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OCTOBER 21, 2003   

The fall of Baghdad presaged the beginning of a new phase of the war in Iraq. The first was conventional war: the superiority of American weapons created a killing machine that the Iraqis could never hope to match. But the ghost of Carl von Clausewitz returned after the fall of Baghdad to teach a timeless lesson. No matter how unmatched opponents may be, wars are always two-sided affairs, where the object is to break the psychological will of the other side by striking at his vital center of gravity. Saddam’s center was his ruling elite, the Baathist regime that was built spiritually and physically around the unholy trinity of Saddam and his two sons. After the fall of Baghdad, that center was shaken to its foundations, but it did not completely collapse.

Watching the retreat from Mogadishu in 1994, Saddam had learned that the American center of gravity was dead soldiers. Spontaneously and with seemingly little direction, the Baathists who survived the Coalition’s drive on Baghdad adapted. Failing to win the conventional war, they began an unconventional war focused on dueling cultures. If they could kill enough Americans in the name of religion, then perhaps they would regain the support of the Iraqi people and others in the Islamic world, while the Americans would become discouraged by the human cost and withdraw.

Technology is useful in unconventional warfare. But machines alone will never be decisive. This new phase is a struggle for the allegiance of the Iraqi people, who must choose between two conflicting sides: one represented by the promise of freedom and democracy imposed by an occupying infidel, the other represented by a return to the tyranny and terror of the old regime imposed by fellow Iraqis and Muslims. The tools most useful in this new war are low-tech and manpower-intensive. Instead of JSTARS, JDAMS, ATACMS, and Global Hawk, the American command will employ night raids, ambushes, roving patrols mounted and dismounted, as well as reconstruction, civic action, and medical contact teams. The enemy will be located not by satellites and UAVs but by patient intelligence work, back alley payoffs, collected information from captured documents, and threats of one-way vacations to Cuba.

The Centcom commander, General John Abazaid, now must match the enemy’s ability to adapt with adaptation of his own. Small units trained for urban offensive tactics like those used to kill Saddam’s sons have replaced the armored fighting formations of the machine phase. The hunt is no longer focused on the remnants of the old regime’s leadership but on the fedayeen middle management, the violent and fanatical believers who are doing the most harm to Americans. Success in this new war will not be gauged by how many Republican Guard tanks are destroyed but by the less tangible and quantifiable measurement of people’s acceptance of new Iraqi leaders soon to appear. Attitudes will be influenced less by demonstrations of fighting strength than by the emotional security that comes from safe streets, employment, electricity, and fresh water. In a sense, this phase of the conflict reminds us all that the nature of war is immutable. Technology may alter how wars are fought, but it will never change the fact that wars are fought by human beings for political ends.

The Unchanging Nature of War

Thucydides, the great historian of war, and Carl von Clausewitz, the great theorist of war, understood that some factors in the conduct of war will never change, no matter how much the political landscape alters and technologies advance. What, then, can history, particularly our experience in Iraq, teach us today about war in the twenty-first century?

Surveying twenty-five hundred years of recorded history, Clausewitz used the concept of “general friction” to explain why “everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.” General friction “more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper”—uncertainty, ambiguity, miscalculations, incompetence, and above all chance. Friction was a fact of life--and death--in Iraq, as it has been in military conflicts since the beginning of recorded time.

U.S. forces in Iraq brought twenty-first-century technology to the battlefield and achieved “information dominance,” but they never escaped the dangerous reality that their enemies were trying to kill them. To quote Clausewitz again: “In the dreadful presence of suffering and danger, emotion can easily overwhelm intellectual conviction, and in this psychological fog it is … hard to form clear and complete insights…It is the exceptional man [or woman] who keeps his powers of quick decision intact” under the conditions of combat. The danger of combat was accompanied by extreme physical exertion and fatigue. A recurring theme in soldiers’ and marines’ accounts of their experiences in the Iraq War was the bone-shattering weariness of day-after-day tension during the movement forward to contact the enemy. Fatigue and fear, along with sleep deprivation, hunger, no ability to wash or shave, MREs that provided calories but nothing more, a fierce and unforgiving climate, an alien landscape, and the terrifying sight of the dead and the wounded, inevitably led to miscalculations, mistakes in judgment, and accidents.

