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[casi] Rogers: The myth of a clean war

            The myth of a clean war - and its real motive
             Paul Rogers

            13 - 3 - 2003

            The immediate US purpose is to destroy the Saddam regime. This,
no less than the weapons used to fight it, guarantees that the Iraq war will
have a heavy human cost in the short term. Behind the war, the search for
military and oil security is impelling a broader US agenda for regional
control. This ensures further violence in the long term. A different
strategy is urgently needed.

            As the United States and Britain move closer to a pre-emptive
war to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime, a central claim of both
governments will be that this will be a 'clean' war, using precision-guided
missiles and bombs to destroy command headquarters and other military
facilities while rigorously avoiding people, especially civilians.

            The precedent

            It is worth remembering that exactly the same was said at the
time of the 1991 Gulf war, and only in its aftermath were the full effects
of the war on ordinary people appreciated. The notion of a 'war against real
estate' - with TV pictures showing the pinpoint destruction of deserted
bridges - was carefully cultivated, with other film of people being killed
assiduously kept from view.

            Three examples of heavy loss of life during the 1991 war are
particularly vivid. First, the bombing of the Amiriya air-raid shelter in
Baghdad in the mistaken belief that it was a command bunker; over 300 women
and children were incinerated.

            Second, at the end of the war, the Mutla ridge on the 'highway
of death' out of Kuwait was a scene of carnage where returning Iraqi
conscripts were cut to pieces.

            Third, one of the US army's tactics during the war was simply to
fill in Iraqi trenches, burying soldiers alive in the process. In a move
that had been extensively rehearsed, Abrams tanks fitted with bulldozer
blades drove parallel to the trenches. This was part of a systematic
large-scale action to destroy Iraqi front-line trenches and their occupants
in order to minimise US casualties.

            It took time for these events to be properly registered and
understood. After the war, some coalition states measured casualties in the
tens of thousands. A Saudi military source quoted figures of 65,000-100,000
killed; a leaked report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency put the
figure at 100,000 dead and 300,000 injured.

            In the wake of a critical response to these reports, Washington
moved to downgrade the estimates of casualties, but a total of at least
40,000 Iraqi troops and around 4,000 civilians is now widely accepted as
something close to the death toll in less than two months of fighting.

            The full destructive impact of the war extended to Iraqi civil
infrastructure. There had been extensive damage to drinking water supplies,
sewage treatment plants, transport links and administration offices. All
this contributed to a sharp decline in the standard of living, including the
health status, of most ordinary Iraqis. Overall, there was a progressive
rise in death rates that was to greatly exceed the actual casualties of war.
The behaviour of the regime, needless to say, intensified these effects.

            The human cost

            Twelve years on, there are comparable claims that the weapons
are very much more accurate than in 1991, and that the civil infrastructure
will be left intact as the US and Britain aim their weapons at the regime
alone. It is intended to sound reassuring, but is deeply misleading. The
only circumstance in which the death toll will not be massive is if the
regime collapses almost the moment the war starts. In any other event, there
will be many thousands of deaths.

            There are at least four quite different reasons why this is so.
Two are familiar and even, in their way, obvious - all the more reason to
register them. Two more relate to military technology and to the purpose and
method of the war; these require more extended explanation.

            The first reason to expect large numbers of casualties is that
even when weapons are aimed at physical targets, people die. Command
centres, communications facilities, power stations, electricity switching
centres, government offices and the rest all have people in them, many of
them civilians, many of whom will be killed and injured.

            This is especially true in the coming war as the US (and
Britain) will start it with an extraordinarily concentrated series of air
attacks involving as many as 4,000 missiles and bombs on a range of targets
stretching across much of Iraq but centred on Baghdad. The idea may well be
to shock the regime into immediate capitulation; the effects in any case
will be massive.

            It has been said that the civil infrastructure will not be
targeted, partly to avoid a repeat of the humanitarian disaster that
followed the 1991 war. This is simply not believable. If the Iraqi military
require any part of that infrastructure to function effectively, including
power supplies, bridges and the like, then it is certain that they will be

            The second reason to expect high casualties is that
precision-guided weapons can all too easily be aimed at the wrong targets.
This has been demonstrated since the first Gulf war: there were incidents in
the war over Kosovo and Serbia in 1999, and in Afghanistan in 2001-02, that
killed scores of civilians. The air war against Iraq will be intense and
concentrated, but US intelligence has been faulty in the past, and the
likelihood of serious errors remains.

            The technology

            These two reasons why the war will take many human lives are
apparent to almost anyone, but the third and fourth reasons are more

            The third reason relates to a vital military development that
has accompanied the so-called 'precision revolution'. It is often believed
that the production of laser- or satellite-guided missiles and bombs has
revolutionised war, making targeting a matter of consummate precision. There
is some truth in this; during the second world war, a so-called 'dumb bomb'
might land two kilometers away from its intended target, whereas now a
'smart bomb' can get within seventeen metres.

