Observations from the Late War

By April 21, 2003 No Comments

The President of the Institute, John Thompson, spent most of his time during the war with Iraq providing media commentary on a number of aspects of the conflict. Some of the commentary was written material provided to newspapers. Several are attached here.

While many other commentators also made predictions and engaged in dire prognostications, we like to think that ours were sometimes more accurate. Even so, some of our comments were far from perfect as well. Judge for yourself.

The Perfection of Blitzkrieg (January 9th)

Battle has always been a contest of wit and strength. As the crisis with Iraq goes toward its inevitable end, the US has just dispatched its 3rd Mechanized Division to the Persian Gulf – one of its strongest formations, and one of its smartest.

While God is on the side of the big battalions, size is relative. One hundred men with rifles are a lot ‘larger’ than 1,000 with spears. Wit is harder to measure, but he who fights with his brains always has an edge – ‘a force multiplier’ over his opponents. It is possible for 1,000 spearmen to beat 100 riflemen if they use deception, clear communications, a good plan, and react faster to changing circumstances than the other side does. If, however, the riflemen fight as smartly as the spearmen, the result is quite predictable.

Being strong is easy – for those with the money and willpower. Fighting smart is more difficult to arrange although it helps to have carefully trained soldiers and leaders schooled to be flexible, adaptive and intelligently aggressive. Most of the great commanders in history inculcated their subordinates with these attributes, but conservative peacetime militaries mitigate against their continuation. It also helps when, besides the usual considerations of firepower, protection and speed/mobility, effective measures for command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) have been included in building weaponry and establishing military formations.

In WW I, the Industrial Revolution had provided armies with new weaponry, but not yet with adequate technologies for mobility and C3I. The net effect of this was that most commanders, reliant on flimsy telephone gear (backed by runners) often lost any ability to command once their men walked out of the protection of their trenches into the teeth of industrial firepower. It took a four year tutorial – which many commanders flunked altogether – to find ways to break the impasse; but it was only after 1918 that new methods for battlefield mobility (reliable trucks and tanks) and communications (reliable radios) became possible.

Some of the junior officers who survived World War One spent the next two decades considering ways to ensure that smart fighting could spare their nations the worst effects of war when both sides are almost equally strong. Following the lead of British pioneers like J.F.C. Fuller and Liddell Hart, Germany’s Hans Guderian helped to formulate the concept of Blitzkrieg. In the USSR, M.N. Tukhachevsky – possibly the 20th Century’s greatest military theorist – formulated a concept called Deep Battle before being purged by Stalin in 1937. His surviving protégés became the Soviet Union’s top battlefield commanders in the latter half of the Second World War and went on to promote his theories following their mentor’s posthumous “rehabilitation” in 1961.

What these theories envisioned was the use of fast-moving formations and weapons systems striking throughout the entire depth of an enemy’s defences with such rapidity that the attacker induces psychological paralysis in his enemy even before the main blow is struck. American theorists who helped establish current US doctrine in the 1970s call this “getting inside the enemy’s decision loop” – where the attacker moves so quickly that the defending leaders are unable to react except to situations which have already been changed, and which they can’t see accurately anyway.

Using the potential of computers, helicopters and guided missiles (which Guderian never thought of and Tukhachevsky barely foresaw), the US has created formations and weapons systems that completely dominate a modern Battlefield – and the terrifying performance of their Army in the 1991 Gulf War foreshadows what could come this time.

The 3rd Mechanized Division could destroy at least three times its numbers without much breaking into a sweat – particularly in the open ground away from Iraq’s cities. The Division is able to move about 100 km in a day while destroying anything it encounters – often before its opponents have any chance to fire. As it grinds forward, its M1A2 tanks and Bradley MICVs will rumble over the remains of headquarters, air defence sites and artillery batteries that have already been eradicated by the 3rd‘s Paladin self-propelled guns, MLRS rockets and Longbow Apache Helicopters. Any Iraqi troops they care to encounter will already be without leaders, support or supplies.

The 3rd Infantry Division, like the other battlefield components of the US Military are the perfection of Blitzkrieg and Deep Battle. Faster than the Iraqis, much better armed and far better protected, these troops fight to blind and immobilize enemy leaders and leave them with no choice but surrender. Saddam Hussein’s generals will be the real frontline in the coming war.

