One thing I have learned during the last 45 years of bouncing around battlefields is that war is easy to get into and hard to get out of. The fact that Saddam wants to cut a deal doesn't surprise me. But a deal may be a few miles down the track. The war isn't over yet. A statement hedged with conditions is not the same as high-stepping back to Iraq under a white flag. This is a desperate plea from the bottom of a lonely bunker. But we mustn't assume this opening bid of Saddam's means that he has given up. I was happy to see President Bush reject the idea that Saddam could win concessions by getting out - especially the one specifying that allied troops withdraw along with his. We could make no worse mistake.
We walked into this ambush in Korea and in Vietnam. I fought in these two wars where we bit on peace offers and got hurt for it. In 1951, with North Korean and Chinese forces taking a real beating, they asked for peace talks and we went along. We took more casualties while "negotiating" over the next two years than we did while fighting all-out. In Vietnam we did the same thing, and paid the same price. You can't talk and fight at the same time. So we must keep the military pressure up. This means keeping the air campaign going at its present level of ferocity - more than a sortie a minute, 24 hours a day, and backing this with barrages of Tomahawk missiles and the pounding of the big guns of the battle wagons out in the Persian Gulf. On the ground we should close the back door by driving armor and air-mobile elements straight up the western corridor to the Euphrates, thus blocking off any chance for Saddam to sneak supplies and reinforcements into his beleaguered garrisons in Kuwait. We have the resources for prolonging this terrible pressure, and we should show Saddam we have the will, too. We should not enter killing fields of Kuwait, but only fight on our terms and ground of our choosing.
Meanwhile, the war tempo has steadily increased. I spent five days last week with an Egyptian commando battalion that was eyeball to bellybutton with the Iraqi Army in the center of No Man's Land. The bombing of Republican Guard positions in the distance didn't stop. It was much more intense than when I was at Khafji before the battle there two weeks ago. The Egyptians loved it. One young paratroop lieutenant said, "The bombing has become music, and the more the music plays the easier the dance will be."
Here on the Saudi-Kuwait border, the music sounded mainly after dark. It is a potential land-war theater, and from sunup to sunset things were quiet. But by dusk every day there were Iraqi targets everywhere: trucks, jeeps, armored vehicles, personnel in the open and row after row of bunkers, fighting holes and berms. The American air-control team kept busy directing fire on this "target-rich" shooting and bombing gallery. One bunker position with a long antenna and an Iraqi flag became a special target. I don't know if it was the bunker, antenna or the flag that attracted the team's passion. An A-10 rolled in and gave the bunker a squirt from its 30-mm nose gun, which has a roar like a long and beer-rich belch. It was deadly accurate and the depleted uranium slugs ripped big gashes in the concrete wall. The pilot must have held the trigger a mite too long, however, as we caught a dozen or so rounds in our position. We were 1.2 miles away from the target, but the errant shellfire got our attention.
A second A-10 run at the bunker gave a more frightening foretaste of how things can go wrong in land warfare. The pilot was operating from map coordinates. He was not in radio contact with our controller. He neatly dropped two 500-pound bombs a few hundred yards from our position - but not on the bunker complex in front of us. He hit a similar building with an antenna. Except it was behind us, in the middle of our defensive position. The pilot missed the antenna but took half the wall out of the building, an abandoned fire station. A tough Special Operations captain with service in Vietnam summed up the adventure: "Friendly fire isn't friendly." A third pass homed in on the right target, but the pilot missed again. As an air controller later said, dropping steel bombs is "like throwing rocks - not very accurate." The last time I looked at the bunker, it and the little Iraqi flag were still there. I hope that this incident was simply a case of a bad pilot having a bad day. Because if the main air-to-ground antitank killer can't destroy a large bunker 10 times the size of a tank, I can see trouble ahead. This is another argument for letting air power continue to work and keep our ground forces grounded.
When the Iraqis made their statement on withdrawal, they were admitting what we already knew: the Iraqi Army in Kuwait is fast going the way of its sister services, the Navy and Air Force. It is no longer an effective fighting unit. It can't defend itself against the unrelenting air assault. Deserters are pouring across the front, not just grunts, but NCOs and officers, too. Since the first bomb was dropped more than 1,300 have thrown in the towel. About 100 of these have been officers. On Wednesday an infantry battalion commander and staff came in with their hands up, and just down the track a bit, 19 famished Iraqi soldiers surrendered to our Marines. One turncoat was so happy he kissed his grizzled leatherneck captor. A Saudi colonel told me after interviewing prisoners, "They have no fighting spirit and nothing to eat." POW camps are springing up everywhere; a huge soccer stadium near Hafir al-Batin has been converted into a barbed-wire hotel. It is quickly filling up. After the latest announcement from Baghdad trickles to the front, I expect the numbers to jump dramatically. Why risk death if the war is about to end?
Some of my Arab friends here tell me I shouldn't get too carried away by one condition-hedged statement. I believe this really is a genuine prelude to a pullout. Saddam has no other options. One thing that no longer surprises me is surprises from Saddam Hussein. After all, he fought the Iranians for eight years to gain a few bloody acres of Iranian sand. When this confrontation began, he did a deal to pacify his border with Iran by giving back that land. Now he makes this surprise announcement about getting out of Kuwait, and I think he'll do it. When it comes down to it, Saddam Hussein is a man who has got very comfortable living in his own skin. Now he seems eager to save it. He'll cut a deal, and soon. But not on his terms. And I doubt if he will save his skin.