Tommy Franks: He's an Unlikely Revolutionary, a Ground-Pounding Grunt's General. but in an Exclusive Interview, He Reveals How He Learned to Play by Rummy's Rules and Put a Whole New Way of War to the Test

By Thomas, Evan; Brant, Martha | Newsweek, May 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

Tommy Franks: He's an Unlikely Revolutionary, a Ground-Pounding Grunt's General. but in an Exclusive Interview, He Reveals How He Learned to Play by Rummy's Rules and Put a Whole New Way of War to the Test


Thomas, Evan, Brant, Martha, Newsweek


Byline: Evan Thomas and Martha Brant

Military commanders have long touted boldness and surprise as keys to victory. "L'audace, l'audace," said Napoleon, "toujours l'audace!" But how do you achieve surprise in the age of instant information? All Saddam Hussein had to do was turn on his TV and any number of retired American generals would tell him, with apparent certainty, where and when the Americans were going to attack him and with what force.

And yet, Operation Iraqi Freedom was able to keep Saddam guessing. Using speed, unconventional tactics and some artful trickery, the Americans befuddled the Iraqi defenders. One ruse, NEWSWEEK has learned, played on Saddam's paranoia. Until it was too late, Saddam was led to believe that the Americans would attack from the north, through Turkey. The ruler of Baghdad was informed by secret agents that the Turks' refusal in early March to allow the Americans to unload in their ports was all a bluff--that at the last minute the Turks would change their minds and let the Americans use Turkey as a jumping-off point. Actually, this grand deception was itself a charade, disinformation planted by the Americans to prey on Saddam's conspiratorial turn of mind. It worked: the Iraqi strongman kept 13 divisions in the north, braced for a phantom invasion, while the real attack barreled up from the south.

In the end, the Americans, by sheer audacity, achieved true surprise. The Iraqis were never able to mount a coherent defense or take any number of steps, like blowing bridges and dams or using chemical weapons, which would have slowed the American advance. Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom, surprised even himself. The war plan, as written, was expected to require up to 120 days, Franks told NEWSWEEK in his first published interview with a reporter since the war ended. It took less than three weeks to topple Saddam.

The principal architect of this feat is a somewhat unlikely hero. General Franks looks and sounds like Old Army. He is a ground-pounding grunt's general, a college dropout with a folksy, aw-shucks manner. He avoids the press and recoils at martial bombast. But under the persistent questioning of his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Franks transformed himself into an avatar of a whole new way of war. He fashioned a war plan that was bold, yet not rash--or, as Franks drew the distinction, "a risk, but not a gamble." How he accomplished this personal and institutional reinvention is one of the most important and least understood stories of the war.

To fathom Franks, it is necessary to first appreciate the role played by his boss and goad, the secretary of Defense. When Rumsfeld took over as secretary of Defense in January 2001, he grumbled that the Pentagon culture was risk averse, that the military establishment was muscle-bound and sclerotic. One of its commanders likened the Special Operations Forces (SOF)--the elite highly trained units like Delta Force, the Rangers and the Navy SEALs--to a "Ferrari that's never taken out of the garage." A Delta Force plan in the late '90s to snatch a terrorist using only a four-man commando team became, after winding --through the bureaucracy, a massive operation requiring 900 men--so unwieldy that it never got off the ground.

Rumsfeld's initial attempts to transform the military--to make it faster, leaner, more flexible--were greeted with foot-dragging and subversive leaks to the press, especially from Army officers who feared their service would lose out. Then came 9-11. At first, Rumsfeld was embarrassed in front of the president by the Pentagon's slow and tentative response. When George W. Bush declared that he wanted "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan to chase out the Taliban, the CIA was able to infiltrate a team of paramilitaries within about two weeks. But the Pentagon planners floundered. The armed services protested that they couldn't fly in helicopters without search-and-rescue and elaborate backup plans. …

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