WASHINGTON -- ``We came here to start a soccer league,'' said a Marine major after a fierce firefight in Fallujah last week. ``Instead, they are forcing us to topple mosques.'' The attempt to manufacture soccer mullahs, like ordering thousands of Frisbees for distribution to playful Iraqis, may seem like episodes from a Graham Greene novel -- ``The Quiet American in Mesopotamia.''
But before the games can begin, the war must be won, and no war is won until the losing side knows it has lost. ``An uptick in localized engagements'' was the U.S. command's description of the current wave of violence that menaces the four main roads from Baghdad to Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Kuwait. And Bush administration voices still dismiss the insurgents as ``gangs'' and ``thugs.''
``The enemy did not run,'' said another Marine officer after another Fallujah battle. ``They fought us like soldiers.'' The enemy is coordinated and clever. The attack by two speedboats loaded with explosives that targeted a tanker taking on Iraqi oil in the port of Basra failed, in the sense that one boat was destroyed before it could strike the tanker, and the one that struck the tanker did not explode. But the attack succeeded in this sense: overnight the insurance rate for tankers shipping Iraqi oil exports doubled. This ``terror premium'' could make Iraqi oil too expensive for sale at the world market price, further damaging Iraqi reconstruction efforts at a time when pandemic violence in Iraqi cities has confined many private contractors to protected compounds.
By storing weapons and munitions in mosques and by firing from minarets, the insurgents do indeed compel U.S. forces to damage mosques, or adhere to rules of engagement that endanger American lives or preclude retaking any cities the insurgents choose to turn into combat zones. But if U.S. forces are to economize violence, they must disabuse the enemy of his recurring delusion that the United States is paralyzed by squeamishness about violence and its collateral damage.
Also, the enemy must not be allowed to bog down U.S. forces, or Iraqi units organized by and reporting to U.S. commanders, in protracted urban sieges -- sieges leavened by dickering about weapons surrenders. Such standoffs give the insurgents huge infusions of prestige for holding the superpower at bay and being treated by the superpower as a legitimate interlocutor.
If such standoffs are the real alternatives to forceful suppression of the insurgents, then it is feckless to object to such suppression because the insurgents hope to draw America into violence that will alienate the population. The population may detest an America that fights its way to control of cities, but the population will have contempt for an America that is unable or, worse, able but unwilling to wrest cities from insurgents.
Patrick J. McDonnell and Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times report from Fallujah that some Marines criticize the tactics of the 82nd Airborne, which recently turned responsibility for the city over to the Marines: ``From the Marines' standpoint, the paratroopers left Fallujah to the insurgents, carrying out a containment strategy and allowing enemy forces to fester and grow.''
The 82nd tried to avoid a provocative presence, concentrating on targeted raids based on intelligence. Approximately 1,000 houses were searched, hundreds of suspects were arrested and many senior aides to Saddam Hussein were killed or arrested. McDonnell and Perry say the 82nd's tactics ``left a core insurgent element in Fallujah'' but ``also resulted in fewer casualties, both civilian and military.'' The 82nd lost only one paratrooper in its six months in the city, which ``while always restive, never deteriorated into open revolt.''
Marines, report McDonnell and Perry, say ``the veneer of relative calm was deceptive. The city has served as a `center of gravity' for insurgent activity throughout western and central Iraq."
All this will be studied by the services for years to come. Meanwhile, military commanders in Iraq face agonizing choices entailed by those antiseptic political locutions ``regime change" and ``nation building." The commander in chief seems not to fathom the depth of the difficulties when he describes the insurgent cleric Moqtada Sadr as a person who will not ``allow democracy to flourish." ``Allow"? If some bad people would just behave, democracy would sprout like tulips?
At a memorial service this week for Daniel J. Boorstin, the great historian who was Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, and who died recently at 89, a eulogist recalled Boorstin's belief that history is ``a cautionary science." It is, but only if you know some. Those who do, will not send Frisbees to combat zones.