In Iraq, those in command (including civilian leaders) had to make decisions of life and death under split-second pressure and an unprecedented barrage of information that was often ambiguous, uncertain, or contradictory. Added to this information overload were unremitting demands from Washington for answers to simple, difficult, and inappropriate questions. Commanders and their staffs in the Gulf were expected to participate in video-teleconferencing sessions with civilian and military leaders half a world away who were operating on an entirely different time schedule. They also had to feed the insatiable appetite of twenty-four-hour news networks, all seeking up-to-the-minute combat information. In the midst of those pressures, commanders had to run a war. They had to make strategic decisions around the clock, thinking as much in terms of what was going to happen as what was actually happening.

Today’s commanders possess surveillance advantages never dreamed of in past times, and more often than not they see their forces and those of the enemy with extraordinary clarity. But in an information-rich environment, what one needs to know is often buried in a blanket of white noise, and individuals at every level reach limits in what they can absorb and pass along. Many factors of critical importance become inaccessible due to lack of patience or discrimination, no matter what the reach of sensors and the power of computers. Being human, commanders often seize on that fraction of information that agrees with their own preconceived ideas.

Some futurists claim that new information and computing technologies will allow U.S. military forces to “lift the fog of war.” According to this view, a vast array of sensors and computers, tied together, can work symbiotically to see and comprehend the entire battle space and remove ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradiction from the military equation, or at least reduce these factors to manageable and controllable levels. Technology will triumph over the general friction of war, they claim. This view leads to the belief that all the American military needs to do to remain preeminent is to focus on acquiring more sophisticated technology. The arguments in support of technological monism echo down the halls of the Pentagon, precisely because they involve the expenditure of huge sums of money to defense contractors. In some cases law makers may reduce spending on relatively inexpensive but critical items such as body armor, believing that technology has precluded its use. Such policies, however, rest on a profound ahistoricism that entirely misses the lessons of the past, much less even a reasonable examination of recent events.

Crucial to the success of combat is an understanding of one’s potential opponent as he is, rather than as Americans would like him to be. This is intelligence in the largest sense. It does not rest on satellites, UAVs, reconnaissance aircraft, and electronic surveillance that record every radio transmission. Since the Vietnam War, U.S. intelligence agencies have increasingly depended on such technological means, and the information gathered in this way has been of considerable use, particularly to commanders engaged in combat. But it provides little that is of value in understanding the enemy’s intentions, his motivation to fight, and the strength of his will—the factors that matter most in war.

Buried in an avalanche of information, commanders still confront the problem of trying to understand the enemy’s intention and his will to fight. It is well to talk about destroying the enemy’s combat power by 50 percent in order to precipitate his collapse, but those with experience in Vietnam know that in some cases attrition of 90 percent was not sufficient to stop a unit from fighting as a cohesive, effective force. Iraqi regular units in the north at nearly full strength fought not at all while some fedeyeen fought until their strength was nearly zero. At the level of command and control, where political as well as strategic decisions occur, good intelligence gathered by thinking human beings can make the difference in victory or defeat.           

Raw information is not intelligence. The problem over the past sixty-five years has not been a lack of data. Rather, the problem has been erroneous interpretation of that data. Since World War II, intelligence organizations, both civilian and military, have proved to be all too willing to interpret information in light of preconceived political prejudices or expectations. For example, numerous bits and pieces of intelligence over the spring and early summer of 1990 suggested that Saddam Hussein was preparing to move against Kuwait. Even a basic understanding of Baath ideology would have suggested that possibility. But few in the intelligence community or among regional experts were sufficiently steeped in that ideology to understand its implications. Similarly, few realized the extent of Saddam’s own megalomaniac aims. Thus, only one or two individuals in Washington predicted what was about to happen in Kuwait. Clearly, all our statistical data did not help us.

