10 Years After 'Mission Accomplished,' the Risks of Another Intervention

A decade later, there are important lessons to be learned from that speech as we ponder military action in Syria.
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Larry Downing/Reuters

In March, many commentators reflected on the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its coalition partners by recalling the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction as a rationale for the war -- and the discovery in the spring of 2003 that these weapons did not exist.

The absence of these threatening weapons provoked an important debate, one that still echoes. Critics accused President George W. Bush and his team of deceiving the country. Administration officials pointed to erroneous intelligence reports -- reports that convinced many people in both political parties. Bush's Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, would later insist that the administration leadership was not deceitful, but simply wrong. His deputy and a forceful advocate for the war, Paul Wolfowitz, recently made the same argument, "A mistake is one thing, a lie is something else." History will judge this distinction.

Predictions of an Iraqi welcome equivalent to the one extended in the 1944 liberation of Paris proved wrong. Most Iraqis were clearly pleased to see the Hussein regime routed. They were not looking to be occupied.

In a December 2003 interview with Bob Woodward, President Bush said he had no problem with waiting for history's assessment, since by then all of the principals will be dead -- an observation that he repeated just recently in discussing the opening of his presidential library. Of course the judgment of history will evolve, but it has already begun to take shape. So far it is not a favorable assessment of the rationale for war.

Even as this debate continues, it is important to expand the conversation from the case for the war to consideration of the military action itself. Kenneth Adelman, a leading neocon advocate of invading Iraq, had promised that invading Iraq would be a military "cakewalk" in 2002. Early in April 2003 he observed that he had been vindicated in this judgment. At that moment few challenged him. U.S. troops had occupied Baghdad, symbolically toppling the monumental statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square on April 9. The city had fallen with less resistance than anticipated.

Now another tenth anniversary affords us an opportunity for reflection. On May 1, 2003, just six weeks after the invasion of Iraq began, President George W. Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended." When he spoke on the carrier someone had placed a banner behind him that declared "Mission Accomplished." President Bush would later express his regret over this sign, describing it as "a big mistake," an inappropriate "victory dance."

Regardless of the banner, there was on May 1, 2003 a sense of victory, of a successful contest concluded. Most Americans, including the president's critics and opponents, gushed with him. Now of course, on this anniversary of the Abraham Lincoln speech, many will remind us that, alas, on that date it turned out the mission was far from accomplished.

At the risk of seeming to engage in sarcastic irony, let me suggest that in fact on May 1, 2003, President Bush and the banner makers may have been correct: the original U.S. military mission had been largely accomplished. American forces, with their coalition allies, had defeated the Iraqi regular Army units, had captured Baghdad and most provincial capitals, and had forced the Saddam Hussein regime to flee and to hide. These were the specific military objectives of the March invasion -- along with securing petroleum production facilities, major transportation centers, and the presumed stockpiles of the weapons of mass destruction. These objectives had been met. The military had done its job, had largely accomplished its original mission.

To be sure, it had not been an altogether smooth military operation in those early weeks. American forces confronted inevitable startup costs involving the complexity of coordinating air, ground, cavalry and armored units among the service branches. One air observer described the first days to me as "chaotic." The early days were marked by communication problems, equipment malfunctions, and difficult encounters with the reality of geography, terrain, and weather, all resulting in differential paces of movement. Intelligence had focused primarily on the Iraqi military and their potential chemical weapons and had not emphasized the likelihood of Fedayeen resistance.

The period prior to May 1 was marred by unfortunate U.S. and coalition casualties due to friendly fire episodes (nine deaths), air and vehicle crashes (32 deaths in "non-hostile" situations), and the 507th Maintenance Company's mistaken, and tragic, turn into the narrow and hostile streets of An Nasiriyah. Eleven soldiers and 18 Marines in the rescue group were killed there, and six soldiers were briefly taken prisoner, including Jessica Lynch.

Professional and well-trained troops, facilitated by hugely superior firepower and equipment, adapted to the situation in the field and worked through the initial confusion.

Predictions of an Iraqi welcome equivalent to the one extended in the 1944 liberation of Paris proved wrong. Most Iraqis were clearly pleased to see the Hussein regime routed. They were not looking to be occupied. Disorder and looting followed the breakdown of the old system and the American forces had no orders and little preparation to control this. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld dismissed this as of little concern: "Stuff happens."

Tom Ricks observed that even though the President had not claimed in his remarks on the Abraham Lincoln that the mission was accomplished, what he did was "tear down the goalposts at halftime in the game." Once the tangible military goals of defeating organized military resistance, occupying major cities and transportation centers, and taking down the old regime had been achieved, the subsequent goals would be far more elusive and immeasurable. The goal lines went out with the goal posts.

