Fairfax, Va. — The Marine and Army forces now entering Falluja, Iraq have prepared for this fight for some time, and not just since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime last spring. Our military has a long history of training for and battling against unconventional enemies - the Revolutionary War, the Indian wars, Vietnam and, in particular, a battle few American think much about: the invasion of Panama City in 1989.
In the effort to topple the corrupt government of Manuel Noriega, the American military pulled off one of the most complex and risky operations in the history of warfare. The elements were daunting: a diversity of urban and jungle terrain; a need to synchronize air power, airborne troops, light forces and special operations troops (some 23,000 Americans in all) on nearly 30 simultaneous missions; and a desire to keep civilian casualties and damage to a minimum. Yes, some things went wrong, and two dozen Americans were killed. But on the whole it was an overwhelming success.
That fight served to inform, teach and train a generation of leaders, many of whom are entering Falluja today. The young lieutenants, corporals and privates of 15 years ago are now battalion commanders and senior sergeants in Iraq. They carry with them the scar tissue of experience.
Urban fighting is grinding, destructive and deadly. When I entered Baghdad last year the city was without power, order or livestock. Dead horses rotted in the slums of Sadr City while looters, called "couchpushers" by the coalition troops, made off with everything. Nothing was without value; everything was pilfered. But other than a few isolated spots where there had been pitched battles, the city wasn't destroyed.
In Falluja things may be different. We will use precision weapons where there is a high probability of killing innocent Iraqis, but for the most part we will use conventional artillery, mortars and rockets. Buildings will crumple - the train station demolished on Monday will not be the last - because we will destroy them and so will the insurgents. Dust will be everywhere, small fires and smoke will obscure the vision of our troops and the enemy.
But it will not be as out of control as it may seem; the destruction will have a purpose. We will not do what the Russians did to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya: level the city and completely strip it of its form and shape. Our goal is to bring democracy and liberty to Iraq, and that won't happen if we destroy whole cities and towns. Fortunately, our soldiers have extensive training in urban operations down to the platoon and company level.