During the Allied breakout from Normandy, Generals Eisenhower and Bradley and Field Marshall Montgomery chose to employ a cautious operational approach that stressed gaining territory. Bradley’s subordinate, Gen. George Patton, pleaded for the opportunity to execute an encirclement of the German trapped in the “Falaise pocket” He was rebuffed. He then asked for permission to turn his Third Army to the northeast and sweep down both banks of the Seine. Such a bold stroke would most likely have trapped the entire German western army before it could escape to the east. Once again, Patton was overruled and the Germans, although pounded mercilessly by Allied air power, were able to extricate some of their forces from the Falaise pocket. These forces survived to fight again on the Siegfried Line, most likely extending the war in Europe by several months.
I thought about this when I, along with several others, received an e-mail from a well-known military correspondent on the eve of the war, asking for our assessment of the plan of action for the upcoming campaign, at least as it could be ascertained from open sources. Among other questions, he asked for an assessment of the risk of the plan as compared to the plan for Desert Storm, and if there might be a danger of a bold plan executed cautiously.
My own answers to these queries were that: 1) the plan, at least as it had been reported in the press, did seem to incur substantial risk, but the alternatives were less attractive and 2) I saw no reason to believe that the plan would not be executed boldly. I believe that my responses have been vindicated. Central Command has developed a bold plan and it is being implemented in the same spirit. Some of the events of Sunday illustrate the risks of the plan, but in the greater scheme of things, these risks will prove to be manageable.
The best chance for the coalition to achieve its postwar goals is to rapidly take down the Iraqi regime. What Clausewitz called the “center of gravity” of this effort is Baghdad. Anything that gets allied forces to Baghdad early benefits the coalition; anything that delays this outcome redounds to the advantage of the Iraqis.
It seems clear from the conduct of the war so far that Central Command is willing to accept risk to reach Baghdad early. It could have opted for a cautious, deliberate attack to the north, consolidating control of southern Iraq before closing on Baghdad. Instead, it chose the audacious approach. The dash for Baghdad by the 3rd Infantry Division and the First Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) is akin to Patton’s plan for a rush to the Seine in order to envelop retreating Germans after Normandy.
For both strategic and political reasons, it has been necessary to secure control of the Shatt-al-Arab and the port of Umm Qasr, but Basra essentially has been isolated and bypassed, with the attack continuing to the north. The allies control the bridges across the Euphrates at Nasiriyah, As Samawa, and An Nijaf, but have attempted to avoid drawn-out urban combat.
The ambush of a convoy in support of the 3rd Infantry Division, resulting in the capture of several Americans, illustrates the risks of this approach. This event and others indicate that Iraqi irregular forces have slipped in behind the coalition forces in an attempt to interdict lines of communication and supply. This is a distraction.
There is little to indicate that Iraqi forces can launch anything beyond spoiling attacks such as the ambush of the convoy in Nasiriyah. It is likely that air strikes have destroyed the ability of the Iraqi high command, to the extent it is still functioning, to communicate with subordinate commanders and control their actions. In addition, the Republican Guard divisions guarding Baghdad have been, and will continue to be, subjected to massive air strikes. Allied air supremacy makes it impossible for any major Iraqi formation to execute tactical moves.
One of Patton’s favorite quotations was from Frederick the Great: “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace.” War rarely goes according to a script. Friction and the fog of uncertainty have a way of waylaying even the best plan, well executed. I can almost guarantee that there will be further setbacks as the coalition closes on Baghdad. But I think that both Patton and Frederick would approve of Central Command’s plan and its execution to this point.
— Mackubin Thomas Owens, an NRO contributing editor, is on leave from the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations.