Anatomy of the Three-Week War

It was more that we were good rather than they were bad.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

In the aftermath of the incredible three-and-a-half week victory we should not post facto make the mistake of assuming that Operation Iraqi Freedom was necessarily an easy task.

The Soviets learned that trying to take an Islamic city is not an easy thing and can lead to thousands of dead and hundreds of lost tanks, planes, and armored vehicles. More Americans were killed in Lebanon in a single day than all those lost in the present campaign. In 1991 six weeks were necessary to soften up Iraqi troops — along with nearly a million allied soldiers. The British learned that attempting an invasion of the Dardanelles against a supposedly “weak” Turkey led to a bloodbath.

A fair historical assessment will soon emerge that attributes our victory not to Iraqi weaknesses per se. Rather it was the American ability on the ground and air in a matter of hours to decapitate the command-and-control apparatus of the Baathist regime that alone allowed bridges, oil wells, power plants, and harbors to be saved, and chemical weapons not to be used.

There were a number of inherent — indeed deadly — risks in the operation. Much is made of having few troops on the ground. But a greater worry was the need to deploy from the rather narrow staging area in Kuwait, once access was denied in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Assembling 300,000-400,000 ground-combat troops in such a small area over such a long period of time in essence would have left half the available aggregate land forces of the United States vulnerable in a few thousand square acres to missile or chemical attacks. And such a Gulf War I-type mobilization — given the deep cuts of the 1990s — would have left the U.S. army scarcely able to have met a sudden attack from North Korea.

Another problem was the geography of Iraq itself. Ostensibly it is a wide country with few obstructions. In fact, the actual inhabited areas resemble Egypt more than France, in that almost all the population centers and roads to Baghdad are concentrated in the narrow Tigris-Euphrates corridor, land that is marshier than desert, where dozens of bridges span tributaries and wetlands. In short, it was not an easy task to drive 400-500 miles northward to Kurdistan from a single base in a long, narrow thrust that could be stalled by a few carefully blown bridges and mined highways.

The nature of the population — not quite hostile like the Japanese of 1945, not quite friendly as the Western Europeans of 1944 — posed even greater challenges. Like Italy of 1943, occupation and liberation were sometimes fuzzy concepts that affected the degree of force required: Stop Baathist control, but don’t destroy infrastructure; kill Republican Guardsmen, but not those who might defect.

It was almost as if we were trying to exorcise a demon from an innocent zombie host, and thus had to use enough shock to chase out the spirit without damaging the body. That paradox in and of itself meant that a long preliminary bombing campaign was politically impossible — especially with the world’s news agencies ensconced in the Palestine Hotel paying bribe money to Baathists for the privilege of sending out slanted and censored news about collateral damage.

How then did we do it, and do it without the typical Serbia or Afghanistan preliminary bombardment? It was not just that we had air superiority and 70 percent of the ordnance dropped was “smart.” Rather the bombs were “brilliant” in that they were so accurate that they could target individual headquarters, houses, even artillery pieces, tanks, buses, and trucks. Most Republican Guard divisions were not 50 percent disabled by air attacks, but more likely reduced to only 20 percent of their original combat efficiency. When 1,000 Coalition planes were in the sky, coupled with Army Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, and thousands of munitions often directed to precise locations by ground spotters, infantry obtained the auxiliary power of several traditional armored divisions.

But it would be a mistake to suggest that the army is somehow passé. Indeed, Iraqi Freedom has done more than anything in recent memory to enhance the reputation of land forces — 101st and 82nd Airborne, special forces, 3rd Mechanized Infantry — as they organized an entire front, parachuted in the darkness, fought house-to-house, and rolled like Patton to Baghdad. Thus it was precisely the liberation of the Army from its traditional roles that has made it even more vital to our national defense.

More importantly still, the old idea of separate branches of the military is itself becoming obsolete. It is not just that there are Army, Marine, and Navy pilots or that Seals and Air Force controllers fight on land. Rather there is such instantaneous integration between land, air, and sea forces that it is hard to sort out who is doing what when enemy tanks explode out of nowhere, GPS-guided bombs go into the windows of Baathists, and special — forces hit teams take out generals before they can order counterassaults.

This joint operational approach is similar to the evolution of the heavy classical Greek phalanx into the multifaceted army of Philip II, when hoplites transmogrified into lighter-but-deadlier phalangites, who in turn were enhanced by a symphony of forces — light and heavy cavalry, hypaspists, light infantry, slingers, archers, and missile troops. By allowing a variety of forces (the hammers) to drive enemies into his phalanx (the anvil), Alexander made his spearmen far deadlier than their classical infantry predecessors who had once exercised exclusive control of the battlefield.

