Modern American war is as easy to script as a B movie. First, finger the villain and hype a “clear and present danger” via relentless forget-the-facts spin; next, position the troops from an unquestioning all-volunteer military; and then pull the trigger on cue for the grand finale.

The Bush putsch is about to take out Saddam as planned in a predictably bloody, possibly nuclear Third Act – but most Americans seem too lulled by cable TV’s drumbeat to care if the pending war is based on fiction or fact, or just another ratings ploy.

Well, guess what? We’re not talking a TV series neatly served up with exotic locations, slick logos, martial music and a happy-ending parade down Fifth Ave.

War is the ultimate reality-based horror show. From ancient times to today’s nuclear, bio and nerve weapons, it’s always been a cataclysmic catastrophe. Ask any vet who’s witnessed battle, helped clean up a killing field or stood in the rubble of a Beirut, Kabul or Sarajevo.

At a recent book-signing in Harrisburg, Pa. – one of the most patriotic communities out of the almost 100 I’ve visited since wife Eilhys and my new book, “Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts,” took us on the road – a stranger told me something as profound as it was simple. “Why go to war with Iraq?” he said. “Just ask their soldiers to surrender. They will.”

His message reminded me of the Vietnam anti-war slogan: “Suppose they had a war and nobody came.”

Since I’ve often wondered how much pain would have been avoided if we had all just walked in the ’60s, perhaps the advice wasn’t that far-fetched. Before Desert Storm’s ground phase began, mobs of Iraqi deserters poured across the line, clutching our leaflets urging them to surrender. Within a few weeks, more than 80,000 enemy soldiers swapped their weapons for some made-in-the-USA TLC.

So why not ask the entire Iraqi army to do the same? We’ve already filled the Iraqi airwaves with Saddam-is-badder-than-Hitler commercials and primed the pump by dropping tons of “Don’t Fight” fliers. Maybe now’s the time for messages showing Desert Storm battle photos with this sort of copy: “Why wait until we strike? Give up now and be among the first to sign up for the Iraqi-American GI bill, guaranteed to jump-start the good life after Saddam.”

We could include directions to assembly areas, where white-flag wavers would get an endless issue of Big Macs, fries and jumbo Cokes to help swallow the briefings about who’s going to be running Iraq’s gas station post-Saddam. The first several thousand takers could be incentivized with an early-bird special like a pair of Levi’s.

Just imagine all the dough and deaths we’d save. Leaflets, Big Macs, Levi’s and a few $100 desertion bonuses per taker are a lot cheaper than smart bombs and mass casualties. And we might even finesse the Arab street and reduce recruits for al-Qaida.

After all, this type of campaign was effective enough in Haiti that Jimmy Carter was able to fly in on a Sunday, cut a deal, and by Monday, happy Haitians were bombarding our peacefully invading warriors with flowers. Dictator Raul Cedras and his murderous crew didn’t shed too many tears either on a one-way trip to sunny Florida, their suitcases crammed with U.S. green.

Once the Butcher of Baghdad and his gang see the game is up, they’ll probably also elect to join Cedras and other baddies like Uganda’s Idi Amin in fat-rat exile. And since Saddam’s got more gold than Switzerland, this time around it won’t cost us.

If we do co-opt the Iraqi army, the bucks saved, along with our share of those produced by our new joint Brit/Yank desert refineries, could fund Homeland America’s defenses, provide universal health care for all our citizens, repair our broken education system and clean up the Third World ghettoes that mar most large cities in this rich land.

For sure, we should get the Pentagon’s psych-war folks to start punching out our pitch while we line up Jimmy Carter to work that old Nobel magic. As Sun Tzu said 2,500 years ago, “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

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