Book Review
The Unfinished War
James Thomas Snyder reviews three recent books examining what's at stake in Iraq.
Cobra II, Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, Atlantic Books, London, 2006

Iraqi Perspectives Project, Kevin M. Woods, with Michael R. Pease, Mark E. Stout, Williamson Murray and James G. Lacey, U.S. Joint Forces Command, Norfolk, 2006

The Assassins' Gate, George Packer, Farrar, Straus & Geroux, New York, 2005

The second Iraq war seems to exist out of time, which may explain why feelings about the conflict remain so intense. Detractors and defenders alike seek historical precedent to give the war meaning and understanding. But by now we should know that Iraq defies all antecedent and its future is still being written.

Fortunately recent literature helps us understand how we got to this point, how the initial stages of the war were fought, and what is at stake. Cobra II, by New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon and Maj.Gen. Bernard Trainor (USMC, ret.), provides a comprehensive backroom and front-line account of the fight. The Iraqi Perspectives Project, available online, furnishes an extraordinary look inside Saddam Hussein's doomed regime. Lastly, The Assassins' Gate, by New Yorker staff writer George Packer, describes the unusual pre-war political alliances as well as the post-war environment in powerfully personal terms.

The story so far is one of extremes. The Coalition executed a novel war plan with blinding speed, but transformation of both war-fighting and peace-keeping remains incomplete. Saddam's malevolent paranoia sealed his fate, but he was the least of the foes the Coalition would face. Iraq has since proved shockingly violent, but Iraqis demonstrate determination to hold on to their future.

The Pentagon plans

The lasting controversy over the political decision to topple Saddam is now inextricable from the war plan itself. Cobra II (the war plan's name alluded to Gen. George Patton's Normandy breakout in July 1944) demonstrates that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld managed the war plan as a means to drive his transformation agenda. He saw traditional, heavy Army formations impeding rapid action in a fluid security environment. The Gulf War's six-month build-up was outdated and his antidote was lighter, smaller units, substituting information and precision for mass. Afghanistan demonstrated the utility of this change, and the Iraq war would consolidate it. But like all plans, Cobra II was a collaborative effort that evolved over time. While Rumsfeld fed Central Command unorthodox officers to push for new ideas, major planning fell to CENTCOM Commander Gen. Tommy Franks and his staff.

The emphasis on a small force was clear, but Gordon and Trainor describe a planning "accordion" between Rumsfeld and CENTCOM regarding force size: early estimates topped out above 500,000 but by D-Day the main force numbered 140,000. Capitalising on speed, forces would avoid southern cities in a rapid drive to decapitate the regime in Baghdad. An innovation dubbed the "generated start" would feed forces into Iraq as they arrived in the Gulf and if the war went quickly, they could be "off-ramped" back to their home bases. Air power would fight with the main forces, not in advance of them.

The plan did not anticipate the irregular warfare that slowed passage around urban areas. While soldiers adapted quickly, Trainor and Gordon argue that the top leadership never caught up. One of the Pentagon's major internal fights came when land forces commander Lt.Gen. David McKiernan ordered a "pause" because his troops had outrun supply lines and needed to secure rear areas before converging on Baghdad. (Significantly, weather was not the determining factor.) This improvisation aside, Cobra II was basically sound in achieving its intent. Coalition forces took Baghdad in three weeks.

These books offer answers to other contentious questions, the most controversial being post-war planning. The point is often missed that the limited planning was by design: Rumsfeld had no intention to occupy Iraq. A pre-war speech titled "Beyond Nation Building" expresses his apprehension about the distortionary effects of long-term humanitarian interventions. This is a decidedly unorthodox position given experience in the Balkans and Afghanistan, but it follows a growing literature arguing that aid regimes prove destabilising in the long term.

Saddam's miscalculations

With pressure growing on Iraq in 2002 and 2003, it is curious that Saddam did not consider an American-led invasion to be the primary threat to his regime. The Iraqi Perspectives Project, a critical analysis of the regime's strategy and tactics based on interviews with senior Iraqi officials and captured documents, notes that Saddam worried most about a replay of the 1991 Shiite uprising which he mercilessly crushed. In his strategic calculus, Iran posed a greater threat than the Americans. Defense planning followed this assessment and was likely critical to the speed of the Coalition assault. For example, only by his direct order could combat engineers demolish the bridges he needed to put down another uprising. Unaware of the Coalition's speed, however, he never gave the order. Coalition forces found most spans rigged but intact, saving them from establishing bridgeheads across the rivers and canals of southern Iraq.

