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.

Presented by

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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