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An Honest Account
Cobra II's sets a high standard for investigative military history.


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Mackubin Thomas Owens

Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor (Random House, 603 pp., $27.95)

It is generally conceded that The Generals’ War by Michael Gordon, the chief military correspondent for the New York Times, and Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine Corps general and former director of the National Security Program of Harvard’s Kennedy School, remains by far the best account of the 1991 Gulf War. Reading the book was like being at the table when critical issues were debated and decided. It was clear that Gordon and Trainor had the sort of access to the players that other less fortunate authors lacked. Accordingly, The Generals’ War was a seemingly limitless source of revelations about Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, about which even the best informed observers were often ignorant.

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The Generals’ War essentially debunked the public perception that the 1991 Gulf War went smoothly from start to finish. What the public saw was a high-tech, airpower intensive war in which interservice cooperation was high as a result of military reforms in the 1980s, most importantly the Goldwater-Nichols Act. To the TV talking-heads, the Gulf War demonstrated that the U.S. military was the beneficiary of a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) that had essentially eliminated “friction” on the battlefield.

In reality, as The Generals’ War demonstrated, the RMA was not a panacea, and friction was still a fact of war. In addition, the Goldwater-Nichols Act did not live up to its billing. The degree of inter-service cooperation in the planning and execution of military operations, or “jointness,” was still subject to service cultures and depended on the personalities and leadership styles of the players.

The most important revelation of the book was that General Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended an end to hostilities based not on military considerations, but on political ones, thereby failing to fulfill his statutory obligation to provide military advice to President George H. W. Bush–a failure that would loom large for the next decade and set the stage for the 2003 war. In making his recommendation, Powell did not bother to inform either the president or the secretary of Defense that the central military mission–destruction of the Republican Guard–had not yet been accomplished.

Gordon and Trainor revealed that, before recommending that the president end hostilities, Powell never consulted the field commanders–who would have told him that the Republican Guard had not been destroyed–instead presenting them with a fait accompli. In view of the deterioration of the U.S. position in the Gulf after the war, Powell’s failure to render his best military advice ranks as a failure of major proportions.

So there was naturally excitement when it was revealed that Gordon and Trainor would write a book on the current war in Iraq based on the successful formula they followed in The Generals War. They do not disappoint. Cobra II certainly vindicates the high expectations of those who praised their previous effort.

Like its predecessor, Cobra II is a detailed, impeccably sourced book that provides a comprehensive view of the debates that informed both the strategy and operational art of the war. It is also a balanced account–although the authors do not shrink from making judgments about the decisions that the players made. Needless to say, not everyone will agree with all of their conclusions.

There is one big difference between The Generals’ War and Cobra II. The former provided outsiders with the first in-depth look at the Gulf War of 1991. That war was popular, short, and apparently successful. There were few U.S. casualties. There were no embedded journalists during that conflict, and leaks by insiders were relatively rare. For the most part, what readers of The Generals’ War learned from the book about the 1991 war was fresh and new.

Not so with Operation Iraqi Freedom. Everything from the decision to go to war to the war plan itself to its actual implementation was controversial, and because of leaks, the personal and bureaucratic struggles related to the war were accessible to even the most casual reader of newspapers long before the war began. Once combat operations commenced, embedded reporters provided continuous coverage, revealing the inextricable connection between war and friction. While aviators were the stars of Operation Desert Storm, the “grunts” took center stage during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Accordingly, readers of Cobra II will be familiar with the controversies associated with this war in a way that readers of The Generals’ War were not familiar with the controversies arising from Desert Storm. This isn’t to say that there’s nothing more to be learned–on the contrary, Cobra II provides “the rest of the story.” Most newspaper accounts turn out to have been partial, relying as they did on often anonymous sources who usually had an axe to grind or a bureaucratic score to settle. Gordon and Trainor provide the context necessary for fleshing out what was before only a partial understanding of the issues.

