Not Quite the Whole Story

[Reviewing COBRA II: The Inside Story of The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael R. Gordon & General Bernard E. Trainor, Pantheon Books, New York, 2006.  603 pages, maps, photos, chapter notes, appendices, index]

COBRA II is a comprehensive, thoroughly—researched book. What recommends it most are chapters 10—21, which narrate the V Corps drive to Baghdad. The book's title derives from the original COBRA plan, devised by General Patton and adopted by 1st US Army commander General Omar Bradley as the means to break out of Normandy's hedgerow country following the D—day landings. That successful drive was spearheaded by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions.  Perhaps the fact that his Operation Iraqi Freedom ground campaign would be led by armor units led land forces commander Lt. Gen. David McKiernan to accept COBRA II as its code name.

Though the subtitle describes this book as an 'inside story,' a more accurate description would be 'detailed critique.'  With this massive effort the authors have proven that comprehensiveness does not ensure full context, nor does thoroughness ensure objectivity. 

In the end, COBRA II does not tell the whole story.  Like the war plan it criticizes, it has its flaws. Gordon and Trainor, along with all the others who've been carping about 'not enough troops' assume the existence of that which has never existed — a perfect war plan encompassing every contingency conceived and executed by omniscient, infallible human beings.  As with all other martial endeavors, two verities applied to COBRA II:  no war plan survives first contact with the enemy and the enemy gets a vote in its execution. 

Nevertheless, three—plus years plus after the liberation of Iraq, that long—tyrannized country has chosen democracy, its people braving death to vote three times for a constitution and now, a representative government of national unity.  Iraqi army and security forces are becoming ever more capable and independent; assuming responsibility for more and more battle space.  COBRA II may have been flawed, but in the end, it succeeded.

COBRA II the book is too comprehensive for any detailed review, that would require a book in itself, so let me offer a number of examples of its failure to tell the whole story.

On  p. 5. the authors cite a 1999 speech that presidential candidate George W. Bush delivered at the Citadel.  They note how Bush 'pledged to develop lighter, more mobile, and more lethal forces.'  They state that Bush signaled 'that he wanted to overhaul the US military' but did not see the need 'for the sort of lengthy peacekeeping operations or difficult nation—building missions' that the Clinton administration had undertaken in the Balkans. 

'The purpose of the military,' the authors cite Bush as saying, 'was to fight and win the nation's wars, not to linger to bring stability to newly ordained states.  Generals and admirals who supported the new program would be promoted.'  

Here is the full context, which the authors failed to provide.  I'm quoting here at some length because it was an important, substantive speech that established the framework for Bush's strategic vision:  

This (Clinton) administration wants things both ways: to command great forces without supporting them. To launch today's new causes with little thought of tomorrow's consequences.  A volunteer military has only two paths.  It can lower its standards to fill its ranks.  Or it can inspire the best and brightest to join and stay.  This starts with better pay, better treatment and better first budget will add a billion dollars in salary increases...our military requires more than good treatment.  It needs a rallying point of a defining mission.  And that mission is to deter wars — and win wars when deterrence fails.  Sending our military on vague, aimless missions and endless deployments is the swift solvent of morale... the problem comes with open—ended deployments and unclear military I've said before I will work hard to find political solutions that will allow an orderly and timely withdrawal from places like Kosovo and Bosnia. We will encourage our allies to take a broader role.  We will not be hasty.  But we will not be permanent peacekeepers, dividing warring parties. This is not the strength of our calling.  America will not retreat from the world.  On the contrary, I will replace diffuse commitments with focused ones...uncertain missions with well—defined objectives.  This will preserve the resources of American power and public will.                               

Here is the rest of the story regarding generals and admirals who supported the new modernization program being promoted, the full text of what Bush said about that: 

All this will require a new spirit of innovation. Many officers have expressed their impatience with a widespread, bureaucratic mindset that frustrates creativity. I will encourage a culture of command where change is welcomed and rewarded, not dreaded. I will ensure that visionary leaders who take risks are recognized and promoted.' 

In his speech Bush harked back to the 1930s 'as Britain refused to adapt to the new realities of war.'  He cited Winston Churchill's observation that

The era of procrastination, of half—measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close.  In its place we are entering a period of consequence.

Indeed, the presidential candidate was signaling that a Bush administration was going to make necessary, would act and be decisive; the global situation required it; his constitutional duties demanded nothing less.

