Friday, December 19, 2003

Breakout and Pursuit

The most damaging phase in military operations usually comes in a sudden burst following a seeming stalemate, as one side gives way like a collapsing dam before a press of water which at first seemed to make no impression. It is called pursuit, but in pre-industrial times it went by the more prosaic name of rout. In Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield vividly describes how Greek hoplites strove to find a chink in the enemy line, pressing, thrusting, gouging and stabbing at every doubtful point until they surged like torrent through a gap, curving round to take the foe from behind so that a line of disciplined bronze-armored enemy snapped like a severed rubber band into little pockets. Then the battle, which had heretofore been nearly even, became a slaughter. Men with no room to swing their swords were pushed down on all sides and cut down like wheat until the very ground became an unspeakable morass of mortal remains. That was rout, so terrible to contemplate it was reassigned the more antiseptic name of pursuit.

Euphemism did not alter the brutal reality. The Highway of Death during Desert Storm was a classic example of pursuit, producing images so terrible that segments of public opinion called for a halt in American operations out of pity for the enemy. What the 1st Armored and the 24th Mechanized (reconstituted under the heraldry of 3rd ID for Operation Iraqi Freedom) did to Saddam's formations in the Western desert unnoticed by news coverage was to inflict the Highway of Death a score of times. Pursuit is something the US Army does well. And it is doing it again. The rapid arrests of Ba'ath leaders in unprecedented numbers following the capture of personnel lists in the possession of Saddam Hussein is creating a cascading effect that will be limited largely by the rate at which US forces can exploit their captures rather than any resistance the Ba'ath may be able to offer. Tempo is the key. As applied to Iraq, the objective is to make terrorists lead their captors to other cells so quickly that an explosive chain reaction is generated, with some cells betrayed from multiple directions. It is not a fair fight, and the brave Ba'athist who forlornly stands for his minute before being swamped by fire will remind us why war is never glorious, only ever necessary. Even the Waffen SS did not die in so worthless a cause.