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Searching for new monsters

On day 15 of the Iraq war, British troops in Basra displayed for the TV cameras a dozen suspected fedayeen. Hands tied and sacks over their heads, some of the captured men were shaking with fear as they awaited their fate. Speaking in a strong Northern Irish brogue, an army corporal said the men had been 'lifted', pronouncing the word used so often in the Ulster conflict as 'lufted'.

May 1, 2003
11 min read

Minor though the British corporal’s mission was compared with the battle for Baghdad, the capture of the Iraqis was the moment when the unforeseeable nature of the conflict became reality. It was the first time that the grim forecast of Iraq’s deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz had been tested. In a reference to Vietnam, he had declared: ‘Let our cities be our swamps and our buildings be our jungles.’

It had been feared that the war would slip into a prolonged urban guerrilla conflict with street fighting and suicide attacks, and that the ‘liberating’ forces would be burdened – like the British in Ireland – by the unrewarding and uncertain task of ‘lifting’ suspects. As if to underscore the analogy, Blair and Bush chose to meet in Belfast to map out the future of the country they had just occupied.

Whether Iraq turns out to be a cautionary lesson in pre-emptive disarmament or a new variant of old war, the US imperial moment had arrived. As the neo-conservative ex-CIA director James Woolsey put it, this was the opening of the ‘fourth world war’ (the cold war being the third).

The dawning of this new era prompted sundry military questions. Should long-range bombers and transports replace short-range, outdated fighters? Should reliable helicopters replace fancy tilt-rotor aircraft? Are special forces preferable to tanks? And where are all those still classified ’boutique’ microwave weapons, titanium-rod bunker busters and a new incendiary device that creates a fireball that cannot be extinguished with water?

While there is no evidence such sci-fi weapons have been tested in Iraq, they were designed for exactly such a conflict. Microwave weapons emit an intense burst of energy, like a lightning bolt, that short-circuits electrical connections and destroys computers and memory chips. They are fitted to cruise missiles or anti-personnel weapons for close infantry or special forces combat. The narrow beam of energy penetrates about one 64th of an inch into the skin, hitting nerves and causing burns and intense pain. The new titanium weapon is a cluster bomb that contains 4,000 rods for penetrating chemical weapons’ storage tanks.

The procurement and use of such weapons will ultimately define the capability of the US’s modern legionnaires as they roam the world for emperor George thwarting the sixth US president John Quincy Adams’ sensible admonition not to go ‘in search of monsters to destroy’.

Receiving equally serious attention at the Pentagon is the traditional post-war analysis of the relationship between the civilian secretary of defence and the military top brass. This is an issue that goes back to the US War of Independence when George Washington fought for control of the battle plan, and was paramount when Robert McNamara was defence secretary during Vietnam. It goes to the heart of the Bush administration’s military policy and concerns something much more immediate than a handful of futuristic weapons systems.

When Donald Rumsfeld took over as defence secretary he launched an attack on the traditional US military doctrine of ‘overwhelming force’. The watchword for Rumsfeld was ‘transformation’. The US armed forces’ most powerful civilian leader since McNamara set out to produce a more flexible and agile military that would rely on precision air power and covert forces instead of traditional ground troops.

To fund his high-tech rapid-reaction force Rumsfeld proposed cutting two of the army’s 10 active divisions. The divisions survived after army generals complained, but the Iraq war involved using Rumsfeld’s preference of a high-tech force capable of delivering ‘shock and awe’.

The plan relied heavily on intelligence that said the Iraqi people would greet US and British soldiers as liberators. Instead, Iraqis were sullen and distrustful. The invaders also quickly learned that, unsurprisingly, some people will always object to their backyard being overrun by soldiers – no matter how well intentioned those forces are. On top of all that, the ‘fedayeen Saddam’ fought more tenaciously than had been contemplated.

All this prompted the US field commander lieutenant-general William Wallace to say: ‘The enemy we’re fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against.’ Wallace’s remark spurred Rumsfeld’s critics into the open; they had asked for more ground troops than the 180,000 that the Rumsfeld plan allowed.

Chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff General Richard Myers lost his cool in the ensuing row. He told reporters that stories about the rift between Rumsfeld and the military leadership were untrue and unhelpful to the men and women at the front. Of the dissenting military brass who claimed to have witnessed Rumsfeld’s high-handedness, Myers said: ‘They either weren’t there, they don’t know or they’re working another agenda.’

When the US forces arrived at the gates of Baghdad after only two weeks, the infighting over the battle plan was quickly forgotten. But it will resurface. If the peace goes well, Rumsfeld wins and it may be on to Damascus or Tehran. If it falters, he could come under fire from the military and, conceivably, the supine Democrats in Congress. The question is: six months into the Iraqi ‘peace’ will Rumsfeld’s neo-con cohorts at the Pentagon still be in the vanguard of Bush’s new military goals (whatever they are), or will they be in retreat?

TV’s war effort

Undoubtedly, one of the most effective of the Pentagon’s weapons in this war has been Rumsfeld’s idea for controlling battlefield information to the folks back home: the instant video from the frontline through the so-called ’embedded’ media. It has brought the battle to the front parlour on the Pentagon’s terms.