In this recent war, many senior leaders expected the opening moves of the Coalition’s air and ground offensive to cause Saddam’s regime to collapse from within. Thus, for the second straight war against Iraq, the revealed wisdom in Washington was that the Baath regime rested on a weak political foundation and that the Iraqi people would quickly rally to their liberators. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The great majority of Iraqis, especially the Kurds and Shiites, despised the Baath, but after witnessing American perfidy in the spring of 1991, few people in Iraq, no matter how much they hated Saddam, were going to act against the Baath until it was clear that Saddam was gone and the Coalition was there to stay. Greater awareness of Iraqis past and present might have constrained such unwarranted optimism.

Senior British and American officers were greatly surprised by the degree of control the Baath Party was able to exercise over Iraq’s civilians during the war. Yet, given what Coalition planners should have known about the thirty-five years of indoctrination the party imposed on Iraq’s population, this reality ought not to have come as a surprise. The guerilla tactics the military has faced since the fall of Baghdad reflect that prewar indoctrination—and yet this too seems to have come as a shock to planners for the postwar period.

Such flawed political intelligence had little impact on the conventional phase of the Iraq War. But in Vietnam, political and strategic misjudgments resulted in military disaster. This was a clear warning that applies to future conflicts. Intelligence is not just about collecting and processing great amounts of information. It is about understanding the enemy as he is and then tailoring strategic and operational approaches that turn his political framework to one’s own advantage. Without this kind of political knowledge, which requires immersion in the language, culture, and history of a region, the data gathered by technological means can serve only to reinforce preconceived, erroneous, sometimes disastrous notions.

Like it or not, the political context within which wars always occur will demand that the United States—at times not necessarily of its own choosing—commit military forces to achieve its aims. And for political reasons, those forces will not be able to use all of their sophisticated capabilities even against significant targets. Under many such circumstances, a “decisive” military outcome will be difficult to achieve. If Americans wish to gain political results from their military actions in the future, they must pay particular attention to how their low-tech enemies define victory and defeat. That calculus may prove very different from their own.

The Changing Military Environment 


The inability to perform adequately as a joint force in Grenada sparked major reforms in the American military that are still reverberating through the force structure. The Iraq War underlines how much progress has occurred, despite the continued existence of interservice rivalries. In recent years, combined arms have expanded from integration of ground forces—infantry, armor, artillery—to the incorporation of direct and indirect air power. Beginning in Afghanistan and even more so in Iraq, close air support with precision weapons has brought a new lethality to combined arms. In Kosovo, where NATO did not deploy ground forces, the Serbs were able to keep their army dispersed and hidden, so air strikes did very little damage against Serbian armor. In the Iraq War, however, the Coalition’s speedy advance forced the Iraqis to react by bringing the best units out of hiding, thus providing ideal targets for precision air power. At the Karbala Gap, 3/7 Cavalry Squadron maneuvered deliberately to draw out Iraqi armor so that aerial firepower could destroy them.

The degree that the American military has achieved interdependence between ground and air forces was eloquently described by a senior ground commander who confessed that in the heat of battle he had no idea of the source of the destructive power in front of him. “It could have been air force, navy, or marine. All I cared about was that the stuff was killing the enemy.” But the fighting in Iraq also suggests that America’s land forces need to tailor and combine the various combat branches at lower levels of organization than is currently the practice. What the United States needs in the future are smaller, leaner, brigade-sized units that can deploy more quickly and fight independently.


The end of the Cold War simplified the roles and functions of all the services, and the experience in Iraq suggests that the respective roles of the ground forces are beginning to converge. Neither the air force nor the navy confront an enemy with technologically sophisticated forces at sea or in the air. Consequently, the function of those services is now mostly to project and deliver ground forces to a particular theater and then support those forces with precision killing power. As the army has succeeded to some degree in shedding its Cold War impedimenta to become more strategically transportable and expeditionary (a traditional role for the marine corps), the marines have begun to employ larger, heavier formations capable of taking on enemy armor. This is not to say that the two services possess similar missions and cultures, but the convergence suggests that they need to work more closely in the future.

Ad Hocery

In the Iraq War, army and marine units set up ad hoc formations on the basis of the tactical context and the demands of combat.  Their success suggests that such an approach (in many ways similar to the German Kampfgruppe of World War II) needs to be regularized in training and procedures. Light infantry, mechanized infantry, armor, and artillery should all train more regularly together in tactical scenarios that test the adaptability and flexibility of commanders as well as troops. Here the marines have a considerable advantage, because the organization of MEUs is such that combined arms must work at the lowest levels of organization.