The Architect of Victory

At the time of writing (March 22nd), the liberation of Iraq was well underway. A storm of JDAMs, JSOWs, Have Naps, JSSAMs, GAMs (the Pentagon loves its acronyms) and Tomahawks have been pulverizing Saddam’s palaces and the lairs of his sinister security forces; meanwhile American, Australian and British troops have already unhinged the front gates to Iraq.

Within a few days, the guns of American Abrams and British Challenger tanks will probably be knocking on the gates of Baghdad itself while the “elite” Republican Guards melt under a steel rain from MLRS artillery rockets and attack helicopters.

While there is much that can still go wrong politically, military victory over the forces of the Tyrant of Tikrit is almost certain. There is an old expression that victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan; but perhaps it is time to acknowledge the contributions of one this victory’s most important fathers.

John Boyd was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1927 and became a US fighter pilot in time to catch the end of the Korean War. As a fighter jock, he became known as ’Forty Second Boyd’ because of his ability to outmaneuver all other pilots – due in part to an intuitive understanding of the potential for jet fighters to engage in new tactics and moves that had been unknown before. He quietly wrote up an unofficial guide to advanced combat maneuvers for the jet age which rapidly became passed to every fighter pilot in most of the World’s air forces. It forms the basis of aerial combat techniques today.

A first-class eccentric, Boyd could focus tremendous powers of concentration on learning something new and was never adverse to bypassing the chain of command and the limits of protocol. After teaching himself advanced mathematics, he refined his theories into a single elegant mathematical formula and (with the aid of some of the first of his band of determined partisans) stole $1 million in computer time in 1963 to test his formula and conduct analyses of it on existing models of fighters.

Boyd’s findings that the newest models of US fighters were duds when it came to aerial combat made him as welcome as a skunk in the Pentagon. But as North Vietnamese MiGs scored success after success against America’s F-105s and F-4s, it was clear he was on to something. The next result was the re-invention of a fighter-jock/flight engineer into a guerrilla bureaucrat inside the Pentagon itself. It was here in the 1960s and ‘70s that he spearheaded the movement that allowed such masterpiece aircraft as the F-15, F-16, A-10 and F-18 to soar over planned clunkers like the B-1 bomber or the F-14 Tomcat.

Boyd’s bureaucratic victories as a Pentagon reformer halted his own career and he retired from the US Air Force in 1975 as a Colonel, but his mind was already consumed with a new vision and his next re-invention. Boyd devoured philosophical works to give him the tools for a new theory of combat, and emerged from his work having linked Gödel’s Proof, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This then became a dialectical engine (called the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act Loop) that has slowly become inserted into US military thinking.

The US Marine Corps, who despite their popular image as hidebound traditionalists are one of the world’s most innovative and dynamic military forces, were the first to see the value of Boyd’s new theory. It gradually percolated into other branches of the military through the 1980s and ‘90s. Boyd died in 1997, but the strategic concepts employed in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan reflect his thinking.

Boyd essentially proved that the true target of a military offensive was the mind of the enemy; that it was more important to stun him with a massive series of psychological blows, deprive him of accurate information about the reality of the situation, and only let him react to circumstances that were never accurate to begin with and/or which have already changed. Campaigns conducted this way result in ineffectual resistance and induce more losses to the enemy through surrender rather than through actual battlefield casualties.

Today, Saddam’s palaces are going up in smoke, his grasp of the situation is tenuous, he cannot trust his generals, and usually only knows where the Coalition troops have been rather than where they are. Add Saddam’s psychological paralysis and confusion to the overwhelming quality of Western arms and military victory will be served.

Assessing the Iraqi Invasion (March 24th)

The Coalition invasion of Iraq will have been underway for around 100 hours by the end of Monday, March 24th (EST). How do things stand compared to the 100 hours spent in on the Liberation of Kuwait in 1991?

In 1991, after six weeks of aerial bombing and 100 hours of ground combat, Iraq’s ground forces had been driven out of Kuwait by 490,000 Coalition ground troops organized into about 17 divisions and supported by 1,850 combat aircraft. The Coalition had suffered about 95 killed (mostly through accidents and friendly fire incidents), 368 wounded and about 20 aviators and soldiers were taken prisoner.

Iraqi losses were hard to assess, but at least 60,000 of the 550,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq were captured; their hospitals had some 50,000 wounded in them and anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 Iraqis had been killed.

It was a short, easy, and one-sided war. However, Coalition troops never crossed the Euphrates River (about 200km from their start lines), only nosed into a couple of Iraqi towns, and managed to avoid having to fight inside Kuwait City itself.

How are things going this time?

