Politics & Policy

The War So Far

A time for guarded optimism.

It’s early in the war, but U.S. planners must be thrilled with the progress of allied forces so far. The ground attack is under way, with forces in the south, north, and west of Iraq. Major objectives have been seized. Umm Qasr, a port city on the Shatt-al-Arab is in Coalition hands. The southern oil fields appear to have fallen to the allies, and they are threatening Basra.

Special-operations forces have seized two air fields in western Iraq, making it less likely the Iraqis can used what came to be called the “Scud box” during the first Gulf War to launch missiles against Israel. Allied forces are operating near Mosul and Kirkuk in the north. Meanwhile, the 3rd Infantry Division has driven over 100 miles into Iraq as it heads for Baghdad.

And the campaign of “shock and awe” has commenced. The apparent ability of allied aircraft to fly over Baghdad with impunity indicates that Iraqi air defenses have been rendered ineffective, and that command and control has been seriously degraded.

What is most striking so far is the flexibility of the allied forces. When the president received reliable intelligence regarding the whereabouts of the Iraqi high command, including Saddam Hussein and his sons, he authorized a strike designed to take advantage of such a rare window of opportunity. It is unclear if Saddam was killed or wounded; in any event, it is reported that since the strike, Saddam has not communicated with his subordinates. Even if he was not killed, the attack was no doubt a serious psychological blow, because he must now believe that there is a traitor within his inner circle.

The Pentagon has, rightly it seems to me, been trying to temper unbridled optimism. Even the best planned war rarely goes according to script. Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder), chief of the Prussian general staff during the wars of German unification, once observed that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. One reason, for this is what an earlier Prussian, the “philosopher of war” Carl von Clausewitz, called “friction,” which he wrote is “the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.” He continued that

everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war. Countless minor incidents — the kind you can never really foresee — combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal….The military machine — the army and everything related to it — is basically very simple and therefore seems easy to manage. But we should keep in mind that none of its components is of one piece: each part is composed of individuals,…the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong….This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduce to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.

Successful as the campaign has been so far, we already have seen instances of friction, most notably the crash of a U.S. Marine CH-46 transport helicopter, killing the four-man crew, and eight Royal Marines. Such events are tragic, but they are, unfortunately, part of war. Training, discipline, and technology can reduce friction but not eliminate it.

Of course, the Iraqis will try to increase allied friction. Their best means for doing so are to use chemical weapons and/or draw allied forces into urban combat. Whoever is in control of the Iraqi military might choose to use chemical weapons as the allies approach Baghdad, but as I suggested in “Saddam’s Style,” there are costs associate with such an alterative.

The other option for dragging out the war is urban combat. Americans don’t like to fight in built-up terrain, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Nearly 2000 Americans died during the battle for Seoul in 1950, and some 400 died in Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Then of course, there was the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu.

Although no one I know would chooses to fight in an urban setting if it could be avoided, U.S. forces are much better prepared than they have been in the past. The doctrine is there, and training is constant. The doctrine calls for attacking a city by isolating it and then taking control of it by seizing or destroying the regime’s pillars of power — but avoiding house-to-house combat in its hostile streets. This doctrine relies on intelligence, close coordination, rapid movement, and selective targeting rather than on massive firepower. Accordingly, the “rubble-ization” of cities that has so often characterized urban combat in the past, would be reduced.

Things could still go wrong. Even a well-planned and executed campaign will no doubt be affected by Clausewitzian friction. But at this point, there is every reason to be guardedly optimistic about the outcome.

— 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.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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