The Magazine

Lessons of a Three Week War

Audacity works.

Apr 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 32 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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The Marine Corps, which never travels anywhere without a full complement of embedded reporters, performed admirably in conducting the supporting attack in the race toward Baghdad, although to look at the television coverage you'd think the Marines won the war. First Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis lived up to his reputation as a very aggressive combat leader, at one point relieving a regimental commander for not acting with sufficient speed to secure an objective. Nonetheless, the Marines' jack-of-all-trades mentality, in many ways their greatest virtue, is also their greatest weakness. While the Marines' light armored vehicles appear to have given them great flexibility and mobility, their creaking Amphibious Assault Vehicles and Vietnam-era helicopter designs, though updated, are dinosaurs overdue for burial. Operation Iraqi Freedom was tailor-made for the capabilities represented by the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft; the Osprey would have provided a significant force in northern Iraq almost from the start without having to worry about the vagaries of Turkish domestic politics.

That the Navy has thus far been so modest, at least in the public relations contest, obscures what is perhaps the biggest technological and tactical improvement between the Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom forces: the ability to distribute information widely and to strike precisely, in large numbers. In 1991, Navy strike fighters couldn't reach very far into Iraq and were forced to take greater risks because of the need to drop "dumb" bombs with non-stealthy airplanes. And distributing the "air tasking order"--the daily master plan coordinating the sorties of all the services (except the Marine Corps, whose pilots refuse to play with others)--to the aircraft carriers was a 72-hour process that involved flying a paper copy of the order from Central Command headquarters out to sea. Today, relatively modest investments in information systems and precision ordnance have allowed for far greater "jointness" among services. U.S. armed forces now fight very closely together rather than simply trying to stay out of each other's way.

The cumulative effect of all this was, as Gen. Myers put it, "Speed kills--the enemy." What was visible to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was also clear to a Marine corporal who observed that "the Iraqis could never keep up with our pace." For the first time since the Panama invasion of 1989, American technological and tactical advantages were employed with an intent to be audacious rather than cautious. The combat portion of Operation Iraqi Freedom was less a "campaign"--a series of distinct moves linked together--than a sustained, single battle. Even during the days of the sandstorms, ground unit movements and airstrikes continued. There was no real "operational pause" outside Baghdad; once having seized the initiative, coalition forces simply tightened their choke hold on their Iraqi opponents.

It's also plausible that the final plan regained an element of strategic surprise--quite remarkable given the laborious diplomatic run-up to the war. One can imagine the discussions inside the Iraqi high command: "They will never attack with just four divisions. Their most capable ground unit couldn't deploy in Turkey and will take weeks to get in through Kuwait; we'll see them coming. And we know there will be an extended air campaign before the ground attack begins."

It is thus also misleading to ascribe the quick victory principally to the Iraqi military's weaknesses and the difficulties of decision-making under Saddam Hussein's command. The Iraqi war plan seems to have been designed to be "self-executing" in the event of "decapitation" strikes. The Saddam fedayeen and other stay-behinds who emerged to snipe at supply lines were in place well before the war began; they were surely following long-standing orders, a pre-planned reaction to the expected invasion. But other than the initial surprise of their resistance, they had no measurable effect on the outcome.

Finally, the Battle of Baghdad was a whimper and not a bang. While pockets of resistance--and gangs of thugs--remain as of this writing, the street-by-street slogging long predicted never materialized; Baghdad was neither Stalingrad nor Mogadishu. And Tikrit fell even faster. If there ever was an Iraqi plan for bleeding U.S. or British forces in urban combat, it could not cope either with the British care and precision in Basra or with the boldness of the American attack into Baghdad. Once the fight for the former Saddam International Airport was over, the city lay open.