March 28, 2003
Baghdad will be near impossible to conquer
An astonishing event is about to happen. For the first time in modern history a city with the population of London is preparing to resist assault from
a land army. The outcome of such a struggle is wholly imponderable. Cities hate soldiers. Sometimes they throw them kisses. More often they throw them
grenades. Defiant cities are near impossible to conquer.
It is inconceivable that American and British forces will simply turn from Baghdad and go home. Since the death and destruction involved in an assault
could be appalling, any humanitarian must fervently hope that the Iraqi authorities sue for peace or President Saddam Hussein suffers a putsch. At
present there is little prospect of either.
In the past two weeks I must have seen a hundred maps, diagrams, military handouts and computer graphics. I have watched men in fatigues with
whizz-bang videos of soaring missiles and exploding tanks. Each explains how war is won in the open. Not one explained how Baghdad is to be defeated.
The assumption is that it will somehow just fold. Yet Baghdad is where Saddam is and apparently means to stay. For victory to be declared, it must be
I have no doubt why Baghdad is never discussed. War in its streets is too awful to contemplate. No soldiers are more skilled at urban fighting than
the British. Yet they are finding it hard to pacify even ìfriendlyî Basra. The city appears to have been terrorised into defiance by units of
Saddamist irregulars. Students of this strategy need look no further than the Red Army commissars in Antony Beevorís Stalingrad. They murdered an
entire division of their own side to make them fight, but they won. British units round Basra have had to resort to long-range bombing and shelling,
hoping that this will inspire the oppressed citizens to rise against the irregulars, somehow.
In Baghdad the coalition forces confront a city apparently determined on resistance. They should remember Napoleon in Moscow, Hitler in Stalingrad,
the Americans in Mogadishu and the Russians at Grozny. Hostile cities have ways of making life ghastly for aggressors. They are not like countryside.
They seldom capitulate, least of all when their backs are to the wall. It took two years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam for Saigon to fall
to the Vietcong. Kabul was ceded to the warlords only when the Taleban drove out of town. In the desert, armies fight armies. In cities, armies fight
cities. The Iraqis were not stupid. They listened to Western strategists musing about how a desert battle would be a pushover. Things would get
ìdifficultî only if Saddam played the cad and drew the Americans into Baghdad. Why should he do otherwise?
Every soldier knows that cities level the logistical playing field. Bombers are useless in house-to-house fighting. Helicopters become targets not
weapons. Every building is a fortress, every adult a suspect. The rulebook says it needs ìten-on-oneî to fight in cities. Districts are hell to win by
day, and more hell to hold by night. Remember Beirut. Ask the Israelis.
In cities there is no army to defeat, only an elusive focus of civic authority. A leader must be arrested or killed, key buildings occupied and
television controlled. Citizens must be persuaded to deny districts to guerrillas. Baghdad is not Kuwait or the Falklands. The captive Iraqi boy who
was asked why he fought so overwhelming a foe merely muttered: ìItís my country.î The answer was worth a dozen Tomahawks.
Coalition strategy is plainly dependent on a political gamble. This holds that Saddam is so hated by his people that his cities will welcome American
troops with open arms and his generals will seize the opportunity to kill him. The strategy may have flown in the face of history but was not wholly
implausible. There have been Iraqi uprisings before, and attempts on Saddamís life. But the strategy required the most cautious application of force
and the most assiduous hearts and minds campaign.
Instead it has been wrecked by the Pentagonís latest craze, ìshock and aweî. This is the most braindead doctrine in the recent history of war. Its
exponent, the US defence analyst Harlan Ullman, writes that shock and awe ìrests ultimately in the ability to frighten, scare, intimidate and disarmî
a foe by delivering ìnearly incomprehensible levels of massive destructionî. This stuns the enemy into immediate surrender. Students of Bomber Command
in the Second World War may find these words grimly familiar.
Ullman points out that shock and awe need not involve great loss of life, but must be vast in its explosive force. The power projection must be
graphic enough to shatter the morale of the enemy. As a weapon it is literally ìterroristî. The concept, openly avowed by Pentagon spokesmen, clearly
lay behind the pulverisation of Baghdad on Day Three of this war. Ullman was quoted in The Guardian as predicting that it would take a week or ten
days to know ìwhether shock and awe has workedî. That time is almost up.
The thesis needs confronting since we are likely to see a lot more shock and awe in the coming days. Ullmanís case is desperately short of evidence.
He does not cite the ineffectiveness of the terror bombing of German or British cities in 1941-45. He does not cite Hanoi or Belgrade, where massive
bombing produced no collapse in civilian morale, if anything the reverse. He is blind to the most glaring instance of a ìnear incomprehensible level
of massive destructionî, al-Qaedaís attack on New York on September 11, 2001. None of these cases produced surrender ìover the space of a few hours or
daysî. Most induced the opposite, a fierce desire for retaliation.
Ullmanís chief support is the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which unquestionably precipitated the fall of Japan. Yet that bombing required
the Japanese regime to respond rationally to the trauma, which it did. Even then, the weapon was so horrific that nobody has dared use it since.
Todayís hawks cannot quite bring themselves to cry: ìNuke Baghdad.î
The purpose of shock and awe is political, not military. The exploding of government offices and empty barracks has no military significance. Yet the
proclaimed shock soon evaporates. I recall that Belgrade citizens were delighted to see their police headquarters go up in smoke. Observers of the
London Blitz noted that after two days of mild panic Londoners adjusted to the bombing and became defiant. The same applied to New Yorkers after
September 11. The thesis that poor cities will react more feebly under attack than rich cities is not one on which I would readily fight a war.
Baghdad is not Tokyo, 1945. It has no rational government, just a fierce survival instinct. The past week has yielded no sign of either rebellion or
surrender. The citizens are reacting as have all previous cities under bombardment. They get angry. When their families are killed they seek revenge.
Every street becomes an arms cache and every brother a Mujahid.
Geoff Hoon yesterday called the defenders of Baghdad ìdastardlyî for involving civilians. Wars in cities always do. They are always dirty wars. Mr
Hoon cuts off Basraís water and power and lobs shells into populated areas, knowing full well that this will kill bystanders. With life thus
cheapened, it is small wonder defenders fortify schools and hospitals and fail to wear identifying uniforms so Mr Hoon can shoot them. There are no
rules of war in cities. Look at Grozny.
I am opposed to this war, but am ready to accept that its military achievement so far has been considerable. The coalition has dismembered Iraq and is
on the way to confining Saddam to his own capital. But this progress must be consolidated if it is to carry any political message to Baghdad. The
coalition must show its citizens that it is capable of bringing peace, prosperity and freedom to the rest of Iraq. Otherwise there is no way the
capital will risk turning against Saddam and his private army.
To do this with shock and awe is plain dumb. There is no alternative to hearts and minds. The Americans may get lucky. But history says Baghdad will
fall from an act of politics or treachery, not an act of war. Bombarding it destroys houses and kills civilians, making enemies of those the invader
needs as friends. Iraqis must be induced to see the coalition as the lesser of evils and the safer of guardians. That is a tall enough order. The
nightly bombing of Baghdad makes it taller.