The Easy War

"If you want peace, understand war," the military historian B. H. Liddell Hart once wrote, and during the past century -- some would say ever since Gen. Sherman's march through Georgia -- that injunction meant anyone interested in peace needed above all to understand the practice of "total war."

Total war overflowed earlier boundaries. Instead of limited firepower aimed only at men in uniform, total war called for far greater levels of violence directed at civilians and soldiers alike, and at home meant all-out mobilization of economic resources, science, the mass media and public opinion. This was the experience of the two world wars, and the Cold War threatened to give the paradigm its ultimate expression in the form of "mutual assured destruction." The 20th century was, in the sociologist Raymond Aron's phrase, the "century of total war."

Now, with weapons of an even greater sophistication, Americans contemplate war of nearly the opposite kind in Iraq. Our technological edge is so great that we anticipate few casualties among our own troops, and with precision-guided bombs we can minimize "collateral damage" to civilian populations. There is no mass mobilization at home, no draft, no rationing. Although wars usually come with tax increases, the Bush administration promises an ever greater bounty of tax cuts.

In short, instead of total war, we have the promise of easy war -- easy in the sacrifices it demands of us, easy on our consciences, easy on our pocketbooks. Easy, that is, if it all goes well. Perhaps that's why Americans are so ready to go to war. There is no sense that we will have to bear any burden whatsoever in fighting it.

As I write in the second week of February, the stage has been set for this exercise: Every signal coming from Washington suggests that the diplomatic preliminaries and military preparations for war are coming to an end. Either Saddam Hussein's military will overthrow him at the last minute in a great coup for Bush or American and British forces will invade. Then we will pound the Iraqi forces from the air, most of them will surrender, Hussein's regime will crumble and American soldiers will be treated as heroes by the liberated Iraqi people.

At least that's what most Americans expect -- and so it may be. The grief we anticipate is on the scale of the Columbia space shuttle; substantial casualties in the hundreds or thousands would come as a shock. If Hussein's troops take refuge in civilian areas, we will say the blood is on his hands. And, of course, we fear no retaliation, not from the Iraqis, and would be outraged if somehow they struck back at us. That would be terrorism -- and because it would almost certainly be directed at civilians, it would prove that we were morally justified to invade in the first place.

Beyond an invasion, we face an occupation and the challenge of regime change, but recent news reports suggest that post-invasion planners are hoping to be in and out of Iraq in 90 days, turning over power not to Iraqi exiles but rather to segments of the military congenial to our interests. This administration does not seem interested in the kind of prolonged nation building that some liberals have hoped would turn Iraq into a Middle Eastern "beacon of democracy."

Still, to get rid of Hussein in 90 days -- if a new regime sticks -- would be a great victory for the United States. But the general strategy behind this war may have little application beyond it. Weakened by the Gulf War and subsequent sanctions and isolation, Iraq today presents a far easier target than do the two other countries on the "axis of evil" -- North Korea and Iran. Similarly, if Islamic militants were to take over Pakistan and gain control of its nuclear weapons, we would face far greater dangers in attempting regime change there. Fighting a conventional war in Iraq is not just easier than combating underground terrorist networks; it's easier than almost any other war we might imagine based on the same goal of denying weapons of mass destruction to potential enemies.

An easy war in Iraq may also beget more hubris in a foreign policy that is already dangerously unmindful of the limits of American power and our needs for cooperation. In dealing with our allies, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seems to have confused the old adage that "a good offense is the best defense" with the idea that being offensive is the best defense.

When the dust clears over Baghdad, we will likely find ourselves no safer from terrorism than before, but our alliances will be battered and our true enemies will be more convinced than ever that what they need to prevent themselves from becoming another Iraq is a real nuclear arsenal. If this war is easy, it may be no indication of what's in store in the future.

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