Middle East

The Baghdad Goetterdaemmerung scenario
By Marc Erikson

The battle for Baghdad is about to be joined. The military outcome is not in doubt. However, whether this war can be concluded with a minimum of civilian casualties and damage to essential infrastructure (so far one dead, 32 injured in Baghdad according to the Red Cross), does not in the main lie in the hands of coalition forces. In a comprehensive profile of Saddam Hussein in these pages recently (Inside Saddam's mind ), my colleague Pepe Escobar documented the megalomaniacal historical ambitions of the Iraqi dictator. No one can rule out that this man, on whose orders tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens have been brutally murdered since 1979, will in the end adopt "defensive" measures - dispersing military personnel among non-combatants, mining buildings and infrastructure, in effect bringing down the temple on himself - which will bring about mass casualties.

By April 1945, when the Allies had crossed the Rhine river and Soviet forces had reached the Oder river just east of Berlin, World War II was certainly over for the Nazi regime. And yet, one of the largest, most deadly battles of the war, the battle for Berlin, was yet to come. On the night of April 16, well over a million Soviet soldiers with 6,000 tanks and 40,000 artillery pieces commenced the final push to Berlin. Before the Soviet victors hoisted the red flag on the Brandenburg Gate on April 30 and Adolf Hitler shot himself in his bunker, nearly 100,000 more Soviet and 60,000 German soldiers had lost their lives, along with tens of thousands of civilians. Overall, at least 250,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the last two weeks of the war.

Why? The war - in all but formal declaration - was lost. As documented in Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels' diary (he spent the final weeks of the regime in Hitler's bunker and died there), Hitler was determined to see Germany and the German people destroyed, indeed, deemed them deserving of destruction, if they couldn't win. But that doesn't explain why not only the Waffen SS (Hitler's elite guards), but regular army and Volkssturm (under 18 and over 60-year olds) units fought to the last day. Germans have a term for that, Mut der Verzweiflung - courage (born) of desperation. Rational decision gives way to the elemental fight for identity.

Could this happen in and around Baghdad in coming days? I don't know, but I can't rule it out. One outstanding fact of the war so far is that widely expected mass surrenders haven't occurred. Thousands, yes. Tens of thousands, entire divisions, no. Nor have we seen anti-Saddam uprisings or celebrations in the streets of "liberated" towns. From fear that much as after the Gulf War the US-led forces would depart and leave any uprising to be crushed by Saddam's security forces? That may be part of it, but it's not the whole story. There is an element of defiance and resistance that can't just be explained away. And therein lies the danger that - much like Hitler - Saddam would see justification for going down in a Goetterdaemmerung (Twilight of the Gods) cataclysm and take the believers with him.

This is not a prediction. It's a credible risk to be factored in. The US has tried to avoid civilian casualties. It may find - much as the Allies did during World War II - that to win a war, there's no clean and antiseptic way to do so.

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Mar 26, 2003

High-risk dash - Baghdad by Wednesday? (Mar 24, '03)

Free press and the face of war (Mar 24, '03)


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