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. Instead, the army of the future will require a large kit bag of capabilities that it can deploy and fit together, sometimes in the middle of battle, to meet the many exigencies of this new era in warfare. For example, in the open battlefield, lighter forces equipped with new information systems proved highly effective at engaging and destroying the Iraqis. But speed and information superiority became less decisive when combat occurred at closer range, as in the complex urban terrain of Basra and Baghdad. There, older weapons systems such as the Abrams and Bradley, with their advantages in protection, mass, and explosive power, proved to be of considerable utility. This traditional machine-age equipment is likely to remain a part of ground forces in the future.

Special Operations

Drawing on the experiences of Afghanistan, the Coalition made extraordinarily effective use of special operations forces. Here the contrast could not be more different from the use of special forces in the Gulf War. Moreover, the combination of special forces with conventional forces proved devastating. In the south, special forces were able to grab the oil wells before the Iraqis could blow up more than a few, while the arrival of conventional forces ensured that regular Iraqi units could not regain control of the area. In the western deserts, SOF isolated Iraq from Syria and Jordan and closed down the possibility that Saddam could fire Scuds at Israel. And finally in northern Iraq, fewer than a conventional brigade’s worth of soldiers under a colonel’s command succeeded in building a surrogate army that defeated three Iraqi corps and secured Kirkuk and Mosul. All of these experiences reinforce the lessons of Afghanistan: special operations forces will play an increasingly important role in the projection of American military power against the nation’s enemies, while the operations of those forces will be ever more closely integrated with those of conventional forces.

Also, the unconventional warfare phase of the campaign highlights the truism that regular army and marine infantry units are increasingly finding themselves in close combat situations that resemble those of their special operations colleagues. Regular infantry units have much to learn from them and should begin soon to adopt many of their techniques for selection, training and leader development.


In war, speed kills, especially if military forces move fast enough to disturb the enemy’s ability to make decisions. Franks and his planners maintained the speed of movement by making the tip of the spear as supple, mobile, and flexible as possible. He had clearly learned the lesson of the Gulf War that a fundamental law of Newtonian physics applies also to military maneuver: one can achieve overwhelming force by substituting velocity for mass. In this campaign, Coalition ground forces moved with such swiftness that virtually every decision the Iraqi high command made was already overtaken by events. Pressure from marine and army commanders at every level to maintain the pace of the offensive ensured that the Iraqis would never recover. The unexpected appearance of Coalition forces far in advance of where the Iraqis expected them to be simply overwhelmed the capacity of the enemy to respond.

Speed of movement resulted from a willingness to adapt to the actual conditions of the battlefield. Franks and his immediate subordinate commanders, McKiernan, Conway, and Wallace, encouraged their officers to take risks. Throughout the campaign the Coalition focused on getting to Baghdad as fast as possible, even if it caused some dislocations in the logistic flow. Subordinates willingly bypassed enemy defenses with the assurance that speed, supporting firepower, and the competence of follow-on forces would protect rear areas. Air power reduced the risks by addressing threats as they arose, amplifying and extending the impact of ground maneuver. Speed of ground movement flushed the enemy. Air power killed him while he was exposed, massed and in the open.

Still, in the short term there were costs. As a number of accounts of the fighting make clear, Coalition forces were at times caught in ambushes. The more fluid and fast-moving the situation, the more vulnerable the rear echelon will be to attack; only training will ensure survival. The army needs to be far more vigorous in training rear area troops to defend themselves in close combat. As American ground forces move to a more distributed rather than linear use of the battle space, close combat training for service troops will become even more crucial.

The speed of the Coalition’s military advance may have had a political downside in the war’s aftermath. The very swiftness and efficiency of the victory may have led many Iraqis to believe that they had not been defeated—the traitorous forces of the Iraqi army had simply folded. Survivors among the Baath Party faithful will likely offer that explanation as they pursue the guerrilla phase of this conflict. And for many ordinary civilians, the lack of extensive damage and suffering as a direct result of the war may make the Coalition’s claim of victory seem to be no more than a passing fantasy. In contrast to the war of movement, the stabilization effort appears to be proceeding slowly. In planning for future wars and their aftermath, civilian and military leaders should make greater efforts to balance the speed of postwar stabilization with the speed of military conquest.