The Coalition has so far managed to feed just over four divisions into the fray (say about 120,000 ground troops) and the leading troops have closed within 160 km of Baghdad in less than four days. This has meant some hard marching – including seizing crossings over Iraq’s major internal barrier, the Euphrates River. Iraq’s second largest city is encircled, and their only deepwater port is captured, as have are four of their major airfields.

About 50 Coalition personnel have been killed (again, mostly due to accidents) and seven seem to have been captured – the majority of them being rear-echelon mechanics, not frontline soldiers or aircrew. Again, Iraq’s casualties cannot be estimated, but it seems reasonable to conclude that thousands of their soldiers and party militia are dead – which is to be expected when under-trained men with old equipment encounter skilled well-armed professionals. The Coalition is holding on to a mere 2,000 or so POWs – having disarmed thousands of other soldiers before releasing them.

In short, fewer American and British troops have come much further, captured much more, and with less loss than had been the case in 1991. The Republican Guard is concentrating to fight on the outskirts of Baghdad, under circumstances in which the main pillar of Saddam’s rule can be savaged by Coalition firepower. In sum, things are going well… almost.

There are problems, most of which present some difficulties and one of which is potentially fatal. There are a lot of Iraqi troops who have been left stranded in the rear of the Coalition’s advances, and many have been ‘stiffened’ by the presence of the Special Republican Guard (a force that serves a role like that of an NKVD guard company in the Soviet Army during WW II – letting an Iraqi conclude that the Coalition troops might kill him if he fights, whereas these minders will assuredly kill him if he does not). A tactic like this can work until things become too unraveled. The liberal use of civilian ‘shields” and stay-behind parties will be annoying too, but also provide ample illustration of the contemptuous nature of Saddam’s regime.

The deadly problem for the war effort, however, does not lie with the Iraqis, but with the media. The rich and ample access to the war effort provided by the ‘embedded’ journalists provides many benefits, but few journalists have been soldiers and so often lack their perspectives. Worse, television often has no sense of perspective at all.

With instant coverage potentially available for every minor skirmish at a roadblock, salvo of artillery or outpost squabble, trivial episodes have become exalted beyond their importance as they are fed into the World’s TV networks, and important developments get overlooked when they lack the drama to feed this rapacious beast. As was seen on Sunday, a trio of minor news items somehow conveyed a message that the war was not going well – and the World’s financial markets have got all twitchy again.

This is a war. Some Coalition troops will be (regrettably) captured or killed, some Coalition aircraft will be downed, mistakes will be made, and some of Saddam’s soldiers won’t have the sense to come out of the steel rain. Get used to it; but more importantly, fixing on the small picture means ignoring the larger picture – and that is a dangerous mistake to make.

Political Militias and Totalitarian Tactics (March 26th)

Human shields, faked surrenders, ambushes by soldiers in civilian clothing, and security detachments backing conventional troops – the unsavory tactics adopted by Saddam’s “elite” troops have been seen before and their historical antecedents put his regime into clear perspective.

Many of Saddam Hussein’s biographers have noticed that he has closely aped Joseph Stalin in some ways, and the Nationalist-Socialist-Militarist demeanor of his Ba’ath Party has close parallels in Hitler’s Germany. Both Stalin and Hitler were engaged in desperate struggles to protect their regimes (with mixed results) and both resorted to some of the measures that Coalition troops have encountered in the first week of the War in Iraq.

Many Allied veterans of the Second World War have described some of the measures undertaken by members of the Waffen SS. These soldiers were known to sometimes approach Allied positions in civilian clothing and then to unlimber a shower of grenades or to complete a careful reconnaissance. Sometimes, they were known to lure Allied soldiers into the open while offering surrender, only to then open fire on them. None of these tactics were particularly decisive, especially as front-line soldiers have strong survival traits and soon develop an instinct of their own for when a civilian or surrender bid is genuine or not… and react accordingly.

American, British and Canadian soldiers who fought the Waffen SS also soon learned to accord them a different standard of treatment from ordinary German soldiers. The word soon got around in Normandy in 1944 about the shooting of captured Canadians by members of the 12th SS Hitler Youth Division, and the young Nazis of this division soon became marked men — only 500 of them staggered out of France, leaving over 12,000 of their comrades dead or wounded behind them. The Iraqi Republican Guard and Fedayeen Saddam should take note.

