Refighting the War

by Victor Davis Hanson

Commentary Magazine

Ten years ago, Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times and the retired General Bernard Trainor wrote a critically acclaimed revisionist history of the first Gulf war. Challenging the rosy consensus view of that four-day victory on the ground, The Generals’ War (1995) set out to show that the abrupt removal of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait could be explained as much by Iraqi impotence as by American competence. Nor was that the authors’ sole point of contention. At war’s end, they charged, civilian overseers in the Pentagon and at the State Department had failed to translate tactical military success into lasting strategic advantage. Instead, the murderous Iraqi dictator was left in power, and with him a geopolitical stalemate: though weakened, Saddam was still capable of paralyzing American Middle East policy for years to come.

Now, in Cobra II,* the same authors have returned with an account of the three-week war of 2003 and its aftermath. The sense of déjà vu extends even to the dramatis personae. Here, in the celebrity role played earlier by General Norman Schwarzkopf, is General Tommy Franks — no less blustering and imperious, and at critical junctures no less deaf to the advice of more informed subordinates. If, in 1991, no real direction had come from Washington, thus allowing Saddam’s defeated generals to proceed pretty much as they pleased against the postwar Shi’ite and Kurdish resistance, so, too, we learn here, no plan to speak of existed for the aftermath of victory in 2003. Colin Powell, portrayed in The Generals’ War as nonchalantly allowing Saddam to persist in power, appears a decade later nonchalantly allowing the neoconservatives to pursue their trumped-up war.

Three interpretive themes, outlined in the opening chapters, dominate the narrative of Cobra II. First, after September 11, George Bush rather abruptly decided to go to war with Iraq, whether or not the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was as imminent or as dire as the President, in his misplaced obsession with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, insisted. Yet the administration was also woefully unprepared to fight such a war, being reluctant either to devote sufficient military resources to the enterprise or to mobilize the nation for the struggle that lay ahead. Hence, for Gordon and Trainor, there arose from the beginning a fatal “disparity of ends and means.”

Second, Gordon and Trainor hammer Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not listening to his generals, who wanted far more troops to fight the war itself. Rumsfeld envisioned Iraq as a testing ground for his personal theories of military transformation, according to which lighter, more mobile forces would do the work once performed by massive deployments of heavy infantry. He therefore approached the issue of numbers “with the ruthless efficiency of a businessman for whom excess inventory was to be avoided at all cost.”

This, the authors argue, proved almost catastrophic on the ground. Troops insufficiently massed and prepared were plopped directly down on the battlefield. Long, vulnerable supply lines stretched perilously from Kuwait hundreds of miles to the south to beyond Baghdad in the north. With no margin of reserves behind them, armored spearheads were forced to bypass rather than to occupy and hold conquered ground. That, in turn, explains why the insurrection could not be immediately put down in the war’s aftermath:

Instead of making plans to fight a counterinsurgency, the President and his team drew up plans to bring the troops home and all but declared the war won. There is a direct link between the way the Iraq war was planned and the bitter insurgency the American-led coalition subsequently confronted.

Third, Gordon and Trainor charge that the administration did not plan properly for reconstruction, wrongly thinking that Iraq would turn out to be a rapid success story like Afghanistan, or that an American proconsul and provisional government could quickly establish a transition to democratic rule. When, on May 1, 2003, George Bush landed on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to declare that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” he had little idea that 2,000 combat dead, billions of dollars, and three Iraqi elections later, the country would still not be secure.

Here once again the authors place a large share of the blame on Rumsfeld, who allegedly browbeat Franks into declaring that thousands of American soldiers could be withdrawn almost immediately after the initial cessation of hostilities. From the military’s point of view, write Gordon and Trainor, civilian leadership could be forgiven for having geopolitical considerations that necessitated saving reserves for other contingencies. What was unpardonable was the idea that, on principle, there should be only a limited number of troops available. The price of this operational madness was paid by officers in the field. It was they who had to lead their inadequate forces into battle, and who subsequently lacked the manpower to rectify the critical postwar lapses.

