Blundering to Baghdad
The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq
By Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor
Pantheon. 603 pp. $27.95
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made headlines last week by conceding that the Bush administration had made "tactical errors, thousands" in waging the war in Iraq. But, she argued, the administration pursued the right underlying strategy in toppling Saddam Hussein, and history's judgment will be based on whether "you make the right strategic decisions."
In their "inside story" of the war, Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor stand Rice's assertion on its head. They show that the U.S. military's tactical brilliance during the war's early stages came despite the strategic miscalculations of senior civilian and military leaders -- and that the Bush team's misjudgments made the current situation in Iraq far worse than it need have been. As it turns out, in addition to the war with Iraq's tyrant, there was an ongoing war between U.S. field commanders, their own senior commander (Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of Central Command) and civilian leaders in Washington.
The Bush administration's two major strategic miscalculations are by now familiar: first, a broad-based intelligence failure regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the viability of its economic infrastructure and the reception Iraqis would give invading U.S. forces; and second, underestimating the challenge of stabilizing post-invasion Iraq. Gordon and Trainor -- respectively a New York Times reporter and a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, and collectively the authors of a widely hailed 1995 book on Operation Desert Storm, The Generals' War -- go beyond these issues to focus on logical flaws in prewar planning that should have raised eyebrows among senior U.S. officials. For example, they report that when the CIA identified nearly 950 suspected WMD sites, military planners argued for additional troops to secure them lest the terrorists purportedly in league with Saddam Hussein spirit the WMD away during the chaos of war, thereby producing the very outcome the administration was trying to avoid. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was determined to attack with a "lean force."
The book's core, however, centers not on Beltway deliberations but on the dash to Baghdad by the Army and the Marines.The authors do a fine job making one of the most lop-sided campaigns in memory interesting, but the surprises that the Americans encounter turn out to be even more compelling. Senior U.S. field commanders soon realize that their principal enemy is not the Iraqi army but irregular forces -- many of them foreigners -- employing guerrilla tactics. These are portents of the full-blown insurgency to come, but no one back in Washington proves capable of connecting the dots.
While U.S. soldiers and Marines shifted their focus on the fly, the Bush administration failed to recast its strategy for the postwar endgame. Consequently, once American forces seized Baghdad, U.S. troop deployments were curtailed and units were instructed to prepare for a rapid drawdown -- even while the Iraqi police and military forces that the administration expected to preserve order were being disbanded.
While Gordon and Trainor recount the misjudgments of many senior civilian and military leaders, Gen. Franks fares the worst. Many of his statements defy explanation, including his mystifying declaration that "I am not gratified by enough forces on the ground" and his fondness for terms like "functional componency" and "strategic exposure." The general's battlefield guidance is often, well, general; he tells his commanders to take "action on all fronts," which, as the authors note, is "no better than issuing no guidance at all." The authors conclude, scathingly, that Franks "never acknowledged the enemy he faced nor did he comprehend the nature of the war he was directing."
The senior military leadership in Washington comes off little better; they are depicted as a bunch of empty suits. Then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, is portrayed as a reflexive team player incapable of expressing an independent view. The Army chief of staff at the time, Gen. Eric Shinseki, warned before the war that projected U.S. troop levels were too low to stabilize Iraq, but the authors report that he failed to press home his case once his views were dismissed by senior civilian leaders around Rumsfeld and his then-deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.
Unfortunately, the focus of Cobra II (which takes its title from the Army name for the drive to Baghdad) is limited by Gordon's experiences as a reporter embedded at the U.S.-dominated coalition's land command during the invasion. The book thus emphasizes ground combat; the "shock and awe" air campaign, for example, receives far less attention than it deserves. Moreover, while the book's subtitle claims to cover the occupation of Iraq, the narrative essentially ends in the summer of 2003. Finally, key policymakers such as Vice President Cheney and Rumsfeld declined the authors' requests for interviews; Franks offered only an hour. Thus the views of those at the center of the war were often not captured. Still, Cobra II stands as the best account of the war to date.
Toward the end of the book, some Marines fighting to capture Baghdad come upon a group of Iraqis outside a walled compound who keep waving their hands at knee level. Initially confused, the Marines break into the compound to find that the Iraqis had been trying to signal that it housed children: more than 100 of them, dirty, bruised and malnourished, apparently imprisoned by the regime for their families' supposed disloyalty. The episode comes as a chilling reminder of the horrors of Baathist rule. When Rice speaks of the "strategic" decision to depose Saddam Hussein and his barbaric regime, she is referring to a laudable goal , not a strategy. The war is not over, and good strategy is still very much needed. Cobra II offers an instructive lesson on the consequences of inadequate strategic planning. If its message is heeded, Americans may yet look back on this conflict and recall the words of Georges Clemenceau, France's leader during World War I: "War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory." ·
Andrew F. Krepinevich is executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a distinguished visiting professor at George Mason University.