The parallels between the Fedayeen Saddam and the Hitlerjugend of the 12th Waffen SS are not inconsiderable as both organizations consist of young men who were carefully selected and indoctrinated to be absolutely ruthless, to subordinate all normal human feelings to an ideology and encouraged in false hero worship. Perhaps a few of the Fedayeen will survive to realize in their latter years just how callously they were used at the behest of a leader who took enormous pains to keep his own hide unscratched.

The apparent use of Ba’ath Political Militia to backstop regular troops has been seen before. In the desperate year after the Germans first invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin sent detachments of NKVD Security Troops (this organization later became known as the KGB) to ‘guard’ every headquarters, thus keeping the generals strongly motivated to engage in pointless resistance.

NKVD security troops also ensured that Soviet soldiers went forward in futile assaults and shot down those who hung back. They were also used to stay in the rear of Red Army formations and shoot their own retreating troops. The Soviets lost some 12 million uniformed men and women in 1941-45 — more than all other WW-2 Armies combined, and the use of these ‘special’ troops made it possible. For Iraq, this ultimately will be a losing tactic.

The use of human shields has been seen before too, but there is an important distinction to be made. In the enormous 18 hour firefight in Mogadishu in October 1993, the ambushed US Army Rangers soon noticed that there were some Somali women and children who cheerfully concealed Aideed’s militiamen with their own bodies as they sniped at the US troops. Combat is not a game and these voluntary shields were also shot by the embattled American rangers. However, soldiers are less likely to shoot at involuntary shields and will seek to avoid being placed in a situation where they have no choice in the matter. This tactic may work to the Republican Guard’s advantage for a while, but it is not decisive.

Cruelty towards prisoners is also a losing tactic against Western troops. American Forces have been known to go to ferocious lengths to prevent downed airmen from being captured, and there are many examples of the stubbornness of American and British troops when confronted by an enemy with a cruel reputation. Once the word got around on the Japanese Imperial Army in 1942, or on the North Koreans in the summer of 1950, the determination of Western infantry exceeded that usually seen when fighting the Germans. Also, while Westerners are seldom cruel to POWs, our infantry can be very selective about who gets a chance to put their hands up in the first place.

Signs of Defeat (April 6th)

Lawrence of Arabia was quoted as having said “With 2,000 years of examples behind us we have no excuse when fighting, for not fighting well.” Indeed, military history is rich with examples of success, failure and everything in between; and human behavior seldom changes much.

Naturally, a close study of military history can tell one when defeat is looming – especially for a totalitarian regime. The signs are clear for all to see. The trick is to see them early enough, because collapse tends to slide in on a steep exponential curve, but in this war, some of the signs have been clear from day one.

When a war is lost, desertion rates skyrocket as troops on the losing side calculate that their cause has failed. By way of example, one can look at Lee’s hardened veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia between March 26th and April 9th of 1865 – an army of 60,000 lost over half its men to desertion when it became clear that Dixie was going down the drain. Totalitarian states can try to limit this effect through the use of ferocious disciplinary measures, but this doesn’t always work.

Even before the start of this current war, it was evident that most of the Iraqi Army had no real interest in fighting it. One of the clearest signs came two weeks earlier when British paratroopers were test-firing weapons in northern Kuwait, and a party of Iraqis showed up to surrender under the impression that the war had begun. Seventeen days into the war, the vast bulk of the Iraqi Army has been conspicuous in their absence except where Political militias have ‘encouraged’ them to fight. Only the Republican Guard has offered serious resistance — for which thousands of them have died.

Another clear sign of defeat can be the quality of a losing government’s communications, and few voices have been as hysterical as those of the Iraqi (Dis)Information Ministry. Like the Nazis in Berlin during 1945, they have clung to reports of minor incidents and hold-outs in distant cities as reliable indicators of ferocious resistance, and every small counterattack was a clear sign that now the invasion would be reversed and total triumph was nigh.

Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels never had access to global television networks, but one would like to believe he would have been as amusing as the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf who assured the world that “They [the American Army] are nowhere near Baghdad. That’s silly. The lies of the losers have no end.” Meanwhile, the 3rd Mechanized Division was rumbling over Saddam International Airport and contemplating changing the name of the place as they did so.