            But in parallel with the 'precision revolution', new generations
of a class of weapons known as Area Impact Munitions (AIMs) have been
developed. These are specifically conceived, designed, and used to kill and
injure as many people, and over as wide an area, as possible. The euphemism
of 'soft targeting' can smoothly distinguish these from the 'hard' targeting
of tanks, other armoured vehicles and bunkers by precision-guided weapons;
but the reality is that most AIMs are planned specifically to kill and maim
on a very large scale.

            Many AIMs were developed initially during the US war in Vietnam,
as a replacement for napalm (an early but very crude anti-personnel weapon);
they are now used by most of the larger armed forces.

            Britain, for example, has a long track record in developing this
type of weapon. The standard British cluster bomb, the BL755 made by Hunting
Engineering, was used extensively during the Falklands war in 1982 and later
exported across the world. A number of refinements have been added but, in
basic terms, the design has stayed the same. The BL755 is less a 'bomb' than
a canister containing large numbers of 'bomblets', grenade-sized munitions
that can be dispersed over an area the size of a football pitch - at least.

            Each BL755 contains 147 of these bomblets, designed in turn to
explode into around 2,000 high-velocity anti-personnel shrapnel fragments.
This means that every cluster bomb produces nearly one third of a million
fragments - killing, shredding and maiming anyone caught within range.

            Some US cluster bombs function over a much wider area - the
American CBU 87/89/97 series contains 202 bomblets which spread their effect
over an area measuring 400 x 200 metres. One B-52 bomber can drop at least
twelve of these extraordinarily destructive weapons in a single sortie; in
the coming war, some may operate from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire,
England. In the 1991 war, the US navy dropped 4,400 cluster bombs, and the
US air force (USAF) used thousands more.

            Even more devastating are the modern versions of artillery
rocket systems, especially when the individual missiles have warheads that
are made up of sub-munitions (bomblets) rather than single high-explosive
charges. The leading example of this kind of system in the employ of the US
army is known as the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS).

            Its most common version consists of twelve missiles on a launch
vehicle that can all be 'ripple-fired' in less than a minute. The missiles
have a range of over forty kilometers, and each contains 644 M-77 bomblets
producing high-velocity shrapnel fragments. All the missiles can be targeted
on an area of almost 100 hectares, and can thus deliver over 7,500 bomblets
on a single extended target. The destruction caused has been likened to that
of a small nuclear weapon. During the 1991 war, the US army fired 10,000
MLRS missiles and the British army a further 2,500.

            A longer-range version of the same type, the Army Tactical
Missile System, fires two much larger missiles across a range of over 60
miles, with each missile carrying 974 bomblets. This, too, will be used in

            Other area-impact weapons include massive individual bombs such
as the 7.5-ton BLU-82 used in Iraq in 1991 and more recently in Afghanistan;
and its successor, the newly-developed and even more powerful 9.5 ton
Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB).

            The why and how

            The sheer firepower and destructiveness of all these systems are
enough to explain why deaths in the coming war will at least match those of
1991; but there is a fourth and final reason why it will be so costly in
human terms.

            This concerns the purpose of the war and the way in which it
will be conducted. Where the 1991 war was fought to evict Iraqi armed forces
from Kuwait, the 2003 war is intended to destroy the Iraqi regime itself.
That means going for its Baghdad jugular. Saddam Hussein's forces will seek
to tie down US troops into urban warfare in the capital, yet the US in turn
will want to minimise its own losses at whatever cost to its opponents.

            What is likely to happen in 2003 is the extensive and more or
less continual use of a standard tactic called 'close air support' employing
concentrated air power to clear the path for US ground troops as they move
forward. If the opposing Iraqi forces are hiding out in urban areas, mixed
in with civilians, then the essential requirement to reduce US casualties to
a minimum will still stand; it is in these circumstances that the loss of
Iraqi lives, both military and civilian, is likely to be high, especially if
cluster bombs, multiple rocket launchers and other weapons are used.

            (Two precedents are worth recalling here. First, well-armed
Israeli forces had great difficulty in combating a few thousand Palestinian
militia in the siege of West Beirut in 1982, even though they heavily
outnumbered the latter. The Israelis, particularly anxious to limit their
own losses, used enormous firepower, leading to a death toll approaching
20,000 in the few weeks of the siege, most of them civilians.

            Second, when US forces were trapped - and eighteen killed - in a
vicious firefight in Mogadishu during the US's ill-fated intervention in
Somalia in 1992-93, massive force was used which killed 500 Somalis in a
single night in October 1993).

            In the coming war with Iraq, the US and British authorities will
make strenuous efforts to avoid mention of the range of weapons and tactics
actually being used; by contrast, they will place every emphasis on
precision and the apparent avoidance of casualties. The truth of how 'clean'
or 'dirty' the war actually is will depend crucially on the integrity and
knowledge of the journalists reporting it at first hand.

            The choice

            With all this in mind, and given the overwhelming likelihood of
war taking place in the very near future, how do its routine justifications
stand up to the light of evidence? If the arguments for war fail to
convince, is another course of action feasible?