Coalition forces would never have been able to achieve the tempo of their operations without the confidence drawn from a deep understanding of Iraqi military forces. Particularly important was knowledge gained from having watched the Iraqis operate in the period between the two Gulf wars. Once operations began, commanders and decision makers in the field were able to take advantage of surveillance technologies that allowed them to adapt and modify their plans and movements in accordance with the developing situation, while at the same time denying the enemy any sense of what was happening.

Yet the campaign also reinforced the lessons learned repeatedly and consistently in previous wars: no matter how sophisticated the technical means of information-gathering, a real picture does not begin to emerge until there are human eyes on the target. Counting vehicles from the air does not tell a commander what the enemy intends to do with them. Time and again, army and marine scouts and special forces’ reconnaissance units were able to spot, track, and anticipate Iraqi movements and to turn raw intelligence into what soldiers call “ground truth”—a real picture of what was occurring on the battlefield.


The conflict in Iraq was the third in which U.S. forces leveraged their overwhelming superiority in precision killing power. As in Afghanistan, this campaign highlighted the extent to which precision capabilities had improved over the course of the last decade. Likewise, advances in the ability (and willingness) of the air force to connect with ground forces and concentrate its precision killing power on Iraqi army targets had a dramatic impact on the ability of Coalition ground forces to close with and destroy the enemy.

However, the campaign served to elicit the same cautions that had occurred in Kosovo and Afghanistan: precision of weapons alone is not enough to ensure precision of effects against the enemy. Precision killing comes only with the ability to locate the target with precision, to hit the right target and avoid accidentally striking friendly troops. And the speed of the targeting process must be fast enough to strike before the enemy moves. The fedayeen surprise also provides the caution that as the American weapons become more precise, the enemy finds ways to become harder to hit and kill. Putting together information about where the enemy is and discovering what the really important targets are still represent daunting challenges in a complex, ambiguous environment. And assessing with precision the damage caused by precision weapons remains an intractable and almost insoluble problem for both air and ground forces.

The Iraq conflict also underlined that at present only aerial systems possess a full complement of precision weapons. With few exceptions, ground munitions, particularly artillery systems, are still area-fire weapons incapable of attacking point targets. This was particularly a problem in close combat, where the explosive radius of precision bombs made them too dangerous to drop immediately in front of friendly troops, while the imprecision of artillery and mortars limited their effectiveness close-in. The lesson is clear: in the future the U.S. military needs more precision in weapons designed for the close fight and these weapons must be proliferated and made available to every maneuver unit on the battlefield.


The war plan developed by Centcom adopted the principle of simultaneity first practiced so successfully during the invasion of Panama. In both cases, the secret to winning quickly was to strike the enemy across the entire extent of his territory in many dimensions—air, land, and sea—in the shortest period of time. The object of simultaneity was as much psychological as physical. The pattern of assaults against the Iraqis aimed at paralyzing a command structure that moved at a glacial pace in the best of times, given Saddam’s penchant for total control. Coalition air and ground forces may not have achieved real simultaneity in every instance, but the evidence is clear that the Iraqi high command perceived that from the beginning they were under attack everywhere.


The battle for Iraq has again reinforced the observation that the modern battlefield continues to empty and to expand. Future enemies will seek—as did the Iraqis, albeit ineffectively—to disperse, dig in, and go to ground to avoid the impact of American precision weapons. At the same time, American forces will disperse over greater distances as the battlefield becomes more opaque and as the range of weapons increases. But as we have seen in this campaign, an empty battlefield is a lonely place where a soldier’s instinct is to take counsel of his fears. Soldiers and their leaders must be superbly trained and psychologically prepared for such frightening circumstances.


