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THE SIEGE OF IRAQ

There is an almost axiomatic link between the use of technology and military triumph. One has only to recall the impact of gunpowder when it was first introduced in warfare. Napoleon’s deployment of heavy artillery made him invincible till General Winter stopped his advance in Russia. Warfare had never before seen the use of firepower on the scale that Napoleon used it in his European campaigns. In modern warfare, mobility was added to firepower. Thus the importance of tanks and the armoured corps. The Nazi blitzkrieg based itself on firepower and swift movement. Many of the great generals of World War II, Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian — to name two — won their laurels as masters of tank warfare. The advance of technology has introduced firepower from the skies — first from planes and more recently, via missiles. The strategy used by the generals of the United States of America in the Iraq war was based on the terror and the strategic and political dislocation that precisely targetted aerial firepower would cause in Baghdad and other major cities of Iraq. The aim was to destroy strategic buildings and military installations and to avoid, as far as possible, civilian casualties. The expectation on the US side was that firepower would physically destroy the tyrannical regime’s nerve-centre and make the people and soldiers of Iraq, weary of Mr Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, rebel and welcome the invaders. This is not how things have proceeded after nearly ten days of warfare. Casualties have been low, but there is no evidence of welcoming the invader. The hatred for Mr Hussein appears to be less than the hatred for the invader. This has forced the US and its allied to rethink their strategy.

The realization that Shock and Awe were not enough has resulted in the opening of a second front and a lapse into more conventional, and perhaps old-fashioned, terms of warfare. In the new and second phase of the war, the plan is to isolate and lay siege on towns like Basra, Nasiriyah and so on. It is clear that in this phase civilian casualties will be unavoidable. The ultimate aim is, of course, the encircling of the Iraqi capital and cutting off its supplies. This is only a modern variant of the medieval art of fortress warfare. The campaign in Iraq has thus shown both the strengths and the weaknesses of the use of technology in war. There can be no doubt that the allied pinpoint bombing has been awesome. But it is also clear that awe is not enough to either defeat or topple a regime, however oppressive. Ultimately, technology can only complement the human will.

It is this will, again, which can stall the overwhelming triumph of technology. One has only to recall how the Russians defended their motherland against Hitler, and the courage of the Vietnamese against the US forces. It will take more than awesome firepower to break the will of the Iraqi people, embodied in their resistance. The US has the resources to do this, but it will have to reconcile itself to heavy civilian casualties. In warfare, as in other arenas of life, technology can only be a means to the end. It remains to be seen how far the allies are willing to use the available technology to control Iraq even if this involves bloodshed.

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