The most profound legacy of the American intervention in Iraq may be the way it changed the U.S. military’s understanding of war.
Years in Iraq change U.S. military’s understanding of war
The Iraq war has long been plagued by its contradictions. It toppled a hostile dictator, but many Americans remain troubled that the conflict was launched on what proved to be the false contention that the country was developing weapons of mass destruction. Even within the U.S. military, there is no broad agreement that the war’s outcome should be judged a victory.
The 2003 attack on Baghdad was premised on the idea that overwhelming American firepower could do extraordinary things. Precision bombs and American tanks, linked by new information technology, could liberate a country with little risk to U.S. forces.
With a little help from American troops and civilians, a new democracy could take root.
“Iraq reintroduced us to the ugliness of war,” said Matt Sherman, who spent three years in Iraq as a civilian adviser to the U.S. military. “And maybe that is a good thing, so we don’t go down that path so easily again.”
Today, American soldiers and Marines parse their experiences in Iraq finely. When they talk about Iraq, they rarely refer to a single war. Individual tours are seen as separate conflicts, each with its own lessons, victories and defeats.
The disparate experiences have triggered a roiling debate over precisely what lessons the American military should take from the different phases of the conflict as it attempts to recast itself for future wars.
Col. Gian Gentile led a U.S. cavalry squadron in western Baghdad during some of the war’s bleakest days in 2006. “I saw terrible things,” he said, describing an experience that was common and deeply affecting for commanders. “I had five soldiers killed and had 15 with life-changing wounds.”
He returned to the United States shortly before Gen. David H. Petraeus, guided by the new counterinsurgency doctrine that he had helped write, arrived in Iraq for his third combat tour. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency approach promised to turn the old American way of war on its head.
Instead of hammering the enemy, his new doctrine urged commanders to focus on protecting the Iraqi people and persuading them to support the Iraqi government. The core of the influential document was a series of Zen-like precepts.
“Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgency do not shoot,” the counterinsurgency manual counseled.
“Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction,” it cautioned.
From the moment Gentile read it, he doubted its utility. “It was telling me that if I would have treated the population differently in Baghdad then the outcome would have been different,” he said.
As violence in Baghdad dropped, U.S. military officers and politicians began proclaiming the success of the new approach. Gentile, who teaches history at the U.S. Military Academy, became one of the Army’s most strident heretics.