Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book Reviews: Perspectives on the War in Iraq

Cobra II by Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor
State of Denial by Bob Woodward
Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks

Reviewed by Jeffrey Caminsky

Forty years ago, Americans concerned over the direction of their country had no shortage of issues to worry about. Racial tensions, the Soviet threat, amassing corporate power, and an environment threatening to poison our future were only the most visible concerns of baby boomers as they began coming of age. For the next ten years, however, a single issue colored everything they thought or read about: Vietnam dominated the political landscape like few issues since, touching on a wide number of fault lines in American society and polarizing the public in ways both profound and disturbing.

Today, many of these same fault lines lie dormant, lurking just below the surface. But the one issue with the potential to bring them all into the open, and lay bare many of the problems and divisions that still plague our country, is the specter of yet another military misadventure— the war in Iraq. Three recent books lay open many of the miscalculations and blunders that have led to our current state of affairs. But the alarming conclusion that each author reaches is that many of the mistakes were avoidable, and that most of our current problems there were self-inflicted.

Cobra II by Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor
The first of this ad hoc trilogy, Cobra II, deals primarily with the run-up to war, and America’s initial military successes on the field. Thoroughly researched, and co-written by New York Times chief military correspondent Michael R. Gordon, and retired Marine Corp Lt. General Bernard E. Trainor, the book tracks events leading up to the March, 2003 invasion of Iraq and ending with the relection of the Bush Administration in 2004, recounting all of the major battles and most of our early troubles with the occupation. Showing the miscalculations on both sides that hindsight suggests made the conflict inevitable, including our failure even to consider whether most of Saddam’s posturing might be directed toward more local enemies in the region, the authors bring a wealth of experience and insight to the task of making the chaos of battle intelligible to the outsider.

Disturbingly, they also show that many of our early successes were not quite what they seemed. Much of the vaunted push to Baghdad came over lightly-guarded terrain, from which the enemy had largely withdrawn in the face of our superior forces. But still, the seeds of future problems were there for all to see, and many of the soldiers on the field saw them, even if the civilians in the Pentagon, and the commanders on the scene, refused to listen to their warnings. The book notes the lengths to which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld went to seize and exercise total control over our venture into Iraq—freezing the one official in the Bush Administration with experience planning and executing a war plan, Secretary of State Colin Powell, out of any substantial role in pre- or post-war planning, and going so far as to punish a general who committed the sin of candor by publically acknowledging that the enemy our soldiers were facing was different than the one they had war-gamed against. Coming to press as our problems were becoming apparent even to most early supporters of the war, Cobra II also notes that the lack of available “boots on the ground” seemed to be largely responsible for the wide-scale looting and chaos that followed. Alarmingly, the book suggests that our misreading of the enemy and our inability to recognize and adapt to the changing developments on the ground reflect the dysfunctional nature of our military institutions under Rumsfeld. These problems include a prevailing assumption among many top military planners that invading Iraq in 2006 would be little more than a reprise of the successful Gulf War of 1991—problems which may not end with Rumsfeld’s departure from the Pentagon.

State of Denial by Bob Woodward
The most recent addition to our understanding of the morass, State of Denial by Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, deals less with military insights and operations and concentrates largely on the conflicts and tensions among the personalities involved. Though lacking the tactical insights that make Cobra II and Fiasco such alarming works, Woodward’s gifts as an interviewer lets him paint a portrait of an Administration largely trapped by its rhetoric, and held prisoner to its own unchallenged assumptions. Confronting the tragedy of the September 11th attacks, the new Bush Administration moved quickly and resolutely to the offensive, determined to confront and destroy those whose hatred of the West led them to murder innocents on American soil.

Though blessed with an abundance of technical, military, and human resources—including a presidential father with a gift for diplomacy and a secretary of state who was respected and admired throughout the world—the Administration soon turned, as if by instinct, toward an old enemy: Iraq, though it had not participated in the 9/11 attacks, was still unfinished business as far as some top-level aides and policy makers in the Administration were concerned; and once the dust had settled, and we had dispatched the Taliban from Afghanistan, eyes turned to settle scores with Saddam, whose sympathies were clearly with those who wish this country harm.

Certainly, no one can waste much sympathy on the old Iraqi dictator: Saddam was a brutal ruler, inflicting death and torture on his enemies and heading a regime that survived by brute force and fear. But Woodward’s account suggests that by creating a system which punished the expression of contrary points of view, and seemed to equate misgivings with disloyalty, the Bush Administration was setting itself up for a disaster at some point during its term of office. When coupled with a secretary of defense who insisted on making all important decisions himself, and who dismissed or ridiculed any non-conforming points of view offered by the uniformed military—or by the representatives of rival bureaucracies, such as Colin Powell’s state department—the nation was at high risk that the disaster would take a military form, and scoffed at the notion that Iraq could ever become another Vietnam. Add what appears to be a view of the world based on personal loyalty rather than objective fact, and the result is an unending chain of bad decisions, culminating in our current predicament.

