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    photo William M. Arkin and an Iraqi civil defense official pinpoint bomb damage.
(Courtesy of William Arkin)

By William M. Arkin
Special to washingtonpost.com

I'm often asked the question: "How did you get to go to Iraq in the first place?" The simple answer is, "I asked." And whether out of curiosity or some fundamental delusion that anyone who desired to see the damage in Iraq would be on "their side," the Iraqi government said yes.

The more complex answer is that I have been obsessed with the Gulf War since the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait: as director of Greenpeace International's war response team; as military advisor to the second "Harvard Study Team" on civilian casualties; as a John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation fellow working on "Destruction of Electricity in Warfare," and later as an independent analyst.

As luck would have it, on my first trip in August–September 1991 with the Harvard team, Iraq's strategy was to exploit the international humanitarian community to get U.N.–imposed economic sanctions lifted. This was still in the early days of the U.N.'s inspections, and years before much more was learned about Iraq's nuclear and biological weapons.

The Harvard team conducted a countrywide survey of infant mortality. Doors were opened and there was a degree of candor that in hindsight was unprecedented. I was given the task of evaluating the emphasis of bombing to make sense of the damage to the civilian infrastructure. Armed with letters authorizing visits and photographs of bombed facilities, I got a rare opportunity to study the effects of the coalition air war.

Focusing on Baghdad and the south, I visited ministries and government buildings, communications and transportation facilities, electrical power plants, sites where civilian damage had occurred, and some military installations. In preparation I collected everything I could on the bombing and the targets, meeting with Air Force planners and government intelligence analysts.

Video: Saddam Hussein touring the Doura Refinery

Returning from Iraq with hundreds of photographs, Iraqi documents and video of bomb damage assessments, I prepared a "briefing" of my observations.

I spent the next six months making dozens of presentations: to the Office of the Secretary of Defense team writing the report to Congress on war conduct; the Air Force Gulf War Air Power Survey; the Air Staff; the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations; the Defense Intelligence Agency; the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center, and the Center for Naval Analysis "Lessons Learned" Project, among others.

The highlight was an invitation from Gen. Charles Horner, chief of the air war, to present the much-revised show at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. I remember in particular a spirited exchange – OK, Gen. Horner yelled at me a lot – where I was cautioned to temper my analysis with an appreciation of the fog of war and what military theorists call "friction." His point was well-taken; I expressed concern that hyperbole about aircraft able to put bombs down elevator shafts and the new talk of information warfare tends to conceal some larger truths about war.

Despite exceptional weapons accuracy, civilians remain at risk, due to increasing urbanization and dependence on modern life support systems such as electricity. Second, translating theory into practice remains very difficult. The Air Force still assumes that circumscribed bombing can send messages and exact outcomes without the commitment of larger military forces.

I was able to demonstrate this second point after receiving a copy of the full stealth fighter target and attacks database from an Air Force source. It was apparent the reason for such low collateral damage in the Iraqi capital was not just precision but also because very few bombing missions were flown against the center. Those that were flown were concentrated on a few innocuous or symbolic targets.

I returned to Iraq in February 1993 to reevaluate the "strategic" air war and discuss in more depth the effect of the bombs on regime thinking and operations, not just the physical damage to buildings. This time the Iraqis were less willing to show me certain facilities (many were already rebuilt), fearing I was an American spy there to pinpoint new places to bomb. Nevertheless I was able to spend considerable time with state ministers, military leaders and staffers from the Office of the President.

After seven weeks of study in post-war Iraq and seven years of research and writing, I am convinced the only way to tell a truthful story of air war is to focus on the results and not the derring-do.

Editor's Note: Review the evidence on which analyst William Arkin bases his views in a damage assessment of the air strikes and related anecdotes. ... And don't miss the counterpoint to Arkin's opinion from Gen. Charles Horner, Desert Storm air commander.

Project Credits
Contributors: William M. Arkin, Gen. Charles Horner, Rick Atkinson
Project editor: Jude Doherty
Database editor: Hal Straus
Producers: Aileen Yoo, Gagan Nirula, Tim Ito
Designers: Paul Compton, Mark Hill
Photo editors: Tom Kennedy, Dee Swann
Video: Michael Gallelli

William Arkin can be reached at william_arkin@washingtonpost.com

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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