In addition, Cobra II provides many surprises. As the authors remark, the Iraq War is “the most covered but least understood” war in American history. Perhaps the most important of these surprises has to do with the Iraqi side. For instance, Saddam and his aides repeatedly dismissed the U.S. threat to Iraq, viewing Iran as the principle external enemy. Ironically, the actions of Iraq that convinced the United States (and everyone else in the world at the time) that Iraq possessed WMD were directed at Iran, a manifestation of “deterrence by doubt.”

The deficiencies of the Iraqi plan for defense were based on a similar misidentification of the main threat. “Saddam’s formative military crisis was not his lopsided defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but the sudden Shiite uprising in the south that followed.” Saddam’s “Baath Emergency Plan” was designed to ensure the preservation of his regime against a repeat uprising by dispatching the Saddam Fedayeen to resist a Shia rebellion long enough for the Republican Guard to arrive to crush he rebels.

On the one hand, this force, which was intended to counter a Shia insurgency in the south, became the core of the insurgency against the Americans. On the other, his preoccupation with internal security prevented him from taking measures that would have slowed the American advance on Baghdad. His “Ring Plan” ceded much of Iraq to the Americans at the outset, and he refused to order the destruction of key bridges that the Americans needed to close on Baghdad because he believed that he would have to use them to rush forces south to suppress a Shia uprising. Fearful of a potential coup, Saddam prohibited Republican Guard forces from taking up positions within Baghdad. Finally, he distrusted his officer corps so much that he did not permit neighboring units to contact each other, precluding any concerted response to the U.S. advance.

On the American side, readers may be surprised at the lack of decent intelligence in general and the dismal performance of the CIA in particular. The agency was wrong not only about WMD, but also about the nature of the enemy. The CIA was the source of the belief that U.S. forces would be welcomed as liberators and that Iraqi units were prepared to negotiate wholesale surrender. The CIA also missed the importance of the Fedayeen, reinforcing the belief of the CENTCOM commander, Gen. Tom Franks, that the Republican Guard was the primary target of the campaign and that the Fedayeen were no more than a speed bump on the road to Baghdad. Perhaps these intelligence failures account for the proliferation of anti-Bush leaks by individuals in the CIA–a belated attempt at “CYA.”

It’s also clear that the intensity of many of the battles far exceeded even what the embedded journalists could convey in their reports. One of the most riveting accounts in the book is that of the low-tech “ambush” by the Iraqis of the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment of V Corps during a deep strike against the Medina Division of the Republican Guard.

Cobra II is both descriptive and prescriptive. When it comes to the latter, Gordon and Trainor don’t pull their punches. They are harsh in their judgments of the Bush team’s planning and conduct of the war, contending that they committed five “grievous errors.”

First, the Bush team underestimated the enemy and never understood the complexity of Iraqi politics. At the outset, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his generals saw Iraqi Freedom as a continuation of the 1991 Gulf War. They believed that, as in 1991, the Republican Guard would be the primary adversary and that Baghdad was the “center of gravity,” the capture of which would end resistance. As a result, they ignored indicators that the Iraqis had chosen to fight a different kind of war–an “asymmetric,” unconventional one.

Second, they failed to bring the right tools to the war, relying too much on technology. Rumsfeld’s thinking about how to conduct the war was greatly influenced by his concept of military “transformation,” which stressed speed and agility instead of mass. Accordingly, say the authors, the war was undertaken with the minimal acceptable force.

Third, once things began to go badly, they failed to adapt to the new circumstances, remaining wedded to their prewar estimates and even canceling badly needed reinforcements. For instance, Rumsfeld canceled the scheduled deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division to Iraq just as it was becoming clear that more “boots on the ground” were necessary. Gordon and Trainor write that the chaos that followed the war “was not a matter of not having a plan but of adhering too rigidly to the wrong one.”

Fourth, the decision making process they employed discouraged alternative political and military perspectives.