This war, like all those fought by the United States since the end of the Cold War, demonstrated dramatically the truism that competent militaries are those capable of adapting rapidly to the unexpected. Great military organizations fight the enemy, not the plan. Speed of decision making and the ability to move within the enemy’s decision cycle ultimately help determine who will win or lose. Quick thinking allows commanders to make up for deficiencies in planning and to react to the unexpected. What was particularly impressive in this conflict was the ability of soldiers and marines to cobble together ad hoc units to meet unforeseen circumstances and for even the smallest units to be creative tactically and to act against the enemy without seeking permission. Equally impressive was the ability of ground units to change behavior as the character of the war changed from open mechanized warfare to stability operations centered in towns and cities. Only soldiers who are well trained and used to dealing with uncertainty and change could have adapted to such radically different circumstances so quickly and effectively.


The Iraqi campaign reinforced the lessons of Afghanistan and other campaigns that quality trumps quantity on most modern battlefields. From the Civil War through Vietnam, the American military relied primarily on mass and industrial might to smother its enemies in men and materiel. Since then, largely influenced by an all-volunteer military, the services have increasingly relied on smaller, higher quality aggregations of men armed with sophisticated weapons. Limited wars fought for limited strategic ends in this new American age of warfare have forced commanders to win with fewer casualties. The emphasis on precision firepower and sophisticated weapons has resulted in fewer soldiers having to be placed in harm’s way to achieve intended results.

But smaller numbers on the battlefield place a premium on leadership. Small-unit leaders now have to assume responsibilities that were once the purview of officers of higher grade and maturity. Close combat soldiers and marines will invariably find themselves involved in fast-paced operations that demand rapid decision making in circumstances where the wrong decision might well result in an incident with global media exposure and international repercussions. The requirements for initiative and leadership have now moved down to the lowest levels of command, which has enormous implications for how junior officers and NCOs are recruited, trained, and selected for command.

Training, Leadership, and Education

In March and April of 2003, both Coalition and Iraqi forces lived in an environment where fear, ambiguity, uncertainty, danger, and chance inhibited their ability to fight. Yet such factors had a much greater impact on the Iraqis. The essential difference lay in the willingness of the Coalition’s men and women to train long and hard in preparing for combat.

Good human material turns into outstanding marines, soldiers, and airmen only through realistic, tough training. Much of the exceptional performance of ground forces in Iraq resulted from three decades of experiences at training centers in California, Germany, Nevada, and Louisiana. But training is expensive. It uses up considerable resources. It places enormous strain on officers and NCOs as well as the individual soldier and his family. Scientists can predict with some precision how technological improvements in weaponry will pay off on the battlefield. The payback for training cannot be predicted; it can be accurately measured only in combat. In both Gulf wars, the Iraqis possessed modern weapons. They simply did not know how to employ them. Technology will do little for the badly trained. In the end, technology is a tool. Training allows the soldier to use this tool effectively.

The American military should not forget that its worst defeat resulted largely from a military and civilian leadership that prized technology over the lessons of the past. Vietnam-era senior leaders were not only often contemptuous of the enemy but largely ignorant of his motivations, culture, and ideology. Thus, it was the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese who were willing to “pay any price, bear any burden,”and who understood their American enemy far better than Americans understood them. If the U.S. military does not desire to repeat the mistakes of the past, then it needs to create a learning culture, where intellectual preparation is prized as highly as tactical preparation.

The performance of America’s military institutions from 1991 to the recently completed war with Iraq represents the triumph of a systematic approach to training and education that the services put in place during the Cold War. Yet the strategic environment today is far more ambiguous, uncertain, complex, and culturally distant than it was only a generation ago. Soldiers today must not only understand technology but they must understand the cultural environment in which that technology will be employed. Officers in particular must study their profession to understand the nature of modern war.

Key leaders in this campaign came from many different backgrounds and services but virtually all of them shared a common characteristic: a commitment to the study of their profession and a desire to understanding the nature and character of human conflict. But this new era of warfare demands much more of a soldier. Constant deployments and the pressures of practical service might in time diminish opportunities for our young leaders to study and reflect on their profession. All of the personnel systems of the services by their nature will slight education and study in favor of endless back-to-back deployments unless the policies are put into place that will force them to give officers time to gain the intellectual and qualities of thought that went so far to enhance the muddy boot operational talent that these men demonstrated so effectively on the battlefields of Iraq.

