The Story of a War

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In their coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom last spring, embedded reporters provided vertical depth but little horizontal scope. Profound portraits of individual soldiers and units were rarely complemented by competent narratives placing the various military operations in the context of a grand strategic view. That is the job not of war correspondents or even of military experts but of military historians. Williamson Murray, a senior fellow at the Institute of Defense Analysis, and Major General Robert H. Scales Jr., a former commandant of the Army War College, fill the void. Rarely is a quickie book this finely written and subtly thought through. There will be better, fuller descriptions of last spring's war, but none will frame the debate in a way that's both so timely and so economical.

The authors begin with the Gulf War of 1991, which, they note, marked the first time since the Korean War that the United States military fought at the "operational level," meaning at the theater level of command. The rustiness showed, and contributed to the fact that brilliant battlefield tactics failed to produce a strategic victory: Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime remained in power. In this second Gulf war, twelve years later, the operational performance was vastly improved, largely because of the "fertile minds" of three men: Army General Gary Luck, Marine General Anthony Zinni, and Army General Tommy Franks. Whereas Franks orchestrated last spring's war, it was Luck and Zinni who, in the years between the two Gulf wars, began the process at Central Command of turning service-oriented headquarters into joint commands, taking advantage of breakthroughs in communications and systems analysis. Without that, Franks's battlefield symphony would have been impossible. Franks's campaign was fluent and flexible enough to overcome what the authors believe was a major flaw in pre-war analysis: the failure to recognize the incredible depth of behavioral control that the Baathist regime maintained over its population.

It turns out that many of the Fedayeen Saddam, the paramilitary group behind the guerrilla attacks against American forces, were not Iraqis at all but fanatics from Syria, Tunisia, and other places in the Muslim world. According to the authors, Saddam's sons, Qusay and Uday, were "intrigued by the apparent success of Somali 'technicals'" against the Americans: thus they designed Fedayeen units after Somali ones, with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades mounted on pickups and SUVs. The authors provide a clear description of Fedayeen ambush and concealment tactics, much of which got lost in the heady, atmospheric reporting of last spring.

The book also provides newly disclosed information about the killing of Saddam's sons and about the underrated role in the war of the U.S. Navy and of the Saudis, too, who provided the coalition with extensive command-and-control facilities. Many of the round-the-clock aerial refueling operations were conducted from Saudi bases. Meanwhile, the Romanians provided a forward operating base on the Black Sea for American Special Forces teams, which prowled Iraq's western desert for Scud missiles. As for the British effort, the authors write that the performance of the British First Armoured Division in southern Iraq showed that allies can still "fight effectively alongside the technologically advanced military forces of the United States," and within our "doctrinal framework."

The authors are unambiguous in their belief that ultimate victory in Iraq can be had only by concentrating on how America's "low-tech enemies define victory and defeat"—an exercise that, in turn, requires cultural and historical knowledge much more than it does gee-whiz technology. They also point out that the "modern battlefield continues to empty and expand," so it is characterized by dispersion. Given the success of terrorists in turning postwar Iraq into an exercise yard for unconventional, economy-of-force attacks over a vast area, carried out by small teams and lone suicide bombers, the authors have already proved prescient.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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