When the senior leadership of a country suddenly becomes shy about public appearances and media interviews, it is another sign that the end is nigh. Hitler last emerged from his bunker to decorate some teenaged soldiers a full month before he died. Saddam has been especially coy these last few weeks.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Stalin sent women and children out to dig anti-tank ditches and bunkers around Moscow in 1941, and Hitler’s Volksturm militias sent 12-13 year-old boys and their grandfathers out to pit their bodies against the wave of steel washing over Germany in 1945. Meanwhile, of course, Hitler and his cronies stuck to a deep well-constructed bunker – thus is the ‘heroic will’ of Totalitarians made manifest. The opinion of many Iraqis was made clear by Nizar Ahmed Mohammed, a 21 year-old man who defected to the US Marines… “I was told by my boss to go and blow myself up in a suicide attack. He told me that I would be sent to paradise and be given 77 nymphs. I told him: ‘Why don’t you blow yourself up?’

Why not indeed?

But perhaps the clearest sign of a looming defeat is when the winner suddenly finds a host of new allies. The United Nations originally appeared as a collective name for the Allied nations during the Second World War. As the war was coming to an end and discussions began about turning the United Nations into a formal international body, there was a minor stampede in 1945 as 13 Latin American and Middle Eastern nations suddenly signed onto the war so they could get a seat at the table when the fighting was over. While only Australia, the Czechs, Poland, and the Netherlands have sent men and hardware to join the British and Americans, the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ has been growing steadily since the war began. We will all know that victory has finally arrived when Jean Chretien signs us up…

What Comes After Baghdad? (April 13th)

It is not yet over in Iraq, and any trooper who still must kick down a door where somebody might be waiting on the other side with a loaded AK-47 is not going to feel any great relief yet. Still, it is time to wonder about what comes next.

There is much unfinished business to be done in Iraq. The issue of weapons of mass destruction was used as the casus belli, so Iraq’s remaining holdings of sarin and anthrax need to be found. There have been promising leads at several sites where suspicious materials have been found, but confirmation must wait upon thorough testing.

The whereabouts and fate of many of Iraq’s former leaders has yet to be determined and Iraqis will not feel truly liberated until they are certain that Saddam and his sons are dead. Moreover, if they are at large, they might inspire continued resistance in the form of a guerrilla or terrorist movement by die-hard supporters. Such a movement could attract determined anti-Western Arabs who – despite all evidence to the contrary – believe Saddam is a ‘hero’. But hopefully Saddam is dead, and hopefully he perished miserably – sic semper tyrannis.

Besides finding Saddam’s carcass, a number of other figures deserve to be captured – even if only to spur the development of an Iraqi justice system, and give the people of Iraq a chance to know that those who tortured so many of them can answer for it.

The Americans and British also have a tricky civil dilemma to sort through. They need to restore basic utility services, stabilize the country, re-establish a civil service, let the Iraqis form endurable new political institutions (ideally stiffened with Western precepts and practices) and leave before their welcome wears off. A good start has been made on the first task, but there is much that can easily go very wrong.

The American administration has seldom hinted at what must be one of the primary psycho-political impulses behind the war, the need to let the Arab/Muslim world know what happens to regimes that seriously annoy the Western World. Of all of the causes of this war, this was perhaps the most important – even if nobody dares to express it. There are initiatives to be made while the rest of the impression is still strong.

Despite the conspiracy theorists and armchair strategists who note that the Americans now have the most powerful field force in the world lodged in the heart of the Middle East, the US is not about to invade Syria or Iran. There are no legal grounds for such a war and neither America’s Coalition partners nor its public would stand for it. However, pressure might have to be placed on Syria to stop it from continuing to operate an exit route for wanted Iraqi officials. Syria also has weapons of mass destruction, shelters terrorist groups and is in illegal occupation of another nation’s territory. Moreover, two of those three charges can also be leveled at both Israel and Iran.

Israel’s safety from formal military attack has now been significantly increased – of the states that it has fought so many times, only Syria now remains as a potential threat. It might be time for the United States to offer a deal; that Israel would be willing to declare the existence of its nuclear arsenal and delivery means if Iran and Syria do likewise, and would be willing to engage in formal arms control talks. Moreover, Israel might be (with some polite Washington arm-twisting) be willing to leave the Golan Heights and Mount Hebron, provided that Syria pull all of its garrisons out of Lebanon.

The conduct of the American and British forces in Iraq has also paid dividends – the Iranian regime has just signaled that it is time to open up relations with the United States, and can also expect to come under even more internal pressure to reform.

Israel also took the opportunity to put the boots to Hamas and the other groups that have undermined any agreement reached with Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. This is one of those rare times when an unpleasant reality check has asserted itself on Palestinian minds, and perhaps they might be persuaded to seek newer, more responsible, leadership. Alas, of all the results that might accrue from this war, this is the most unlikely outcome.