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Still Feeling Nervous

I was right. I was right very early on. Earlier than John McCain. Earlier than just about every pro-war blogger.

From the first reports of widespread looting in Baghdad, I've said it: too few soldiers were sent to deal with Iraq. It seems the US military wholeheartedly agrees.

From a survey of 3,400 military officers holding the rank of Major (or equivalent) or above, in Foreign Policy Magazine:

Five years into the war in Iraq, the index’s officers have an overwhelmingly negative view of many of the most important early decisions that have shaped the war’s course. They believe more troops were needed on the ground at the start of the fighting. They believe disbanding the Iraqi military was a mistake.

In fact, asked to grade a set of the war’s most prominent command decisions on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning the decision had a positive impact and 1 meaning the decision had a negative impact, the officers give troop levels at the start of the war a 3.3 and judge the order to disband the Iraqi military at 3.1, lower than any other policy decision measured.

It's a theme I've returned to several times here. In part because I'm still irritated at being on the receiving end of jeers and catcalls from the CJB's -- Chin-Jutting Bloggers -- even well into 2006.

And in part I go back to it because I still read bits of magical thinking on this issue. I still read people who cannot quite come to grips with the fact that US strategy in Iraq was flawed, that Donald Rumsfeld was not only incompetent but stubbornly so, and that the CJB's, by shouting down criticism in the name of patriotism, did the military, and this country, a disservice.

I'm still not sure that people have gotten past the desire for a sort of Harry Potter magic spell approach to wars. Victorianus!

I did not, back in 2003, believe disbanding the Iraqi Army was mistake. I didn't catch that. And I'm still not sure that was the best move given the relatively bloodless course of battle to that point. We'd have been using a largely intact Sunni force to maintain order in a Shiite country.

I had a different perspective on the Iraqi Army: I thought it was a mistake not to kill a lot more of them. I thought the lightning thrust to bring about a quick resolution was a mistake. I thought we needed a couple weeks of attrition, that we should have used the B-52's against any troop concentration we could find. The Iraqi Army should have been decimated. It needed to be destroyed before they could be rebuilt. Then, in reduced form, it could have been reconstituted with a strong admixture of new Shiite recruits and officers.

Kill as many as we could, make sure they knew they were utterly defeated, and buy off the survivors by enlisting them.

People, especially Americans, want to believe in magic formulas. Some easy-peasy new way to accomplish an old goal. Some clever new spin. They wanted in 2003 to believe that we could fight and win a war, then occupy a hostile country and transform that country, without really doing anything very difficult or unpleasant. Me, I don't believe in clever or easy or new when it comes to imposing our will on another nation. I believe in sledgehammers. I believe in force.

It's why, despite the progress we've made under Petraeus and Odierno, I'm not declaring victory. Because we're winning in part by being clever, by being subtle, by manipulating. We're winning on the back of politics and the exploitation of rivalries. And it may yet work. I hope it does. But the problem I have is that the Shiite militias have not been defeated, they've just stepped aside. And the Sunni Awakening forces who help us today have also not really been defeated, not in their minds, not when they are now aiding us, pulling our bacon out of the fire. The Iranians surely have not been defeated.

It bothers me having so many ex-foes, maybe-foes, soon-to-be-foes-again, walking around with weapons on their shoulders thinking themselves undefeated. It doesn't feel like victory, it feels like a pause. Makes me nervous.

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“Still Feeling Nervous”

  1. Blogger amba Says:

    Good post. You get to say "I told you so." But, y'know . . . A big enough commitment could never have been sold to the country or Congress, not with the level of circumstantial evidence of a threat they had (and faked).

    I thought at the time that I could understand the real rationale for the war, and why Saddam was the target of opportunity; but it's the above thought that has now convinced me it was a huge mistake. Another way of putting it is that anyone blind enough to go ahead and do it was bound to blow it.

    Of course, I also think the surge is the first thing they've done right and that it would be another huge mistake to lurch right out again.