The Changing Political Environment

In the end, the Iraq War of 2003 was not just about oil or the stability of the Middle East, though these were important factors to be sure. Nor was it primarily about the liberation of the Iraqi people or even about the need to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. Rather, like the operation in Afghanistan, the Iraq War was a clear demonstration to the entire world that the United States, in the wake of September 11, has the capacity and the will to defeat rogue states and confront those who threaten the vital interests of the American people.

Yet, the conflict that began in mid-March has not ended. Conventional operations came to a halt shortly after soldiers and marines stormed Baghdad and occupied Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. But attacks on American soldiers and marines continue, particularly in Iraq’s “Sunni triangle”—the region where the Baathists drew their deepest support. These attacks have been precipitated by criminal gangs, Baath Party members, foreign fedayeen not only from Arab countries but from Chechnya, Yemen, Syria, and Jordan—and in one case even a twelve-year-old girl. The number of Americans killed in Iraq has surpassed the number killed in the Gulf War, and the end is not yet in sight. Whether such violence represents the death throes of an evil and pernicious regime or the first phase of a protracted guerrilla insurgence is impossible to say. At a Pentagon briefing in July, Centcom commander General John Abizaid said of the situation in central Iraq, “Guerrilla tactics is a proper way to describe it in strictly military terms.” 

The current U.S. administration and its military advisers could have been better prepared to handle the intractable problems raised by victory. To a great extent, that failure reflected a reluctance to involve America’s military in nation building and peacekeeping. Insistence on this point closely mirrored the inclination of some in the military services to believe that they should avoid the messy business that lies beyond clear-cut, decisive military operations. 

The United States’ record of nation building has not been a high point of military or civilian competence over the past forty years. General William Westmoreland, commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, neglected the tasks that lay beyond defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese in battle. His successor, General Creighton Abrams, did care, but by the time he took over it was too late to win the war, much less the peace. With the end of the Cold War, when the Clinton administration voiced the intention of using the U.S. military to bring stability to some of the world’s trouble spots, members of Congress, Democratic as well as Republican, were rarely supportive. Clinton himself did not want to pay the political price that the inevitable casualties would demand. 

Thus, in Somalia, despite “mission creep” from humanitarian aid to nation building without any clear analysis of the political and economic realities, a handful of deaths was sufficient to end the peace-keeping effort there. Even in Bosnia, politicians would commit troops only after extracting the promise that they would be there for only one year. Yet, the troops are still there, and it is likely they will stay for the foreseeable future. 

The argument that the American people are unwilling to suffer casualties misses a larger point. Whenever political leaders have taken the trouble to explain in clear, honest terms why military commitments were essential to the nation’s interests and ideals, Americans, throughout their history, have willingly and consistently paid the price. The greatest benefit that a commander-in-chief can bequeath to soldiers engaged in combat is clarity in defining the mission and resolve to see it through. The events of September 11 profoundly altered the view that the United States is immune from the troubles besetting the rest of the world. American operations in Afghanistan represented a realization that both air and ground forces must be enlisted in the fight—a departure from the “distant punishment” approach of the Clinton administration, with its reliance on precision attacks and its antipathy to placing American men and women in harm’s way. 

While it was all very fine to overthrow the Taliban and clean out the nest of Al Qaeda terrorists, the question then arose: what were U.S. forces to do in Afghanistan once they had accomplished their purely military mission? The United States could not simply leave the country and risk a resurgence of the Taliban. Something had to be put in its place, and like it or not that something required a commitment to nation building, A failed effort in Afghanistan would not have had an enormous impact on the delicate balance among the nuclear powers India and Pakistan and the soon-to-be-nuclear power Iran. In Iraq, by contrast, an American failure to provide something substantially better than Saddam’s regime could well have a catastrophic impact on the continued flow of the world’s oil supply, the activities of international terrorists, and the chances for an end to hostilities between warring factions throughout the region. Postwar failure in Iraq would suggest to much of the Islamic world that their only viable path to the future must lie with the fundamentalists rather than with those who wish to bring stability and modernity to the region. 

Some senior officials seem to have believed that the Iraqis, relishing their liberation, would shift smoothly into a workable democracy. Even a quick glance at America’s own history, where the colonists—united by a common war effort, language, and political culture—still took nearly a decade to sort out their affairs, would have suggested that the establishment of a stable political system in Iraq would be a long-term venture. 

