Assessing the Conflict in Iraq

Article excerpt

Byline: Mackubin Thomas Owens, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the immediate wake of the first Gulf War, a number of "instant analyses" of the conflict were published. Some were better than others, but in general, they were not very good. An expert analysis of the decisions and a detailed description of the framework within which they were made had to await the publication of "The Generals' War" by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor.

Mr. Gordon and Mr. Trainor are at work on a book about Operation Iraqi Freedom, but this time we don't have to wait for a first-rate description and analysis of that conflict, thanks to the publication of "The Iraq War: A Military History," written by the first-rate military historian Williamson Murray and by retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, Jr., who brings not only his operational experience to the book but a Ph.D. in history from Duke University.

Mr. Murray and Mr. Scales are proponents of what has been termed the "new military history," an approach that places decisions about policy and strategy into their social and political context. War, after all, does not occur in a vacuum.

The authors are also "Clausewitzians": They take their analytical bearings from the Prussian "philosopher of war" Carl von Clausewitz who taught, among other things, the subordination of war to political purposes; the persistence of "general friction" as a structural component of combat; and the seeming impossibility of eliminating uncertainty from war. In the past the authors have cited increasing evidence suggesting that war is by nature a "non-linear" phenomenon.

"The Iraq War" is arranged topically. It begins with a discussion of the 1991 Gulf War. Then it addresses the origins of the recent war and the military potential of both sides. It deals separately with the ground campaign in southern Iraq, the British war in Basra and the south, the air war, and the end of the campaign.

The authors conclude with a useful analysis of the war's military and political implications. The volume contains some excellent maps, a selection of stunning color photographs, and an appendix describing the weapon systems available to both sides.

Mr. Murray and Mr. Scales offer primarily an operational-level assessment of the war. While they certainly don't ignore political and strategic factors (and they couldn't even if they tried), they focus on the war as a campaign, the series of movements and combats designed to achieve a strategic goal within a theater of operations.

The authors clearly had access to major military decision-makers and after-action reports. But as seasoned military historians, they go far beyond mere reportage, offering concise judgments about both the planning and the conduct of the campaign.

Most chapters and sections in "The Iraq War" begin with an epigraph, sometimes from a contemporary writer but more often from one long dead, e.g. Thucydides, Tacitus, Clausewitz, and Winston Churchill. These epigraphs serve to remind the reader of Clausewitz's dictum that technological advances may affect the guise of war, but the nature of war is basically immutable.

War remains a violent clash between opposing wills, each seeking to prevail over the other. In Clausewitz's formulation, the will of the combatants is directed at an animate object that reacts, often in unanticipated ways. This cyclical interaction between opposing wills occurs in a realm of chance and chaos.

Operation Iraqi Freedom differed considerably from Operation Desert Storm. While the latter took place sequentially, the plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom sought to cause paralysis and the collapse of the regime by means of the simultaneous applications of air, ground, and special-operations force against the pillars of Saddam's power: the Ba'ath party, internal security forces, and the Republican Guard. …