  2. Blogger fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:

    michael reynolds:

    I am curious about this:

    " I thought it was a mistake not to kill a lot more of them. I thought the lightning thrust to bring about a quick resolution was a mistake. I thought we needed a couple weeks of attrition, that we should have used the B-52's against any troop concentration we could find. The Iraqi Army should have been decimated. It needed to be destroyed before they could be rebuilt. ...
    Kill as many as we could, make sure they knew they were utterly defeated, and buy off the survivors by enlisting them. ..."

    Would you be as kind as to put into words how many people you wanted killed as an "extra" without any military necessity at all just to make the occupation of Iraq easier ?

    If I remember correctly, the Iraqi force was in the region of 350.000. Decimation in the Roman sense wd have meant killing every 10th man on a sort of "lottery" basis as a collective punishment.

    So, what`s the number ?

  3. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:


    I've never been sure whether we might have been able to convince the country to go in big. I'm just not sure.
    But at risk of quoting myself, go to war or don't go to war, but don't go halfway to war.

  4. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    It's not without military necessity. You can have a war of maneuver, you can have a war of attrition, you can have a lot of other options in between. I'm arguing that it's not enough to outmaneuver Freddy Kreuger, he'll only bounce back up again.

    It's not a question of some magic number, it's a question of delivering a shattering blow not just to the structure and organization of the opposing army, but to the minds of the enemy soldiers themselves. We had no problem with the Wehrmacht in 1945 -- they knew they were finished. And so thoroughly finished that very few would have been interested in launching an insurgency.

  5. Blogger fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:

    michael reynolds:

    1st of all, thx for your response. You do start blogging early in yr day (while I enjoy the luxury of weekday daylight realtime commenting due to influenza).

    Going for a war of attrition where a war of movement is possible is not military necessity.The facts prove that a war of movement was possible. So we are talking about - supposed - political necessity here.

    I was not referring to "magic numbers" but to an actual additional human toll for which somebody wd have to take personal responsibility. Without wishing to be pedantic you did say "kill a lot more of them", did you not. That is not just a blow to their minds. It might even have meant a couple more body bags on yr side.

    The historic parallel is not WWII IMO. Except Stalingrad and the 2nd pahse in the East it was not about attrition.
    Falkenhayn tried attrition on the Grande Armée in Verdun in WWI. The result was a catastrophe for his own side. Ever been to Verdun, btw ? I am not what one might reasonably call a pacifist but it gives one something to think about.

    The WWII analogy to Iraq has been sufficiently invalidated by now by people who know a dashed sight more than I do. It is a real classic as a neocon meme, though. IMO it is far more interesting to look at British rule in Iraq for lessons / comparisons.

    Finally I d bet you a dozen of my favourite Romeo e Julieta that Freddy Krueger is in the Pakistan border region somewhere, probably sheltered by some tribal elders who take money from all sides as long as they can.

  6. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    I have young kids who need to be driven to school. Believe me I would never be up at 6:30 am of my own free will. The school for some reason resists my suggestion that classes start at noon.

    I don't think it makes sense to draw a line between the military necessities of the initial assault and the political needs of the occupation. The occupation is being carried out by the military. Planners in WW2 looked ahead to actions they could take on the battlefield that would position them for the occupation. We could have done more of that here, and would have, except that we were in the grip of Rumsfeld's small army theory and the neo-con fantasy that this was somehow the liberation of Paris and that we'd be met by guys in berets handing out bottles of Cognac.

    I don't think Verdun is what we were looking at. (Digression: I missed visiting the battlefield, but found myself driving through the area with an Austrian, and being struck by the realization that every square meter of ground for miles around around me had been soaked with blood at some point.) We were in a position to inflict far higher casualties on Iraqi forces without risking many more ourselves.

    I think you are making a moral point, fundamentally. It is a terrible thing to kill men, even enemy soldiers. Each man you kill has a mother and father, often a wife, often children. So each casualty may also represent an orphan and a widow. For each man killed there may be another who will spend his life in a wheelchair.

    I am not indifferent to the cost. On the contrary, I've always believed that the facts need to be presented to the American people before we go to war. We need to be sure the people understand that we will be killing and maiming; that we will inevitably kill innocent women and children; that terrible mistakes will be made; that some of our own men will come home -- those that do -- in wheelchairs, disfigured, shattered in mind and spirit.

