War without casualties

Christopher Bellamy draws a lesson from the BBC's new series on the Gulf war which began last night
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Five years after the end of the Gulf war we are now beginning to explain some of the mysterious decisions of the time, and to begin to draw lessons about modern warfare. Promotional excerpts from the BBC's new four-part documentary series The Gulf war, and the reactions to them, mark the it as a turning point in the West's attitude to war and peace. What changed was the attitude to casualties, Allied and Iraqi. The subject permeates the series and has permeated the reaction to it.

The BBC and Fine Art Productions, which made the programmes, have found much new footage and tracked down most of the key players - including Saddam Hussein's chief of intelligence, General Wafic al Samarrai, now in exile. They have thus cleared up many of the mysteries of the war: the taking and causing of casualties determined Iraqi strategy; the Iraqis did not use their chemical weapons arsenal because they feared retaliation; Saddam hoped to win by inflicting casualties on the Western powers, which he believed they would find intolerable - in fact, they suffered very few.

Five years on, the Gulf war still appears as an extraordinary example of the art of war. It stands out as a paradigm of "limited war", as defined by the West's greatest thinker on that terrible subject, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). It was a war limited by its political objectives, in which the military campaign was turned off the moment very specific objectives were achieved. The political and diplomatic achievement in holding the anti-Iraq coalition together, and the execution of the Allied campaign with fewer Allied casualties than anyone dared hope, still seem almost miraculous in a world that has since become used to the endless complexities of places like Somalia and Bosnia.

But even though the Western casualties were so few, they still dominate discussion. In the second programme, for example, the British commander in Saudi Arabia during the war, General Sir Peter de la Billiere, says he wanted to stop the RAF from using low-level bombing targets earlier than they did, but that he was subject to "disgraceful interference" from a "senior officer" in the Ministry of Defence, which might have resulted in unnecessary losses among the RAF's air crews.

Sir Peter's statement has led to a furious row in which the RAF has been accused of dogmatism. The accusation is that the "senior officer" was apparently concerned that after years of investment in low-level training and weapons designed for low-level firing, the RAF might look stupid if the tactics proved too dangerous to employ in wartime.

Sir Peter says the decision could have been taken earlier. Baroness Thatcher, the former Prime Minister, interviewed for the programme, said she had also been concerned at the relatively heavy losses among the RAF and had "let her views be known".

In fact, the decision to stop low-level bombing was taken at the right time and if it had been moved forward a day, it would have made very little difference. The RAF had trained to bomb airfields at low level, to get under enemy radar, and had therefore developed weapons that only worked at low level. Once the Americans had knocked out the Iraqi radars that controlled their missiles, it was safer to move to higher level, out of range of guns. At the same time, it became obvious that the Iraqi air force was not going to fight anyway, so there was no point bombing the airfields.

Last week, the RAF rallied to meet the criticism. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, said it was a "storm in a teacup". He is right. Air Chief Marshal Sir William ("Bill") Wratten, who now commands RAF Strike Command, was Sir Peter's air commander, commanding the RAF component of the Allied air campaign, which was run by the Americans. Sir William said he was unaware of any interference from someone in the MoD. In any case that person, whoever it was, would not have been in the "chain of command" and therefore did not matter. Sir William (RAF) answered to Sir Peter (Army) and he answered to Sir Patrick Hine (RAF), the "joint commander" of the British operation at High Wycombe, who in turn answered to the Chief of Defence Staff (also RAF). On the face of it, if there was an argument about air tactics, there were plenty of airmen above and below Sir Peter to sort it out.

Last week, Sir William said that he took the decision to move away from low-level bombing on the fourth day of the war, and was under no pressure to do other than he thought fit. "We're talking a day either side," he said, "maybe hours."

In the first five days the British lost four Tornado GRl low-level bombers. The first crew, John Peters and John Nichol, survived, were shot down on 17 January, captured and tortured, but later released. John Nichol is now leaving the RAF to write novels. (Last week, he said that RAF losses in the Gulf war were fewer than would be expected in a normal year's training.) The second crew, Nigel Ellsdon and Max Collier, were killed on 18 January. A third crew survived being shot down on 20 January, a fourth died on 22 January.

Even if the decision to move to high-level bombing had been taken a day or two earlier, bearing in mind that the 200-page computer-generated set of orders for the air campaign was issued 24 hours in advance, it might have saved one aircraft - two men.

When asked about the switch from low to high-level tactics, Sir Peter accepted that it was a complex issue. He had clearly seen a letter that annoyed him, although from somebody outside the command chain, and he told the interviewer. Sir Peter knows that a good row sells books - and airtime.

Last week, Sir William said that he and Sir Peter were good friends and was anxious to avoid an argument. One of their memories is clearly at fault. But does it really matter? The fuss that has been made since reveals a profound change in our attitude to casualties in war. What must the veterans of bomber command in the Second World War think of the fuss about the possible unnecessary loss of one aircraft?

What matters is that attitude to casualties in military operations has changed dramatically. And that applies to the "enemy", as well. The BBC programme reveals the process that led to the ground campaign being halted. The fear of accusations of butchery against the fleeing Iraqis led to the decision to halt the campaign early, which let Saddam's Republican Guard escape. Interviews with General Colin Powell, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reveal that the US decided to halt the campaign even before the grisly film from Mutla ridge, where fleeing Iraqi troops were incinerated, had reached the TV screens. "I pointed out that we were starting to see some scenes that were unpleasant," says General Powell.

Concern for Allied and Iraqi lives led Powell to call a halt before one of the declared objectives - the destruction of the Republican Guard - was complete. Maybe that was right, too. But there is a danger we will get too squeamish. We will expect military operations to go smoothly - when almost invariably, they do not. We will demand that "something must be done", and go to war too easily. The moment we see "something unpleasant," we will demand withdrawal - which can compound the problem - and look for someone to blame. Things do go wrong in war. It is a messy business, not to be taken in hand lightly.

The writer reported for the 'Independent' from Saudi Arabia throughout the Gulf war