Now let's look at how the authors introduce the villain of the piece, that much—maligned punching bag for retired generals, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.  The authors allege that the dastardly Rumsfeld was going to try to 'bend (the Pentagon) to his will,' and that transformation was 'Rumsfeld's program' that he would force upon the military. They cite a speech Rumsfeld gave on Sept. 10, 2001, in which he identified the Pentagon bureaucracy as an adversary that poses 'a serious threat to the security of the United States of America.' 

This is yet another example of out of context quotes. In his speech  Rumsfeld went on to say that:

In this building, despite this era of scarce resources taxed by mounting threats, money disappears into duplicative duties and bloated bureaucracy — not because of greed, but of gridlock.  Innovation is stifled — not by ill intent but by institutional inertia.  Just as we must transform America's military capability to meet changing threats, we must transform the way the Department works and what it works on.  We must build a Department where each of the dedicated people here can apply their immense talents to defend  America, where they have the resources, information and freedom to perform...some might ask how in the world could the Secretary of Defense attack the Pentagon in front of its people?  To them I reply, I have no desire to attack the Pentagon; I want to liberate it.  We need to save it from itself.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense was created by the National Security Act of 1947.  The first man to hold that office, James Forrestal, wanted to strengthen it, giving the SECDEF specific responsibility for exercising direction, authority and control over the National Military Establishment (NME), along with other changes.  Those changes were approved by President Truman and congress in March 1949 and the NME became the Department of Defense, providing the Secretary of Defense

with appropriate responsibility and authority, and with civilian and military assistance adequate to fulfill his enlarged responsibility.

The several military departments (Army, Navy, etc.) would be administered by their Secretaries 'under the direction, authority and control of the Secretary of Defense.'   ( go here for the complete story of the evolution of the SECDEF's office and DoD)  At the website for the Office of Secretary of Defense you will find this description:

the principal staff element of the Secretary of Defense in the exercise of policy development, planning, resource management, fiscal and program evaluation responsibilities....  

In light of these facts, was Rumsfeld riding rough—shod over the Pentagon, forcing his will upon it? No and no. Has Rumsfeld been carrying out his defined duties as Secretary of Defense within the framework of constitutionally mandated civilian control of the military?  Yes and yes.

As for the notion that transformation was Rumsfeld's program, that can be disproven quite easily by looking at its history, which dates back to the 60s—70s, or before, depending on how you define transformation.  The current transformation process evolved from the 'revolution in military affairs (RMA).'  One of its core concepts was applying the latest, relevant technologies to the battlefield.  

In late 1993 and early 1994 then Deputy Secretary of Defense William Perry established a group to coordinate a DoD—wide project on the RMA.  In November 1997, Defense Secretary William Cohen established a task force on defense reform based on the RMA. In 1999 Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki announced 'The Army Vision' which defined

how the Army will meet the nation's requirements today and into the future.  The Army's transformation into a force that is  strategically responsive and dominant at every point of the spectrum of conflict was outlined in the Transformation Campaign Plan...these documents and Army Transformation are grounded in the operational framework of Joint doctrine and concepts.

On p. 352 are descriptions of some of the fighting experienced by the '3—69 Armor Battalion' in securing the vital Al Kaed bridge.  I put the unit in quotes because the actual designation of Lt. Col. Ernest 'Rock' Marcone's command was Task Force 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor. This may seem like a quibble, but professional military writers ought to know the importance of accurate unit designations. The authors state 

'Now Marcone's armor battalion was involved in a 'movement to contact.'' 

They should know better.  Actually, from the moment Task Force 3/69th Armor crossed the berm into Iraq they were involved in movement to contact, which was described this way by LTC Marcone in his 'Invasion of Iraq' Frontline interview:

To find the enemy, fix them and kill them, allowing the units behind me to move unimpeded as quickly as possible to the critical ground...east of the Euphrates.

For some inexplicable reason the authors do not mention the major engagement, known as the battle of Charlie 6, that developed at the Al Kaed bridge. Briefly, Capt. Jared Robbins' C Company tanks and Capt. Todd Kelly's 2/7th infantrymen charged across the bridge at 4:30 p.m. on April 2.  Once on the other side, C Company awaited the expected counter—attack.  It came at 11:30 that night.  From their semi—circular defensive positions, American tank crews, supported by attack aviation and artillery, destroyed 20 enemy armored vehicles and killed over 600 Iraqi troops in the biggest tank—mechanized vehicle engagement of the war.  On the achievements of TF 3/69th Armor, LTC Marcone later wrote:

We fought 3 major battles, defeated 7 enemy brigades and sustained only 3 killed and 60 wounded total. The task force's accomplishments were historic in proportion.  It was given more responsibility, covered more ground, fought more battles, accounted for more enemy formations destroyed and took fewer casualties than any other task force in the theater.  We were a 'perfect storm' of men and machines combined into an unbeatable force.

