April 09, 2003



I really wish Sullivan and the rest would shut up with the Black Knight sketch comparisons to that unfortunate Iraqi disinformation minister. (Me, I'd have gone with Homer Simpson running after the barbecue shouting "It's still good, it's still good!"). I'm sure I'm not the only one who can't help connecting their chortling with the sad story of triple-amputee Ali Abbas, currently on round-the-clock airplay in Europe, Canada and most of the Arab world. (I guess it hasn't made it to Fox News yet.) Can we not accept that maybe, just maybe, dismemberment jokes involving Iraqis are in bad taste at the moment? Oxblog, trust me, this is not an emergent meme to be proud of.

Posted by BruceR at 06:40 PM



Here's an image you won't see every war.

Posted by BruceR at 06:29 PM



...two A-10 jets that danced in the air like acrobats, tipping on one wing, sliding down the sky to turn on another, and spraying burning phosphorus to mislead heat-seeking missiles before turning their cannons on a government ministry and plastering it with depleted uranium shells.

--Robert Fisk, today.

Magnesium, Bob. They were "spraying" magnesium. Is it impossible for you or your editors to fact-check anything?

From the building came a great and dense cloud of white smoke, much of which must have contained the aerosol DU spray that so many doctors and military veterans fear causes cancers.

Oh, spare me. If you don't know the difference between magnesium and phosphorus, I'm not exactly going to trust your opinion on uranium, either.

Posted by BruceR at 06:14 PM



Accept from the opening premise that this debate is a moot point. The question was always not whether the Americans would make it to Baghdad, but how long and costly it would be. No Iraqi defensive genius would have changed the final outcome.

Also accept that the American and British performance was superb, barely setting a foot wrong. No, it didn't meet the most optimistic expectations of some advocates, or even detractors (taking longer to get to Baghdad than many expected, but finishing once they got there very quickly indeed), but by any measure it was a stupendous military achievement. The most one can say, looking back now, is that the plan had a tighter-than-perhaps-absolutely-necessary margin for error. In the face of a more determined or skilful opposition than they faced, it could well have faltered, and delayed the final resolution some weeks. But just because it was not a risk-averse plan doesn't mean it wasn't a brilliant one. Finally, assume that the Iraqis had no capabilities other than those demonstrated... no non-artillery chemical weapons, no serious ballistic missile capability... assumed by many beforehand, but certainly proven now.

More on the American plan later. What could the Iraqis have done different? For starters, I'd say John Keegan's analysis is not wholly sound. It wasn't a matter of committing the wrong troops first... the order really didn't matter. Saving your best forces for last (as Hannibal did at Zama) was by itself not an Iraqi failing, as Keegan states... it was where they were grouped and committed, and how much preparation had been made in advance that failed them.

Much has been made of the Iraqis supposedly learning the lessons of the First Gulf War. And in one respect, they did... they stayed out of the desert, where the Americans were unbeatable. So much, so good. But they also learned some wrong lessons. They apparently concluded that positional defense (ie, trenches and mines and barbed wire) was useless. They apparently also learned that the American move would be telegraphed by weeks of air attack, and so concealment early on was more important than preparation. This, ultimately, is what failed them.

Positional defences in the middle of the desert would have failed, just as before. But the Americans still had one major obstacle to cross, one the Iraqis chose not to defend. The key to the Iraqi position was the line of the Euphrates, from Basra to the outskirts of Baghdad. To the west, it's all desert. To the east, it's all farmland. To get to Baghdad, it had to be crossed. That, as Keegan rightly says, meant bridges. Any successful Iraqi defence depended utterly on holding that riverline.

To hold that line, minus the troops needed to hold the Iranian border, Baghdad itself, and the Kurdish north, the Iraqis had basically 3 good Guard divisions, 2 poor Guard divisions, and 3 regular army divisions. They had to defend five potential crossing sites, in order of closeness to Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf, Samawah, Nasariyah, and Basra. There could be multiple bridges at each one, and in most cases the city itself was on the wrong side of the river, but those are the general geographic locations. The Americans needed one of them to progress.

The tactical answer then, would be to drop all but one bridge per location right at the war's outset, and arrange the defense with one division per crossing point, with the good Guard divisions in reserve. The aim could be clearly communicated to all ranks... hold the line of the Euphrates. Abandon the desert to them, but when they cross, counterattack. At Karbala, the last point, where the desert and Baghdad's environs are closest, the bottleneck would have to be made into one long, Kursk-like obstacle.

3rd Mech Inf Div could still have flank marched through the desert, but the Marines in particular were more or less road-bound. The sight of their relatively fragile Amtracs in Baghdad is a testament to how much of their previous driving was done on asphalt. If they'd had to take 3rd Mech's route, they'd never have made it. That meant the Marines had to prevail on a bridge crossing, presumably in the Nasariyah sector, to get anywhere at all. 3rd Mech, meanwhile, would have had the choice of an opposed bridge crossing somewhere else (Najaf or Samawah) or forcing the breach at Karbala. Would they have, eventually? Of course. But a Euphrates defense might have held up the Americans another month, and inflicted several hundred more fatalities to their forces.

Instead, the Iraqis seem to have left the river more or less open, in an apparent attempt to invite the Americans to advance through the farmland of Mesopotamia proper, and engage them only there or within the cities. Basra had two divisions, in part the reason it held out as long as it did, but the other three crossing points seem to have had no more than one regular infantry division (the 11th) split between Samawah and Nasariyah, and nothing at all at Najaf. That's a screen, not a defense. The idea was apparently that, if they left the door open and the Americans walked in, rear area insurrection and popular resistance in the populated areas would then slow them down: basically they were counting on a Mao-style guerilla resistance. That the country's leadership thought their people were so enamoured of the status quo that they'd fight for it can only be put down to mass delusion on their part. But even if that were the plan, Karbala still needed to be their corkstopper, that prevented the advance all the way through the desert to the Euphrates bridges a few miles down the road from Baghdad airport... it was defended by about the right sized force, a poor Guard division (the Nebuchadnezzar) with an armored division in reserve, but there were evidently no defensive preparations made at all. This can only be attributable to the Iraqis thinking they had more time than they did to finalize their preparations... or perhaps a conviction based on the last war's experience that if they awaited the attack in a defensive position, the American M1s would just bury them alive again.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond argued that the devastating Spanish victories over North American tribes had just as much to do with cultural memory retention through mechanisms such as writing, and more adaptive learning processes, that were just as much of a Spanish advantage as, well, guns, germs and steel. (He cited Pizarro's greatest military victory, which was basically a replay of the Trojan Horse scenario so obvious it would have been evident to any well-read European, but appeared to be a first-time event for the Incas.) In this rematch between America and Iraq, much will be made about differences in training, equipment, motivation. Spare at least a partial consideration, though, for the differences in learning. Democracies learn from experience better than dictatorships just generally... and the American military lessons-learned ability (enshrined in institutions like Leavenworth and Fort Irwin) is the most powerful of any nation's since World War 2. The Americans took one objective experience, the first Gulf War in 1991 and analysed and reanalysed and hypothesized iteratively to come up with the ideal solution this time. The Iraqis apparently took some idiosyncratic and subjective evaluations of why they lost, and learned only how to lose again, in a new way.

Posted by BruceR at 05:41 PM

AVE News today a former


News today a former Canadian reservist, now a Marine, is among those killed in Iraq. May his family find peace.

UPDATE: A Canadian Red Cross worker in Baghdad is also missing, after getting caught in crossfire.

Posted by BruceR at 11:02 AM