    This is part of why I object so strongly to the easy-bake war of Mr. Rumsfeld's. Go or don't go, but don't go halfway. However, if you absolutely need to fight a war, fight it with all the power at your command. Win it, no matter what it takes. Or stay the hell home. And above all, warn the American people, because their support is critical, and we are long past the days when the citizenry can be kept in the dark.

    I'm with Sherman on this: "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell."

    Here's another quote attributed to Sherman, though the source is not as certain: "Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and defeat."

  7. Anonymous wj Says:

    It seems like killing a bunch more Iraqi soldiers rather assumes that they were big supporters of Saddam. Which, given their notable lack of enthusiasm for fighting during the invasion, seems doubtful.

    Might it not have been more to the point to simply tell them to return to their barracks and stay there if they wanted to continue to get paid? Some might have still gone off to fight on. But all the ones who were mostly in the army for the money would have been safely collected (and their guns with them).

    In a similar vein, tell the bureaucrats: "We know everybody had to be at least a nominal member of the Baath Party to hold a government job. So we'll prosecute those who were guilty of crimes against the Iraqi people under Saddam. But the rest of you just get on with your jobs." Presto, the Iraqi infrastructure (the parts that worked) keeps working. And their economy, such as it was, keeps going.

    Do both, and it might even have been possible (not likely, but possible) to make the invasion work. Even with the foolishly low troop levels we had. As it was, too few troops, combined with too dumb policy decisions, make a disaster unavoidable.

    Which was obvious to us, but not to the experts running things in Washington. "It's just so hard to get decent help these days."

  8. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    We don't kill enemy soldiers because they are fans of the regime. We have no reason to believe that the wehrmacht were all enthusiastic Nazis. We kill enemy soldiers to break the power of a regime, and to ensure that we can occupy their country.

    We were proposing to do a very difficult thing: occupy and transform a nation. The only examples we have of where we've managed to pull this off -- Germany, Japan, and to an extent Italy -- were situations in which we had physically as well as psychologically destroyed the enemy.

    Here's a thought experiment. Let's say we'd been able to decapitate the 3rd Reich, but their cities were relatively intact and their army, while outmaneuvered, was essentially intact. Do you think we'd have been able to pull off the occupation and transformation of Germany?

    I'd argue the answer is no. Communist agents would have had a field day. Naziism would not have died. We'd have had guerilla warfare, insurgency, battles in the streets between this group and that.

    It was necessary to destroy Germany in order to save it. Had we not done so I doubt very much that we'd have had 60 years of peaceful Germans.

    Germany and Japan are peaceful, prosperous and powerful today because 60 years ago we, and our allies, nearly destroyed them. Then we imposed much of our system on them and kept troops in place for decades.

    Iraq is a mess today, and very likely to remain so, because we outran their army and killed their rulers -- but never showed the Iraqis that they had lost all control over their lives and country and that we were in charge. We created a vacuum which was promptly filled by the young soldiers and militia who had escaped almost unscathed in the war.

  9. Blogger fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:

    michael reynolds:

    First point in re yr 09:09

    I suppose we will have to agree to disagree on whether it is possible to find a clear dividing line between the military and the political necessities. I think there is, despite a certain grey area which I admit to. To calculate yr war strategy so as to inflict extra damage in any form - human or even material is inadmissible in my book.
    Your argument about WWII in this respect is interesting but inconclusive because the laws of war have changed since then. What is more the fact it was done then doesn`t prove it was right even by the standards of that time.

    Making a moral point ? I don`t do morals if I can avoid it. It is not about emotions either. It is a legal point: War crimes.

    Is there an obligation to use military force in a “proportional” fashion i.e. to use as little deadly force as possible? Many international public lawyers argue there is. I actually don`t like it much because it means adding further legal rules to the many perplexities of war. The tendency seems to be clearly set that way, though. (Just as a caveat – I have done my law exams around the time of the first Iraq war, which I did support. I am in business as an exec now, however.)