Saddam expected that any Western attack would repeat Operation Desert Fox, the Anglo-American four-day bombing campaign in 1998 against the regime's weapons sites. He had watched the West wage war in the Balkans, Africa and Afghanistan for more than a decade, and he held the aversion to casualties in contempt. Air power in Kosovo and Afghanistan did not impress him. He had survived Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that had followed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, weathered continual bombardment and still held power. The looming confrontation would be no different.

A self-styled military genius, Saddam Hussein peppered his commanders with meaningless guidance they simply could not ignore
His assumptions were badly mistaken and accorded great strategic and tactical surprise to the Coalition. Cobra II dispensed entirely with preparatory bombardment; ground forces entered Iraq before major air attacks began. Despite the conventional wisdom that opening night attacks on Baghdad constituted "shock and awe," the bombing targeted only Saddam and missed. "Shock and awe" doctrine mandates taking down electricity and water quickly to bring the war home to the public, but the first night sorties left the lights on and hardly affected traffic in Baghdad. The lighter force and "generated start" also convinced Saddam any attack would be months off, since the Coalition had clearly not built up a Desert Storm-like armada by the eve of war.

Saddam's military most feared an early air assault on the Baghdad airport and arrayed defenders against airborne troops. This assumption, combined with bad field reporting, meant the regime was completely surprised when heavy armoured units assaulted and seized the airport. The airport then enabled the armoured "thunder runs" through central Baghdad, demonstrating the regime had lost power. When the end came, it came very swiftly, and Saddam spirited himself out of the city with his sons.

The fascinating Perspectives Project traces Saddam's miscalculations and defeat to a sclerotic regime checked by fear of the supreme leader. Saddam ruled with a bloody fist, and he survived through pervasive paranoia. To discourage conspiracies, Saddam spied on all of his top aides and restricted the movement, training, and communication of military units. Commanders waited for Saddam's approval of orders right up through D-Day. Their communications monitored, they remained reluctant to coordinate tactical movement even with fighting underway.

Such dysfunction infected everything from doctrine and tactics to planning and communications. Saddam dismissed innovation as defeatist or even "American" thinking. His sycophants spun prior defeats as great victories: Desert Storm became a magnificent display of arms because the army had managed to avoid total destruction. The middling tactics applied then became enshrined as operational doctrine. Field reporting similarly touted Coalition "defeats" right up until the regime collapsed.

A self-styled military genius with no practical experience or training, Saddam also peppered his commanders with meaningless guidance they simply could not ignore. ("Train in a way that allows you to defeat your enemy. Train all units' members in swimming. Train on smart weapons.") Fear compounded micro-management, making disaster inevitable. Saddam's final order for the defence of Baghdad consisted entirely of units falling back by concentric sector to the city centre where they would then "fight to the death". His dismayed commanders were obliged to execute this suicidal plan, although events quickly interceded.

Saddam nominally had several formations to draw on - the Iraqi Army, the Special and regular Republican Guards, the Baath party militia and the al Quds Army - that represented the totalitarian tendency to build competing security forces. The Coalition and Western media focused on the Special Republican Guard and the al Quds Army because they were better trained, supplied and motivated than regular units. But for exactly those reasons Saddam suspected them most of all and deployed them far from Baghdad.

Instead, he mobilized the paramilitary Fedayeen Saddam, "Saddam's Men of Sacrifice," as his final guarantor, appointing his sadistic son Uday as commander. Created in 1994 to repress southern Shiites, the Fedayeen doubled as guerrillas and commissars to "encourage" regular units to fight. There wasn't much to work with. Fearing Saddam's wrath, lower echelon commanders routinely lied about force readiness, concocting elaborate ruses to mask poor equipment, supplies, training and morale. Despite some competent leadership and well-equipped formations, most of the Iraqi army was a brittle shell.

Iraqi lessons, coalition innovations

The Central Intelligence Agency, operating in southern Iraq, expected a Shiite uprising and reported that resistance would either melt away or turn to fight on the side of their liberators. Indeed, many major formations simply disintegrated, but the intelligence community entirely missed the Fedayeen in the south. This mistake, which has never been explained, cost lives. The first American combat death, Gordon and Trainor report, was a Marine lieutenant who - in the split second when knowing enemy intentions might have saved him - was shot by civilian-clad Fedayeen attacking in a pick-up truck. This was repeated with deadly effect.

Fedayeen tactics would be familiar to a veteran of Mogadishu, and Gordon and Trainor vividly describe the awful intimacy of fighting such a foe. Guerrillas attacked head-on in trucks or on foot, armed with little more than assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Attacks tied up American units and cancelled a planned Marine feint up Highway 8. Nevertheless, in such terrifying melees it is easy to miss the lopsided nature of the engagement. Superior weapons, training, discipline and armour kept Coalition casualties light. The same cannot be said for the Iraqis.

