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Bill Orton
(D-Long Beach)

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November 3, 2003

Iraqi farmers, Achilles & The President

by Bill Orton

    As military planners investigate and the nation mourns the death of 16 Americans killed as they were due to fly home for leave, we must again grapple with the mortal dangers of a war that has no clear mission, nothing against which to measure our accomplishments and no strategy to get out.

    Rightly or wrongly, the attack that brought down an American Chinook helicopter will focus attention on what we are still doing in Iraq in the first place.

    Two men who each profoundly understand national security, and with the diametrically opposed views on the war there -- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and retired four-star general Wesley K. Clark -- are each correct in their analyses of the tragic loss of life this past weekend.

    Both men describe the attack that killed 16 American service personnel and injured 20, as "tragic." And that is the only word which can be used, not simply because it is the single largest loss of life since the start of the war, but also for the fact that the killed and injured were headed for transport planes that would have carried them home for a brief furlough in America to see friends, family and loved ones.

    "It's clearly a tragic day for America," said Mr. Rumsfeld on Fox News.

    And tragic it is, indeed.

    No American should draw satisfaction from second-guessing over troop movements or the policies regarding leaves. And now is not the time for the hurtful game of "I told you so."

    But neither can we draw comfort from the $87 billion supplemental spending bill pending in Congress, as the money earmarked for body armor, ammunition and other ongoing military essentials would not have made a difference in the attack.

    The supreme irony is we are suffering greater casualties and deaths now, after “major military operations have ended,” then we experienced during the war, and precisely at the moment in which America stands as the greatest military power on the globe.

    Some say, it makes one think of Vietnam. Others say, Korea.

    I say, think of Achilles.

    In the ancient Greek myth, the super warrior, Achilles, is dipped into the waters of the river Styx to make him impervious to attack. However, the tiny portion of the heel used to grip Achilles as he was dipped was not protected, and it was later an arrow to the heel that brought down the mighty warrior.

    Our enemy's arrow -- two shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles -- pierced our own heel of Achilles, posing the question of what sort of enemy is firing the arrows?

    Contemplate these words, quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

    “When you have someone invading your country, they won’t leave unless they see considerable resistance,” said Mohammed Abid, a farmer whose paternal uncle, the head of a powerful local clan, was detained by the Americans three weeks ago. “Neither George Bush’s helicopters nor his airplanes nor his tanks are going to help him, because he has created an enemy out of the ordinary people.”

    And from another farmer quoted by The Times, who witnessed the attack from a nearby field:

    “I was very excited and very happy, because they told us there were here to free us, but they are here to occupy us,” said Hamid Jassim.

    Obviously the president understands that our military personnel are in harm's way every day. In a televised press conference from the Rose Garden just a few days before the downing of the helicopter, Mr. Bush repeatedly said that Iraq is a "dangerous place."

    But it doesn’t seem that the President understands the simple lesson voiced by these ordinary farmers.

    In his press conference, the president spoke of our goals in Iraq as being to harden targets and to produce actionable intelligence. Aren't those the hallmark of an unending military adventure?

    We are paying an increasingly steep price in blood and yet simple lessons go unlearned.

    Secretary Rumsfeld is correct that this is a tragic day for America, but also on the mark is General Wesley Clark, who told an audience of 600 Bay Area lawyers in a speech organized by the San Francisco Bar Association that the killings represent "a tragic escalation of the war."

    Though his assessment is harsh, General Clark is correct.

    "They took us to war with an inadequate plan, without adequate forces," Clark told his audience. "And today, on a day in which 16 more Americans were killed in there's still no success strategy, there's no plan, there's no leadership."

    Can anyone claim that we have a plan for how to win, how to measure success or how to get out?

    Said General Clark, foreign terrorists are in Iraq because we aren't leaving the country.

    The president, in his press conference, twice turned down the opportunity to lay forth a timetable for the peaceful handover of power to the people of Iraq, or for the orderly pullback of American forces.

    And the downing of the Chinook will only harden the President's position, because he would admit utter failure if he were to turn tail and run.