* * *

As a book, Cobra II reads well, reflecting both Gordon’s brave battle reporting under fire and Trainor’s long familiarity with military operations and invaluable contacts with ranking officers. Writing a book like this involves burdensome travel, real danger, and an ability to navigate one’s way through participants’ personal, and often hidden, agendas. Both authors spent time interviewing hundreds of subjects, here and in the Middle East; clearly, it was not easy to forge a synthesis when so much of the evidence they gathered was either fragmentary or contradictory.

For all their fault-finding, moreover, Gordon and Trainor convey an invaluable impression of tens of thousands of American soldiers hell-bent for Baghdad from their far distant starting point in Kuwait and miraculously deposing Saddam Hussein in three weeks’ time. Rumsfeld’s idea of a “rolling start” often took literal form: for the first time in U.S. military history, a mechanized unit flew nonstop from a base in the United States to enemy country, landed near the battlefield, and then drove right off to the fight. Even American psychological operations, an often over-hyped element of war-fighting, worked well: when American planes showered leaflets on it, an entire Iraqi division guarding Baghdad more or less melted away, leaving behind only 2,000 of its original 13,000 combatants.

From postbellum interviews of Iraqi leaders, the authors are able to reveal that Saddam’s own generals did not realize that Iraq’s arsenals of weapons of mass destruction were mere fantasies, or had become so by the time the war began. Meanwhile, however, our own intelligence concerning Saddam’s whereabouts was dismal, leading to a series of much publicized strikes that never came close to killing either him or members of his family. As the war progressed, fedayeen in SUV’s outfitted with machine guns and in pick-up trucks with RPG’s, though capable of offering little or no resistance to our rapid advance, were already learning how to take advantage of the restrictive rules of American engagement and of our reluctance to alienate Iraqi public opinion. Once the lethal Americans had passed by, or returned in the role of benign peacekeepers, the fedayeen easily regrouped and reemerged as nationalist guerrillas.

For reporting all this well and vividly, Cobra II has much to recommend it. Beyond that, however, all is questionable, to say the least. The book announces itself as an insider’s history, but one distinguished by the scholarly rigor lacking in such purely journalistic accounts as Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack (2004). Yet, despite its over 400 endnotes, almost 40 pages of internal documents, and some explanation of the source materials on which it is based, a Woodwardian flavor pervades the whole.

There is, for example, no bibliography — a telling fault in the absence of evidence that the authors, if only for purposes of gaining perspective, have drawn on many prior military histories or studies of the Middle East. The index is poor, consisting mostly of names and places; long entries are not broken down into subsections, and important topics and themes (e.g., “weapons of mass destruction,” “Shi’ite,” etc.) are missing entirely. A book whose subtitle promises a history not only of the three-week invasion but also of the years-long occupation has but one index reference to Muqtadr al-Sadr.

Far more disturbingly, sources are often cited only as “Interview, former senior military officer,” “Interview, former senior officer,” “Interview, former Centcom planner,” “Interview, Pentagon Officials,” “Interview, U.S. State Department Official,” or the like, and in some cases simply as “Notes of a participant.” The veracity of these multiple, anonymous, and often hostile sources can never be checked.

We have learned from Bob Woodward that, in Washington, he who talks often gets to adjudicate whose story is heard and with what degree of authorial deference it will be put forward. Cobra II is a critical take on the administration’s entire conduct of the war, yet the authors did not interview the major architects: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, L. Paul Bremer III, General Richard B. Myers, or General Tommy Franks. They did, however, draw heavily on these men’s critics, both early and late: Brent Scowcroft, General Jay Garner, Paul Pillar, Lawrence Wilkerson, General Anthony Zinni, and others.

Have the courage and good sense of Generals David McKiernan and William S. Wallace been enhanced in the telling by the fact that Michael Gordon was embedded with the staff of the former and enjoyed almost unlimited access to the corps officers of the latter? To what degree were these officers consciously aware that their special guest was monitoring their behavior for his book? For that matter, how is it that Douglas Feith, the former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, who is frequently scapegoated as the prime culprit for what went wrong after April 2003, is treated so charitably by the usually hypercritical Gordon and Trainor? The endnotes, not surprisingly, reveal that Feith, almost alone in the administration, chose to give his side to the authors.

