Sniping: War Critics Divorce War From Politics

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2003

In Tuesday’s Providence Journal (April), Yale historian Paul Kennedy relates the contents of an e-mail he received from another historian, William Hitchcock. "Five days into the Normandy landings, U.S. troops were not even off the beaches. In Korea, the U.S. forces were almost wiped out around Pusan before the successful invasion of Inchon a few months later. In 1999, it took the Clinton administration 78 days of bombing to get the Serbs to agree to withdraw from Kosovo." He might have added that the first Gulf War lasted for some six weeks.

Those with any sense of history at all can only wonder at the negativism that has erupted after less than two weeks of fighting in Iraq, despite unprecedented gains by Coalition forces. Article after article have talked of an operational pause, that the coalition supply line has been interdicted by Iraqi irregulars, that the Iraqis have not welcomed the Coalition forces as liberators, and that planners have gone back to the drawing board to come up with a new strategy.

Much of what’s out there is nonsense. For my money, the award for the most defeatist articles goes to paleo-con Bill Lind, director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation, who in a commentary dated March 26 offers this worst-case scenario:

…our current advance on Baghdad proves to be a trap. We get there, our 350-mile single supply line is cut, and the 3rd Infantry Division, which is the spearhead, is forced into a desperate retreat or even surrender. Could it happen? Yes. As the Iraqi leadership seems to understand, a modern defense does not try to keep the enemy out. Rather, it seeks to suck him in, then cut him off. This type of defense was first developed by the German army during World War I …and it was the standard German defense during World War II. The key element, the counterattack by armored forces, will probably be impossible for the Iraqis because of air power. But there are other ways to cut a supply line.

Fortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that such defeatism is influencing support for the war. More troubling however are reports stressing differences between civilian leaders and the uniformed military over the planning and conduct of the war. The most inflammatory example of this kind of writing is "Offense and Defense: The Battle Between Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon" by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker this week. "As the ground campaign against Saddam Hussein faltered last week," wrote Hersh, "with attenuated supply lines and a lack of immediate reinforcements, there was anger in the Pentagon. Several senior war planners complained to me in interviews that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his inner circle of civilian advisers, who had been chiefly responsible for persuading President Bush to lead the country into war, had insisted on micromanaging the war’s operational details."

In many respects, this is old news. Reports of dissension among civilians and soldiers regarding a possible war with Iraq go back almost a year. For instance, on August 14, 2002 in an article entitled "With Eyes Wide Open", I attempted to lay out the fissures in the Pentagon, and I was by no means alone. But Hersh specializes in recycling old stories, spicing them up with harsh criticisms from "anonymous sources." A case in point was his New Yorker story of May 22, 2000, claiming that then-Major General Barry McCaffrey unleashed his 24th Infantry Division in an unnecessary attack that mercilessly pummeled retreating Iraqi soldiers two days after the Gulf War ceasefire in 1991. Even though the U.S. Army had investigated the charges against Gen. McCaffrey years earlier, Hersh’s story created the usual furor.

The first thing to realize when considering Hersh’s story is that disagreements between civilians and soldiers about the conduct of a war are not uncommon in American history. Abraham Lincoln constantly prodded George McClelland to take the offensive in Virginia in 1862. McClelland just as constantly whined about insufficient forces. Despite the image of civil-military comity during World War II, there were many differences between Franklin Roosevelt and his military advisers. One of the most contentious issues was the timing of the cross-channel invasion. Certainly one of the best-known episodes in the history of American civil-military relations was the relief of General Douglas MacArthur by President Harry Truman during the Korean War.

It is also important to understand that when civilians and soldiers disagree about the conduct of the war, the former are often proved right by events. History has vindicated Lincoln and Roosevelt. It has also vindicated the civilian leaders during the first Gulf War.

In late 1990 and early 1991, the civilian leadership rejected the early war plan presented by Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf at Central Command and ordered a return to the drawing board. CENTCOM’s first plan called for a frontal assault to penetrate Iraqi positions in southern Kuwait and a drive toward Kuwait City. The problem was that this plan was unlikely to achieve the foremost military objective of the ground war: the destruction of the three divisions of Saddam’s Republican Guard.

The revised plan was far more imaginative. It called for the Marines and other Allied forces to "fix" the Iraqi forces south of Kuwait City while the VII and XVIII Airborne Corps executed a Kesselschlacht, a strategic envelopment from the west toward Basra — dubbed "the left hook" by the media. The purpose of this maneuver was to trap the main Iraqi forces, especially the Republican Guard, before they could escape across the Euphrates.

The plan had some problems in execution (the best account of this war is The Generals War by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor), but probably would have trapped the Republican Guard anyway had not the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, advised the president to end the war before this objective was achieved (for this story, see my essay "The Real Gulf War Blunder" in The Weekly Standard of June 5, 2000).

Appearing on Fox News Tuesday morning, NRO contributor Jed Babbin was asked about the anonymous sniping at the war plan. Paraphrasing Claude Raines in Casablanca, he observed that we should be no more shocked by politics in the Pentagon than by gambling at Rick’s. For the services, the political stakes are high because they will go far in determining the future allocation of resources for defense.

Accordingly, many Army officers believe that Secretary Rumsfeld wants to gut ground forces because he favors air power and "information warfare" — thus the charge that he constantly overruled planners who wanted a larger ground component for the war because he believed that air power could do the job. They contend that the failure of the Iraqi regime to crack after the campaign of "shock and awe" illustrates the shortcomings of air power.

Air-power advocates reply that the air plan was too constrained, that for political reasons, planners placed too many targets off limit for air power to really have the promised impact. "In the weeks leading up to the campaign," writes William Arkin in the Los Angeles Times, "Air Force planners say [that] hundreds of targets were rejected for fear of civilian casualties." The outcome was "a strategy likely to fail."

The problem with both of these positions is that they treat war as somehow independent of politics. But war is a means to political goals, not an end in itself. Politics necessarily will always limit military courses of action.

Would Gen. Franks have preferred to have another heavy division or two before the war began? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Would air planners have preferred an expanded target list? Again, yes. But given the political realities faced by the president, the timing of the war limited the forces available. Did this increase the risks? It probably increased some, but it also reduced others.

The snipers are essentially arguing that "if" decision-makers had listened to them, the coalition would be doing better than it is. But I am reminded what an old Marine once told me: "If a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bump its ass when it jumped."

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.