    Military brass cd be very wary of taking a more "massive" approach if a faster and less harmful one is obviously possible. They may tend to cover their own backsides or even find a way to circumvent him if a politician orders such a “massive” approach.

    To avoid this, the politician wd have to give the explicit order for a “massive” approach and insist on it, taking and confirming responsibilty at every major point. Would you have the courage to do that?

    There is of course no guarantee at that the massive approach wd work as you had imagined. What then ? Wd you do a McNamara later ?

    Second point yr 12:36:

    Germany and Japan were extremely well ordered societies for centuries. Perhaps too well ordered and disciplined. Neither population had any recent experience with or talent for guerilla warfare or even disobedience.

    BTW I did think there were a couple of countries which fought Germany from the start. So the “we destroyed Germany to save it” argument seems … lopsided, sorry.

    Both countries were stabilized and rebuilt after the war with American help. That again was not morals or emotion. It was realpolitik, stabilizing the center of Europe, just like stabilizing Greece against the communists was securing the south flank of NATO, not philantropy.

    Iraqis never had an ordered society. They have always had a tribal system and no real admin as we understand it, just colonialism followed by despotism. No amount of destruction wd get them where you want them to be although it is an original theory.

    In the end, if you were to administer Iraq on the basis of what you did in Germany and Japan you will not get anywhere.

    Digression: I found Verdun / Douaumont impressive. I am not easily impressed. Valmy (very near) is just picturesque. If that sort of thing interests you, do go to Verdun if you have the opportunity.

    Quotation: I knew the first, not the second. Thx for that. In re Iraq let me offer you two from a man you certainly have heard of:

    «Dans une guerre, ce qui se passe, ce n'est jamais ce qu'on avait prévu. Alors ce qui compte, c'est d'avoir le moral ! »
    «Nous sommes dans la merde, mais ce n'est pas une raison pour la remuer.»
    Marcel Bigeard

    Well, I wrote a lot (my plea in mitigation being that this is not my mother tongue and your comments always interest me) without mentioning that you are certainly right about there being no easy-bake solution. I hope it does get better anyhow but my gut feeling on yr last last para is that you are spot on.

  10. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    I'll be blunt and admit that I do not take legalities into account in this case. Had we and our allies pursued WW2 according to the rules you suggest, we'd have lost. The human race would have lost.

    I am attracted to the idea of rules of war but rules and laws are necessarily enforced. In a situation where laws are simply announced without any prospect of real enforcement I can't see much point in them.

    In any event, I go back to my point that war is too serious a business for half measures. Go, or don't go, but don't go halfway. That's a decision that should be made before the first bomb is dropped: is this worth it? Is this worth all the terrible things we will have to do? Are we prepared to do terrible things, and are the people with us?

    Re your quote, WW1 was the war that buried finally the notion that morale, esprit, elan, and all those other lovely but vague French words had any effect. What mattered was machine guns, gas, tanks and sheer numbers of men and quantities of materiel.

    Just 50 years earlier, in the American Civil War, you could still point to times and places where morale, motivation, esprit de corps made a difference. But by 1915 it was painfully clear that a well-placed machine gun trumped all the esprit in the world.

  11. Blogger fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:

    michael reynolds:

    I don`t mind bluntness and try to be brief.

    You didn`t get my point. I didn`t suggest retroactive rules for WWII. I pointed out what we have today.

    The Axis didn`t lose because the Allies were more ruthless. They were not, even the Russians were not. The fate of the German army in Russia should have demonstrated that utter ruthlessness is actually counterproductive btw.
    Germany had lost any hope of a real win after the battle of Britain. Stalemate wd have been the best possible result. They blew even that when they went into Russia. No amount of fairness or ruthlessness wd have changed that.

    Of course Americans do not get indicted in The Hague, whatever they do. We all know that. That is only for people from small Slav countries.

    In re my quote, it is not WWI btw. Bigeard started his career in WWII as a simple private and went to Général de Divison and later Secrétaire d´État. Ever seen Anthony Quinn as French Colonel in Algiers in the film Lost Command ? That`s him. He is still alive, though a controversial figure as his men did in Algeria what is simply termed "abuse" when Americans do it.

