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Iraqi Freedom Confirms Some Familiar Lessons

Retired Col. Richard Hart Sinnreich
Army Magazine
June 2003 (Originally published in the April 20, 2003, edition of The Lawton Constitution.)

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 showed it.

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 energies.

—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 naval combatants.

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 importance.

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!



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