Those watching CNN in the wee hours Sunday morning found themselves witnessing something we haven’t seen much of—an actual battle, closeup, in real time. Until then, this war, at least the televised portion of it, had remained a fairly abstract affair: a mix of spectacular explosions in Baghdad (some idiot reporter at a Pentagon press conference referred to Friday’s bombardment as “last night’s show”) and massive tank columns dashing unimpeded through the desert. Occasionally, an embedded reporter would talk of brief skirmishes that had just ended, but we at home never saw the action.
The whole picture changed when a British TV pool in the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr started broadcasting live footage of the real, gritty thing. Early Saturday, U.S. Marines had supposedly secured this port, which will soon be receiving shiploads of military reinforcements and humanitarian aid. Then they started coming under fire. Around 1 a.m. EST, we saw troops of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit lying on their stomachs, eyes glued to their rifle scopes, aiming their barrels at a concrete building where the snipers seemed to be perched. A couple of Abrams M1-A1 tanks fired shells on the building, then rolled slowly toward the target to survey the damage. The Iraqi soldiers—who turned out to be a patrol from the Republican Guard—fired back. Two more Abrams tanks moved forward. We could smell the tension, feel the adrenalin. CNN’s Aaron Brown, watching along in his studio, warned viewers that this was an unpredictable scene, that dreadful things might happen without notice. The fighting continued for another four hours, until a British Harrier jet was called in to take out the Iraqis from the air.
In the annals of warfare, this battle was no big deal, was fairly routine—and that’s the point. War, even 21st-century war, is not entirely about satellite-guided bombs, Predator drones, and computerized command stations. It’s also about hot metal, bloody sand, and sweaty chaos.
Some newscasters seemed shocked at this turn of events. The thrust to Baghdad was supposed to be easy, the Iraqi soldiers weren’t even going to resist, or so said the consultant-generals with their bold blue arrows on their small-scale maps. Around the same time as the fighting at Umm Qasr, a unit of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment came under artillery attack near Nasiriyah, apparently from units of the Iraqi Fedayeen (“Men of Sacrifice”), particularly brutal soldiers, highly loyal to Saddam Hussein, who normally enforce “domestic order” but, during this war, are roaming the desert in trucks, firing rocket-propelled grenades at “targets of opportunity.” A few hours later, reports came in of coalition forces shot in battle, of U.S. soldiers taken prisoner in central Iraq, of a British plane downed by friendly fire over Kuwait.
By no measure can these incidents be called serious setbacks. Given the vast terrain that the U.S.-British offensive has covered, the casualties suffered so far are relatively modest. We have grown too accustomed to viewing modern combat as a zipless f—, a deathless bomb-fest, at least from our side of the ordnance, 10,000 feet up.
The scenarios of possible insta-victory have all assumed that the airstrikes will so disorient and disrupt Saddam’s command-and-control that his military machine crumbles or that his own close aides—valuing survival over fealty—bump him off. This might still happen. If it doesn’t, the war could go on for a while. The airstrikes will accelerate the campaign, but they won’t settle it. Especially if U.S. troops have to fight inside Baghdad, the battle of Umm Qasr and the ambush of the 7th Cav may be but mild previews of the fighting still to come.