The battle rages south of Baghdad, close to the ruins of Babylon, nestled between the oft-mentioned towns of Karbala and Al Hillah. We watch the war in disconnected bites, through the eyes of embedded reporters scattered amidst boredom and battles. It is not full coverage but only a sampling. We fill in the rest by interpolation and extrapolation, but the samples are so sparse that we get an inaccurate estimate. Nevertheless, we feel compelled to draw conclusions, to decide whether the invisible war plan is going well or badly or as expected. This task is difficult enough for the military leaders, with their more complete information. From my remote vision in Berkeley, it is hopeless.Nevertheless, I do have half a dozen observations to share, mostly technological, and mostly overlooked even in the continuous coverage offered by TV and the long supplements in the daily papers.
1. The First GPS War. In Gulf War I, many of our soldiers weren’t given GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers because military specifications had made them too expensive. But GPS was so valuable for finding their way in the desert that soldiers wrote home asking relatives to send them cheap commercial versions. The generals learned the lesson, and now our soldiers are GPS-equipped. So are our bombs. A $22,000 strap-on GPS package known as a Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) turns a previously dumb bomb smart, making it almost as effective as a million-dollar cruise missile. Those have been updated too; the Tomahawk missile, formerly guided by terrain contour matching (TERCOM) and inertial guidance, now steers primarily by GPS. GPS has become the key technology of Gulf War II.
The Iraqis report hundreds of civilian casualties. Even if that is not an exaggeration (and Iraq’s government is noted for neither honesty nor accuracy), that is far fewer than I had feared from the thousands of bombs and cruise missiles used so far. The difference is due to GPS.
(A brief note: I consider most Iraqi soldiers to be as innocent as civilians. Many were conscripted, and others were deluded. Their deaths count too.)
2. Facial recognition. The first act of the war, the United States’ attempt to kill Saddam Hussein, should not have surprised anyone who read my column “Weapons of Precise Destruction.” But it surprised me. Our most valuable assets in Iraq are spies in Saddam’s inner circles, and their very existence was presumably a highly classified secret until we attacked Saddam and his sons in their sleep. Immediately afterwards, Saddam appeared on Iraqi TV, but he made no mention of the attempt on his life. Was it really Saddam? His ex-mistress said no-but how does she know her consort was the real Saddam and not one of his doubles? My own visual comparison with a certified image concludes, “Yes, it is definitely Saddam.”