It's the holiday season, time to thank the Lord for all the bounty he's showered on us. In my case, that means giving thanks for all the organized carnage that's spurted out over the past year.
2003 gave us the best and rarest gift of all: a real war, between two big conventional armies, with plenty of TV cameras catching all the action. Iraq may not have been the perfect war, but until we get time machines and can go back to get realtime video feeds from Gettysburg or Austerlitz, we'll have to be happy with what we got.
So in the true spirit of the season, bla bla bla, here are my awards for 2003. I guess I have to come up with a name for them, like the Oscar or the Emmy, so we'll call them the Claymores.
Damn, what an incredible luxury it is to have so many battles to choose from that for once it isn't easy to choose the best of all. And new nominees are still popping up. Just take that big streetfight in Samarra a few weeks ago -- that was pretty damn cool. But after due consideration, I've got to choose the fight for an-Nasariyah. This was a classic in every way. For starters, it was a fight for control of a river crossing, which is about the oldest, most common sort of battle in history. Rivers are so important in warfare that lots of armies name their battles, and their armies, after them. "Army of the Potomac," for example -- that ring any bells? The Confederates went the North one better: not only did they name armies after rivers, but they named their battles after the nearest significant moving water.
And as the US pushed north toward Baghdad in late March, the fight turned into a classic battle for two Euphrates-bank towns: an-Nasariyah and Samawah. An-Nasiriyah came first. In fact, if Ulysses S. Grant of Robert E. Lee looked at a map of Iraq, they'd decide in about five seconds to stake their fate on the defense of an-Nasiriyah, the first major town on the East bank of the river as you push north.
That's why it's kind of worrying that our war plan supposedly didn't involve having to storm the river towns. We were just going to hit cruise control and park at the Baghdad Hilton, I guess.
We took an-Nasiriyah on March 23, in a scene that was like an updated Antietam. The Iraqis were dug in on the river bank, guarding the zone they knew the Americans would have to cross to keep pushing north. They were a mixed bunch, by all accounts, with some regular-army units, some Fedayeen, and the most interesting of all, this other militia that didn't get much press but fought damned well, the Sedaveen.
The Iraqi tactics were as mixed as their units. Along with the troops dug in, others were waiting in town, hoping to turn the battle into a snipers' duel where armor would be neutralized. And others, the real cowboys, were revving up their "technicals" -- pickups fitted with heavy machineguns, or just a couple of guys with an RPG.
Neither side had any tactical surprise going for them. They knew we were coming, and we knew they knew. We hit them with everything, from tank cannon to A-10 sorties. And the amazing thing was that they didn't flinch for ten long hours. These guys fought to the death. Iraqis! You believe that?
They had no armor to speak of -- Iraqis don't seem to understand mobile armored warfare, they use tanks as dug-in artillery most of the time. And they had no air, of course. When you consider those two huge advantages, you have to respect the enemy for holding out for ten hours. And they didn't just hold on, they fired back, and pretty well too. We had 50 casualties, and for once they weren't from friendly fire. (Though we did manage to shoot down a British Tornado with a Patriot while the battle was going on.)
They fought smart, too. Some of them pretended to surrender, then fired when we got close. Others dressed up as civvies and popped up to fire at close range. It's all against the rules of war, of course, but the rules of war don't work most of the time anyway. (For example, until people saw Saving Private Ryan, nobody realized how common it was for US troops to execute prisoners during WW II.)