EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a five-part series of excerpts from The Iraq War, by John Keegan. Together they comprise chapter six (“The American War”) of the book.
History repeats itself, though no two historians agree quite how. Those who reported the First Gulf War of 1990-91 had an almost eerie impression of events replicating themselves between Iraq and its enemies twelve years later but, once the campaign began to unfold, it was the differences rather than the similarities which commanded attention and demanded explanation. In February 1991 a very large and high-quality Western army confronted an equally large but low-quality Iraqi army and, following six weeks of intense aerial attack, destroyed its military capability in four days of fighting. In March 2003 a much smaller but even higher quality Western army confronted an Iraqi army degraded and ennervated by its earlier defeat and by twelve years of isolation from its foreign sources of supply and, during three weeks of high-speed advance over long distances, brought about not merely its disintegration but its apparent evaporation from the field of battle. By the beginning of April the evidence of defeat strewed the Iraqi landscape, discarded small arms, shot-riddled military vehicles, burnt-out tanks and the pathetic, ragged bodies of Iraqi dead; yet not only had Saddam’s army disappeared from view. The signs lacked that it had ever been there. There were no columns of surrendering prisoners, no senior officers offering their capitulation. The war was over but where was the defeated enemy? For all the millions of rounds of ammunition expended, for all the thousands of tons of high-explosive delivered to targets, it was as if the Iraqi army had not existed in the first place. American and British soldiers could testify to the undoubted experience of combat, often at high intensity; but when the shooting stopped, their enemies had vanished.
Yet the Iraqi army had undoubtedly existed before the shooting began. Coalition intelligence had a clear picture of its order of battle and had drawn up detailed situation maps of its deployment on the ground. The Iraqi forces consisted of three elements. Militarily the most significant was the Republican Guard, founded by President Arif in the early 1960s as his régime’s praetorian guard to protect it against coups and officered and to a considerable extent recruited from Arif’s al-Jumaila tribe, who live in the al-Ramadi region on the Euphrates west of Baghdad. Originally only of brigade size, though with an integral tank regiment, it was progressively expanded under Arif’s successors. Saddam raised it to a strength of six divisions, recruited and officered from men identified for their loyalty to himself personally and to the Ba’ath party. At the outbreak of war in 1991 it consisted of the Adnan Mechanized Division, the Baghdad Infantry Division, the Abed Infantry Division, the Medina Armoured Division, the Nebuchadnezzar Infantry Division and the Hammurabi Mechanized Division. Saddam also raised a Special Republican Guard of three brigades as an inner security force, commanded by his son Qusay, but it was not organized for combat. The Republican Guard retained its strength of 60,000 men in 2003, though its equipment, like that of all formations in Iraq, was badly serviced and short of spare parts. The Adnan, Baghdad and Abed divisions were stationed north of Baghdad, the Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi to the south and the Medina on the outskirts of the capital.
The so-called regular army had greatly shrunk in size since 1991. Then its paper strength was over forty divisions. By 2003, because of the losses suffered in the First Gulf War, of desertions and of inefficiencies of administration, the number of divisions totalled only seventeen: six infantry and two mechanized divisions in the north, one armoured and two infantry divisions in the centre, deployed on the border with Iran, and in the south two armoured, one mechanized and three infantry divisions. All were undermanned. Even the Iraqi government seems to have lacked a clear picture of the army’s strength: perhaps 200,000 at most or as few as 150,000. Its equipment stocks had also fallen disastrously low. In 1991 it had over 5,000 tanks, but in 2003 it had only 2,000; nearly 7,000 armed personnel carriers in 1991, in 2003 less than 2,000; self-propelled artillery equipment 500 in 1991, 150 in 2003; towed guns 3,000 in 1991, under 2,000 in 2003. Most of the Iraqi equipment, moreover, largely Soviet but some French in origin, was old, even antiquated; its T-55 tanks were a fifty-year-old model, worse than obsolete, actually death traps if pitted against modern Western tanks. Everything–tanks, personnel carriers, artillery pieces–lacked spare parts and was badly serviced. The same was true of the anti-aircraft equipment; before 1990 Iraq had operated an extensive, integrated air-defence system, with many radars linked by fibre-optic connections to control centres. In the interwar period, 1991-2003, when America, Britain and their allies enforced the ‘no-fly’ zones over northern and southern Iraq, much of this equipment was destroyed by radar-seeking missiles, the result of Saddam’s having ordered the allied aircraft to be attacked or targeted despite the inevitably harmful consequences. The only effective equipment in the Iraqi armoury were a few surface-to-air missiles, including some shoulder-fired systems–but these were useful only against helicopters and low-flying aircraft–and the South African-built 155mm G5 gun.
