What would I say to Saddam

"IT’LL all be over by Christmas." Ever heard that expression before? It originated in the First World War. At first it was a genuine expectation which politicians, among others, did nothing to quench. Later, as the war got bogged down with massive losses from August 1914 to November 1918, it became a sick joke.

To listen to some people, you would be forgiven for thinking that history is repeating itself and that we are now faced with a military conflict with no end in sight. That of course is nonsense. The parallels between Belgium in 1914 and Iraq in 2003 are not even worth looking for. But this is a sensible time to take stock of where we are and where we may be headed.

I have a recurring nightmare. Someone has appointed me to be Chief of Staff of Iraq’s Armed Forces. Worse still, Saddam Hussein has just sent for me to ask me how things are going and what we should do in the next few days.

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My honest - and brave - answer would be "Mr President, the strategic situation is hopeless. The enemy coalition is reinforcing, our equipment is no match for his, he has total air supremacy, his sea routes are open. We have done better than expected, thanks partly to some bad weather and partly because of Turkey’s refusal to allow land access to the north of our country.

"But my advice, sir, is to order a cease-fire to avoid further bloodshed. Don’t count on it, but you and your family might possibly be allowed safe passage out of Iraq. In case you are not, I presume you will wish to remain here in the tradition of dictators such as Hitler who committed suicide in his bunker long after all rational hope was gone."

At that point I wake up and cold reality dawns, although some parts of my nightmare remain. The Iraqis truly have done better than expected, for three reasons. The sandstorms which swept the battlefield this week have hindered us by grounding helicopters, clogging men and machines, and restricting our hi-tech vision devices. His troops, with much simpler equipment and an intimate knowledge of the ground, have an advantage in those conditions.

Nor should we ignore the fact that they are fighting on their own soil. We all laugh at ‘Dad’s Army’. A big part of the joke is that we know that if the Germans ever do land at Warmington-on-Sea, Captain Mainwaring’s platoon will be hopelessly outclassed and outnumbered. Despite that, they have convinced themselves that they will win. I don’t know the Arabic for "Don’t panic," but I would not mind betting that it has been heard a few times in Nasiriyah this week.

The people in Iraq come from a proud and ancient civilisation. If they want to overthrow their rulers - however despotic - they would prefer to do it themselves. And they will be doubly suspicious of friends who they feel let them down when they were encouraged to rise up before.

I have a daydream as well as a nightmare. Having been given current responsibility for coalition forces, would I be worried at the state of operations? The answer is definitely not, although I would have some concerns. A number of them stem from the very speed and extent of our advance. It’s difficult to gauge from the graphics in newspapers, but we are talking of moving, against opposition, from Marseilles to Paris in a country the size of France.

For an armoured fighting force that imposes very considerable strains, especially now that with modern optical equipment we are able to fight a 24-hour day.

For all their brute strength, tanks and other AFVs (armoured fighting vehicles) can be temperamental beasts, requiring frequent attention to get the best out of them.

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Fuel consumption can be measured in gallons per mile. Our tanks’ crew of four - commander, driver, gunner and radio operator/loader is responsible for its own maintenance: there are no shift changes.

The state-of-the-art systems in our aircraft need skilled maintenance teams to ensure that they are on line. From my limited and admiring experience of fighter-jet travel, I believe that in a hostile environment the crew of two are working close to the limit of human concentration. Which means that proper rest and briefings are essential.

And our extended lines of resupply make them vulnerable, as we have seen, to harassing attacks by small but determined enemy teams. All of which - logistics, fatigue, rear area security - would make me alert to the need to use manpower prudently.

Reinforcements are on their way but even when they arrive they will need to marry up with their equipment, shake out into battlefield formation and perhaps to acclimatise to the steadily hotter weather.

I would, as always, be studying the ground. "Big hands on little maps, that’s the way to kill the chaps," is an aphorism drummed into every general’s mind. The country to the south of Baghdad is laced with little waterways, the River Tigris bisects it. Every one must be assessed. Obstacle? Or opportunity? How will they affect my ability to manoeuvre? What use can I make of each terrain feature - and how best can I deny its use to the enemy?

I would be delighted with the US parachute operation in the north of Iraq. Time will tell if it is more than a piece of military muscle-flexing, but no matter. It has the supreme advantage of making the enemy look over his shoulder.

In this operation I would be acutely aware of the need to minimise civilian casualties. There is a peace to be won as well as a victory to be achieved. It’s a difficult military task but the political message to Iraq has consistently been: "We want to defeat your regime, but we don’t want to damage you." For this reason as well as many others I would not wish to be drawn into street-fighting in Baghdad city. I would seek to encircle it and give the Iraqis the opportunity to rid themselves of Saddam’s oppression.

I have also to say that one of my concerns arises in this country and not in Iraq.

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There is a problem with the media coverage of the war, particularly on television. It arises from the mismatch between the strategic briefings being provided by Force Headquarters and the eyewitness accounts from reporters embedded in front-line units. With personal experience I am in no doubt that TV stations are seeking to report events accurately and impartially.

Let me take a football analogy. A team may win a game 5-1, but it can still score an own goal, have three yellow cards and a player sent off. It’s the result, and the post-match analysis, that counts. I do not ask for any changes except an awareness that digested news may sometimes be more accurate news.

Our soldiers, sailors and airmen are fully engaged in combat. They are there in our name whether we like it or not and whether they like it or not. It may not be a very 21st century word but I believe that our duty is to support them while they do theirs. But war inevitably extracts a bloody price from all who engage in it. The poetry of Thomas Hardy has been a sustaining influence in my life. I started with a reference to the First World War. Hardy wrote a poem at its end. Let me quote three lines:

"Calm fell. From heaven distilled a clemency;

There was peace on earth and silence in the sky...

And again the Spirit of Pity whispered "Why?"

His question will have to be answered, in full, in time.