I've been thinking about some things that Richard Engel said in his MSNBC documentary I mentioned night before last, "War Zone Diary." And what it's got me wondering is if even the precautions against going into a losing war that are encapsulated in the Powell Doctrine are insufficient, if maybe we need to add one more pre-requisite before going to war if we, as a free country and a democracy, are to have any hope of winning? Here's his sequence of events, and then my reasoning.
Engel mentioned that for the first two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, there wasn't anywhere in the whole country that he, and other American reporters, and American aid workers, couldn't safely drive. That everywhere they went, the Shiites welcomed them as liberators, more or less living up to Ahmed Chalabi's promises. Iraq's Sunnis didn't welcome the Americans as liberators, but they recognized civilian targets as out of bounds. And while yes, during that first two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, Afghani and Saudi fighters from al Qaeda and similar groups were trying to take advantage of the situation to fight Americans, the Shiites were fighting them off and even the Saudis were either fighting them off or turning them in. Then, all in one day, the situation changed. An American Tomahawk cruise missile, presumably targeted at some Sunni and/or Baathist insurgent position, went off course and detonated in an open air market in a Shiite neighborhood. When Engel and his camera crew got there, the crowd turned on him ... not quite violently, not yet, but visibly and angrily turned on him and every other American who showed up on the scene. And, he reports, within two days American reporters and aid workers were being openly shot at any time they left their hotels. Within a week, or at most two weeks, both the local Sunnis and the local Shiites were welcoming and openly working alongside foreign members of al Qaeda.
Now, here's the part of that that's got me somewhat scratching my head: the total civilian casualties from that attack were in the high single digits or low teens killed, and probably fewer than a hundred wounded. Those were the first documented civilian casualties in Baghdad. The explosion was clearly an accident, and immediately apologized for by the US. And there is no way, no way in heck, that everybody including the Shiites shouldn't have been expecting massive civilian casualties, is there? Right up until halfway through the actual invasion of Baghdad, nobody knew if the Iraqi Republican Guard were going to fight us block by block or throw down their arms. They actually chose "none of the above," dispersing into the countryside to start an insurgency. But the principle remains that if, as everybody on every side should have known was possible or even probable, if the US Army and the US Marine Corps had had to fight block by block through the crowded streets of Baghdad to reach the main palace, the civilian casualties wouldn't have been in the dozens, they'd have been in the dozens of thousands.
And yet all it took was a half a dozen or a dozen such casualties before the closest thing we had to in-country allies turned on us and allied with their traditional enemies, another group of foreign invaders.
Fast foward from there to another fight in Baghdad. An American tank commander saw a long lens, like a telescope, observing his position from a nearby high-rise window. Without first checking his map, because he was in an exposed position and in a hurry, he lobbed a tank round into that window, assuming it was an artillery spotter. It wasn't. The building was the Palestine Hotel, the main press corps headquarters in Baghdad, and the lens was the lens of a TV camera. Richard Engel was, by coincidence, standing just outside the hotel when the shell hit, and his video diary shows him running up the stairs to see if anybody had been in the room that was hit, particularly anybody he knew. They'd already removed the body, but the pool of blood and the shattered camera still leaning against the wall next to the window frame told him all he needed to know. And here, again, is the interesting thing: by the time he got back down stairs, you can hear on his camera footage that every foreign reporter from every one of our allies, almost all of them previously enthusiastic supporters of the war, had turned against us. All it took was one civilian casualty from an entirely credible accident, the kind of thing that happens in every war zone since the invention of ranged weaponry, to turn previous allies into enemies.
The Powell Doctrine attempts to address this possibility with points 3 and 6, saying that we shouldn't commit troops to the battlefield until and unless "the risks and costs have been fully and frankly analyzed" and "the action [is] supported by the American people." But I wonder if those points aren't explicit enough about the civilian costs. I wonder if, as phrased, the only risks that would be considered are the risks to the soldiers, and the only costs financial ones? I wonder if, as seems to have happened in this war, nobody in charge considered the question of whether or not the American people and, more importantly, all of the allies that we're depending upon, would continue to support a war with allied civilian casualties? So I wonder if there doesn't need to be a 9th question, a 9th pre-condition for war:
9. Are the American people, and all of the allies that we are depending on, prepared to continue to support the war even after there have been extensive casualties, including civilian casualties, including allied civilian casualties?
Because those casualties are a foreseeable, inevitable consequence of war. And if any of the allies that we're depending upon for our war plan are going to turn against us, going to switch sides to our enemies, if any of their civilians are accidentally killed, then the war isn't winnable.