The Iraq War: A Military History

By Murray, Williamson; Scales, Robert H., Jr. et al. | International Journal, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Iraq War: A Military History


Murray, Williamson, Scales, Robert H., Jr., Hennessy, Michael A., International Journal


Williamson Murray and Major General (ret.) Robert H. Scales, Jr.

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. 312pp, US$25.95 cloth (ISBN 0-674-01280-1)

Instant histories are rarely very good. This account is an exception: it is well written, reasonably well documented, thorough in its narrow compass, and insightful. Williamson Murray, an American military historian of some note, and retired General Robert Scales had extensive access to senior decision-makers within the US and British military establishments and formations that participated in the war. Moreover, both writers were already familiar with the Iraq theatre as they both had written analyses of the 1991 GulfWar.

Their general account proceeds in a logical manner beginning with the legacies of the 1991 GulfWar, immediate background to the 2003 war, a review of the opposing sides, a survey of the land campaign in the south, the British campaign around Basra, the air war, the end of the conventional campaign and then a short chapter on the military and political implications of the seeming rapid victory. An extensive appendix on the weapons of the war rounds out the main text.

As a campaign history it is worth the read. In particular they relate the long process of change and transformation that affected the US military after the first GulfWar to the very rapid success of the land offensive. The account of give and take during that offensive will be of interest to many military historians and analysts.

Explaining victory is often a very tricky thing. Was it that the Iraq army proved a paper tiger? Or was American technological sophistication and operational manoeuvre command so superior that operations were conducted at such speed and with sufficient violence as to preclude any effective defence? Put another way, did the enemy collapse because they were rotten to the core or because the attacker's forces were so materially overmatched that resistance was futile? Or some combination? Demarcation between these three options is not always clear or easy to perceive. One is left in the case of this war believing it was some combination of both. However, given the preponderance of American sources this account does not really address the inner workings of Hussein's forces or Bathist party leadership. Strategic missteps, then, are to be inferred from what transpired on the ground. That is just one limitation of the narrow scope covered in this account.

More significantly, this is an avowedly military-operational history that demonstrates some of the major limitations in American operational art. That US forces demonstrated a marked superiority in conventional firepower, steel-on-steel operations was to be expected. America has spent several decades pulling its forces back from the post-Vietnam doldrums, no doubt successfully. …

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