But the lethality of the military is not just organizational or a dividend of high-technology. Moral and group cohesion explain more still. The general critique of the 1990s was that we had raised a generation with peroxide hair and tongue rings, general illiterates who lounged at malls, occasionally muttering “like” and “you know” in Sean Penn or Valley Girl cadences. But somehow the military has married the familiarity and dynamism of crass popular culture to 19th-century notions of heroism, self-sacrifice, patriotism, and audacity.

The result is that the energy of our soldiers arises from the ranks rather than is imposed from above. What, after all, is the world to make of Marines shooting their way into Baathist houses with Ray-Bans, or shaggy special forces who look like they are strolling in Greenwich Village with M-16s, or tankers with music blaring and logos like “Bad Moon Rising?” The troops look sometimes like cynical American teenagers but they fight and die like Leathernecks on Okinawa. The Arab street may put on shows of goose-stepping suicide bombers, noisy pajama-clad killers, and shrill, masked assassins, but in real battle against gum-chewing American adolescents with sunglasses these street toughs prove to be little more than toy soldiers.

By the same token, officers talk and act like a mixture of college professors and professional boxers. Ram-road straight they brave fire alongside their troops — seconds later to give brief interviews about the intricacies of tactics and the psychology of civilian onlookers. Somehow the military inculcated among its officer corps the truth that education and learning were not antithetical to risking one’s life at the front; a strange sight was an interview with a young officer offering greetings to his fellow alumni — of Harvard Business School. So besides a new organization and new technologies, there is a new soldier of sorts as well.

Are there any preliminary lessons from the three-week warring from which we can learn?

Helicopters are, of course, vital for fast-moving airborne operations, but when they go down with critical special-forces operatives or a half-dozen soldiers the losses are more than material, but are grievous in a psychological sense as well. The public can accept soldiers who fall in battle, but are traumatized when they die in groups of three, four, six, or seven from mechanical failure rather than enemy fire. We need clearly to invest in a new generation of transport, stressing good old-fashioned backup systems and reliability over enhanced speed and high technology. Tankers, transport, and other logistical craft — what Cicero would probably now call the sinews of war — deserve more investment and concern.

It is becoming a truism that friendly fire is an inescapable part of modern warfare that can account for almost 20 percent and more of all battlefield fatalities. There is a strange new law emerging: that the degree of high technology needed to ensure almost no losses from enemy action is almost commensurate with increased accidental injury. But like helicopter crashes, friendly fire sends ripples of trauma beyond the actual number of dead and tends to erode morale and support.

War is becoming so fast and so lethal that each hour hundreds of 22-year-olds now hold the lives and deaths of dozens in their thumbs’ millisecond decisions to squeeze buttons. Indeed, the quicker and more effective our troops become, the more likely they are to overrun enemy positions, leapfrog over projected objectives, and achieve almost immediate air superiority — thus confusing battle lines and putting them on collision courses with each other.

The United States military is now evolving geometrically as it gains experience from near-constant fighting and grafts new technology daily. Indeed, it seems to be doubling, tripling, and even quadrupling its lethality every few years. And the result is that we are outdistancing not merely the capabilities of our enemies but our allies as well — many of whom who have not fought in decades — at such a dizzying pace that our sheer destructive power makes it hard to work with others in joint operations. In that context, we might reassess the need to take technology to its theoretical -nth degree: How many new sophisticated stealthy $1.5 billion bombers do we need, when the equivalent expenditure would pay for a more mundane but vital mechanized Division for an entire year?

Such unprecedented military power brings with it enormous moral responsibility as the world — its utopians especially — in the decades ahead will vie for a hand in the decisions on how to use it and for what purposes. There quite literally has never been a single nation that has exercised such colossal military force to change almost instantly the status quo, and used it under the auspices of a consensual government to free — Grenada, Panama, Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq — rather than to enslave peoples. How long it will last, we do not know, but we should at least realize that we are living in one of the most anomalous periods in recorded history.

Sophocles would warn us that hubris — not enemies in the here and now — is the only real danger to us on the horizon. But so far we have avoided the gods’ nemeses precisely because our soldiers have put their power in the service of good by toppling odious despots — Noriega, Milosevic, Mullah Omar, Saddam Hussein — and leaving the seeds of freedom in their wake. We of an often cynical and ironic society at the least owe them a commensurate idealism.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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