The next assignments involved more than a military problem. A Marine officer recalled that when his command entered Baghdad in April they had achieved their military objective, but learned there was "no real plan" to "get on top of the chaos that had been unleashed." In late April, the Army's 82nd Airborne ran into hostile fire in Fallujah and recognized that Sunni-dominated Anbar province was not secured. Organized insurgents fought back. An American officer there reported, "The war's not over."

Administration officials were initially reluctant to acknowledge that this new phase was indeed a new phase, to admit that the war continued. In June 2003 Secretary Rumsfeld described the remaining resistance fighters as inconsequential "dead enders" and Paul Wolfowitz called them the "last remnants of a dying cause."

When he spoke on the Abraham Lincoln President Bush warmly praised the U.S. military for its accomplishments. He warned that the work in Iraq was incomplete. Few noted at the time that the unfinished agenda was a new and expanded agenda: "now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country." The next task would be "bringing order" to dangerous parts of the country, searching for the members of the Hussein regime and bringing them "to account for their crimes," and "helping to rebuild Iraq."

Wars with shifting objectives, wars that pursue values rather than tangible targets, are far harder to reconcile against the costs.

The President acknowledged "The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time," but he assured that the coalition would stay until this work was completed. Assuring peace and order, bringing the tyrants to justice, rebuilding a splintered country, and assisting in the establishment of democracy, these were complicated matters. They would prove far more elusive than defeating the Iraqi Republican Guard and pulling over a statue.

Secretary Rumsfeld would later note that he was surprised at the expanded commitment announced on the carrier. In his memoir, he insisted that no one had presented the objective of the United States overseeing the building of democracy in Iraq. He worried whether the American people would have patience for this sort of open-ended commitment.

And of course in a few years Americans had wearied of Iraq. It would take until December 2011 before the last American troops withdrew from Iraq. When President Bush declared the end of combat operation in May, 2003, 139 Americans had died in Iraq and 552 were wounded. After May 1, 2003, 4,335 more American servicemen and women would die in Iraq or as a result of injuries suffered there. An additional 31,671 servicemen and women would be officially wounded -- counting only physical wounds.

President Bush is correct that it will take time for history to judge the consequences for Iraq of the American military involvement. It is not too soon to acknowledge the costs of that involvement. Nor is it premature to recognize that wars with shifting objectives, wars that pursue values rather than tangible targets, are far harder to reconcile against the costs.

This experience should provide a lesson for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S., Coalition, and Afghan Northern Alliance forces might also have warranted a "mission accomplished" salute in November or December of 2001. The Taliban government had fallen, Al-Qaeda had fled the country, and all of their major training sites had been destroyed. These essentially were the American goals in October of 2001. Another mission accomplished.

As would be the case in Iraq, in Afghanistan the military took on an expanded mission. In the years since 2001 the effort in Afghanistan has focused on defeating insurgents and protecting the countryside, stabilizing the Karzai government, strengthening and training Afghan military and police units, and encouraging democratic institutions, a free society, civic responsibility, and economic growth. Each of these in the circumstances of Afghanistan requires a military presence and military actions; only the first of these is a true military objective. The counter-insurgency approach that is now a part of military operations is essential -- but this is a strategy and should never be confused with purpose.

As we note the tenth anniversary of the May 1, 2003 speech proclaiming the end of combat operations in Iraq, we find ourselves engaged in a heated debate about whether the United States needs to become more involved militarily in Syria. The debate is energized by allegations that the Assad regime may have used chemical weapons against the rebels. The situation is different from that in Iraq in 2003, but the latter can inform policy makers about some questions -- and provide lessons about military engagement without clear military objectives.

If the range of unintended consequences of potential military action in Syria is not sufficiently troubling, there is always Iran on the horizon. It may well be that the United States has interests and concerns in these places that will lead to military engagement. If so, let us hope someone describes convincingly these concerns and interests and frames clear military objectives before we decide upon any military commitment.

My interest for the last several years has been in reminding Americans of the human cost of war -- the increasing burden on increasingly anonymous servicemen and women. These costs are a consequence of military strategies and these in turn represent means to accomplish objectives defined by policy makers and political leaders. We cannot define the latter without confronting the final costs and those who will bear them. Over 99 percent of us will not.

In this era of drones and American air and naval superiority, no one should forget that finally securing places means troops in these places, "boots on the ground." We will not secure chemical weapon sites from the air. Recall the "shock and awe" campaign of March 2003. Fighting in wars means dying in wars. We have had that lesson underlined over the last twelve years in Afghanistan -- and in the decade since combat operations in Iraq were declared over.

In his 2011 memoir, Donald Rumsfeld, with little apparent sense of irony, began his final chapter by quoting from Winston Churchill's reflections on the Boer War: "Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter."

In the 1930 book from which Mr. Rumsfeld quoted, the young English politician had expanded upon this observation to present an emphatic reminder, "Let us learn our lessons."

Learning lessons requires studying lessons.

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James Wright is president-emeritus and professor of history at Dartmouth College. He is a former Marine and the author of Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America's Wars and Those Who Fought Them.

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