The Magazine

Lessons of a Three Week War

Audacity works.

Apr 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 32 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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HERE BEGINNETH the lesson: "The major combat portions of the war are over."

The stunning success of the "combat portion" of Operation Iraqi Freedom challenges any understanding based upon previous military history. Vice President Dick Cheney's cutting comment about retired generals "embedded in television studios" is an understandable reaction, but Barry McCaffrey is neither a fool nor a coward. Indeed, during Operation Desert Storm he was the commander of what is now the 3rd Infantry Division, and he knows his trade as well as any soldier ever has. He also drove his subordinates relentlessly and was not above going the extra mile in search of a fight.

So it was not unreasonable for him to worry that three ground divisions and 900 airplanes was a small force to conquer a country the size of California. And had the operation gone according to the original plan, of course, it would have involved the 4th Infantry Division attacking through Turkey from the north. Going after a bloody regime in possession of weapons of mass destruction without 25 percent of your land combat power--and without any certainty of rapid reinforcement if things went badly--ran the risk of catastrophic failure when measured by traditional yardsticks.

So has the art of warfare indeed been "transformed?" Is this a new baseline of performance? What does the war mean for future U.S. military plans, programs, and strategies? Perhaps most important, what's the view from the Axis of Evil and what are their options for deterring and defeating America?

Debate about the lessons of the Iraq war began even before the fighting did. Although most of the attention has been directed toward the army's complaints about the size of the invasion force after the initial attack "stalled," airpower zealots didn't even wait for the war to begin. Whining about the "non-doctrinal application of airpower" has accompanied nearly every U.S. military action of the past decade--even, as in Kosovo, when airpower wins the war, it's never enough--and Operation Iraqi Freedom proved no exception.

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on February 25, retired general Buster Glosson, who planned the Gulf War air campaign, warned that "when you do not permit the Special Forces and the air capability and technology you have to accomplish the maximum, before you start [employing] ground forces, in a Roman legion fashion, you're asking for disaster." Glosson suggested that Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon and Gen. Tommy Franks were "getting overly concerned about the wrong things," namely, Iraqi casualties, and that the price of victory might be "unmercifully different" than in 1991. "War can be too precise, you can be too careful, and the results are dead coalition forces."

The heavy army tread-heads, by contrast, leaped upon the comment by V Corps commander Lt. Gen. William Wallace that the Iraqi irregulars were not the "enemy we wargamed against." They used it to imply that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had intentionally limited the ground invasion to prove a budgetary and programmatic point about the need for lighter, more mobile ground units. Rather than seeing in the 3rd Infantry Division's race to Baghdad evidence that armored forces are quite capable of mobility without sacrificing firepower--or in the various hoppings of the 101st Airborne that the army has its own very effective airpower--the conservative forces in the army's upper ranks simply saw a chance to repay Rummy for his shabby treatment of army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. To say that an opportunity to heal the main breach in American civil-military relations was lost is an understatement. With Shinseki due to retire this summer and no clear replacement in sight, the problem may only get worse. The army is actually well along the transformation road, but still faces its greatest resistance from within its own ranks.