A Review of The Iraq War: A Military History

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2004

The Iraq War: A Military History by Williamson Murray and Robert H. Scales, Jr.The Iraq War: A Military History
Williamson Murray and Robert H. Scales, Jr. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003)

In the immediate wake of the first Gulf War, a number of "instant analyses" of the conflict were published. Some were better than others, but in general, they were not very good. A detailed description of the decisions and the framework within which they were made and an expert analysis of those decisions had to await the publication of The Generals’ War by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor.

Gordon and Trainor are at work on a book about Operation Iraqi Freedom, but this time we don’t have to wait for a first-rate description and analysis of that conflict. Harvard press has published The Iraq War: A Military History by the marvelous military historian Williamson "Wick" Murray and retired Army Major General Robert Scales, who brings not only his operational experience to the book but a PhD in history from Duke University.

Murray and Scales are exemplars of what has been termed the "new military history," an approach that places decisions about policy and strategy into its social and political context. War, after all, does not occur in a vacuum. The authors are also "Clausewitzians:" they take their analytical bearings from the Prussian "philosopher of war" who taught, among other things, the subordination of war to political purposes; the persistence of "general friction" as a structural component of combat; and the seeming impossibility of eliminating uncertainty from war. In the past they have cited increasing evidence suggesting that war is by nature a "non-linear" phenomenon.

The Iraq War is arranged topically. It begins with a discussion of the 1991 Gulf War. Then it addresses the origins of the war and the military potential of both sides. It deals separately with the ground campaign in southern Iraq, the British war in Basra and the south, the air war, and the end of the campaign. It concludes with a useful analysis of the military and political implications of the war. The Iraq War contains some excellent maps, a selection of stunning color photographs, and an appendix describing the weapon systems available to both sides.

The Iraq War is primarily an operational level assessment of the war. While they certainly don’t ignore political and strategic factors (and they couldn’t even if they tried), they focus on the war as a campaign, the series of movements and combats designed to achieve a strategic goal within a theater of operations. The authors clearly had access to major military decision makers and after-action reports. But as seasoned military historians, they go far beyond mere reportage, offering concise judgments about both the planning and conduct of the campaign.

Most chapters and sections of The Iraq War begin with an epigram, sometimes from a contemporary writer but more often from one long dead, e.g. Thucydides, Tacitus, Clausewitz, and Churchill. These epigrams serve to remind the reader of Clausewitz’s dictum that technological advances may affect the character of war, but the nature of war is basically immutable. War remains a violent clash between opposing wills, each seeking to prevail over the other. In Clausewitz’s formulation, the will of the combatants is directed at an animate object that reacts, often in unanticipated ways. This cyclical interaction between opposing wills occurs in a realm of chance and chaos.

Operation Iraqi Freedom differed considerably from Operation Desert Storm. While the latter took place sequentially, the plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom sought to cause paralysis and the collapse of the regime by means of the simultaneous applications of air, ground, and special operations against the pillars of Saddam’s power: the Ba’ath party, internal-security forces, and the Republican Guard.

This required a force far more capable than the one that fought the first Gulf War in 1991. This force was more "joint," more mobile, more rapidly deployable, and better able to exploit stealth and information technologies. It was a "networked" force with the ability to execute compressed operational cycles and to launch extended range precision strikes in response to "real-time" intelligence. During the march up to Baghdad, ground forces were able to move rapidly toward the objective, depending for the most part on mobility and speed to protect their flanks. Air and ground forces demonstrated flexibility and adaptability in responding to rapidly changing circumstances, including the shift to constabulary operations once the major military objectives had been achieved. This force was "enabled" by US command of the world’s "commons" (sea and space), protecting US sanctuary while threatening the sanctuary of its adversaries.

Murray and Scales provide an illuminating look at the ground campaign that culminated in the capture of Baghdad. By any standard, the performance of the Army and Marines during this campaign was nothing short of breathtaking. In just three weeks, US and Coalition ground forces slashed through Iraq with minimal losses to capture not only Baghdad, but also every other major city in the country. US planners adapted to the refusal of Turkey to permit the Coalition to open a major northern front of the war. While it was hardly seamless, US forces then made the transition to constabulary and counter-guerrilla operations. The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, may have been the death knell of Iraqi guerrilla resistance.

Gen. Scales was by far one of the most competent military analysts (Fox News) during the war. As the war "bogged down" (after four days!) and second guessing began, pundits, military and civilian alike rushed in to suggest that we would have to "revise the strategy" to avoid a "quagmire." As others were losing their heads, Gen. Scales reminded viewers that "the main thing in war is to make sure that ’the main thing’ remains the main thing." He was simply pointing out that in war, we must keep out eye on the objective. The effect of diverting resources from the main effort against the objective—"the main thing"—is to lose momentum and perhaps fail to achieve the objective.

