What You Don’t Want to Hear
Posted on March 27, 2003 Posted by John Scalzi 5 Comments
“Overhanging all developments in the war this week is the unsettling realization that thousands of Iraqis are willing to fight vigorously. During planning for the invasion, worst-case scenarios sometimes predicated stiff resistance, but ‘no one took that very seriously,’ an officer said.” — “War Could Last Months, Officers Say,” Washington Post 3/27/2003
I’m not at all surprised that the war could last months, because I just tend to be naturally pessimistic about these things; I’m a big proponent of believing anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and it’s best to factor in things going wrong. However, I do find it mildly troubling that I called the matter of Iraqi resistance better than the military planners have; as I said about a week ago:
“One of the great temptations with overwhelming superiority, however, is to belittle and underestimate the enemy. An analogy to use here is a kid cornering a frightened hamster in a Habitrail. There’s not a doubt that the kid will have his way with the hamster, but the hamster still has teeth, is still frightened, and is liable to make the kid regret forgetting those two important points with a well-placed and painful bite between the thumb and the forefinger.”
At the time I made the assumption that the military had well factored this, but now I’m wondering if they really had. In particular, I wonder why they assumed there would be a huge popular uprising against Saddam; the last time we encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam, we rather inconveniently left the man in power and offered them no help, which means the man slaughtered those who rose up by the tens of thousands. When you’ve been clobbered by sticking your head in a hole, you don’t stick your head in a hole a second time.
Mind you, it’s not a question of whether we win the war; time and material are on our side, as Saddam and his people are not exactly in a position to resupply or call in new troops. And our military is both capable and adaptable and will reconfigure to deal with these issues as they arise.
But would that the people who planned this war had been slightly more pessimistic in their assumptions. It’s not a coincidence that the acronyms “SNAFU” and “FUBAR” both come from the military, after all — it’s institutionally well aware of how even the best-laid plans run afoul. The question worth asking is if the plans we had going even had the advantage of being “best-laid.”
I think part of the problem this time around — only part, mind you — is the fact that we are actively invading the country with the intention of occupation, rather than quick strikes against specific targets. Just think about what would happen here in the US. If someone with a previously antagonistic relationship to us — for instance, France — were to invade the US with the intention of removing the evil dictator El Presidente for Life Bush II, even people who hate him would rise up in support of him. I mean, replacing Bush is OUR job, not anyone else’s, and how dare you come into OUR yard and tell US how to play. You’d have ravening liberals and arch-conservatives coming out of the woodwork attacking tanks with their hands and teeth. Much like what is happening in Iraq…
BTW, been reading your site since “I Hate Your Politics” had me rolling for two weeks. Haven’t looked back. Keep it up, Mr. Scalzi, keep it up.
“I think part of the problem this time around — only part, mind you — is the fact that we are actively invading the country with the intention of occupation”
Yes, that’s definitely a factor, I’d agree. We’ll need to see how it plays out.
Glad you like the site. I’ll be staying at it, no worries.
Great post, John, and I like the MT format. I’m an Internet Luddite and have yet to abandon the cheesy and free Yahoo! Geocities format I’ve used for my weblog since 1999.
Your post begs the following questions:
If our war planners underestimated Iraqi resistance, have they also been overconfident about how easy it will be to occupy Iraq after the war?
How many American troops will have to remain in Iraq to keep the peace, and how safe will they be?
I’ve been more worried about that than the actual war.
Well, I don’t know how valuable this may be, but I have a bit of a look into that. My older brother is a United States Marine Reservist and they are talking about sending his unit in to Iraq only AFTER the war is over and that he should expect a fairly lengthy stay over there (they were talking about at least a year last I heard). Apparently this is more or less par for the course right now with any reservists remaining in the states, which means that there could potentially be a lot of troops for a long time, but, of course, the military isn’t saying much or giving out any particulars. (And rightly so!)
I’m still hard-pressed to find government officials OR military personnel (unretired) who predicted the one-week, no-casualty war. I realize we have three entire channels that are required to provide 24-hour news coverage, which neccesitates a whole lot of “expert” interviews, and that many of these “experts” predicted such things, but the people that matter would never think to say such things.
The situation was exacerbated when the war didn’t start with the well-publicized Shock & Awe(TM) campaign. All the broadcast networks reflexively went to 24-hour coverage in addition to the cable news channels, and with nothing much happening in Iraq for a couple of days, there was excruciatingly little to talk about. The result? Even more experts predicting a quick war, along with the added guessing game, “Is Saddam Dead?”
We need to actively separate the commentators from the actual participants, lest the opinions become the facts and the fiction becomes the truth…