Been Down This Military Road; Training Prevents Baghdad-Type Incidents

Article excerpt


The incident on Friday along the Baghdad International Airport road resulted in the wounding of the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena and the death of her rescuer, Nicola Calipari. It was a tragic moment, and regardless of who will eventually be found at fault it was clearly a setback in our efforts to hold together a shrinking coalition in Iraq. The lesson here is that in recent wars an isolated action can have enormous strategic consequences.

Metaphorically speaking we've been down this road before. Recall the international outcry following the bombing of the Al Firdos command bunker in downtown Baghdad that killed several hundred innocent Iraqi civilians during the first Gulf War. The result was a radical alteration in the air campaign strategy. Essentially the embarrassment of the event compelled the first President Bush to put Baghdad off limits to future aerial strikes. Even after the war the bunker became something of a national shrine within the Arab world symbolizing the perfidy of American military methods.

But the killing along the Baghdad International Airport road is different. The decision to strike the Al Firdos bunker was made by generals. Friday's incident was the work of privates and sergeants. These young men, many of them teen-agers, had established a checkpoint along one of the most dangerous portions of one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the world. Dozens of young soldiers had been killed by suicide bombers there. It was nighttime. These soldiers had only recently arrived in Iraq. At that tragic moment they had perhaps two or three seconds to make a life or death decision. Is this an enemy driving a car loaded with hundreds of pounds of artillery and mortar shells ready to explode? Or is it an innocent civilian confused and frightened by the glare of spotlights and the terror of tracer bullets coursing into the night sky?

The Baghdad International Airport road tragedy offers a teachable moment for those charged with making key decisions concerning the future of defense policy. The lesson to be learned is this: In this new age of warfare, privates, corporals and sergeants, not generals, make key strategic decisions. On thousands of occasions in places like the graveyards of Najaf and the back alleys of Fallujah, lower-ranking soldiers and Marines are responsible for saving lives or taking them. …