Mood Changes as America Finds War is Not a Video Game
Monday 25 March 2003
All of a sudden, brutal reality is kicking in. Before the Iraq invasion started, many Americans imagined the campaign in terms of Hollywood movies or the video-game abstraction of the television coverage of the first Gulf War that virtual reality in which we drop bombs and only the enemy dies, and off-camera at that.
But after the setbacks, guerrilla-style ambushes, downed helicopters and disturbing images of US soldiers dying or being taken prisoner over the past two days, the mood has changed abruptly,
"My God, this is getting much messier than I thought," was the reaction of one young Californian nursery school teacher yesterday. Her colleagues all concurred.
Across Los Angeles, the mood was overwhelmingly one of consternation and just a little dread. "I have a sick feeling about where this is all heading. They made us believe this would be a cakewalk, and now look what is happening," another woman, a writer married to an entertainment lawyer, said. "This can only make the world hate us Americans more." In what is perhaps a sign of the times, she did not want to be identified by name.
It is hard to know exactly how representative such views are, especially since southern California has been a bastion of anti-war sentiment. At least some people who believe in the war were quoted yesterday saying that casualties and setbacks were to be expected as part of the mission.
But it is also true that the Bush administration massively raised expectations regarding the speed and ease of the military operation to topple Saddam Hussein. Before the war started last week, the President himself talked in his televised statements, in his 6 March news conference and in his weekly radio addresses as though the fighting was already over and the reconstruction of Iraq had begun.
Earlier this month, with war already looking inevitable and dominating the news, 43 per cent of respondents in a New York Times/CBS poll said they expected a quick and successful campaign. By the end of last week, with the first bombs raining down on Baghdad and ground forces racing to secure the oilfields in the south, that number had risen to 63 per cent. More than half said they thought the war would end in a matter of weeks.
Now, however, the trend has been reversed. In another poll published in yesterday's Washington Post, 54 per cent now believe the United States will sustain "significant" casualties in Iraq, up from 37 per cent in a similar poll taken on the first day of the war last Thursday. One respondent in the new Washington Post/ABC poll, Daphne Nugent, 40, from New York, commented: "I didn't expect there to be this much trouble. And I'm a little upset by what I'm hearing in terms of the casualties and the prisoners of war. I thought it would end pretty easily and quickly, the war part of it anyway, not the occupation part."
Other New Yorkers, including those who survived the destruction of the World Trade Centre, have also described their mixed feelings at seeing similar scenes of buildings under aerial bombardment in Baghdad.
Financial markets are also reacting. After eight straight days of gains, the Dow Jones index plunged 300 points by lunchtime yesterday, although it later recovered slightly. Crude oil prices are also rising in response to the prospect of a longer war.
Several things make this war very different from other recent US military campaigns. It is much less dependent on air power alone, which has made the fighting and the dying much more immediate. And it is much more overtly about taking territory. This is no quick in and out, as were the Nato campaigns in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. As several soldiers at the front have come to appreciate, this is very different from 1991, when the US-led coalition concentrated on kicking Iraqi forces out of a country, Kuwait, that had invited it in to do so.
"People thought the Iraqis would be waving little American flags like it was occupied France in World War Two," Vincent Cannistraro, a retired CIA counter-terrorism expert, commented. "This is not an occupied country. It is Iraq and it is run by Iraqis, and for better or worse they are not welcoming Americans as liberators."
Both pro-war and anti-war voices agree, in fact, that this is likely to turn into the most in-your-face conflict that American troops and, just as significantly, American public opinion have faced since Vietnam.
"This kind of thing has not been seen on US television screens for more than 30 years," Sandy Cate, an anthropology professor from San Francisco, said. "You've got one, perhaps two, generations who have grown up with no idea of what war is really like, other than the cartoon violence they see at the movies. Well, now they are learning."
Part of the change in attitude is due to the media. Unlike the first Gulf War, when journalists were kept well away from the front, reporters are now "embedded" with army units and equipped with the technology to transmit words and images from the field. Some media critics have worried about journalists over-identifying with their units, but they also concede that the arrangement is providing much more detailed and less sanitised coverage than in 1991.
These are very early days, and expert opinion is divided on the degree of public tolerance for casualties. One sociologist, James Burk, told The Washington Post he thought the public would accept casualties as long as they are incurred "in pursuit of a mission that they think is reasonable".
But others, including John Mueller of Ohio State University, believe tolerance will be very low. Nobody in government has so much as mentioned body bags, he observed.
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