Sunday, January 28, 2007

Cobra II, Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor

Title: Cobra II
Authors: Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor
Rating: OK

I have finally finished the long, hard slog through this book. Some of it was interesting. Some of it was appalling. Most of it was rather dull, but those parts might be really attractive to someone who loves military history. I suppose I should really concentrate on the book rather than on the politics of the war. Let me at least start there.

The book is about 600 pages long, distributed roughly this way:
  • 150 pages are devoted to pre-war planning
  • 300 pages cover the war itself (roughly up to the time our fearless leader pulled his famous aircraft carrier landing and announced that the mission was accomplished)
  • 50 pages discuss a few of the early post-war issues
  • 100 pages are appendix, index, end notes, and acknowledgments
The chapters discussing the pre-war planning are interesting. It is very clear that Rumsfeld put his stamp on this war very, very firmly. He was the one pushing to limit our troops in Iraq. He was the one who most clearly discounted previous war plans for Iraq that required three times the troops we deployed there. He even prevented the Pentagon from using its usual troop deployment computer system and went over all the deployment requests by hand, himself, to minimize the number of troops and resources we deployed to Iraq. Whether you agree with the war or not - and it is clear that Saddam was a bad guy in any case - there are all kinds of questions that can be raised about the planning for the war.

Those 300 pages in the middle were hard sledding for me. I can read a detailed description of one battle just fine. I can even read detailed descriptions of a few battles without glazing over. But this is 300 pages of "Colonel Foo took his XYZ to some-town-I've-never-heard-of and attacked from the East. While that was going on, Captain Bar of the 2772nd Marine XFN took his platoon into some-other-town-I've-never-heard-of and attacked from the West, intending to take the bridge over the river Yadda-yadda." And so on. It is full of military acronyms that I don't know, and descriptions of both carnage and heroism.

Individually - based on this book - it seems that many (and probably most) of our soldiers were trying to do the right thing. However, as a group we wound up doing some things I find just awful. I'm no military expert, however, and perhaps (viewed from a military perspective) these things were done correctly. I honestly don't know. But they do make for some awful reading at times.

Cobra II, while it was published in 2006, doesn't cover much of the post war effort in any depth. Thus there are only 50 pages or so in that section. In any event, those pages do discuss some of the issues that we encountered in the initial post-war phase, and some of the stupid things we did in the process of trying to wind things up. One of the largest problems is that we didn't have enough troops on the ground to provide security after the war.

The Bush administration has long said it doesn't value nation building, and that it sees the US efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo as failures. Their idea was to go in quickly, get rid of Saddam, and get out. The hope was that the local people - like the Iraqi army - would assist in the stabilization effort after the war was over. In addition, they planned on getting a lot of international support afterwards. Neither of those hopes ever materialized, and (in a strange twist) we actually disbanded the Iraqi army ourselves, putting something like 300,000 unemployed and armed men out on the streets.

Several earlier war plans said we'd need something like 350,000 to 450,000 troops to win the war and stabilize the country afterwards. A Rand Corp study supported those numbers, saying that the safest peacekeeping efforts the US has been involved in have been the ones where the most troops were involved. Several other advisers told the President and Rumsfeld the same basic thing, but all were ignored. Rumsfeld, Tommy Franks, and Bush decided to go with the minimal number of troops needed to win the initial conflict, which turned out to be about 150,000 in Iraq itself. (Mind you, they were planning to fight the Iraqi army and Republican Guard, not the Fedayeen. But that's another issue that they ignored altogether when things got rolling.)

Now stop for a moment and ponder the reasons we went to war in the first place. The single biggest factor was Iraq's presumed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Bush didn't want those used or (more importantly) given to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. From this book it is clear that the military believed Iraq had WMD and would use them at some point - probably as we closed in on Baghdad. Chemical and biological weapons were both possible, and even nuclear weapons weren't unexpected.

And yet, we went in with so few troops that we couldn't even secure all of the suspected WMD sites and the country's borders. In at least some cases, military units going into the initial conflict didn't even have maps telling them where suspected WMD sites were. Thus, they never bothered trying to secure (or even examine) them as they went by. And in the chaos after the war, if there had been WMD sites scattered all over the country - as the CIA thought - they'd have been looted and their contents sold to the highest bidders all over.

In other words, if our intelligence had been right, this administration's actions would have made the world a far less safe place. We'd have chemical weapon attacks going off all over the planet by now, and all because we tried to run the war on the cheap. This was, to me, the biggest surprise of all: the incompetence of our elected leaders and military planning was offset by the incompetence of our intelligence apparatus, at least as far as Iraqi WMD was concerned.

As bad as it continues to be in Iraq - and I believe it is very bad - we're lucky it isn't far, far worse for all of us, everywhere on earth.

My overall evaluation of this book is just "it's OK". If you're a military historian, it may be a fascinating read. If you're interested in the politics behind the decisions to go to war, there's not as much of that here as you'd probably like. And if you're looking for data on the post-war efforts and events, that's mostly missing from this volume as well.