One of the most astonishing links was CNN’s interview on the third day of the war with Stephanie Lyle in Fort Stewart, Georgia. She was watching her husband, Captain Clay Lyle of the US Seventh Cavalry, charge across Iraq’s southern desert in his M1 Abrams tank. CNN asked Mrs Lyle what was going through her mind as she saw her husband’s helmeted head bobbing in his vehicle. She said she was very proud. ‘Do you have concerns?’ CNN asked thoughtfully. ‘It makes me feel better [to see him],’ she replied. ‘I can’t believe we can see him on TV.’

War correspondents have been going into action with the troops since the Boer war, but satellite technology now enables wives to be linked to husbands doing the fighting. The images are distorted and project la gloire. Reporters agree to censor them in order not to detail casualties or matters that could put the troops at risk. Some army commanders were apprehensive about having reporters along, but they seem pleased with the results. The camera-shy commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom general Tommy Franks said he was a fan. CNN loved it. The network’s anchors showed the rapid advance of the Seventh Cavalry complete with epic music and breathless titles: ‘Another amazing day with the Seventh Cavalry.’

US public reaction was mixed. Some people loved the idea of being in the middle of a real John Wayne movie. Others were disgusted: protesters with signs reading ‘war is not a game’ demonstrated outside CNN studios in Atlanta and Los Angeles. In future, the Pentagon can be expected to try even harder to control the media.

Behind the embedded concept lies a recent Pentagon policy shift to make ‘information warfare’ a key element of future conflicts.

Last year Rumsfeld launched a new propaganda bureau called the Office of Strategic Influence. The stated reason was the war on terrorism; the target was the foreign media – especially in the Middle East and Asia. When US reporters complained that they could also be victims of any disinformation, Rumsfeld closed the programme only to subsequently open another known as ‘special plans’. Special plans comes under the old Strategic Air Command, which used to be in charge of nuclear weapons. Internal documents made it clear to Los Angeles Times military columnist William Arkin that the new approach includes ‘efforts to control news media sources and manipulation of public opinion’.

The US Air Force and Navy now list deception as one of five goals for information warfare. A draft of new Air Force policy describes information warfare’s goals as ‘destruction, degradation, denial, disruption, deceit and exploitation’. The policy is in force in peacetime as well as wartime.

The new information policy coincides with the sharpest rise since the Vietnam era in the Pentagon’s covert operations. Only a few have been confirmed officially in Iraq; almost all in the northern Kurdish areas of the country. But unofficially US soldiers have been waging secret war all over Iraq, and their exploits will be written up once the war is over.

The events of 11 September prompted an aggressive expansion of ‘off-the-books’ operations. Rumsfeld was building on counter-terror squads that had their origins in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

After 1979, the US Army launched a new, separate command that collected its own secret intelligence independent of other agencies and used that information for covert military actions. The freelance units fought in drug wars and counter-terror operations in regions ranging from the Middle East to South America. Their missions included 1992’s ill-fated Somalia incursion and, reportedly, the hunt for Bosnian Serb war crimes suspects.

Under Rumsfeld these squads use the code name ‘Gray Fox’. They are still engaged in the drug wars, and in Afghanistan they came under the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command. This command now includes older units such as Special Forces, the Vietnam-era Green Berets and the CIA’s ‘black’ units. Officially, the super-secret Special Ops Command does not exist, and its leader, two-star major-general Dell Dailey, has no public biography. Dailey has at his disposal helicopters, a variety of unmanned drones and transport planes, and a spy ship fitted with sophisticated listening equipment.

For the empire-building Rumsfeld this clandestine group was not enough. Last summer he sought ‘new strategies, postures and organisation’. Rumsfeld wants to create a new super-intelligence agency to bring together all covert activities under one roof (his own) and which would be known as the Proactive Pre-emptive Operations Group (PPOG). The idea is to goad terrorists into launching operations that could be quickly dealt with by the new units.

Presumably, the PPOG’s remit would include such elusive matters as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Each day during the war Rumsfeld or his briefing generals were asked about WMD. Had the invaders found any yet? Well, no. There were some 55-gallon drums that possibly contained some liquid from which poison gas could have been made. But the drums were next to an agricultural centre and could simply have been pesticides, which use the same kind of materials as chemical weapons. The only other ‘evidence’ the ‘coalition’ found were a few chemical suits.

When a Baghdad statue of Saddam was pulled down by jubilant Iraqis and their new US friends on day 20, Rumsfeld was asked whether it was important to find any WMDs in Iraq after all. That was the rationale for going to war, wasn’t it? Rumsfeld faltered, eventually responding that he didn’t ‘get the thrust of the question’. Well, you can be sure that the Syrians got it.

So, what clues should we look for to guess what Rumsfeld’s Pentagon will be up to next? In war, some things never change. However exotic the new weaponry, however secretive the forces, the army has to be fed and supplied. The activities of the US military’s quartermaster, the Military Traffic Management Command (MTMC), are the key. It ships supplies and ammunition to the front. For the Iraq war, it transported material to 18 airfields and 13 seaports all over the Middle East and to the British military base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. If anyone wants to know where the US army is going next, check in with the MTMC’s brigadier general. Failing that, try calling the port authority at Diego Garcia.

Peter Pringle is co-author with Philip Jacobson of ‘Those Are Real Bullets, Aren’t They?’ Bloody Sunday, Derry, 30 January 1972 (Fourth Dimension), and the author of the forthcoming Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – the promises and perils of the biotech harvest (Simon & Schuster).

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