Joe Boyles – Guest Columnist
The United States is now engaged in another war against a Muslim nation; this time the target is Libya. We have a long military history with the nations of North Africa; the second stanza of the Marine Corps Hymn is “to the shores of Tripoli” recalling our brief war with the Barbary Coast pirates two centuries ago during the Jeffersonian era.
In the fall of 1942, after nearly a year of impatient preparation, the U.S. engaged the German Army in North Africa. American military leaders and the president had been pushing for an early cross-channel invasion of Europe. Our British allies urged caution and suggested that our young army cut its teeth on a more modest enemy, the Afrika Corps. The August raid on Dieppe by the Canadians proved that the Brits were right.
On November 8, 1942, the American Army under code name Operation Torch landed at three invasion sites in what was then (Vichy) French North Africa: Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. This was the first engagement by the American Army (the Marines had been engaged in the Pacific War at Guadalcanal three months earlier) against the Germans. The strategy was to squeeze the Germans and their Italian allies between the Americans coming from the west and the British arriving from Egypt to the east where they had just won a decisive battle at El Alamein.
The eventual victory in North Africa would occur in Tunisia the following May and involve six U.S. Army divisions. In that six month campaign, we suffered more than 18 thousand casualties. In the process, our young volunteer army would learn many valuable lessons that would be put to use in the subsequent invasions of Sicily, Italy, and eventually France. These were growing pains that we needed to assimilate and improve upon before the big test.
The keys to victory in North Africa were that the Allies learned how to operate as a coalition; we cut off supplies that could reach the Axis forces in Tunisia; and the Italian Army proved to be a paper tiger.
Fast forward to today. North Africa is on fire as revolts have sprung up in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya. To a lesser extent, they are spreading further east as well. The people are attempting to overthrow dictatorships that have oppressed them for decades. Fundamentalist elements like the Muslim Brotherhood, forerunner to al-Qaeda, may be playing a role in this unrest. There is some indication that the lack of food (short supplies and high prices) may also be playing a role.
The issue in Libya is that military strong man Muammar al-Gaddafi is not only hanging on, he is threatening to liquidate the rebels who oppose him. After weeks of watching what may be a humanitarian disaster unfold, another coalition (United Nations, NATO, and the Arab League) has decided to weigh in (Operation Odyssey Dawn) and enforce a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan fighter jets from destroying the rebel stronghold to the east.
President Obama is reluctant to engage the Pentagon in another war and has limited U.S. involvement thus far to intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, command and control, and limited bombing. Our forces have employed cruise missiles (primarily the Tomahawk launched from surface ships and submarines in the Mediterranean), stealth bombers, and fighters to keep Gaddafi’s fighter and attack aircraft grounded. The targets appear to be command facilities, air defenses, airfields, and armored convoys that threaten the rebels.
Three B-2 Spirit stealth bombers launched from their home in Central Missouri, refueled in mid-air, and flew non-stop to Libya to deliver 45 two thousand pound JDAM GPS-guided standoff weapons against preplanned targets. Then they retraced their route of flight, landing at Whiteman AFB 25 hours after launch. That is Global Reach, Global Power in action.
Where this effort goes from here is a big question. Are we seeking to overthrow Gaddafi or are we merely trying to protect the rebels from destruction? How long will this effort last? What will be the cost? Are we in danger of “mission creep?” How resolved are our NATO allies to this effort? What will other Arab nations permit before they waiver in their support? These and more are unknowns as we carefully tread upon territory that has already absorbed its share of American blood.
We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that North Africa was part of European colonialism not that long ago. The French, British and Italians ruled this region for more than a century until World War II led to eventual independence. The fact that democratic institutions were not installed then is a subtext to the problems we face today.