General Ham 'Strung'

General Pierre Bosquet was a hard-bitten colonial soldier who had seen a lot of war in North Africa before assuming a top infantry command of the French forces sent to the Crimea in 1854. His remark on witnessing the noble failure of the British Light Brigade's charge at Balaklava is usually truncated as "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre." Actually, after "It is magnificent but it is not war," Bosquet continued, "c'est de la folie" (it is madness).

Bosquet would have thought equally mad the terms of the Libyan intervention, at least in terms of how the policy is described publicly. The American general in charge of our end of the operation (sorta, kinda), Carter Ham, has declared: "I have a very discrete military mission," Discreet is a soldierly attempt to put a good face on it--how about "so convoluted as to verge on the baroque? "   

Ham continued that U.S. and coalition military forces enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya are there to protect civilians and not to provide close-air support for opposition forces fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Adding to the exquisite distinctions was the British Defense Minister, who said it would be all right to go after Gadhafi as long as no civilians were endangered. Of course an "envoy for the Libyan National Transitional Council" - soon no doubt to be the LNTC, newest of those great internationalist acronyms-has said, "we would like to have him alive to face the international or the Libyan court for his crime...We don't like to kill anybody ... even Gaddafi himself."

Then of course, we have the Arab League, whose Secretary General, Amr Moussa, is trimming his positions hourly, no doubt gauging  his stance with an eye to its impact on  his announced candidacy for  president of Egypt.

Consider just the distinction between protecting civilians and providing close air support for Libyan rebels. Is that really possible? While there apparently are some regular Libyan units that have gone over to the rebels, there appear from TV reports to be a lot of Libyan civilians, indifferently armed and equipped, running around on the back of pickups as well. And aren't some of Gaddafi's nastiest partisans mercenaries from Africa who may or may not be uniformed and likely to be operating in small units-all along a thin coastal strip with many built-up areas? With eyes on the ground at best limited, General Ham is to sort out this mess and make scholastic distinctions among the contenders-"protecting" some, while not "supporting" others?

War is a blunt instrument. The likelihood of success at reasonable cost is directly proportional to the simplicity of the objectives and the operational constraints imposed from the political level. If the rules of engagement and objectives really are as they are being publicly described, we have a prescription for stalemate. No sensible commander can assume any posture but strategic passive defense when faced with such orders, regardless of how that approach will be sugarcoated. The result-beleaguered, increasingly restive and resentful rebels of the LNTC holed up around Benghazi, protected by the UNXYZ or whatever it will be called, administered by some UN assistance agency, fed and doctored by ambulance-chasing NGO's.

We have heard the usual hand wringing pronouncements from politicians, all their now depressingly familiar bleating about exit strategies and end games. The real problem here is that we have policy being made by people who think they can govern by nuance and the shading of reality. We should expect nothing less of dilettantes who seek to impose impossible levels of distinction on the simple, timeless truths of war and life and death now playing themselves out once again in Libya. . "C'est vraiment de la folie."