The Iraq War describes how US and British forces in Iraq maintained their focus on the "main thing." The coalition objective was the destruction of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. The "center of gravity" of the effort to destroy Saddam was Baghdad. From the very beginning of the campaign, the "main thing" was to close with Baghdad as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, the center of gravity for Iraq was (and continues to be) public opinion, both in the United States and the rest of the world. The regime’s best chance for success was to drag out the war and maximize U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties. To accomplish this end, the regime resorted to guerilla warfare, attempting to interdict allied supply lines. To its credit, the coalition did not play into Iraqi hands by allowing its attention to be diverted from taking Baghdad.

Murray and Scales do a similar assessment of the air war, although they acknowledge that an air campaign is far more difficult to depict than a ground campaign. Air power has emerged as the necessary, if not the sufficient, cause of success in war. Not even the most vociferous advocate of "boots on the ground" would deny that air power provides tremendous leverage in warfare. No American would prefer to fight a war without the air supremacy the U.S. possesses. In addition, the improved accuracy of weapons enabled the Coalition to launch an air assault unprecedented in scope and magnitude, while avoiding not only civilian casualties but also damage to the infrastructure upon which civilians depend.

No one denies that air power is the sine qua non of U.S. military power, but since the first Gulf War in 1991, some true believers have gone farther, arguing that air power can be independently decisive. This perspective lay at the heart of the claim that improvements in technology, especially stealth and precision-guided munitions, would make it possible to achieve a rapid and relatively bloodless victory in Iraq by means of an overwhelming air campaign supplemented by a very small ground force.

Even before the war began, air-power advocates were claiming that political considerations were constraining the air plan. They expressed concern that for political reasons, planners were placing too many targets off limit for air power to really have the promised impact.

The problem with the argument that "air power can do it all" is that it assumes that war is independent of politics. But, since war is not an end in itself but a means to achieve political goals, political considerations will always limit military courses of action. Accordingly, ground forces are necessary for both military and political reasons. "For much of the world, victory and defeat is a simple calculation of who has boots on the ground at the end of a conflict."

In reality, ground and air forces achieve synergy in the same way that the two blades of a pair of scissors are necessary if the scissors are to cut. The fact is that the combination of coalition ground and air forces presented Iraqi ground forces with Hobson’s choice: if they massed to take on coalition ground forces, they were destroyed by air power. If they tied to disperse to avoid aerial bombardment, coalition ground forces destroyed them with ease. The elements didn’t help the Iraqis. The Iraqis thought they could move under the cover of the shamal, the great sandstorm that halted the coalition ground attack at one point in March, but air power continue to pummel them. Indeed, the coalition averaged 2,000 fixed wing sorties during the shamal.

One of the authors’ most insightful observations concerns the attitude of military officers to technological advances. During the 1990s, "the computer revolution had reached warp speed and was having an enormous impact in communications." Technological advances had vastly improved the capabilities of the services, permitting compressed operational cycles, long range precision strike, and improved "jointness," the ability of the different service components to achieve synergy by really operating together.

But while technology was advancing, the Vietnam generation of officers was retiring. This was bad because "while Vietnam-era leaders never rejected technology as an important component in war, through painful exposure to its limitations they also understood—in a way civilians could not—that uncertainty, ambiguity, chance, and friction are dominant factors in the conduct of war." They were replaced by technological enthusiasts who sometimes went "so far as to claim that technology would remove the fog of war entirely from the battlefield." Some even suggested that ground forces could give way to air, naval and space forces that would enable us to fight war at a distance. But as Murray and Scales argue, friction and uncertainty, often intensified by the confusion that technology itself generates, will continue to dominate battlefields in the future as it has in the past.

The Iraq War ends with a discussion of the military and political implications of the war. Given the fact that a guerrilla war continues in Iraq, the authors are right to remind us that we must pay attention to how our low-tech enemies define victory or defeat. A friend of mine recently provided a paraphrase of this point when he pointed out that a war does not end when the victors say it is over, but when the defeated say it is.

The authors’ discussion of the war’s implications is excellent and worth the price of the book alone. Murray and Scales conclude that training and cohesion are at least as important as technology, that US ground forces in particular are stretched too thin, that precision alone is not sufficient to ensure success in war, that speed is critical to success in war, that future formations will be ad hoc, depending on the tactical context and the demands of combat—"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."

More detailed analyses of the war will follow The Iraq War. By al means, read them. But the insights and judgments of Wick Murray and Robert Scales make The Iraq War a book that will stand the test of time.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.