Iraqi Freedom Confirms Some Familiar Lessons
Given the second-guessing that has plagued
the war in Iraq from its very first week, it's no surprise that
military postmortems have begun even while scattered fighting continues
against Iraqi holdouts. After every war, but this one more than
most, competing battlefield lessons and their presumed resource
implications threaten to produce a rhetorical struggle every bit
as contentious as the war they claim to reflect.
Thus one recent article proclaims, "A triumph
would amount to a vindication of the emerging Rumsfeld Doctrine,
which envisions faster forces, with lighter equipment, fighting
quicker wars than in the past. This new way of war poses a challenge
to the Powell Doctrine, which called for the use of an overwhelming
force and guided the U.S. military for more than a decade."
Well, maybe. But before we begin extrapolating
global conclusions from a three-week war between the world's preeminent
military power and what turned out to be something less than a
world-class adversary, it might be worth reviewing some of its
less ground-breaking but no less important lessons. For in many
respects, what we have seen during the past few weeks merely confirms
what a good deal of military experience already tells us.
—Combined arms works. If there is a
single inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the lopsided tactical
engagements that characterized this war, this is it. The U.S. didn't
invent combined arms operations, even in their modern incarnation.
But when politics and parochialism don't get in the way, no military
force in the world manages them better. In this fight, every agency,
arm, and service contributed in a way that maximized not only its
own capabilities, but also those of all the others. The results
To achieve that, force diversity and balance
are essential--Air, ground and naval forces, armor, infantry and
special ops, maneuver, firepower and information operations, logistics
and civil affairs. Each feeds off and empowers the others. Those
who insist on seeking a military silver bullet are wasting their
—Training and discipline matter. One
of the more telling but very likely less noticed features of the
countless TV clips showing coalition ground troops in action was
the way in which the latter carried their personal weapons. Almost
without exception, trigger fingers were in the "safe" position,
extended along but outside trigger guards.
Every properly instructed shooter is taught
that rule. Far fewer routinely observe it. That troops in mortal
danger practiced it so consistently testifies to extraordinary
self-discipline, the sort that only careful and rigorous training
can induce. As every commander knows, self-discipline in such small
things tends to be manifested in larger ways as well. So it was
in this war.
—In battle, speed is life. Speed here
doesn't refer just to movement, but rather to the overall pace
of operations and the swiftness with which people and organizations
adapt to the unpredictable demands of battle. The term of art for
this quality is agility and coalition forces displayed it in spades,
from the theater commander right down to squads, aircrews, and
Agility certainly depends on technology, but
even more on the mental flexibility of soldiers and leaders, and
on organizations primed to recognize and exploit the unexpected.
Many marveled at the speed with which coalition forces reacted,
from the early commitment of ground forces to secure Iraq's southern
oil fields, to the near-instantaneous air strike on a leadership
target of opportunity. It certainly was marvelous, but by no means
accidental. Military forces are only as agile as they are organized,
equipped and trained to be.
—Who controls the air controls the fight.
When all the sterile debates between soldiers and airmen are set
aside, this hard reality remains. It has been more than fifty years
since U.S. forces faced an enemy willing and able to contest control
of the airspace over the battlefield. We can't count on that condition
to endure automatically. Were it to change, the offensive rapidity
demonstrated so vividly in this war would become virtually infeasible.
The Army and Marine Corps thus have a vested
interest in the continued unchallenged superiority of their Air
Force, Navy, and Marine Air partners, and acknowledging that interest
needn't and shouldn't be seen as undermining their own strategic
At the end of the day, war must be won on
the ground. Those very few airmen or sailors who view this assertion
as an insult rather than the professional challenge it really represents
do their services no benefit. As Iraqi Freedom reconfirmed, recognizing
the need to win on the ground in no way devalues the contribution
of every arm and service to victory.
And that, finally, may be the most important
lesson of this conflict: The labored, painful, and frequently divisive
efforts of the past several years to reconcile the military services
to truly interdependent joint operations have begun to pay off.
More than anything else, victory in Iraqi Freedom was a tribute
to joint teamwork. What a revolutionary notion!