State of Denial will not add to the reader’s understanding of what has gone wrong in Iraq from a military standpoint. It contains little military history or analysis, and struggles to place the events in their historical context. Its strength lies in Woodward’s tenacity as an interviewer, and his unparalleled access to official Washington. The book is at its best when unraveling the inner workings of governmental insiders. Unfortunately, the view it gives of our government is not for the faint of heart. It is often said that watching laws and sausage being made often causes the viewer to lose his appetite for either. But watching our government setting its course for Iraq is like watching a fatal crash in slow motion: we are helpless to change things, even if we cannot keep from watching in morbid fascination.

Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks
Perhaps the most illuminating, and hence the most damning volume of the three is Fiasco, by Thomas E. Ricks. Like the other two books, the author describes in detail the dysfunctional and largely delusional decision-making that has plagued our endeavor in Iraq, but his book highlights a lengthy series of critical turns and cross-roads that we have taken in the nearly four years since the invasion—any of which might have led us away from disaster and toward a stabler and less uncontrollable occupation. And he brings the insights of a career military writer to the task of analyzing what has gone wrong, and how wishful thinking and political turf battles in Washington have placed our soldiers in mortal peril abroad.

Ricks treats the saga of Iraq as a tragedy in three parts. The first part, dealing with events leading to the invasion, portrays a military far more skeptical of the looming adventure than the public was aware, or the politicians would permit to become public knowledge. Though elected in part on a platform of support for a neglected military and opposition to the nation-building adventures of the Clinton years, the shock of September 11th soon turned into contingency planning for an invasion of a country expressing sympathy for America’s enemies—without, apparently, much thought for what might happen next. Yet upon taking office, the civilian leadership of the defense department had largely neutered its generals, who were turned largely into staff assistants for an overbearing secretary of defense. A long-standing contingency plan for just such an event—a battle plan named Desert Crossing, calling for nearly 400,000 troops, the culmination of years of in-depth planning—had been discarded in favor of a test of Donald Rumsfeld’s theory of waging a “lean and mean” war, with forces totaling just over a third of that number. And while Iraq’s military proved no match for the scaled-down invasion force, the task of maintaining order once Saddam’s regime had fallen would prove to be more demanding than the optimistic assumption of the war planners ever acknowledged as a possibility, or Rumsfeld’s conception of “invasion-on-the cheap” anticipated. The result was, in Ricks’ words, “the worst war plan in American history.”

The remainder of the book deals with the invasion and ensuing occupation, as well as the many blunders that have led us to our current state of affairs. Most of our initial mistakes were blunders by our political leaders, and those they sent to oversee the occupation. But some of the problems were institutional, and would have required insightful leadership to overcome: Despite Rumsfeld’s contrary preferences, for example, American military tradition in recent years has come to believe in Colin Powell’s doctrine of “overwhelming force,” in which American might is so vast and irresistible that it buries all resistance by its sheer mass, as well as through the power of its destructive force. Yet the techniques for fighting a counterinsurgency are completely different, calling for minimal forces and a light, deft touch rather than the heavy hand of tanks and armor. These are lessons which our military learned painfully in Vietnam, but cast aside after resolving never to become entangled in anything like it again. In Iraq, since the politicians anticipated that we would be hailed as liberators and greeted with flowers instead of roadside bombs, and the military war-gamed against the Republican Guard rather than the Fedayeen, little thought and no training was given to the challenge of fighting against a determined insurgency. This lead many of our units in the field to engage in heavy-handed tactics that did little to quell unrest, but much to swell the ranks of the insurgents. Now, with the streets filled with sectarian violence and the threat of civil war, our troops can either come down heavily to restore order, or try to stay out of the way. Both approaches carry significant risks and the possibility of disaster; neither approach is what we expect our Army to do, or what any of the soldiers expected when they volunteered to serve their country.

Individually, each book presents a different facet of the Iraq invasion and occupation, raising many unsettling questions that the country would have been wise to consider before the president issued the final order to attack. In particular, Fiasco and Cobra II translate many of our blunders into terms and concepts that the non-military layman can readily grasp, making them fully accessible to the public. Taken together, these books and others like them are a wealth of information and insight, providing the reader with a sobering assessment of what can go wrong when optimism and resolve succeed in equating doubt or skepticism with disloyalty.

In the end, unless we can find a solution to our present dilemma, our era may well prove to be defined by our efforts in Iraq. For better or worse, we are faced with an open-ended commitment with no clearly-defined victory in sight. Many of those who came of age forty years ago grew up to see the world through the prism of Vietnam. Unless we prove wiser than those who led us through that era, our legacy may well be to bequeath yet another prism to the youth of today—just as dark, and just as depressing. But if it leads them to take to heart Santayana’s observation that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, then perhaps they will have learned more from the deserts of Iraq than their parents seem to have learned from the jungles of Vietnam.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed The Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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