Is the badly outnumbered American expeditionary force in Iraq in trouble? Is it in danger of being trapped? With all our firepower, are we looking at the possibility of some kind of a military defeat?
As the bad news continues to seep in, debates about exit strategies are going out of date. Another year like the last three and the deteriorating military situation will have us debating what tactics will be necessary to extract our people with a minimum of loss.
We could be moving toward an American Dunkirk. In 1940 the defeated British Army in Belgium was driven back by the Germans to the French seacoast city of Dunkirk, where it had to abandon its equipment and escape across the English Channel on a fleet of civilian vessels, fishing smacks, yachts, small boats, anything and everything that could float and carry the defeated and wounded army to safety.
Obviously, our forces in Iraq will not be defeated in open battle by an opposing army as happened in 1940, but there is more than one way to stumble into a military disaster. Fragmented reports out of Iraq suggest we may be on our way to finding one of them. Defeat can come from overused troops. It does not help that one by one, the remaining members of the Coalition of the Willing give every appearance of sneaking out of town.
We know that US Marines accused of the Haditha massacre should not have been in Iraq. According to the Chicago Tribune , "Many of the US troops in Iraq are now on their second or third tour of duty in a conflict that has stretched beyond original expectations.... The Marine unit in Haditha was on its third rotation in Iraq when the incident allegedly occurred Nov. 19. The same month a year earlier, on a previous tour of duty, the unit had been engaged in fierce house-to-house fighting in the battle to retake Fallujah from insurgents."
Filtering out from Iraq are indicators of a military organization in danger of creeping disintegration. For three years our troops have been in a foreign land fighting God knows who for God knows why for God knows how long and God knows how many times. This now well-quoted paragraph from the June 12 edition of Newsweek hints at the price paid in order and morale: "The wife of a staff sergeant in the 3/1 battalion--members of which are currently accused of murdering Iraqi citizens in Haditha--says that there was 'a total breakdown' in discipline and morale after Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani took over as battalion commander when the unit returned from Fallujah at the start of 2005.... 'There were problems in Kilo Company with drugs, alcohol, hazing, you name it,' she tells Newsweek...'I think it's more than possible that these guys were totally tweaked out on speed or something when they shot those civilians in Haditha.'"
As awful as the killing of the twenty-four civilian Iraqis is, at this hour Haditha's importance is as an indicator of what's happening inside the American military organization there.
The Internet is alive with pessimistic stories and opinions about what may be happening, one of which informs its readers, "Military commanders in the field in Iraq admit in private reports to the Pentagon the war 'is lost' and that the U.S. military is unable to stem the mounting violence killing 1,000 Iraqi civilians a month. Even worse, they report the massacre of Iraqi civilians at Haditha is 'just the tip of the iceberg' with overstressed, out-of-control American soldiers pushed beyond the breaking point both physically and mentally."
The New York Times's John Burns, a good-to-go-to-war man from before the first American smart bomb fell on Baghdad, was on the air the other night warning that, in effect, the invading army had lost both the initiative and control. Readers of Juan Cole's authoritative Informed Comment blog get a daily summing-up of deaths, murders and atrocities not available to TV viewers and ordinary newspaper readers. The simple numbers tell the story of a large and growing bloodbath.
People here in the United States get only fragments of news that are difficult to make sense of, due to the sheer difficulty of reporting on the war. Journalists, even the credulous rah-rah by-jingo types, cannot be faulted, since they take their lives in their hands when they venture out from their bunkers to attempt to cover a story. The recent deaths and maimings of CBS and ABC journalists should have brought home to the public that getting the full story is not possible and getting half or a quarter of a story is problematic.
The Defense Department is not telling what it knows but no wartime government ever, ever tells the truth. Even Abraham Lincoln did not let on how badly things were going, even when they were very bad indeed.
In the south of Iraq, in the Basra region, the British who occupy that sector have all but given up aggressive patrol. They are holed up in their encampments on the defensive. Some reports have it that it is now too dangerous for them to fly helicopters by day. At the point when they must choose between being overrun or withdrawing, the small contingent of British troops facing unknown numbers of militia hidden in and among a hostile population should be able to evacuate the port of Basra even under fire.
The situation for American troops may be even more precarious. While our forces are still able to carry out aggressive patrolling, it nets little except to increase popular hostility, which, of course, makes it yet easier for the various insurgents and guerrilla groups to operate against us. It appears that in many places our people may have simply hunkered down to stay out of trouble. The vast construction projects of a few years ago are all but closed down, too, as the American forces appear to be doing less and less of anything but holding on and holding out.
The shortage of troops, which three years ago was a restraining factor, has become a potential disaster, with the ever-rising level of hostility to the American presence. To stay the course, to win, to realize our objectives, we need a half-million soldiers to pacify that country. If the force levels remain the same for another year and a half, this small, exhausted and overused American force may become so unglued that staying in Iraq will be come impossible. There may be no choice but retreat.
No, that's wrong. There is another choice. Americans can try to make up for their lack of numbers with firepower. Blow what's left of the country to smithereens. The political effects would be unspeakable and the ground troops might well still have to be extracted from their plight.
A half-million pair of boots on the ground can only be gotten by conscription. The chances of reactivating the draft for Iraq are nil. If our political leaders have to choose between a new conscription and risking a defeat, there is no question about what they will do.
Should discipline continue to break down at the platoon and company level, pulling the scattered American forces together and getting them out may be a harrowing experience. Retreat under fire, even if it's harassing guerrilla fire, is difficult even for an army without internal problems.
Air evacuation would mean abandoning billions of dollars of equipment. There is no seaport troops could get to, so the only way out of Iraq would be that same desert highway to Kuwait where fifteen years ago the American Air Force destroyed Saddam Hussein's army.
Dunkirk in the desert.
Nicholas von Hoffman is the author of A Devil's Dictionary of Business, recently published by Nation Books. He is a Pulitzer Prize losing author of thirteen books, including Citizen Cohn, and a columnist for the New York Observer.