by Austin Bay
February 17, 2004
If a journalist's bulletin after a battle or camera crew's live shots from the front are contemporary warfare's "first brush of history," military After Action Reports (AARs) remain the sketches, vignettes and studies that give color, breadth and depth to what is inevitably a panoramic painting.
AARs are history in its most basic form, whether culled from the jotted notes of sergeants and lieutenants returning from a patrol, from the email of admirals at sea, from the taped conversations of pilots, or from the databanks of computers analyzing a missile engagement. A "digitized" vehicle with an onboard computer recording time and position data is a newer resource. The goal of an AAR is "to get down what happened." "What happened" is intelligence data planners and analysts use to piece together what went right and what went wrong.
The story of the Third Infantry Division's first "Thunder Run" attack into Baghdad (April 2003) is available on the Internet. The story combines superb reporting with AAR data. Recon probes revealed a lead battalion faced disorganized Iraqi opposition on its route of advance. Seeing an opportunity to avoid a street-by-street siege, the division launched an armored thrust down a super highway, driving a column deep into Baghdad and further disrupting defensive measures. The Third Infantry's effort was extraordinary and the risks high, but the results were spectacular.
Then analysts asked, "Why were the Iraqis on the outskirts so poorly led and organized?" Coalition forces could only file their AARs and speculate.
China's great strategist Sun Tzu, in the "Espionage" section of his "The Art of War," wrote: "Prescience cannot be gained from ghosts or gods, cannot be augured through signs, and cannot be proved through conjectures. It must be gained from what is learned by men."
J.H. Huang's commentary says the old general means "of all information sources, men are the most reliable." It is also a 5th century B.C. realist's attack on superstition. Gen. Sun lacked spy satellites. He was after, however, what remains the surest source of information: an inside human source. Failing that, he sought "mobile informants" who "return with reports."
After action "prescience" may not be as immediately useful as knowledge before the battle, but the first brush and the sketches aren't the big picture. Planners need the big picture in order to prepare for future crises.
Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr. of Joint Forces Command recently told a New York Times reporter that "We like finding ground truth." His words echo Sun Tzu's demand for accurate information.
Reaching "ground truth" includes thorough interrogation of Iraqi military and intelligence officers. According to the Times, Joint Forces Command has produced a document detailing "Iraqi perspectives" on combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Elements of the classified study available to the press strongly indicate Saddam Hussein didn't believe the coalition would launch an all-out attack. A dictator in a ghetto of yes men, he concluded he could "absorb" an air attack. Iraq's high command also thought a ground attack would come from Jordan, and based that conclusion on Green Beret raids in western Iraq. The speed of the U.S. armor attack heading straight for Baghdad from Kuwait stunned the Iraqi leadership. This Iraqi "after action" insights help explain the disorganized defense Third Infantry probes discovered and then exploited as the division approached Baghdad.
Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, coalition intelligence services tried to nudge key Iraqi officers into launching a coup. Some analysts, including me, thought such pressure just might remove Saddam and make an invasion unnecessary. However, France's failure to join the coalition gave Saddam a psychological and political second wind.
It turns out a key psy-ops gambit was a bit too good, though. The coalition agents who called Iraqi officers on their cell phones spoke Arabic too well --- or so the officers feared. They thought Saddam was testing their loyalty. They didn't act against Saddam. They shut down their cell phones and lost a key communication tool, however, one they could have used to redeploy forces to meet Third Infantry Division.
The panoramic portrait isn't finished, but a fuller, richer and more instructive picture of Operation Iraqi Freedom is emerging.