I thought the war that's now almost four years old could be different. With "smart bombs" we would destroy military targets and leave adjacent civilian structures unharmed. With smart rules of engagement we could minimize Iraqi civilian discomfort. In a sense, George W. Bush's war would be a compassionate conservative war.
Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman would have scoffed at such a campaign. His doctrine was, "War is cruelty. You cannot refine it." He ravaged Georgia and South Carolina in 1864 and 1865, but had he not shown how devastating total war was, the surrender of Robert E. Lee might have been followed by years of guerrilla warfare.
Technological developments over the next 80 years made war even more hellish. Machine guns led to the trench slaughter of World War I. Air power led to the bombing of civilians in London and then in German cities. Two nuclear bombs ended the U.S. war against Japan. Regrettable, the Allies acknowledged, but what was the alternative? "War is cruelty. You cannot refine it."
The Bush attempt in Iraq was to refine war. Speed, mobility, and flexibility allowed the United States to advance to Baghdad in record time. I did not cheer the advent of war in 2003 -- the headline on one of my columns was "Evil Times" -- but I thought the Bush doctrine could replace the Sherman doctrine.
It turns out that Sherman was right: When an army gains an advantage, it has to pound away, not let up. My early misassumption -- and far more important, the Bush administration's -- became evident quickly: On May 15, 2004, the cover headline in World, the magazine I edit, was "WHAT A MESS: U.S. mishandling of postwar Iraq is a recipe for civil war."
We quoted Ali Allawi, then Iraq's minister of defense, saying of the American debacle in Fallujah, "with the imperative of reducing civilian casualties that seems to govern the military doctrine the core of the fighters will get up and reassemble elsewhere and create mayhem at a later date." That's what happened.
Reducing civilian casualties by letting terrorists escape seemed right for both humanitarian and political reasons, but we were dealing with a culture that interprets compassion as a lack of seriousness. Muhammad and his successors spread their faith not by being nice but by wielding the sword. Following the smashing American victory in 2003, we had the opportunity to impress upon Iraqis who wanted to be winners the idea that terrorism is for losers. We missed that opportunity.