stores, the chances were not great that the two teams (twelve men in total) could inflict as much cumulative loss of life or economic damage as the Al Quada nineteen did in a single day. Back then the current paradigm in mass murder had not yet been thought of--Nazi ideology which would stop at nothing did not include the idea of suicide attacks or of using the enemy's own resources against him. Partly this was because the means did not yet exist--buildings weren't tall and flimsy enough nor passenger airplanes large enough.

In the Times for October 20 there is a fascinating and disturbing article on the vulnerability of our truck fleet. Large trucks travel most of our highways every day carrying gasoline, liquid natural gas, and explosives. They are parked in isolated areas while the drivers sleep, or are left running, keys in ignition, outside diners. Overseas, Al Quaeda and other groups have already used such trucks to stage attacks, notably the truck full of liquid natural gas that blew up outside a Tunisian synagogue, killing twenty-one. Yet, more than a year after September 11, we have done almost nothing to secure our truck fleet, while the owners, the shippers and the government argue over who is to pay.

There is in any event a terible mismatch here. We can put devices in trucks that allow a manager, acting remotely, to shut them down if they leave their route-- these have been in use in Brazil for more than ten years and have prevented or resolved many truck hijackings. While these kinds of devices are useful--we need to stop leaving powerful weapons lying around waiting for the enemy to pick them up--we are trying to use technology to solve an immense moral problem. Yes, we can have dogs or machines sniff every pair of shoes of every passenger boarding an airplane everywhere--but in so doing we haven't even begun to attack the desire of a few very dangerous people to board planes wearing sneaker bombs. Protecting trucks better is a good defensive measure, but it doesn't even begin to bring the war to the enemy, to deny him the territory, food or resources necessary for him to survive, thrive and do more damage.

The relationship between the conventional war we will fight against Iraq and the unconventional one already underway against Al Quaeda is unclear. If we vanquish one of our two enemies--Saddam or Bin Laden--we don't weaken the other one at all. Contrast this with World War II, when removing the Italians as a military force weakened Germany. In this war, our two objectives do not appear to be strategically linked; neither advances the other. Instead, we are fighting on two unrelated fronts, committing people and resources on both. You do this when you have to, as when we fought the Japanese and Germans at once in World War II, but we had much less say in the timing. The Japanese had attacked us, and if we did not fight the Germans at the same time, the last free countries in Europe would fall. Al Quaeda, like the Japanese, has attacked us, but what will happen that is irrevocable if we don't attack Iraq today?

The president would have us believe that Saddam will have nuclear weapons soon if we do not act. If this is true, then prompt action may be justified under the Walzer doctrine. Though Saddam has not so far shown himself suicidal, like Al Quaeda, he is one of the people on Earth whom you would least want to see in possession of a nuke. However, there are substantial, mainstream, trustworthy voices--ranging from retired generals to people who spent years inspecting Iraq's arms capabilities--saying that Saddam does not represent this kind of a threat right now. Quoted in the Nation for October 21 is Scott Ritter, who spent seven years as a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq. He says that as of 1998 the "industrial infrastructure needed by Iraq to produce nuclear weapons had been eliminated." Restoring it is "not something that could happen overnight."

The Times also reported this week that many top CIA analysts believe Iraq does not represent a threat justifying war. The Administration's response has been to denigrate the CIA. Donald Rumsfeld has formed a unit of intelligence analysts reporting to him who, instead of following the CIA lead, will tell him what he wants to hear. This is not heart-warming.

Among the retired generals speaking up (quoted in the same issue of the Nation): Wesley Clark, who says "Its a question of what's the sense of urgency here...There is nothing that indicates that in the immediate, next hours, next days, that there's going to be nuclear-tipped missiles put on launch pads to go against our forces or our allies in the region."

The administration seems to be holding on desperately to the discredited theory of a link between Saddam and Bin Laden. In a rambling statement at a recent press conference, President Bush said that if nothing else, the two are linked by the fact they are both evil-doers opposing America. This inanity would be remarkable except that the president utters so many of them.

We have gone to war before over lies--it is not an uncommon scenario. To this day, we do not know for sure why the Maine exploded. We do know with certainty that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a non-event, used as an excuse to widen the Viet Nam war. Real people--American soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and probably also U.S. citizens at home--are going to die, so we damn well should be fighting for something real and attainable, and not spurred by shadows and in pursuit of phantoms.

I do not believe this president is smart enough to distinguish between truth and lies or even to care very much about the difference. His theory of morality is underdeveloped and raw, evincing a vague belief, when pressed, in frontier standards of justice: he doesn't need proof if he "knows" something; people can be punished (as they are routinely in the Texas criminal justice system) for being evil-doers, with the details left vague or filled in later.

I think we've now answered both questions: is the war moral and is it practical? The administration has failed to make a case that the threat and corresponding urgency posed by Iraq meet the Walzer standard. And the rush to attack Iraq when we are still fighting Al Quaeda seems foolish, given the lack of urgency.

When I was a small child I had the comforting sense that the adults who ran the world knew what they were doing. Later I was horrified to see that they were as confused and frightened as I was. I found it unbearable to watch President Nixon speak on television; he trembled, mispoke, and always seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I never expected to witness the even more unsettling spectacle of a president too shallow to feel frightened by the decisions which face him. I hope that his confidence is better placed than George A. Custer's, who, according to his Italian orderly, shouted "Hurrah, boys! We've got 'em!" as he led the charge of 225 cavalry against 3,000 Sioux at Little Big Horn.

There may be substance to the parallel between George Custer and George Bush. Both were fortunate men--sons of the morning star--never tested by life until the crucial moment. Someone who knew Custer said of him:

Endowed by nature with a confidence in himself which was never boastfully exploited, and a believer that the future would surely unfold a continuation of the succesful past--Custer's luck, his talismanic guard was trusted by him all too blindly....

In fact, Custer did what the president is about to do: he foolishly split his forces at the crucial moment, dividing a force of 675 men into four groups which he sent off in various directions and then advancing against the huge Sioux encampment with approximately one third of the men. The results are well-known.

Some of the generals quoted in the Nation imply that there may be some Custer-style thinking in our plans for Bagdad. The strategy reportedly gaining the President's favor is to send relatively small groups of Special Forces into Bagdad, supported by an intense bombing campaign, then wait for the Iraqi army to dissolve or overthrow Saddam. General Joseph Hoar, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

The nightmare scenario is that six Iraqi Republican Guard divisions and six heavy divisions, reinforced with several thousand anti-aircraft artillery pieces, defend the city of Bagdad. The result would be high casualties on both sides, as well as in the civilian community.

General Norman Schwartzkopf, hero of the first Iraqi war, agrees:

You can't discount the 100,000 Republican Guard and Palace Guard. And not only are they a good military force, but they also have a lot of good equipment behind them. They're going to have over 8,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers, a large amount of artillery. Its not going to be an easy battle...

General Anthony Zinni, with a final word on the difference between experience and untested self-confidence:

It might be interesting to wonder why all the generals see it the same way, and all those that never fired a shot in anger and are really hellbent to go to war see it a different way. That's usually the way it is in history...