In their epilogue, the authors list the five major failures of the war plan.  Two of them are described as 'misreading the foe' and 'failure to adapt to battlefield developments' which are interrelated and focus on the irregular Saddam fedayeen fighters encountered on the way to Baghdad. In fact, the war plan envisioned 40 — 50,000 fedayeen, but had them located in Baghdad.  When Saddam sent them south US forces dealt with them effectively.

In light of their 'failure to adapt' criticism it might seem contradictory for the authors to say

American troops themselves were quick to identify the nature of their enemy...they adapted and successfully developed tactics to deal with the real as opposed to the expected enemy.

But no, they cover themselves by then stating that 'the war plan was never adjusted on high.' Not quite.  Since the war plan was flexible and since Tommy Franks authorized ground commanders adapting to the situation, this criticism is rendered moot.

Like other critics, Gordon and Trainor harp on the lack of sufficient troops in the immediate aftermath of Baghdad's fall, or Phase 4.  The plan called for enough troops to get the job done, not the huge 300,000 plus man force that the old CENTCOM plan for Iraq required.  That would have constituted, in the eyes of Iraqis and the Arab world, an occupation army and would have been antithetical to the plan, which called for turning over governmental and security functions to Iraqis as soon as possible. Too many troops would have exacerbated that objective and would have strained the supply and logistical situation because everything had to be funneled into Iraq via Kuwait. 

Here is what General McKiernan said on April 23, 2003: 

I am satisfied that the forces are here and are continuing to flow here that will allow me to execute my Phase 4 missions, and that is to provide a degree of stability and security in Iraq as we transition back to Iraqis in control of their own country.  I would caveat though by reminding everyone that there aren't enough soldiers or Marines to guard every street corner or facility — there's risk—taking in some areas...but I am satisfied that I have enough forces on the ground to execute the campaign very decisively at this point.

He went on to say

My commanders have the authority across Iraq to work with local Iraqi workers, clerics, political figures and bureaucrats to get Iraqis back into the workplace and back in control of their destiny.  I am teaming with Jay Garner and (his) Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance as we together try to bring civil administration back on line here in Iraq and get basic services and businesses and (the) economy back on line.

It is now a generally accepted fact that Phase 4 did not go smoothly and that its execution was flawed.  One of the major reasons for that was the utter and total collapse of Baghdad's infrastructure.  People who maintained essential services and local and national governmental organizations were all gone by the time US troops secured the capital.  There were no police.  Army personnel had all gone home. The authors do not supply these facts to the reader. To further destabilize the situation, Saddam had opened his jails, flooding the streets with criminals.

Remember too that the war plan called for the 4th ID to drive into what became known as the 'Sunni triangle' from Turkey.  When that country refused us access, a major strategic opportunity was lost and the insurgency that probably would have been stifled by the 4th ID was able to fester.

During a July 24, 2003 press conference with CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld enumerated the great progress in Iraq just four months after liberation:  30,000 Iraqi police hired, formation of an Iraqi civil defense force and army underway, an independent Iraqi central bank, introduction of a new currency, all universities open, water and power in most places back to pre—war levels, food distribution system re—started, nearly all of Iraq's 240 hospitals and 1200 clinics open, over 100 newspapers being published, municipal councils formed in all major cities and in 85% of the towns.  And in Baghdad a new national governing council had been established. 

Not bad for a flawed Phase 4 of an imperfect war plan. Less than a year after liberation Iraq adopted a Transitional Administrative Law, an interim constitution.  Here is the opening paragraph: 

The people of Iraq, striving to reclaim their freedom, which was usurped by the previous tyrannical regime, rejecting violence and coercion in all their forms, and particularly when used as instruments of governance, have determined that they shall hereafter remain a free people governed under the rule of law. 

Though COBRA II, like the planning and strategy and people it criticizes, doesn't attain perfection, it does, as the flawed war plan did, succeed in its objective.  It does give readers the detailed, inside story of the ground campaign and those who executed it and therefore ought to be read. 

John B. Dwyer is a military historian and a frequent contributor.

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