Chickens in a Darkening Sky

Article excerpt

Suddenly the sky is dark with chickens coming home to roost, and bedtime reading is Thucydides' account of the disastrous Athenian siege of Syracuse. Start with the amazed discovery of the White House, the Defense Department and the permanently embedded US press corps that nations don't care to be invaded, even if they have been misgoverned by a tyrant for decades. How many Russians died defending the Soviet Union from German invasion after enduring famine and Stalin's terror? This isn't 1991, when Iraqis asked themselves, "Why die for Kuwait?"

Basra? "Military officials," ran a European press report, "later admitted that they had vastly underestimated the strength of Iraqi resistance and the loyalty of Basra's population to Saddam." The report quoted a British officer as saying "there are significant elements in Basra who are hugely loyal to the regime."

Kurdish-held northern Iraq? "Even in Kurdistan," reported the London Independent, on March 25 (in the person of my brother, Patrick Cockburn), "where the US is popular and where President Saddam committed some of his worst atrocities, there are flickers of Iraqi patriotism. A Kurdish official, who has devoted years to opposing the government in Baghdad, admitted: 'Iraqis won't like to see American soldiers ripping down posters of Saddam Hussein though they might like to do it themselves. They didn't enjoy watching the Stars and Stripes being raised near Umm Qasr.'"

And so it will all get much, much nastier. Saddam Hussein, a devoted admirer of Stalin, must have the Stalingrad parallel hopefully in mind. A confident invading German Army, extended lines of communication vulnerable to weather and guerrilla attack, and then Stalin's order to the Red Army, "Not another inch of retreat," followed by the savagery of house-to-house urban fighting.

One doesn't have to parallel the German defeat with one for the United States and Britain, or substitute sandstorms and approaching summer heat for snow and the Russian winter, but merely remember what happened to Stalingrad, in which scarcely one brick was left on top of another. The actual fighting component of the invading US/British force is small, because (as anonymous Pentagon officers are now bitterly complaining) Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's preference for Special Forces prevailed over Gen. Tommy Franks's recommendation of a large army; also because huge peace demonstrations in Turkey lopped off the northern half of the invading pincers. If urban fighting increases, US strategy will veer toward old-fashioned saturation bombing. The temptation to flatten significant portions of Baghdad by B-52 raids will grow sharply if the land force gets seriously stymied.

But perhaps the most grotesque chicken now roosting in the coop came in the form of Rumsfeld's sudden discovery of the Geneva conventions regarding prisoners of war. When five captured US soldiers were paraded in front of the Iraqi television cameras, Rumsfeld immediately complained that "it is against the Geneva convention to show photographs of prisoners of war in a manner that is humiliating for them. …