* * *

If such selectivity in itself is insufficient to raise doubt over the reliability of key parts of Cobra II, there are the authors’ three major themes to consider.

Was, for instance, the decision to go to war taken abruptly and without real cause? Gordon and Trainor do not even inquire whether the ties between al Qaeda and Saddam’s intelligence agencies, which had prompted formal condemnation from both the Clinton administration and the Senate, might not have been a worthy casus belli in a post-September 11 world. Although they do mention the Senate’s October 11, 2002 resolution, passed overwhelmingly, which authorized war against Iraq on 23 counts, what they emphasize is that John Kerry, who voted yes, had been given off-the-record and soon-to-be broken assurances by Colin Powell that force would be a last resort.

In fact, Senate speeches of the time reveal something else: a strong bipartisan desire to complete the goal of regime change that had been authorized four years earlier during the Clinton administration. Nothing abrupt there. At war’s end, moreover, Democratic legislators and 70 percent of the public wholeheartedly applauded the removal of Saddam Hussein; subsequent objections would center not on the three-week victory that many were happy to claim as their own but the messy three-year peace they became only too eager to attribute to others.

Nor do Gordon and Trainor credit the still more telling fact that, following the Afghanistan campaign in the fall of 2001, some fifteen months of national and worldwide discussion ensued concerning Iraq, including the excruciatingly drawn-out U.N. debate. Rarely, in truth, has the U.S. conducted so prolonged and so public a discussion about its intentions in the run-up to any war.

The authors are more on target in dwelling on the administration’s preoccupation with weapons of mass destruction at the expense of other, more compelling writs for action. As they point out, the WMD issue warped the public presentation of the war and later diverted some resources away from reconstruction to numerous wild-goose chases
after nonexistent or no longer existent arsenals. Yet even here there is a disconnect in their version of the WMD issue — attributable, no doubt, to the selectivity of their sources. While suggesting deceit on the part of an administration bent on overplaying a fanciful danger, they do not question the sincerity of General Franks’s frantic efforts to warn his commanders about the impending threat of chemical and biological attack.

The authors’ second and third themes — supposedly critical mistakes in troop levels and troop deployment both during and after the war — are in essence one. When it comes to them, little analysis, let alone counterargument, is on offer. Why did a deployment strategy that had worked in Afghanistan fail — if it did fail — in Iraq? After all, there had been even less planning in the case of the former campaign, and American planners had good reason to believe that Iraq’s restive Shi’ites and Kurds were just as anxious for regime change as embattled warlords in Afghanistan.

As for troop levels, were these predicated entirely on Rumsfeld’s pet theories, as Gordon and Trainor maintain, or rather on a more general acknowledgement of limited U.S. resources after the vast cutbacks in conventional forces of the 1990’s, coupled with newfound worries of possible additional commitments cropping up unexpectedly in Syria, North Korea, and Iran? No one disputed, furthermore, that the recent technological revolution in smart air and ground weapons had translated into greater lethality per soldier or airman. Did that dictate a need for fewer, more, or about the same number of on-the-ground shooters as in the 1990’s?

And what about the supposed lessons of Vietnam, which purportedly worked against Rumsfeld’s views? In fact, the massive U.S. troop presence on the ground in Vietnam in the late 1960’s, with its enormous bureaucratic and logistical support, had not always conduced to a safer environment for American forces or a more viable South Vietnamese defense establishment than did the far smaller footprint we maintained there after 1971, when Vietnamization, fewer ground troops, and more audacious air support proved more effective against the North Vietnamese.

Instead of dwelling so much on troop levels, Gordon and Trainor might have done better to ask other, more relevant questions. To what degree did the inability of the 4th Infantry division to head south from Turkey mean not merely that the Sunni Triangle was not immediately attacked but that it never really became a theater of war whose Iraqi combatants would learn the hard wages of fighting Americans? Given the rapid American victory and the directive to avoid killing not merely civilians but enemy soldiers as well, was there, perhaps, an inescapable Catch-22 in Iraq — as if an enemy humiliated and fleeing, but never really conquered, could ever make an easy subject for radical reconstruction? Iraq, after all, was supposed to be less like World War II Germany than like World War II Italy — liberated from an unpopular dictator, rather than punished and made to suffer the wages of its aggression.