    Now that the President has told the world that we have no immediate plans to leave and is obviously hunkering down for 2004, isn't it logical to expect an escalation in the violent nationalistic insurgency? Shouldn't we assume that an international neo-mujahedin movement will now fight us in Iraq just as holy warriors like Osama bin Laden battled the Soviets decades ago in Afghanistan?

    Think of those farmers quoted in the Times. We have the military might. They have the will. And in a nationalist struggle, will often prevails. Think of the Americans in Lebanon 1982 and the Soviets in Afghanistan.

    "In a long hard war were going to have tragic days," Rumsfeld told Fox. "They're part of a war that's difficult and complicated."

    When farmers applaud the downing of our troop transports, then it isn't complicated. We are fighting against phantoms. The enemy who can melt into the sand. Their will to defeat an invading occupier shall test our national soul.

    How do we harden the tail on every Chinook helicopter? One can dip the entire warrior into the river Styx, but just a pinchmark on the heel was vulnerability enough for an enemy to bring down Achilles.

    The difference between Secretary Rumsfeld and General Clark is that one of these men might actually have the ability to guide us to a clear and achievable mission in Iraq. And it isn’t Mr. Rumsfeld.

    Granted, none of the Democratic candidates has called for a pullout of US forces.

    But what direction does each of these men offer? Who is right about Iraq?

    Mr. Rumsfeld and his boss seem intent on hunkering down and locking American forces into place through 2004, on the prayer that we reach the light at the end of the tunnel before too much blood is spilled.

    With his San Francisco speech, General Clark -- a former NATO commander and the victor of the war and Kosovo -– leads the Democratic field in offering a forceful and credible counterpoint to the Administration’s war policy.

    Clark could wind up emulating another former NATO commander, namely Dwight David Eisenhower.

    In 1952, presidential candidate Eisenhower told a war-weary American public: "I will go to Korea." Ike had the credentials and military know-how needed to extricate American forces with honor. By the end of 1953, not only had Ike kept his promise to go to that war-torn country, but American forces finally came home.

    No doubt the single largest loss of life by US forces since the start of the war will sharpen criticism and calls for Hawk or Dove solutions. A hardening by the administration will be met those who point out that only evacuation from Iraq will keep American lives safe. Both are shortsighted and wrong.

    Any pullback must be coordinated with the goals of handing over power and creating a sufficient internal force to maintain order and stability. But these goals can be achieved while reducing the American presence, precisely because the ordinary Iraqi will respond with greater tolerance to our presence if they know we're on the way out.

    It may take a man of the military stature of Wesley Clark to truly carryout the words of Senator Robert Kennedy, who once commented about the Vietnam War that "political wars require political solutions."

    Few answers come from a single tragedy, but let us learn the lesson of the Chinook disaster, namely that we stand vulnerable, like Achilles, and that only with mission clarity and measurable goals can we reduce the imminent danger that American forces are experiencing.

    It is time to announce a schedule for elections in Iraq, to speed up the drafting of the internal constitution and to hand genuine autonomy to the interim governing authority in that country.

    Only when the people of Iraq are told when the coalition forces are to leave will they have confidence that their nation is not simply a bead on America's first imperial necklace.

    It is time for the United States to reach out to the entire world community -- including France and Germany -- for a truly international effort to rebuild the country that we have bombed and now occupy. It is time to roll back the noncompetitive bids and sweetheart deals enjoyed by Halliburton and Bechtel, and to open up contracting opportunities again.

    Only when the administration lays out a strategy in public that the American people can clearly understand, as to when our troops will come home and how we can measure the success of our mission will the plunging poll numbers stabilize and patience again return to the body politic.

    Yes, Iraq is a dangerous place, but so long as ordinary Iraqi farmers cheer the death of American soldiers and that simple lesson is lost on our President, then time is truly running out.

    Mr. President, learn from the farmers. Please don't leave our heel of Achilles forever exposed to the arrows of our enemies.

Bill Orton is a writer and historian living in Long Beach, California.