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GARY HART

US Army in jeopardy in Iraq

IN 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia and, after success at the battle of Borodino, marched on and occupied Moscow. Napoleon and his generals took over the palaces of the court princes and great houses of the mighty boyars.

Sadly for Napoleon, the Russians had different plans for their nation. Within days after abandoning their city to the French army, they torched their own palaces, homes, enterprises, and cathedrals. They burned Moscow down around Napoleon. Denied his last great triumph, the disappointed emperor abandoned Moscow and started home. Along the way, he lost the world's most powerful army.

Recently one of Islamic Shi'ites' most revered sites, the golden mosque in Baghdad, was destroyed by sectarian enemies. By this act and the reprisals that followed, Iraq moved a substantial step closer to civil war. Though a remote, but real, possibility, an Iraqi civil war could cost the United States its army.

Hopefully, leaders are planning for this possibility. If sectarian violence escalates further, US troops must be withdrawn from patrol and confined to their barracks and garrisons. Mass transport must be mustered for rapid withdrawal of those troops from volatile cities in the explosive central region of Iraq. Intensive diplomatic efforts must be focused on preventing an Iraqi civil war from spreading to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria. Such a potential could make the greater Middle East a tinder box for years, if not decades, to come.

But the first concern must be the safety of US forces. It is strange to contemplate the possibility that the greatest army in world history could be slaughtered in a Middle East conflagration. But prudent commanders have no choice but to plan for this danger.

In greatest danger are the units in the Sunni central region cities. They are in real jeopardy if tens of thousands of angry Sunni and Shi'ite citizens, supported by their sectarian militias, surround and then overrun those units before they can be withdrawn.

The United States lost one war not too long ago in Vietnam. Conditions are taking shape that could result in the same outcome in Iraq. Not to plan now for this apocalyptic possibility would be tantamount to criminal neglect on the part of our political and military leadership.

A major part of the dilemma we have created is the result of failure to know the history and complex culture of Iraq. As we refused to learn from the French experience in Indochina, we also failed to learn from the British experience in Iraq. We are on the cusp of religion and antique hatred overtaking whatever latent instincts toward democracy we may have relied on or tried to instill. We face the reemergence of 11th-century Assassins and 17th-century ethnic fundamentalism arising to replace a century of ideology -- imperialism, fascism, and communism.

The character of warfare and violence is being transformed. The warfare of the future is not World War II, or even Korea or Vietnam. It is Mogadishu and Fallujah -- low-intensity conflict among tribes, clans, and gangs. We are not prepared for that kind of warfare.

The United States is in danger of finding combat forces trapped in a civil war that they cannot prevent, control, or win.

America's army is in danger, and that danger is possibly just around the corner.

Gary Hart, a former US senator, lives in Kittredge, Colo.

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