Friday, November 11, 2005

In Their Own Words #3: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Major Michal Fiszer, Polish Air Force (ret.), has served as a Su-22 fighter-bomber pilot and in intelligence assignments under both the Warsaw Pact and NATO. He has served with UN missions to the former Yugoslavia and to Kuwait. Michal is the European Editor for eDefense Online and a contributor to Situational Awareness. He also teaches military strategy at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, run by the Polish Academy of Sciences.


Many soldiers have withstood the worst bombardments without panic. There was always the hope that the next impact was not going to hit. Guided weapons take away that important hope.

I am not a psychologist but a soldier. In the former Yugoslavia, I served with UNPROFOR in those "hot" days of 1993 (from December 1992 to December 1993). In January 1993, the Croats launched a major offensive in the southern part of "Serbian Kraina" and recaptured the Zemunik airbase and the strategically important bridge at Maslenica. One night, all hell broke loose along the whole so-called "cease-fire line." In many places, Serbs ordered the UN posts to be removed; otherwise, they would not guarantee the safety of UN personnel. We had our own orders to stay, and we stayed. Soon, however, we discovered that the claim about "guaranteeing safety" really meant "leave or else." Very often, fire was deliberately directed against UN posts, and both of the warring parties accused the other of doing it. During the furious exchanges of small arms, mortars, artillery, tanks, and, in some cases, helicopters armed with anti-tank missiles and unguided rockets, UN posts were frequently hit, because everything around them was being hit.

We generally spent such times in well-prepared shelters made of sandbags and earthwork and reinforced by rails or other metal rods. But at the time, I realized that such a shelter would not withstand the direct hit of an artillery shell. I am not ashamed to admit that many times I was deathly afraid - especially upon hearing a close impact - when everything in the shelter was shaking and the soil was falling down from the ceiling. But always there was the hope that the next impact was not going to hit, and this helped me to withstand the shelling without panic. Indeed, numerous artillery shells were falling everywhere, but none hit the shelter itself. Guided weapons take away this important hope. If anyone would assume that something was going to hit directly, then that's it. Panic and rout become unavoidable.

During World War II, the soldiers were much more afraid of diving Stukas (the Junkers Ju-87) than much larger formations of classic level bombers. The Ju-87 didn't have an impressive bomb load, and logically the level bombers dropping tons of bombs should have been more frightening. But bombs dropped by level bombers were falling across a wide area, hitting at random, making a lot of craters. On the other hand, the Ju-87 could accurately hit the attacked object. That was why soldiers were so afraid of it and ran rather than hunker down. The trademark scream of the dive-bomber, sometimes amplified with actual sirens, reinforced the notion of impending death.

From my own experience in the former Yugoslavia, I remember a similar situation. A Serbian squad armed with a Malutka (Sagger) wire-guided anti-tank missile launcher deployed close to Croatian lines and attacked an earthen bunker in which a heavy machinegun was deployed. The first missile hit the bunker without harming it seriously, but the second one entered the firing aperture. The bunker's crew would not have had any chance of survival - except they had run away after the first shot. They did not even attempt to suppress the revealed Serb squad with their machine gun. The same crew previously had stayed at its post throughout the heaviest artillery shelling, but a small, fragile missile made them flee! This is the psychological impact of guided weapons.

I remember watching BBC news during the recent Iraq conflict. They were showing Iraqi positions in the northern part of the country, in the area of Iraqi-Kurdish tension. At one moment, when approaching B-52s could be heard, all of the Iraqi soldiers left their posts and combat positions and were running away. I realized that in the Vietnam War, when B-52s were heard, the soldiers were seeking shelter in bunkers and reinforced combat positions instead of running away. It was the best way to survive the tons of bombs falling at random all around. But this time, the B-52s were armed with JDAMs [Joint Direct Attack Munitions], and every bomb was preprogrammed on one of the fixed combat positions: bunkers, weapons nests, etc. Virtually every bomb drop was a kill. One after another of the Iraqi positions was destroyed with deadly accuracy. In the minds of the fleeing crews, there was no hope for a miss, no hope for survival.

Republican Guards south of Baghdad suffered under the mass use of various types of guided munitions. Tanks, guns, bunkers, and so on were being taken out one by one with the same deadly accuracy. What could a soldier think, sitting in a tank, seeing five or seven other tanks smashed off the Earth with unerring accuracy? There was certainly no doubt that his tank would be the next one and that he would be killed without fighting, in hopeless slaughter. The only choice was to run away. But in the Republican Guard, the rules were obviously strict. Leaving a combat position was equivalent to betrayal, which equaled death. Death by hopeless slaughter or death by execution. So the only solution was not only to escape from the endangered combat position but to desert. So, of course, they started to desert. After the rank-and-file soldiers, the commanders, who lost most of their people due to desertion, would desert and hide (so well, perhaps, that US troops still cannot find them).

Recently, in the Russian military press, there have appeared very strange assessments of the US success in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Failing to recognize US military power, the analysts are trying to find other reasons for the collapse of the Iraqi regime's defenses, especially the elite Republican Guard. One of the most popular theories states that the commander of the Republican Guard was an American spy with orders not to defend Baghdad. The story has become popular not only in Russia, but it has crossed borders and appeared in some other European countries, too, including Poland.

This is especially strange, and anyone who served in any communist military force would immediately realize how ridiculous it is. In all communist and party-driven military forces (including the Ba'athist Iraqi Army) the political officer - the deputy commander - reports not only to his unit commander but also to a higher-echelon commander for political matters. The betraying commander would certainly be arrested on the spot, before his treasonous order could be sent to his troops. So the reason for the Republican Guard's failure in defending Baghdad and its approaches was certainly not an order not to resist. But then what actually happened when the Iraqi elite forces disappeared on the eve of the final battle? At An Nasariyah, Um Qasr, and Basra, Iraqi forces showed the will to fight and to sacrifice their lives "for the motherland" and the regime. What happened to them later, especially to the elite Republican Guard?

In my opinion, it was the psychological impact of the mass use of precision-guided weapons not previously encountered or even observed on such a large scale. The psychological factors related to the mass use of guided weapons should be scientifically researched and described. It is important not only in the calculation of one's own strike missions, but also how to protect one's own soldiers in the face of an enemy that would use guided weapons en masse. And in the 21st century, such a situation becomes increasingly likely.

August 2003

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