A third category of Iraqi armed force, beside the Republican Guard and the regular army–a misnomer, since the soldiers were conscripts, not long-service enlistees–were the irregulars, who were often to prove the most dedicated fighters. There were several varieties of irregular units. Loosely and collectively known as fedayeen (‘martyrs’), after the Islamic fighters who opposed the Soviet army in Afghanistan, they included members of the Popular Army founded by Saddam in the 1970s as a political counterweight to the army itself, Ba’ath party faithful and a considerable contingent of anti-Western fanatics from other Islamic countries, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco and Pakistan foremost. Their number was hard to calculate. As the British complained at the beginning of their efforts to administer the mandate in 1921, the Iraqi countryside was awash with weapons; almost every Iraqi male possessed a rifle and was ready to use it, in tribal, inter-village, family or personal dispute. The situation was not different eighty years later.
Air power was the only element of Iraq’s defences with which the coalition did not have to reckon. In 1991 the Iraqi air force, equipped with several hundred Soviet and French aircraft, was still formidable, even if unequal to a full-scale confrontation. In the event it declined the challenge; after suffering heavy losses in the opening days of the campaign, it decamped en masse to Iran, where it was given refuge until the war was over. In 2003 only a remnant of Iraqi air strength survived. It made no effort to contest the issue once the invasion began and much of its surviving equipment was discovered hidden in a remote location as the coalition forces advanced.
The force that the coalition opposed the Iraqis, though wholly outweighing it in quality, was altogether smaller than that which had fought the First Gulf War. Then the alliance had deployed eight American divisions (seven army, two marine), a British armoured division, a French light armoured division, two Egyptian and one Syrian divisions and contingents of varying size from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and twelve other countries, totalling nearly 750,000 troops. They had been assembled through the relentless telephone diplomacy of President George H. W. Bush, who had also persuaded the coalition he created to add significant air and naval components to the troops General Schwarzkopf eventually commanded. President George W. Bush went to war with a considerably smaller deployment. The British, as before, sent a division and other naval, air and ground troops. Australia, which had sent a naval force to the 1991 war, again sent ships, together with aircraft and special forces. Otherwise the strength was exclusively American, the allies of 1991 having declined to lend support.
The American armed forces of the late twentieth century had emerged from a difficult past. Tiny before 1941, as befitted those of a country that eschewed involvement in world affairs, they had grown during the Second World War to become stronger at sea and in the air than any other and to include a large army of formidable fighting power. Sharply reduced in size during the peace that followed and in the belief that possession of nuclear weapons made larger conventional forces an expensive redundancy, they had been rapidly expanded to fight the Vietnam War of 1965-72. Its human costs and the political turmoil it engendered had cast the United States Army, in particular, into disarray. Belief in the value of the military vocation was compromised, morale and discipline were eroded. Much of civil society ceased to give support and the forces risked losing belief in themselves and their mission.
They were rescued by the emergence of a new generation of young officers who resolved to rebuild the military ethos from within. Gradually, under the patriotic Presidency of Ronald Reagan, the military regained its morale; President Reagan’s extravagant spending on defence trumped the Soviet Union’s ability to sustain the Cold War; new military doctrines and capabilities persuaded army, navy and air force that they had the capacity to meet any challenge the post-Cold War world would present. The test of their revived self-confidence came in 1991, when truly post-Vietnam forces took the field and achieved victory in a brilliant display of professional competence.
The expeditionary force of 2003 had put doubt behind it. Its officers and enlisted men, army, navy, air force, marines, knew that the Iraqis who opposed them did not match their quality, however measured. In terms of equipment, personnel, organization or military practice, they were better than any in the field and matched by only a tiny handful of close allies.
The force was commanded at the top by Central Command, created in the Reagan years to oversee operations beyond the continental United States and tri-service in composition. Inter-service rivalry had bedevilled American military activity throughout the Cold War, and inter-service rivalry had been farther compounded by demarcation disputes between the regional commands of the single services. The Central Command system, designed to place unified tri-service forces in any chosen theatre of operations, working under a commander having authority over all assigned components, had first been tried in the Gulf in 1990-91. The system had proved itself, though with need for refinement. The First Gulf War commander, Norman Schwarzkopf, an army general, had exercised his authority directly and with little regard for personal sensitivities. General Tommy Franks, the Central Command commander in 2003, was to work in a different way. Because he was also responsible for the continuing operation in Afghanistan, he could not directly control the land battle but had to delegate authority to the Third Army commander, Lieutenant General David McKiernan. Franks, moreover, was a markedly different character from Schwarzkopf, less of a showman, less overbearing and more thoughtful. By origin an enlisted man, he had begun his career in the artillery but made his way upwards in the armoured cavalry, itself an inter-arms organization comprising artillery and infantry as well as armoured components. He thus understood several different military disciplines and had also acquired an openness to the armed forces of other countries that was to be of the greatest value in an operation in which he had to control British and Australian as well as American forces. Perhaps because he had not been through the rigid processing of West Point, he has an enquiring mind, an ability to think on his feet and a remarkable freedom from the doctrinaire approach so often characteristic of the products of Sparta-on-Hudson. He is an attractive character, with a touching gratitude for the opportunity his army has given him to rise from his origins as a ‘trailer park kid’ to the rank of four star general.