Keep the War in Perspective

Report Middle East

Keep the War in Perspective

March 28, 2003 3 min read
Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Many observers, intoxicated by the initial promise of the March 19 decapitating air strike against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, now are unrealistically impatient with the progress of the war against Iraq. In particular, some elements of the American and international media are chomping at the bit to declare that the U.S. is bogged down and the war is beginning to go awry.


Yet this is only the ninth day of the war and things must be kept in perspective. Despite the carping, the spearhead of the allied forces has made great progress. In nine days the lead tanks have advanced approximately 250 miles and now are within 50 miles of Baghdad where the crucial battle of the war is expected to take place. This is farther and faster than American troops advanced in the 1991 war against Iraq.


To put it in historical perspective, this is the equivalent of the World War II advance of American troops from the Normandy beaches to Belgium after the D-Day invasion of June 1944. It took American forces five months to travel that distance and they lost thousands of soldiers in that campaign, which helped seal the fate of Nazi Germany. To date, 26 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq, seven captured and eight missing.


American troops have made steady progress in advancing toward Baghdad. They have been slowed by the desire to avoid civilian casualties bypassing Iraqi forces entrenched in cities and towns. But the chief source of delay so far has been a huge sandstorm that impeded movement for two days.


Iraqi resistance generally has been light. There have been a few fierce battles, but the U.S. and British forces have won all of them, with the exception of an Iraqi ambush of a logistics unit at Nasiriyah. The strongest resistance has come not from the Iraqi army, which appears sluggish and poorly motivated, but from Saddam' s Fedayeen paramilitary organization, which often fights in civilian clothes and takes refuge in residential neighborhoods to avoid crushing blows from superior American firepower. These diehard supporters of Iraq' s dictatorship fight determinedly because they have no alternative - if they surrender they fear the treatment they may get from the Iraqi people, whom they have victimized for 30 years. 


Lt. General William Wallace, the U.S. Army' s senior commander in Iraq, predicted that overextended American supply lines and the guerrilla attacks of Saddam' s Fedayeen in rear areas, recently have slowed the advance to Baghdad and increased the chances of a longer war than many had expected. Wallace said, The enemy we are fighting against is different than the enemy that we' d wargamed against. Such surprises are inevitable in every war and American commanders are adjusting rapidly to the new situation.


Overly pessimistic armchair generals need to keep the war in perspective. Although there have been some setbacks, American and British troops have decisively defeated Iraqi troops everywhere except in populated areas where the presence of Iraqi civilians has led the allies to pull their punches.


More than 4,000 Iraqis have surrendered and many of those that have not yet done so have been deterred by the fear that Saddam' s henchmen will kill them.  The New York Times reported on March 27, that:


"Up and down the 200-mile stretch of desert where the American and British forces have advanced, one Iraqi prisoner after another has told captors a similar tale: that many Iraqi soldiers were fighting at gunpoint, threatened with death by tough loyalists of President Saddam Hussein."


Such intimidation may work in the short run, but over time the Iraqi army will be undermined severely by desertions and growing distrust.


The Republican Guard forces, the most powerful Iraqi military units, have yet to join the fighting in a major way. They have been targeted with intensifying air attacks and likely will be weakened and possibly demoralized by many more days of air attacks before they are forced to join in the desperate battle to halt the drive towards Baghdad.


While some in the media have become impatient for a final victory, it is important for Americans to remain realistic about the pace of the war. The Bush Administration, to its credit, never promised a fast or easy victory.


President Bush, asked yesterday how long the war will take, replied: "However long it takes to achieve our objective ... It isn't a matter of timetable, it's a matter of victory."


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation