Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Battle of Fallujah Begins

As I predicted a few days ago, the United States military launched its ground offensive into Fallujah yesterday, securing its two main bridges over the Euphrates river and the city's main hospital.

The Battle of Fallujah will likely be the bloodiest offensive of the war, and possibly the bloodiest single battle the US military has fought in a generation. The closest thing America has seen to urban warfare in recent memory is dropping bombs on Belgrade from 30,000 feet, or extracting the crew of a downed Black Hawk helicopter from Mogadishu. To see real urban warfare, we need to look back to the Vietnam War in 1968, where the American army fought a bloody street-to-street urban assault in the city of Hue. In that battle, 119 American and 363 American-allied South Vietnamese troops were killed, and (thanks to superior American artillery and air support) about 7500 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed. In that battle, thousands of Hue civilians were killed by bombs, artillery and stray bullets, and about 120,000 were left homeless.

There are a lot of parallels between Hue and Fallujah. In Hue, the American military was more concerned with minimizing their own casualties than preserving the historic city of Hue, and thus made heavy use of air and artillery support, resulting in significant damage to the ancient city. In Fallujah, with less historical significance and a greater worry of suicide-bomb attacks, the Americans will likely to be even more reliant on air and artillery attacks.

It is likely no coincidence that the Battle of Fallujah commenced just five days after the American presidential election. In the 1960s, the Hue battle resulted in considerable negative press attention, with photos of wounded marines and civilian casualties: not the type of fare a war planner would have wanted American voters to be considering in the runup to the US presidential election. But, now that the election is over, the administration has four years to undo any negative publicity that may result. And, as I mentioned in my previous post, the main worry of a second-term president is securing his place in history through actions that will bring potential long-term benefits, even if some short-term negative publicity may result.

While the Battle of Fallujah may be ugly, sadly I do think it is a necessary action under the present circumstances in Iraq, no matter how painful it may be to carry out. For the planned elections to be a success, all areas of Iraq must be able to freely exercise their democratic right, and without areas like Fallujah under the rule of law and order, this would be impossible.

Fortunately, it seems the American forces are taking some steps to mitigate the damage. They had two choices in fighting this battle: the easy way would have been to send in the Air Force to bomb Fallujah into oblivion much like the British did to Dresden in World War II, and (as some extreme-minded people have stated), "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." This approach would have resulted in minimal American casualties, but a total slaughter on the ground in Fallujah. The US military has fortunately chosen the the more difficult (and more honourable) option: to go in on the ground and take Fallujah street by street, putting their own lives in jeopardy in the process. This choice will result in greater American casualties, but will hopefully save many innocent lives in Fallujah in the process.