    Morale, motivation, esprit de corps were the decisive factors the Battle of Britain and in Vietnam on the Vietcong side. Reliance on firepower and numbers alone will get you to where you were at the end of that war. Material superiority is a half measure if you do not have morale.

  12. Anonymous wj Says:

    Killing off enemy soldiers is one way to break the power of a regime. But only one. The critical point is not that they be dead, but that they cease to fight for the enemy. (Thus POWs, who are not dead, but no longer fighting for the enemy.)

    But in the case of Iraq, as you correctly note, we failed to remove the enemy soldiers as combatants (albeit with the insurgency, once the Iraqi Army was formally disbanded). My suggestion was that, rather than just sending these guys home (without even bothering to pick up their weapons first!), we should have corralled them on their bases. That way we could remove them from combat -- POWs in effect, if not formally.

    I think it would have had fewer negative externalities than simply killing them. And probably have been substantially cheaper than what we actually did, even just considering the costs of replacement equipment that we ahve run up.

  13. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    The Axis didn`t lose because the Allies were more ruthless.

    I'm not suggesting ruthlessness is a competitive sport. It's not that the victory goes to he who is most brutal. IN fact, I don't equate ruthlessness with brutality. Ruthlessness is the ability to see the clear line that runs from point A to point B, without becoming confused by secondary considerations. There are situations in which a display of kindness can be perfectly ruthless.

    I'm sorry to have misidentifies the quote as originating in WW1. It felt like a very WW1 sort of thing to say.

    Morale, motivation, esprit de corps were the decisive factors the Battle of Britain and in Vietnam on the Vietcong side.

    I don't think this is true. Britain certainly had good morale. It also had the advantage of being able to put its fighters up against German fighters that were necessarily short of fuel by the time they arrived in Britain's skies. And they had the inherent advantage of playing defense. And radar. And the imprecise nature of WW2 bombing, in which targets were seldom hit.

    As for Vietnam, we (the Americans) fought the Vietnamese for 10 years. The belief that we were defeated by poor morale is, I believe, mistaken. (Though many disagree with me.) The problem was that we took invasion of the north off the table early on. We were not ruthless, we set limits. And we lost.

  14. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:


    I do think your way might have worked. The point was to drive home American dominance. A period of time during which we held large portions of the Iraqi army as POW's might have accomplished that.

    It all comes down to primatology in the end. To dominance and submission. We failed to convincingly establish dominance. A fatal mistake.

  15. Blogger fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:

    “I'm not suggesting ruthlessness is a competitive sport.”

    No but you are rhetorically overdoing the ruthless, no holds barred bit IMO. Kindness as such has indeed no place in war. On the other hand, not driving the enemy into a corner, forcing him to fight like a cornered rat when he might surrender is smart p.ex., not kind.

    I did not equate ruthlessness with brutality. My reference in re WWII was to the German army, not the Einsatzgruppen which were brutal to say the least.

    Admissible point about the Battle of Britain as to technique and geography but IMO the BoB pilots were decisive. Their uncritical willingness to face danger far exceeded their actual professional capabilities by far. And the Luftwaffe had just destroyed all enemy airforces in the continental theater. All that was just after the Fall of France, Dunkirk etc. It was not a foregone conclusion that the Brits wd win. On balance, I wd concede the “the decisive” and put in “decisive”.

    Re Vietnam I think the importance of the morale, not to say fanaticism of the VC is not in doubt, really. You missed a point for ruthlessness there because they were quite ruthless.

    North Vietnam ? Wasn`t there a good reason not to go in there i.e. China and Russia ? To be blunt, I find that rhetorical on yr part just like the “kill as many as we can”. Again, somebody wd have to take responsibilty for that decision. It is not quite as easy as you make it sound. Bluntly, an oversimplication, I think.

    Digression: I did think you d know Bigeard. Interesting man. Didn t want to lecture you. French mil history is a bit of hobby horse of mine I admit. From what I read, many of yr mil people are reading up on the French experience in Algeria for obvious reasons.