And finally, the Bush team continued to reject the need for nation-building, planning instead to leave reconstruction to the defeated Iraqis and allied nations that were ambivalent about the war at best. The failure to plan adequately for post-combat stability operations created the necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for the insurgency, which was exacerbated by the decision to disband the Iraqi army, placing 300,000 angry and armed men on the street.

The central figure in Cobra II is Donald Rumsfeld, the strong-willed secretary of Defense. In the book’s narrative, Rumsfeld is the hub with spokes running to both the political players, especially the president and vice-president, and the military players, primarily Franks, the CENTCOM commander, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rumsfeld declined to be interviewed, so the reader only sees Rumsfeld through the eyes of others. It is not a pretty portrait; it is also somewhat unfair.

While Rumsfeld made some critical mistakes, it is also the case that much of the authors’ criticism constitutes “20-20 hindsight”–they criticize him on the basis of what we know now, not what we knew then. The consequences of the chosen path are visible to us in retrospect while the very real risks associated with alternatives remain provisional. Indeed, this is my main criticism of Cobra II as a whole.

As it is, Cobra II reveals that no one did better than Rumsfeld when it came to predicting the outcome. Did Rumsfeld foresee the insurgency and the shift from conventional to guerilla war? No, but neither did his critics in the uniformed services. Was there anyone warning that we had not fully considered the requirements for ensuring post-conflict stability? If there was, Gordon and Trainor fail to identify him.

The central charge against Rumsfeld is that he insisted on initiating the war with a force that was too small. In retrospect, this is probably true. But again, hindsight is always 20-20. It is interesting to note that the basis for criticizing Rumsfeld has evolved from the spring of 2003 to the present. Initially, critics charged that the force was too small to topple Saddam and capture Baghdad. That turned out to be false; so, after Baghdad fell, the new claim–repeated by Gordon and Trainor–was that the force was too small to stabilize the situation in Iraq.

The real villain here is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, a set of principles internalized by the U.S. military. The most problematic principle of this doctrine is the requirement for an “exit strategy.” If generals are thinking about an exit strategy, they are not thinking about “war termination”–i.e., how to convert military success into political success. This cultural aversion to conducting stability operations is reflected by the fact cited by the authors that planning for the war took 18 months while planning for postwar stabilization “began in earnest only a couple of months before the invasion.”

The debate over the size of the invasion force must also be understood in the context of civil-military relations. Rumsfeld comes in for criticism for pushing Franks to develop a plan based on a smaller force than the one called for in earlier plans as well, as for his interference with the Time-Phased Force and Deployment List (TPFDL) that lays out the schedule of forces deploying to a theater of war.

The fact is that Rumsfeld believed civilian control of the military had eroded during the Clinton Administration: If a service didn’t want to do something–as in the Balkans in the 1990s–it would simply overstate the force requirements. “The answer is 350,000 soldiers. What’s the question?” Accordingly, Rumsfeld was inclined to interpret the Army’s call for a larger force to invade Iraq as just one more example of what he perceived as foot dragging.

In retrospect, Rumsfeld’s decision not to deploy the 1st Cavalry Division was a mistake, but his overall lack of affection for the TPFDL is the result of his belief that it, like the “two major theater war” (2MTW) planning metric, had become little more than a bureaucratic tool that the services used to protect their shares of the defense budget.

War is never a simple thing. Armies have many moving parts and their operations are subject to friction. Even the best plan goes awry; even the most brilliant commander makes mistakes. A strategy that depends on the enemy’s cooperation is not a good one. It is also the case that we don’t always get to fight the war we want to fight, but the one our adversary wants us to fight. And it’s also the case that the war is over when the loser says it’s over–not when the winner thinks it is.

All of these observations apply in spades to Iraq. Will we learn from our mistakes? The chances that we will are improved if there is an honest account of what happened. In Cobra II, Michael Gordon and Mick Trainor have provided that sort of account. As such, it sets a high standard for investigative military history.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.



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