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War Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card March 31, 2003

How to Keep Your Perspective When the Media Lose Theirs

Even the best intentioned of the media mavens can't help but cover the war just the way they cover politics -- as a horse race.

"Coming around the corner it's The Coalition running away! But no, Iraq is nipping at The Coalition, edging up. Looks like The Coalition is in trouble! Iraq is making a much better showing than expected. You can see The Coalition's jockey looking back over his shoulder. It's still anybody's horse race!"

But this has nothing at all to do with the way wars are fought. It's not a game of expectations and disappointments. Minute by minute coverage is pointless, especially when the people doing the coverage don't know the game.

Imagine if the play-by-play were handled by somebody who had never seen American football before.

"The Redskins seem to be worried about getting the ball. They're all huddled up, apparently planning something. Now they're coming out and lining up -- but they don't match up with the Cowboys' men! What is going on here? What kind of plan is this? And look at that cowardly quarterback, he gets the ball and goes backward! All those Cowboys that weren't matched up are coming right at him and -- oh, look at that, who would have guessed it, he threw the ball and there just happened to be a Redskin right under it!"

That's how it feels sometimes, watching the war coverage.

Going into the war, we had high hopes that there would be massive surrenders -- and there have been.

But surrenders from Saddam's army can only happen in the heat of battle -- that is, when Saddam's henchmen are not close at hand to relay word back to headquarters to have your family killed. Therefore, by withdrawing most of his troops to positions close to Baghdad, Saddam has kept them under his thumb.

Surrenders are still a distinct possibility, whenever possible. Even would-be suicide bombers have surrendered -- there are a lot fewer people willing to die in order to slaughter people for Saddam than there are willing to slaughter-and-die for Palestine.

Likewise, there were high expectations of seeing people celebrating in the streets of southern Iraqi cities. But now that we realize that Saddam planted lots of his most fanatical fighters in the midst of them, dressed as civilians, it's no surprise the people were cautious. Celebrate today, only to have your family murdered tonight? No thanks.

Besides, the civilians in southern Iraq also learned from the last war, when Bush I called for a revolt and then didn't support them -- you know, like Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs. It doesn't promote trust when you do that, and the slaughter in 1991 was so great, and the oppression since then so relentless, that the people are, naturally, going to wait and see.

So things haven't been as rosy as our best hopes.

But that doesn't mean our plans have been affected in any significant way.

Why not? Because we had very good military minds planning this war, and their plans were not based on our hopes, they were based on what we knew we could compel the enemy to allow us to do.

Not only that, but our military doctrine is now highly flexible. The system is designed so that commanders on the ground can adapt to the conditions they meet, relay information instantly, and get reinforcements, close air support, or an adjustment of the maneuvers of other units in order to deal with what came up.

The plans did not count on exactly so much Iraqi resistance and no more. The plans accounted for the possibility of massive forward resistance or none at all, conventional weapons or gas.

Our planners also counted on Saddam having dirty tricks up his sleeve. Those we anticipated have been nipped in the bud. But good strategists never count on having anticipated everything the enemy will do.

Sometimes the way you find out what the tricks are is when he plays them. But if you've prepared your force properly, they adapt instantly to the new conditions -- and that is what has happened, time after time.

So when I hear commentators saying, "The Pentagon keeps saying that everything's going according to plan, and yet the sandstorms/suicide bombers/fedayeen dressed as civilians seem to be slowing us down," it just makes me shake my head.

They don't know what "slowing down" is. The hedgerows in Normandy in 1944, that is what it looks like when an army is being slowed down. In that campaign, none of the allied intelligence had taken into account the tactical nightmare of trying to move an army through what amounted to a series of natural entrenchments and fortifications, where the enemy could lie in wait, guns presighted, and slaughter your soldiers when they stuck their noses out.

But our Gis learned to adapt, welding metal bars to the front of tanks to allow them to tear up the hedgerows and clear new paths for the troops. It took time, and the problem eventually was solved by the men who had to do the job.

Now, however, adaptation is not something the grunts do in spite of their orders -- problems are immediately identified and solved, if possible, by those on the scene, while the information relayed up the chain and disseminated quickly to everyone who needs to know it. This American force, and all those sharing the battlefield with us, expect to meet surprises.

So, yes, we had hoped that we'd get more immediate cooperation from the populace, and we hadn't anticipated just how cynical Saddam would be about violating the rules of war in ways that put civilians at risk.