Moreover, unlike the United States of 1783, Iraq is divided into three distinct and hostile groups separated along religious and ethnic faultlines. Iraq’s people have lived for the past thirty-five years under a fearsome tyranny, the principles of which are entirely foreign to American sensibilities. Trust in the fairness, transparency, and effectiveness of government was nonexistent in Iraq. The regime and its supporters could strike anyone at any moment, and rebellion in any form was sure to meet with the most draconian penalties, including death by unimaginable torture. Such a political system is difficult for those who live in the comfort of liberal democracies to visualize, much less understand. 

Hard as it may be to believe, Saddam’s regime can claim some genuinely devoted supporters, some of whom have gone on to participate in organized guerrilla attacks against American soldiers after the war. While a portion of Saddam’s followers were simply hangers on, loyal to the regime because of what it could do for them, others were true believers in the Baath ideology who now seem willing to do everything in their power to prevent consolidation of the Coalition’s hold over what they regard as their country alone. Members of the Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq’s center, who have dominated the Kurds and Shiites since 1932, do not view the kind of democracy promised by the Coalition as being necessarily to their advantage. Added to these internal pressures are foreign complexities. The Turks strongly oppose independence for Iraqi Kurds, while the Iranian clerics already are meddling among the Shia in southern Iraq. Baathists in Syria and fundamentalists in Iran support like-minded groups in Iraq. 

These cultural and geopolitical complexities will make the securing of Iraq far more of a challenge than virtually anyone in this had foreseen before the conflict began. And this task will as always fall on the military to accomplish. The great justification for the resources that America lavishes on its military forces lies in the ability of those forces not just to smash and destroy the enemies of the United States but to participate in rebuilding shattered and broken societies. The United States cannot deal with every failed state in the twenty-first century, but it can, under certain circumstances where morality and self-interest converge, make a difference, through combined military and stability operations. 

The strategic circumstances in Iraq today reflect the fact that the gods of war have a sense of irony. For the most part the ships have sailed back to port and the bombers and fighters are secure at home bases. Much of the steel phalanx that rolled over the Iraqi military has been evacuated out of theater or sits idled in motor pools. The 4th Infantry Division, the army’s most technologically sophisticated unit now has responsibility for searching the streets and alleyways of Tikrit for Saddam Hussein. Today these mechanized “laptop warriors” are foot soldiers performing grunt tasks no different from the British Army in Palestine in the 1930’s and Northern Ireland in the 1970’s or for that matter the Roman Army in first century Judea. While the stability mission in Iraq is manpower intensive the forces responsible for performing this mission form a very thin line indeed. Infantrymen bear most of the burden. Yet army and marine grunts make up less than four percent of America’s military, a force only slightly larger than the New York City Police Department. 

The tasks these soldiers perform are timeless to be sure—and dangerous. By day Iraqi streets bustle with commerce much as they did before Saddam. But at night inside the Sunni Triangle these same streets turn into free fire zones where the thugs, criminals and foreign fanatics come out to kill Americans. Those who have seen war first hand and close up know the debilitation that comes with facing the constant fear of violent death. Unlike firemen and cops on the beat a soldier goes out on patrol every night expecting to kill.

In the afternoon they undergo the necessary routine of briefings, inspections and rehearsals. At dusk they don heavy body armor, helmets, weapons, night vision devices, radios and all the other impedimenta that makes up a soldier’s burden. At dark they move out into a miserably hot, humid and dusty night to do the job. Only a soldier can describe the gut churning fear that accompanies the moment when the “search and clear” team kicks in a door to confront whatever is inside. Within the confines of a tiny room the soldier looks through the two dimensional, grainy-green image of his goggles to determine if his welcome will come from a fedeyeen fanatic or a child huddling with its mother in fear. Dripping with sweat, gripped with anxiety and fear the soldier has only an instant to determine whether to shift his finger into the trigger well of reassure the occupants inside.

Today this scene is repeated daily in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other places too secret to recount. These young soldiers man point for a thousand dollars a month and the promise of a trip home to a nation that hopefully understands and appreciates the true meaning of sacrifice. 

House Armed Services Committee
2120 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515