Gulf War II, the Three Week War (or possibly Four), is a monumental event: the first war ever aimed at destroying a totalitarian regime -- and sparing the invaded country. Surgically removing a one-party police state while trying to leave the civilians and the infrastructure as untouched as possible is an operation of unusual difficulty. Yet the pictures from the opening nights of the war told the story: plumes of smoke from precision strikes on Saddam Hussein's instruments of power while the city lights remained on and cars casually traversed the streets.
This kind of war is totally new. We have, of course, destroyed totalitarian regimes in the past, Nazi Germany and imperial Japan most notably. But in World War II, we made war not just on the regime but on the whole country. Cities were firebombed with the intent of breaking the people ("the Hun," as Churchill liked to call the Germans) and destroying the whole of their industrial civilization. And we damn near succeeded. It took decades to rebuild those countries from the ashes.
Recent wars have been far more modest both in means and ends. Neither Gulf War I nor Kosovo attempted regime change; they simply expelled an occupying army. And in Afghanistan we did indeed remove a repressive regime while leaving the country intact. But the Taliban were too primitive, and the country too premodern and tribal, to merit the distinction of "totalitarian."
Hussein's Baath dictatorship deserves the honor. The Baath Party, consciously modeled on the fascist parties of the early 20th century, exercised control through a one-party apparatus that infiltrated every aspect of life. Every town and village, every trade union and military unit, every school and mosque had its Baath Party agents, who were given absolute power to torture and terrorize in the service of the centralized state.
At the beginning of the war, no one knew the state of health of Baath totalitarianism. Did it have the youthful vigor of early Nazi and communist regimes? Or was it a desiccated shell like the superannuated Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, which collapsed overnight?
Baath totalitarianism turned out to be somewhere in between, middle-aged. It was no longer highly mobilized and energetic. The Soviet experience demonstrated that no people can remain in that state of thrall forever; they tire of the endless rallies, the empty slogans, the messianic prophecies. But the Baath leadership still commanded a fanatical core, a Hitler youth, with a thirst for terror and a will to fight.
The sight of them panicked Cassandras here in the United States who were quick to predict that the evidence of any armed resistance meant that we were in for a long guerrilla war. But the Vietnam analogy was absurd. It was not the people of southern Iraq who harassed our troops on the drive to Baghdad but the regime's shock troops. These "irregulars" were not insurgents; they were counterinsurgents. They did not represent the people they used as human shields; they ruthlessly repressed them.
Most of these enforcers were Sunnis from northern tribes, alien to the Shiite population they ruled. In the secret police prison in Basra, seven of the 16 officers were surnamed Tikriti, i.e., they came from Tikrit, Hussein's hometown in Sunni north-central Iraq. They were not guerrillas, Mao's "fish swimming in the sea of the people." They were aliens who survived by torturing the locals and, when the British liberators arrived, by shooting civilians in the back. Rooting out these Baath thugs in the middle of a war was difficult, but as soon as the local population became convinced that the regime was finished, the thugs were finished too.
Ever since Vietnam, people have been justly skeptical of the claim of "surgical strikes." There was nothing surgical about the Vietnam War. But the war in Iraq was radically different. Hussein was not waging a popular war; he was defending a regime that made war on its own people.
Not only the enemy was different, however. So were the technology and the doctrine. We can speak today of a surgical war not only because technology yields weapons of astonishing precision, but also because the coalition war strategy has had one supreme objective: the surgical destruction of a totalitarian regime. This had never been done before.
Which is what makes the Three Week War a revolution in world affairs. It is one thing to depose tin-pot dictators. Anyone can do that. It is another thing to destroy a Stalinist demigod and his three-decade apparatus of repression -- and leave the country standing. From Damascus to Pyongyang, totalitarians everywhere are watching this war with shock and awe.