Cobra Ii: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq

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COBRA II: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE INVASION AND OCCUPATION OF IRAQ, Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Pantheon Books, New York, 2006, 603 pages.

Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor have delivered the second of their histories of U.S. wars in the Persian Gulf, and it might not be their last since there is grist for still another book. In the title, Cobra II, Gordon and Trainor promise to deliver on the invasion and the occupation of Iraq. Frankly, the title tantalizes, but the book really does not address the occupation of Iraq; rather, it looks only at the beginning of that effort.

Gordon and Trainor set their thesis quite clearly in the first sentence of the foreword when they assert that Cobra II "will provide an inside look at how a military campaign that was so successful in toppling Saddam Hussein's regime set the conditions for the insurgency that followed." They effectively follow through on that promise. The result, despite the small criticism of not meeting the full promise of the title, is a book that is quite good and useful to those who serve and those who send others in harm's way.

Several of the topics that emerged in Gordon and Trainer's first book, The General's War, remain relevant more than a decade after the first Persian Gulf War. Chief among these are that planning, personalities, and perception mattered in Operation Iraqi Freedom, much as they did in Desert Storm. Thucydides was the first historian to consider these themes, and they are still critical to the tale of war. As in the classical era, making war remains a political act of which military operations are but a part Gordon and Trainer lucidly lay out the story of how perception and personality played decisive roles in planning for the war and the subsequent occupation from the moment the administration cast a baleful eye on Iraq.

The authors develop their narrative in two parts. First they show how the planners failed to account for the requirements of occupation because they used much of their time planning and debating the size of the force and the basic concept for the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein. Second, neither the administration nor its military minions had much interest in planning for a long occupation or for the possibility of insurgency. Gordon and Trainor argue that the administration believed little needed to be done and that Central Command, led by General Tommy Franks, underestimated the difficulty.

At times, Cobra II is surreal. There emerges from the book a sense of implacable destiny at work in Tampa, Camp Doha, Washington, and everywhere someone developed PowerPoint® charts, conducted a briefing, or considered the coming war. Reading Cobra II is like reading about the Titanic. We find ourselves hoping the Captain will reduce the Titanic's speed or that the officer of the deck will order all engines astern rather than a course change, or that the lookout will see the iceberg looming ahead in time to avert the crash. But of course the Titanic does hit the iceberg and in the end it sinks. All that remains is to deconstruct the event, hoping to understand why the tragedy happened and how we might avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Cobra II is a first cut at analyzing the process of planning the war in Iraq; it provides some preliminary analysis that will enable future understanding of what happened and why. For the most part Gordon and Trainor make their points by letting the actors speak for themselves.

Among the planners, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld stands out. He looms above the process and all of those around him, driving the decisions that not only led to the war, but to those that determined how the war would be fought and how the occupation would be undertaken. But Rumsfeld was not alone in planning the war effort, and Gordon and Trainor devote their first eight chapters to the other players and the almost Byzantine machinations that characterized the planning effort. …