Iraqis had learned some lessons. They proved adept at targeting field command posts with artillery and fired a Chinese-made cruise missile that fell just short of Marine Corps headquarters in Kuwait. They neutralised an entire Apache regiment on deep attack against the Medina Division using crudely coordinated small arms fire. (Only one helicopter was shot down, and no crew members were killed, but the experience deeply sobered American commanders.) Similarly, the Fedayeen learned to disable M-1 tanks by firing RPGs through the engine exhaust port. Fortunately, very few crew were killed. The propaganda victory of a downed helicopter or disabled tank was significant, but the military effect was not.

Coalition innovations proved far more successful. Special operations forces (SOF), for example, were employed broadly. In one instance, SOF accomplished the first-ever direct-to-battlefield insertion by mechanised forces, flying on C-17 heavy-lift transport aircraft from the United States into western Iraq. The C-17s then moved U.S. tanks and other vehicles from the south to the west, forming another highly effective innovation: the first joint force of SOF and heavy armour. Moving toward Baghdad, the tanks convinced Iraqi commanders a major invasion axis had opened via Jordan. This tied up Iraqi units in the west while the Coalition main force attacked from the south and east.

The Perspectives Project argues that Coalition battle space dominance, precision targeting and psychological operations uniquely devastated the Iraqis. Unit movement brought swift attack from the air, encouraging soldiers to flee for their lives. Targeted leafleting completely dismantled the Al-Nida division, a well-equipped Republican Guard armoured unit defending eastern Baghdad. Without ever making contact with the enemy, 90 percent of the division deserted.

But the war was probably not the final proof for transformation that Rumsfeld had envisioned. Despite their relatively small size and unprecedented coordination, combat units relied mainly on standard Western doctrine of manoeuvre and massed firepower to subdue the foe. Trainor and Gordon join a chorus arguing that mass proved far more important than technology once Baghdad fell. The fighting similarly demonstrated heavy armour's indispensability to protect crews and troops. M-1s and Bradleys proved virtually impenetrable, but mortars and RPGs tore open lighter vehicles like tin cans.

Rebuilding after "Psychological Demolition"

These books describe how we got to this point, but offer little about where we are now. Nonetheless, certain relevant details emerge between the lines. For example, the Perspectives Project rejects the argument that the current insurgency was Saddam's original plan all along. Cobra II indicates planners long anticipated a large allied contingent to secure the post-war environment. This force was lost in the pre-war debate, and it is impossible to know whether it would have tipped the balance.

Planners also assumed Iraq was an otherwise progressive Arab society, with a functioning civil service, professional class, infrastructure, and economy. In this case they could have heeded their own rhetoric about Saddam's regime. Packer argues that years of war, terror and exile made Iraq's "psychological demolition" almost total; civil society collapsed with the regime. He also dissects the frustrating post-war paradox in which fewer services operate than before the war. Under Saddam a delicate web of jury-rigging and corruption just barely held everything together in working order. War and disorder tore this web apart.

The result has tragically delayed the freedom of Iraq. Packer describes the first breath of liberation from Saddam, when Westerners and Iraqis alike did as they pleased without fear. It was a heady time, and Packer expresses intense sympathy for the hopeful characters he meets. They all have big dreams - a young woman yearns to travel, a doctor plans his own NGO, an exile prepares to memorialise Saddam's victims. Packer also admires the men and women in the Coalition, civilian and military, bravely improvising governance in a chaotic environment. Initial control devolved to brigades and battalions scattered across Iraq where young warriors became Solomon in communities reeling from violence and suspicion.

The United Nations compound bombing and subsequent assassinations, Packer ruefully remarks, forced a change in his friends. His dismay at the handling of the post-war is sharp due to his own belief in the mission and those working for a better tomorrow. Nonetheless, he is deeply moved by the defiance and faith of millions of Iraqis as they cast ballots for the first time in early 2005. In Basra he describes the scene:

Sunday morning was strange and beautiful. The streets. were so quiet that people later said it was like a feast day. Families, including small children and grandparents, were walking together along the wide avenues, everyone dressed in fine clothes. . "I've lived over fifty years, and I've never had such a feeling," [said one voter]. "My skin had a strange feeling, like goosebumps. We've had a great culture for six thousand years, and now I think our humanity is proved."

In these moments we may see a way to the future. The ongoing violence and threat of civil war may point to the inherent strength of Iraqi society, which has repeatedly demonstrated a desire to control its own destiny. Such moments come rarely in the dangerous world of the new Iraq, but they are there.