            The balance-sheet of the foregoing argument can be summarised in
three propositions:

              a.. The US requirement for regime termination, and the current
parlous state of most of the Iraqi population and civil infrastructure,
means that immediate and longer-term civilian casualties will be very high.
A war is morally unacceptable on these grounds.
              b.. The planned post-war occupation of Iraq by the US, and its
subsequent establishment of several permanent military bases, will incite
long-term antagonism in the region, increasing substantially the risk of
regional instability and transnational terrorism.
              c.. The Iraqi regime must be expected to use all means to
avoid termination, including wholesale firing of oil wells and the use of
chemical and biological weapons (CBW).
            CBW possession and its likely use by Iraq is the core security
reason why regime termination by military force is the most dangerous
response to this crisis, and why policy-makers need urgently to consider
other means of handling the crisis. This is a very uncomfortable conclusion,
but to evade it would be a classic and perilous example of 'old thinking'.
            Yet even the employment of chemical and biological weapons does
not exhaust the terrifying possibilities of the 2003 war. As earlier columns
in this series have noted, there are indications of a US preparedness to use
nuclear weapons, embodied in its Theatre Nuclear Planning Document for Iraq.

            The danger here is that any consideration of nuclear weapons use
would break a 58-year moratorium. Casual talk of their 'usability' omits the
reality that low-yield earth penetrating warheads such as the B61-11
tactical nuclear bomb are amongst the dirtiest of nuclear weapons, producing
especially high levels of radioactive fall-out.

            Moreover, a war that escalated to nuclear use would greatly
encourage the subsequent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction across
the world. If Iraq were subjected to nuclear attack now, there would in all
probability be paramilitary retaliation within three to five years. This
might involve destruction of cities such as Washington and New York and, if
the UK was implicated, London too.

            The moral cost

            The violently repressive character of the Saddam Hussein regime
supports the moral argument for regime change. But military force can have
consequences that are themselves morally unacceptable. In any case, the
moral argument is not at the root of current policy - the regime could in
principle survive by disarming.

            The Iraqi regime is not a regional threat. Iran, Saudi Arabia,
Turkey, Jordan and Syria do not support a war against it, and opinion is
divided even in Kuwait.

            Evidence of an Iraqi link with al-Qaida is minimal and attempts
to demonstrate it have involved clear exaggeration. There have been problems
with other claims provided through western agencies, not least the forged
documents alleging Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Niger.

            The Iraqi regime has so far been careful not to give any
indication of release of CBW agents to paramilitary groups. The continuing
poor levels of security in the former Soviet Union provide far more likely
sources of such agents.

            Indeed, the use of military force to terminate the Baghdad
regime is probably the only circumstance in which the regime would release
such agents. Thus, military force might be the one action that could make
the regime an indirect threat to states beyond its own region. This, if
anything, is a further reason for avoiding war.

            Yet the twelve-year programme of aggressive containment and
sanctions has also been a conspicuous failure, grievously affecting ordinary
Iraqis while leaving the elite unscathed and firmly in power. To acknowledge
this is to imply recourse to a third way, beyond military action and the
status quo.

            The motive

            The development by Iraq of CBW is indeed a factor in the US aim
of regime termination. But it is secondary to the crucial geopolitical
importance of the region, and the fact that a radically 'oppositional'
regime there has become unacceptable to the United States.

            Whatever is said in public, the primary focus of US policy is
well understood in Washington, and that focus is oil. In this regard,
though, short-term commercial opportunities are far less significant than
the long-term strategic situation.

            Iraq has one-sixth of regional oil reserves and more than
one-tenth of world reserves. These are four times as large as total US
reserves, including Alaska. The region as a whole has energy reserves that
are globally dominant - in comparison, the Caspian Basin and Siberian
reserves are of only short-term importance.

            The US was virtually self-sufficient in oil thirty years ago but
now imports 60% of its requirements, and the proportion is rising steadily.
The Persian Gulf is becoming more important to the US and is an essential
source of oil for Europe and the Asia-Pacific states. Whoever controls the
region has long-term global leverage.

            The strategic aim of control of the region is therefore regarded
as essential to US security interests. There is a thirty-year history of
increasing military involvement to this end, one that stretches back to the
oil price rises of 1973-74, and the successive US military developments of
the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) and of Central Command.

            A post-war regional order is now sought in which the US has
direct security control of the western Gulf, from the Turkish border to the
Straits of Hormuz.

            The United States leadership sees this as both necessary and
sustainable. In practice, it will induce a sustained regional
counter-reaction that entails dangerous instability. The strategy will thus
be deeply counter-productive to the US and any associated allies.

            The advanced preparations for war with Iraq make it difficult to
develop different processes and strategies, ones that will open a path to
ensuring security, disarmament and justice in Iraq and the wider Middle
East. Many people and organisations around the world, like the Oxford
Research Group in Britain, are working on precisely this task. Both
short-term dangers, and the long-term interests of the region and the world,
make it an essential and urgent one.

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