- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004

THE IRAQ WAR: A MILITARY HISTORY

Williamson Murray and Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, Jr.

Harvard University Press, $25.95, 312 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS

In the immediate wake of the first Gulf War, a number of “instant analyses” of the conflict were published. Some were better than others, but in general, they were not very good. An expert analysis of the decisions and a detailed description of the framework within which they were made had to await the publication of “The Generals’ War” by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor.

Mr. Gordon and Mr. Trainor are at work on a book about Operation Iraqi Freedom, but this time we don’t have to wait for a first-rate description and analysis of that conflict, thanks to the publication of “The Iraq War: A Military History,” written by the first-rate military historian Williamson Murray and by retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, Jr., who brings not only his operational experience to the book but a Ph.D. in history from Duke University.

Mr. Murray and Mr. Scales are proponents of what has been termed the “new military history,” an approach that places decisions about policy and strategy into their social and political context. War, after all, does not occur in a vacuum.

The authors are also “Clausewitzians”: They take their analytical bearings from the Prussian “philosopher of war” Carl von Clausewitz who taught, among other things, the subordination of war to political purposes; the persistence of “general friction” as a structural component of combat; and the seeming impossibility of eliminating uncertainty from war. In the past the authors have cited increasing evidence suggesting that war is by nature a “non-linear” phenomenon.

“The Iraq War” is arranged topically. It begins with a discussion of the 1991 Gulf War. Then it addresses the origins of the recent war and the military potential of both sides. It deals separately with the ground campaign in southern Iraq, the British war in Basra and the south, the air war, and the end of the campaign.

The authors conclude with a useful analysis of the war’s military and political implications. The volume contains some excellent maps, a selection of stunning color photographs, and an appendix describing the weapon systems available to both sides.

Mr. Murray and Mr. Scales offer primarily an operational-level assessment of the war. While they certainly don’t ignore political and strategic factors (and they couldn’t even if they tried), they focus on the war as a campaign, the series of movements and combats designed to achieve a strategic goal within a theater of operations.

The authors clearly had access to major military decision-makers and after-action reports. But as seasoned military historians, they go far beyond mere reportage, offering concise judgments about both the planning and the conduct of the campaign.

Most chapters and sections in “The Iraq War” begin with an epigraph, sometimes from a contemporary writer but more often from one long dead, e.g. Thucydides, Tacitus, Clausewitz, and Winston Churchill. These epigraphs serve to remind the reader of Clausewitz’s dictum that technological advances may affect the guise of war, but the nature of war is basically immutable.

War remains a violent clash between opposing wills, each seeking to prevail over the other. In Clausewitz’s formulation, the will of the combatants is directed at an animate object that reacts, often in unanticipated ways. This cyclical interaction between opposing wills occurs in a realm of chance and chaos.

Operation Iraqi Freedom differed considerably from Operation Desert Storm. While the latter took place sequentially, the plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom sought to cause paralysis and the collapse of the regime by means of the simultaneous applications of air, ground, and special-operations force against the pillars of Saddam’s power: the Ba’ath party, internal security forces, and the Republican Guard.

Mr. Murray and Mr. Scales provide an illuminating look at the ground campaign that culminated in the capture of Baghdad. By any standard, the performance of the Army and Marines during this campaign was nothing short of breathtaking. In just three weeks, U.S. and coalition ground forces slashed through Iraq with minimal losses to seize not only Baghdad, but also every other major city in the country.

U.S. planners adapted to Turkey’s refusal to permit the coalition to open a major northern front of the war. American forces then made the transition (although it was hardly seamless) to constabulary and counter-guerrilla operations. The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 may have been the death knell of Iraqi guerrilla resistance.

The authors provide a similar assessment of the air war, although they acknowledge that an air campaign is far more difficult to depict than a ground campaign.

Air power has emerged as the necessary, if not the sufficient, cause of success in war. No American would prefer to fight a war without the air supremacy the United States possesses. In Iraq, the improved accuracy of weapons enabled the coalition to launch an air assault unprecedented in scope and magnitude, while avoiding not only civilian casualties but also damage to the infrastructure upon which civilians depend.

But since the first Gulf War in 1991, some true believers have gone further, arguing that air power can be independently decisive. In reality, ground and air forces achieve synergy in the same way that the two blades in a pair of scissors are necessary if the scissors are to cut.

The fact is that the combination of coalition ground and air forces presented Iraqi ground forces with Hobson’s choice: If they massed to take on coalition ground forces, they were destroyed by air power. If they tried to disperse to avoid aerial bombardment, coalition ground forces destroyed them with ease.

The elements didn’t help the Iraqis, either. They thought they could move under the cover of the shamal, the great sandstorm that halted the coalition ground attack at one point in March, but air power continued to pummel them. Indeed, the coalition averaged 2,000 fixed-wing sorties during the shamal.

“The Iraq War” ends with a discussion of the military and political implications of the war. Given the fact that a guerrilla war continues in Iraq, the authors are right to remind us that we must pay attention to how our low-tech enemies define victory or defeat. A friend of mine recently provided a paraphrase of this point when he pointed out that a war does not end when the victors say it is over, but when the defeated say it is.

The authors’ discussion of the war’s ramifications is excellent and alone is worth the price of the book. Mr. Murray and Mr. Scales conclude that training and cohesion are at least as important as technology; that U.S. ground forces in particular are stretched too thin; that precision alone is not sufficient to ensure success in war; that speed is critical to success; that future formations will be ad hoc, depending on the tactical context and the demands of combat: “What died on the battlefields of Iraq was the vision, held by many, of a homogenized army — one in which units would largely resemble one another.”

More detailed analyses of the war will follow this book. By all means, read them. But the insights and judgments of Williamson Murray and Robert Scales make “The Iraq War” a book that will stand the test of time.

Mackubin Thomas Owens writes frequently on national security matters. He is a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

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