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WAR: The Soporific Start

Paper No. 637                           21.03.2003


by B. Raman

The media had  promised us a war, which would start with a bang, the like of which the world has not seen before---with all the American might and fury in action.  Instead, what we had on D-Day was a whimper.  One had the impression of watching more a shadow-boxing than a war.

2.We were told before D-Day that one of the first objectives of the US forces would be to pre-empt any Iraqi missile attack on Israel and Kuwait and take control of  the oil wells in southern Iraq before President Saddam Hussein set fire to them to slow down the advance of the ground forces.  And yet, throughout the day, the Iraqi forces kept firing their Scuds at regular intervals towards Kuwait, with only one out of the seven intercepted and the Americans apparently not having a clue as to where they were coming from and how to stop them.  At his media briefing, Mr. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, reluctantly admitted that he had heard reports of at least three oil wells being on fire.

3. Wars start with clarion-calls. War is the time for Churchillian oration.  We have hardly had any.  President Bush looked more like a Baptist missionary preaching from the pulpit than an indignant leader rousing the world to action.  One wishes his speech-writers had not included the bit about "more than 35 nations" supporting the US in its military action on Iraq.  It is much less than one third (or is it one-fourth?) of the world and one would require a magnifying glass  to locate some of the US allies on the map.

4. Saddam Hussein looked more like a sleep-walker or an Egyptian mummy exhibited in the Louvre museum in Paris than a defiant leader of a much wronged nation.  Rumsfeld, at his first media briefing, looked like what he always looks like---a reluctant professor.

5. War is the time for spectacular or shocking  visuals.  Remember the visuals of 1991? The missiles attacking Baghdad in darkness.  The confused and panicky Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries firing in any direction without knowing from which direction the missiles were coming.  The Iraqi Scud missiles hitting their targets in Israel.  The oil wells on fire. Scenes of  civilians killed in Baghdad.

6. There were hardly any visuals on D-Day this time---either spectacular or shocking. Most of the time one was seeing the journalists of the BBC and the CNN waxing eloquent on nothing and their ever-obliging experts saying what their governments would have liked them to say.  Hardly any independent analysis.  Hardly any note of skepticism.

7. We were told six of the Scud missiles managed to hit their targets in Kuwait, but without causing any damage or casualties. There were no visuals in support of this claim unless I had missed them.

8. Western journalists reported excitedly that the CIA had taken control of the Iraqi radio wavelengths and was broadcasting to the Iraqi people in the name of a "Free Iraq" radio on the wavelength of the Iraqi State radio.  They found that what they thought were the broadcasts of the CIA were actually of the Iraqi State.

9. Wars bring forth additions to the jargon. We were told we were in the beginning of a network-centric war.  I am too old and too dull to understand what it means.  We were told the war had started with a decapitation attack on Saddam Hussein.  After Saddam Hussein or at least someone embarrassingly trying to look and speak like him appeared on the TV, this was modified to decapitation attack on the Iraqi leadership.  The CIA should try to have his moustache examined by its forensic experts.  It didn't exactly look like Saddam's.  The truth might be hidden in the moustache.  At the end of the day, Rumsfeld spoke just of an attack on an Iraqi leadership residential complex near Baghdad.

10. We were told how Mr. George Tenet, the ever-surviving Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), rushed to the President excitedly saying he knew exactly where Saddam Hussein was and for how long he would be there and how Bush, after discussing it with his aides for four hours, ordered the decapitation attack on the "target of opportunity".  Yet another piece of jargon from the vocabulary of counter-terrorism experts.

11. Was the information correct? If not Saddam Hussein, did they at least kill some other leader of importance? No answers.  We were told the damage assessment was still in progress. Which damage? That of the Iraqis or of the reputation of the CIA?. The 'Washington Post" has hinted that the CIA's information probably proved incorrect.

12. No need for the CIA to feel ashamed.  In the intelligence profession, we all prove incorrect some time or the other.  The CIA more than many other agencies.  The more the funds and the gadgets you have, the more the mistakes you make.  Remember how they sent their Air Force to bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade thinking it was the office of the Yugoslav arms procurement agency? They blamed it on an old satellite picture and on lack of information that the agency building had been demolished and the land given to the Chinese for their Embassy.

13. A critic sarcastically remarked that if only the CIA had consulted the chauffeur of the US Embassy in Belgrade instead of their satellite images, they would have known it was the Chinese Embassy.  Because he had been driving his Ambassador to diplomatic receptions there.

14. On the morning of D-Day plus one, we are  none the wiser as to what the hell is going on there.  Since the Second World War, no other administration in Washington DC had managed and tamed the American media as effectively as the present one and never before has the US media so willingly let itself be managed and tamed as now.  It was a disappointing D-Day.  Let's hope for more exciting days ahead.  BBC and CNN say action has started.  It is a strategy of graduated escalation, we are told.  Unseen, till Bush and Rumsfeld decide we should see them.

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: )