* * *

As a journalistic account of the three-week war, this book is of undeniable value. Interviews with dozens of officers below the rank of one-star general lend the story a gritty, ground-eye vantage point. There are also firsthand interviews with the rank-and-file that will be of lasting archival use to future historians.

But, despite the promise of the subtitle, we do not get a judicious assessment of the origins of the Iraqi war, the immediate causes that led up to the hostilities, or the complex and ongoing issues of the occupation. Indeed, the chapters devoted to the period after April 2003 take up only about 50 of the book’s 500 or so pages of text, as if appended as an afterthought. And even the pages on the war itself are focused disproportionately, as we have seen, on American ignorance and arrogance. For two such veteran observers of combat, there is an oddly utopian strain in this presentation — as if going 7,000 miles into the heart of the ancient caliphate, taking out a mass murderer in three weeks, and then birthing three elections at the cost of 2,300 American fatalities might not be considered successful in the long and tragic annals of military history.

Like the invasion of Iraq itself, Cobra II takes its title from the American breakout in Normandy that commenced on July 25, 1944 with several days of strategic and tactical bombing designed to blast a hole through German lines and free General Omar Bradley’s forces from a bloody six-week stalemate in the hedgerows. By way of explaining their choice of title, the authors note that General McKiernan’s thrust to Baghdad emulated George S. Patton’s explosive drive south and then east across France. But they might have reminded their readers that the sum total of all the errors committed by American planners and generals in Iraq pales in comparison with the tragic inauguration of the original Cobra campaign. Then, poor planning and execution led to two accidental American airstrikes on friendly troops, resulting in 111 dead and 490 wounded, plus the (covered-up) death of Lieutenant General Leslie J. McNair, the highest ranking American fatality in the entire European theater.

That is indicative of the way in which Cobra II, despite its allusion to Patton, is not really history. We never learn which benchmarks of the past, if any, are useful in assessing the race to Baghdad and what followed, to what degree the errors we committed were normal or exceptional in wars of this magnitude, or whether the authors’ preferred solutions might not themselves pose just as many problems, if not worse ones.

Gordon and Trainor close on a trite note: “The price for the American and allied troops, and for the Iraqis themselves . . . was higher than it need have been: chaos, suffering, and a future that is still vexed.” Vexed? Yes, of course — but this tossed-off banality is true for the aftermath of almost all of America’s much bloodier and more error-prone conflicts, from the failed post-Civil War reconstruction and the fiasco that ensued from not occupying Germany after World War I to the loss of Eastern Europe in 1946 and the stalemate that was Korea. The present war, so roundly criticized in Cobra II, developed from a past strategic error — leaving Saddam in power. That decision was rightly criticized in the authors’ earlier book. But if it was wrong to leave Saddam in power then, why was it even worse to have taken him out later?

The authors’ failure to notice this irony suggests an underlying blind spot: what interests them is not policy — in this case, whether and how to deal with the menace of Saddam Hussein — but rather the supposedly inept and out-of-touch decision-making of those in authority in Washington. Thus, the troop-level controversy, which frames the entire book, is presented as a divide between, on the one hand, pie-in-the-sky civilian theorists and toadying careerists and, on the other, hardheaded veteran middling officers. Throughout, their criticisms are advanced in the name of these officers: angry majors, colonels, and subordinate generals who feel they were talked down to by the obsequious and politically-minded four-star brass, and who then had to hide the truth from their own men and the public at large.

Relying on the partial (in every sense) testimony of these men, Gordon and Trainor assure us that “the bitter insurgency American and British forces confront today was not preordained. There were lost opportunities, military and political, along the way.” How do they know this? “The commanders and troops who fought the war explained them to us.” All honor to those commanders and troops whom the authors chose to talk to; but the essential task of the historian is otherwise, and these pages hardly begin to address it.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This