Iraq: June 20, 2002


: The debate in the United States government about how to deal with Iraq continues. On one side there are mainly civilian officials who want to invade Iraq sooner rather than later and believe that the tactics used in Afghanistan (a small number of Special Forces troops helping the rebels to overthrow Saddam). On the other side of the argument are military leaders and the State Department who believe that the Iraqi and Afghan situation are quite different and that a larger amount of military force will be needed to overthrow Saddam. This approach would require several months to get all the troops and equipment over there. 

What the civilian hawks don't realize is that the American military has been concerned about operations in the Persian Gulf for a long time, and for good reason. To demonstrate that point, below is an excerpt from the book Getting It Right (American military reforms between the end of the Vietnam war and the Gulf War.)

A Middle Eastern History Lesson

One of General Meyer's concerns in 1978, while Chief of Army operations, was for improving contingency planning and the Army's readiness to fight in any environment. To this end, he sent a study team of officers to the Middle East to analyze what would be the major problems that U.S. forces would face as well as what type of leadership problems that senior officers are likely to encounter if U.S. forces were employed in the Middle East. Selected from faculty members and students from the Army War College, the team visited Egypt to brief the Ambassador on its task. They also asked the military attach, an American Air Force general, for his thoughts on problems that senior officers are likely to encounter in the Middle East. Without hesitation, the general reached in his desk drawer and pulled out a book and gave it to the group. He said that it was Russell Braddon's book, "The Siege." It was an account of the British experience in World War I when they sent a division of troops to Mesopotamia (Iraq) to protect British oil interests. The specific objective of the British expedition was to protect the oil refinery in Abadan (which is not far from Kuwait City) and the pipeline from Abadan to the coast (only about 30 miles). The attach said that most of the problems that American senior officers would face in the Middle East are the same problems that the British officers encountered in 1915; heat, sand, disease, lack of water, navigation, and the most dangerous problems that the Middle East fosters; ignorance, over ambition, and sheer stupidity. He told the group to take the book and learn from it. They did and he was right, but the pitfalls that the British fell into in 1915 are still very real today.

The power of Braddon's book is the fact that he based it on eyewitness accounts of survivors who were with the British division. Braddon described how the British in 1915 had landed in Basra with only about a 30 mile march to Abadan. The British government had given the force commander orders to protect the oil refinery and the pipeline at Abadan. So the British commander seized a number of the surrounding towns. These places were defended by local Arabs. The British forces kept winning their battles so easily that the commander kept advancing, disregarding his objective and exceeding his orders. As the British kept penetrating into the enemy territory, the problems for the British forces began to increase exponentially as the lines of communication became stretched. Also, as the British kept advancing north toward Baghdad, the terrain became increasingly difficult to traverse as it turned into sandbanks and marshes. But the British kept winning and the thought of capturing Baghdad, with all the glory that would be involved, began to overwhelm the British commanders. The British were in desperate need of some good war news because of the bloody stalemate in Europe, and these easy victories over Arab reservists seem to be a godsend. So regardless of the political objective, which was the protection of the oil refinery and pipeline at Abadan, the British commander headed for Baghdad. 

The British advanced without adequate artillery, supplies, transport, or combat forces. At Kut, which is just south of Baghdad, the Turks (not just Arab reservists) sprung their ambush. Kut was 250 miles away from the original objective given to the British commander by his civilian leaders in England. Here the British army suffered one of its most humiliating defeats. Loosing sight of the political aims by the military in the field, cost the British some 38,000 casualties. Over 7,000 casualties were incurred in reaching Kut, about 6,000 casualties during the siege, over 23,000 casualties by the British forces sent to try and relieve the forces trapped in Kut, and over 7,000 deaths of the troops that were captured. All for nothing, not for any political objective or for any territory. A vain attempt by a glory hunting commander turned to disaster, as such things usually do. It is a lesson that should not be forgotten.

After members of the study team visited Egypt, they went on to Israel to visit Colonel Moshe Leshem, the Head of Combat Doctrine for the Israel Defence Forces. They asked him a question similar to what they had asked the American military attache in Egypt; in his opinion what would be the major problems that U.S. senior officers would face if they were leading forces into combat in the Middle East? To the amazement of the study team, Colonel Leshem went to his bookcase and came back with Norman F. Dixon's book, "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence". He gave the book to the study team and said that it contained a summary of Russell Braddon's book, "The Siege" which provided all the answer to the study team's questions. He stated that he hoped and prayed that it might help someday save a lot of American lives. When the team returned to the United States and after reporting to General Meyer, the lessons of the Siege of Kut were integrated into the curriculum of the War College. The Commandant of the War College also assigned some of the leading military historians in the Army to the War Gaming Department to ensure that the lessons of Kut and similar historical examples were being integrated into the combat simulation exercises for the students.

It is interesting to note that "The Siege" was one of the books that was distributed to many of the incoming officers who participated in preparing the plans at CENTCOM during the initial stages of Desert Shield. Like Napoleon, and many earlier soldiers of note, they studied earlier campaigns, and learned from them. The military that went into the Gulf was prepared. Not by accident but by tremendous effort in the preceding twenty years. The American taxpayer got their moneys worth, and a lot of American soldiers owe their lives to these two decades of effort.


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