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Tanks for nothin', George

To a superpower nation in the media-rich 1990s, fighting a war to win isn't good enough. A war, American politicians believe, must be massive, quick and painless in order to be viewed by the public as well-managed and politically wise. For this reason, President George Bush has adopted a plan for a massive land-based assault on Iraqi troops in Kuwait -- a battle plan that would produce more casualties, last longer, and be more politically risky than military action by alternative methods. Why? Because he thinks it will make better TV.

If Saddam's armies fail to pull out of Kuwait, the US-led coalition must take action or face a complete destruction of its credibility. If the United States hopes to reap the rewards of superpower status, it must bear the costs. Saddam Hussein, with a destabilizing biotoxic, chemical, and nuclear potential, must be stopped, now. No one says, however, that millions have to die in the process.

When prospects for war in the Persian Gulf dramatically increased months ago after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the leaders of the various branches of the American military, began weighing military options under a presidential order. The JCS, spearheaded by Army General Colin L. Powell, advocated a buildup of infantry and armor in Saudi Arabia to stem the possibility of another Iraqi invasion and pressure the more numerous Iraqi forces in neighboring Kuwait. With a coalition of nearly half a million multinational troops in the gulf, Bush believed the United States would be prepared for a mad dash across the desert into Iraqi held areas, with only peripheral air and naval support.

The leading factors that led Bush and Powell to advocate this plan, according to a recent Newsweek article, were concerns that while a ground war might be more costly in men and dollars, it would be quicker than an air war or any other military scheme. The shorter the war, many in Bush's administration believed, the better chances for public support. Bush's people thought wrong.

The ground scramble, according to the latest released data and Bush's statements in his last press conference, would begin with a short air battle, aimed at destroying the Iraqi air force, followed by an advance into Kuwait across the desert, and, possibly, an amphibious landing from the gulf. The operation (the term "war" is no longer in vogue), would be mainly undertaken by American and

British forces, who comprise the largest willing and capable units in the region. The number of estimated battle casualties for this three-month war would run in the thousands on both sides. Even worse, if the US-led forces found themselves bogged down in Kuwait, they might be subject to chemical attack by Iraq. The US response would probably be a nuclear one. The Pentagon just ordered 50,000 coffin-sized body bags. Civilian casualties, as in comparable wars, would run in the millions.

In an alternative scheme, suggested by the recently sacked Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael J. Dugan, the United States would execute an aerial bombardment of Iraqi military and government positions, in a war of attrition against Saddam Hussein. In such a scheme, a ground sweep into Kuwait would only be used as a follow-up measure, after most enemy troops had fled or been eliminated by air attacks. As most troops would remain in reserve in Saudi Arabia, any Iraqi chemical assaults on them would constitute an attack on Saudi Arabia. This escalation would extend international hatred of Saddam, and he would not risk this. Battle deaths would be drastically lower in an air engagement than in a ground-only assault, and civilian deaths would probably be no more.

What Bush doesn't like about the air strategy is that it may take longer to produce tangible results, and hence public support may fade in the time that it takes to break Saddam. Bush apparently ignores the intelligence reports that Iraqi troops are so well-dug-in in Kuwait that US infantry may be massacred if they try to cross the open desert, or attack the well-defended urban centers. The American public's disenchantment with the Vietnam War peaked not with anger over tactical bombing, but when it saw American soldiers being ripped to shreds fighting in block-by-block battles in the cities of Hue and Saigon in the winter of 1968. Americans will more surely react to a costly war than a long one.

In addition, a land assault into Kuwait would fail to accomplish two of Bush's most important objectives -- destroying the Iraqi nuclear weapons program and removing Saddam Hussein from power. These goals would be accomplished by land only if United Nations forces entered Iraq. Many Arab and European elements of the multinational force have already stated that they would not touch Iraqi soil, and the UN resolution sanctioning military force doesn't mention invading Iraq. If Saddam pulls his troops back across the border, Bush will find himself without allies or legal justification to continue the fight into Iraq. He will be in the quandry that Harry S. Truman faced as US president during the Korean War, when UN forces had driven communist invaders to the Chinese border, and he had to decide if he should continue the fight into China, possibly alone.

An air assault on Iraq would conveniently eliminate Saddam and his nuclear weapons plants, without Arab involvement, massive death and political guilt.

The major arguments against an air war -- that it would be ineffective and costly in civilian deaths, are inaccurate. Bombing, many suggest, wounds, but doesn't kill. It can't, they claim, force soldiers to retreat -- that can only be achieved through pressure from opposing ground forces. Tactical bombing in World War II proved the opposite, and was decisive in the "D-Day" invasion of France in 1944. Also, civilians need not be massacred in an air attack. The American air assault on Libya's military in 1985 produced few civilian casualties, while the shelling and indiscriminate ground fighting in the cities of Lebanon over the past 10 years have killed thousands. Air strikes are surgical -- artillery shells, once they are fired, tend to go where they want to.

In gambling America's superpower status on big conventional armies, Bush is exhibiting 14th century thinking. What matters in military affairs in the 1990s is not size exclusively, but reach. China and North Korea have massive standing armies, but they lack the resources to move them or to project their power any significant distance from the home front. If Bush hopes to bluff tyrants and madmen, he can only threaten them with the prospect of retribution anywhere at any time, not with massive strikes after a few months of preparation. An air assault would exemplify superpower deterrents, a land buildup would demonstrate their weaknesses.

No normal individual hopes for war. However, if a war must be fought, it should be conducted in the manner least damaging to non-combatants and soldiers alike. Some in the government, more concerned with reelection than human life, should remember this.

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Matthew H. Hersch, a freshman, is an associate opinion editor of The Tech.

Air strikes are surgical -- artillery shells, once they are fired, tend to go where they want to. The American public's disenchantment with the Vietnam War peaked not with anger over tactical bombing, but when it saw American soldiers being ripped to shreds Americans will more surely react to a costly war than a long one.