But we haven't allowed Saddam to force us to fight his war -- a dirty, evil war where we indiscriminately slaughter civilians. We are still fighting in such a way as to save Iraqi lives -- sometimes at the expense of our own.

Saddam, meanwhile, keeps hoping that he can keep this going long enough to turn American public opinion against the war. Why? Because he thinks he's dealing with the Democratic Congress of the early 1970s -- the one that cut off all aid to our allies in South Vietnam and Cambodia, thereby handing them over to the savagery of their Communist conquerors.

He thinks he's dealing with Bill Clinton, who "governed" with his eyes on the polls.

Saddam is wrong.

Do our supply lines need protecting? Our planners already anticipated the need for more soldiers, whose orders were issued before the war began. If they had not been needed, then their orders would have been cancelled or put on hold. Since they are needed, that stage of the plan is going ahead.

In other words, we planned for the worst and hoped for the best, and prepared to adapt immediately to whatever might come. That, folks, is how wars are fought when you intend to win.

As I write this (on Sunday, 30 March), we are still maneuvering around Baghdad while pounding the Republican Guard. We are catching their attempted sorties the moment they start to move, and breaking them up from the air.

In other words, we are still in the maneuver phase of this campaign. Saddam has already thrown a significant portion of his master plan at us, and all he has done is slow us down a day or two here and there, which is trivial. Our allies are still fighting hard alongside our hard-fighting soldiers, and at every step, our planning has been so effective that our losses from accidents (which happen even in peacetime) are comparable to our losses on the battlefield.

At some point that may change. Saddam may have some new trick up his sleeve that costs us dearly. We may have to adapt by retreating. But such things happen in war, and they don't mean a thing unless you immediately surrender at the sign of the first setback.

Retreat is what a good commander does in the face of serious danger, because it is vital to preserve the integrity of the fighting force so you still have them to use tomorrow. So if retreat is what is called for, then good commanders do it, picking the ground they'll stand on to fight.

It was Hitler, in World War II, who insisted that his men fight to the death in Stalingrad instead of allowing them to retreat while they still could. As a result, he lost a huge army -- to no purpose.

It was the allies who, in the Battle of the Bulge, managed to turn complete surprise and rout into orderly retreat. They held at Bastogne, and eventually managed to supply, then relieve that surrounded force.

But for a while, the enemy seemed to be in the ascendant. And there may be moments in this war when Saddam will seem to have trumped us.

The press may report it as a disaster for our side and talk ominously about our "exit strategy" and what our defeat will mean to global American influence and to W's reelection chances. They'll talk like this because that's the only way they know how to look at a war -- all they see is this minute, and maybe the minute before ... but never the minute after.

Meanwhile, our own military will be doing their job -- adapting to the changing circumstance and dealing with it. Not all that long after the "disaster," the press will be reporting on our brilliant victory and talking about what that will mean to global American influence and W's reelection chances.

However, speaking realistically, I don't expect a disaster, not even a momentary or illusory one. Why? Because Saddam doesn't have that many cards to play.

Right now, about all he seems to have left that he hasn't used are his weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, our soldiers are equipped with better countermeasures to deal with gas or bioweapons than Saddam's are -- so any use of gas is likely to hurt him worse than it hurts us.

Indeed, I suspect our military's biggest worry is that Saddam might deliberately gas his own civilians and then proclaim, on Arab television networks, that we did it -- the way his own accidental or deliberate market bombings were blamed on us in the anti-American media.

Since the Arab street has been trained to believe anti-American lies for thirty years -- ever since 1973, really, when we emerged as Israel's failsafe supplier -- such a p.r. move would cause uncontrollable rioting in many an Arab city.

But it would not stop us from putting a stop to Saddam Hussein. Indeed, it would make it all the more urgent that we do it, and quickly, since the fact is that from the beginning of this war, the greatest danger to the people of Iraq has been Saddam Hussein, and their only hope of safety has been the Coalition.

Pay no attention to the play-by-play coverage. Go about your lives and let the "experts" talk to each other endlessly. Check in once a day just to see what has actually happened, and ignore all the talk about "what this might mean."

You'll get a much clearer picture of the progress of the war that way than you'll ever get by listening to the media overreact to every "trend" or rumor that comes their way.

Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.


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