Murphy's Law: August 8, 1999

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The Million Man, Battle Hardened, Desert Army: I appeared on CNN in late 1990 to plug a new book and, of course, the interviewer brought up Iraq and Kuwait. I was asked what I thought of Iraq's "Million Man, Battle Hardened, Desert Army." This phrase had become the standard description of the Iraqi military since they marched into Kuwait the previous Summer. I pointed out that the Iraqi army was a few hundred thousand troops short of a million, were shell shocked (from their experience fighting the Iranians from 1980-88) and fought mainly in swamps and mountains during that war. Took me a few minutes to explain that the size of the Iraqi army was available in open sources, as was the reaction of Iraqi troops to their experience fighting Iran. Where they fought could be found by looking at a map of the area. I pointed out that the Iraqis had never, ever demonstrated any noticeable military ability.

It wasn't until U.S. ground forces began rolling over the Iraqis, that people in TV news started to believe me. They were amazed, I was chagrined, but that's the electronic news business. I told them that I was just a historians and these "insights" were not difficult at all. That had little permanent impact. History largely stays on the History Channel.

Speaking of history, it's useful to keep in mind the differences, from the Iraqi point of view, between fighting Iranians and Americans. There are important differences, which are likely to be headlines again in the not too distant future.

First, and most important, fighting the Iranians motivated many Iraqis to fight, and not surrender. The Iranians are neighbors, have been threatening Iraq for thousands of years and can, with sufficient motivation and effort, come in and take over. The Iranians have done this before, several times. The 1980 war began with an Iraqi invasion, to grab an oil rich province while Iran was torn apart by a religious revolution against the monarchy. The Iranians were rather upset with this and almost conquered Iraq in revenge.

The Americans, despite their fearsome weapons and high speed operations, were from far away and were unlikely to conquer Iraq. Defeat Iraq perhaps, but that's easier to deal with than a neighbor who moves in and takes over. Most Iraqis are well aware that they did not defeat Iran in the 1980-88 war, Iran simply got tired of the high casualties and gave up.

While American high tech weapons made an impression on the Iraqis, these were nothing compared to the mass infantry attacks of the Iranians. The Iranians kept coming, climbing over their dead, propelled by a religious fervor most Iraqis were unfamiliar, and uncomfortable, with.

Iraq lost over five percent of it's adult male population in that war, and the population was traumatized by the conflict. This was obvious to anyone who visited Iraq during the 1980s. Thus it was easy for me to "predict" that Iraqi morale would be low during the 1990-91 war.

But there were other useful history lessons for anyone observing the 1990-91 war. One reason why so much effort was placed on destroying Iraqi artillery was the knowledge that, during the war with Iran, the Iraqis had been quite skillful in bringing down fire right in front of friendly troops. They had to either get good at that or be conquered by the Iranians. While the Iraqis are not much in the warrior department, they are quite good at technical things. And artillery is mostly technology.

Another advantage of not being a warrior people is the willingness to get out of harms way. The Iraqis would prepare several lines of trenches, and additional trenches between the lines. When the Iranians seemed ready to take one trench line, the Iraqis would retreat to the next one, covered by artillery fire.

But the Coalition fought quite differently than the Iranians did, and this tended to paralyze Iraqis with fear. The skillful use of warplanes was something the Iraqis had not seen before. The A-10s prowling around for targets sent Iraqis scurrying for their bunkers. The B-52s were worse. They flew so high you could not see them, and you only knew they were there when the bombs arrived. If you were the target, you were done for. As a result, adjacent units, that could see the bombs going off, and sometimes were sent in to collect survivors and bury body parts, took another morale hit.

And then the American ground troops arrived, with tanks that could hit you several miles away, and infantry that would methodically tear you apart if you resisted. No wonder the Iraqis surrendered quickly and in great numbers. There was no defense against these foreigners. But if the attackers had been Iranians, most Iraqis would have fought, to the last man and last bullet.

There's a difference between getting attacked and getting invaded.

 


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