The Magazine

The Learning Curve

Rediscovering counterinsurgency in Iraq.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Baghdad at Sunrise

A Brigade Commander's War in Iraq

by Peter R. Mansoor

Yale, 416 pp., $28

Some years ago, the late Carl Builder of RAND wrote a book entitled The Masks of War, in which he demonstrated the importance of the organizational cultures of the various military services. His point was that each service possesses a preferred way of fighting that is not easily changed.

Since the 1930s the culture of the U.S. Army has emphasized "big wars." This is the legacy of Emory Upton, an innovative 19th-century officer who became a protégé of William Tecumseh
Sherman when Sherman became general-in-chief of the Army after the Civil War. Upton believed that the traditional constabulary focus of the Army was outdated. Dispatched on a world tour by Sherman, Upton was especially impressed by Prussian military policy, Prussia's ability to conduct war against the armies of other military powers, and its emphasis on professionalism. Certainly Prussia's overwhelming successes against Denmark, Austria, and France in the Wars of German Unification (1864-71) made the Prussian Army the new exemplar of military excellence in Europe.

Upon his return home, Upton proposed a number of radical reforms, including replacing the citizen-soldier
model with one based on a professional soldiery, reducing civilian "interference" in military affairs, and abandoning the emphasis on the constabulary operations that had characterized Army roles during most of the 19th century (with the exception of the Mexican and Civil wars) in favor of preparing for a conflict with a potential foreign enemy.

Given the tenor of the time, all of his proposals were rejected. In ill health, Upton resigned from the Army and, in 1881, committed suicide. But the triumph of progressivism, a political program that placed a great deal of reliance on scientific expertise and professionalism, the end of the Army's constabulary duties on the Western frontier, and the problems associated with mobilizing for and fighting the Spanish American War, made Upton's proposed reforms more attractive, especially within the officer corps. In 1904 Secretary of War Elihu Root published Upton's Military Policy of the United States, and while many of Upton's more radical proposals remained unacceptable to republican America, the idea of reorienting the Army away from constabulary duties to a mission focused on defeating the conventional forces of other states caught on.

While the Army returned to constabulary duties after World War I, Upton's spirit now permeated the professional culture. World War II vindicated Upton's vision, and his view continued to govern Army thinking throughout the Cold War. The American Army that entered Iraq in 2003 was still Emory Upton's Army. Focused as it has been on state-versus-state warfare, Upton's army has not cared much for counterinsurgency, and this was apparent during the first years of the Iraq War. It is also the theme of several recent books on the conflict.

Baghdad at Sunrise is one of the best, written by a colonel who commanded the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division during a particularly difficult year (May 2003-July 2004), a period that saw the rapid coalition victory over Saddam Hussein give way to a vicious insurgency that came close to defeating the United States in Iraq. A genuine soldier-scholar, Colonel Mansoor provides the unique perspective of a midlevel ground commander adapting to the requirements of fighting an insurgency under the most difficult conditions.

His perspective is enhanced by the fact that, two-and-a-half years after redeploying his brigade to Germany, he returned as executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus as Petraeus implemented the "surge" and the counter-
insurgency strategy that helped turn the situation around in Iraq. Mansoor not only observed but helped to implement the Army's painful transition from an organization beholden to Emory Upton to one that recognized the necessity to adapt to an enemy who refused to fight the Upton way.

The conventional wisdom holds that it was civilian interference, especially on the part of Donald Rumsfeld, that was to blame for the difficulties U.S. forces faced in Iraq during the first years of the campaign. According to the dominant narrative, Rumsfeld willfully ignored military advice and initiated the war with a force that was too small. He ignored the need to prepare for post-conflict stability operations, and he failed to adapt to the new circumstances once things began to go wrong, not foreseeing the insurgency that engulfed the country.