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How Coalition Forces Won the Iraq War - 2003-04-28

MR. MORALES: The Iraq war began a little more than a month ago. The "shock and awe" campaign started on March 20th with allied air strikes against leadership targets as US and British forces rolled across the border from Kuwait.

On April 5th, American heavy armor penetrated Baghdad. And today, what fighting remains is largely mopping-up pockets of resistance as the U-S leads the post-war reconstruction of Iraq.

How was the war won so quickly? And what are the lessons to be learned?

Joining me to examine the Iraq war are: military strategist, retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters; and military historian Victor Davis Hanson of California State University in Fresno, Califronia.

Victor Hanson, let me begin with you. In your view, what was the key factor in the coalition victory in Iraq?

MR. HANSON: I think it was the ability to start the ground war almost simultaneously with the air war that gave some tactical surprise, when it was hard to achieve surprise because of the past record in Afghanistan and Kosovo, where we didn't use sizeable numbers of ground troops. It saved the infrastructure. It undermined the Iraqi command-and-control. And it gave some powerful messages that we still could act without our allies, such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia. We sort of envisioned the Iraqis -- the Baathists -- as a snake of sorts that was coiled around the Tigris and Euphrates Valley, and rather than just hacking at the coils, we went straight to Baghdad and tried to decapitate it.

MR. MORALES: Ralph Peters, let me put that same question to you.

MR. PETERS: I certainly agree with everything that has just been said as far as the operational factors go, but I think there is something even beyond that. This really was a civilizational victory. Whether or not you subscribe to the idea of a clash of civilizations, we just saw the crash of a military civilization. The Iraqis have been ridiculed for having no plan or a bad plan. But if you look at it analytically, the Iraqis actually had a classic defensive plan. But it was an industrial age/modern era plan, basically -- the kind of plan that the Russians had for the defense of Moscow. And the US military was fighting as a post-modern, post-industrial force.

On some level, this was even an informational victory. The striking thing to me was the informational freedom, the rapidity with which intelligence of unprecedented accuracy, not perfect but much better than anything before, was able to flash around the battlefield, the speed with which we could make decisions. And at the same time, you had the Iraqis hoarding the tiny bits of inaccurate information they had.

I think the most striking vignette of the entire war to me was when the 3rd Infantry Division did its first "thunder run," its first raid into downtown Baghdad, and they captured an Iraqi colonel of the Republican Guard, a divisional chief-of-staff, a very important man for the defense of Baghdad, who was just driving in his car. And he was astonished to see American tanks roll up on him. And he told those who captured him that he had been told by his own superiors in Baghdad that the American troops were still 100 kilometers or 60 miles away. And I think that gives you a perfect example of the contrast between the militaries -- informational freedom versus controlled information. Informational freedom will win every time.

MR. HANSON: I agree. And I think these differences, or these fault lines, go back to some different approaches to culture, economics, politics and society, that have their roots way back in the millennia -- that Western society has always had a greater propensity to allow freedom and rationalism, and that ideas not be so deeply embedded in religion or philosophy or politics [and therfore information not be so controlled by a hierarchy of power].

Our commanders gave news briefings and took a torrent of questions from reporters. Mr. [Mohammed Saeed] al-Sahaf, so-called "Baghdad Bob," gave censored answers to reporters who paid really bribery or blackmail to be in the Palestine Hotel. So there were these large, fundamental differences that actually turned up on the battlefield.

The greatest problem we have is with the sheer lethality of US forces and with communications that are so instantaneous that a 22-year-old really now, in a split-second decision, has the lives of literally hundreds of his friends in his power with one mistaken push on a button. I think 20% or so of the casualties were from friendly fire. So we are becoming so lethal in a geometric sense that it's almost impossible for our allies to work with us. And we can be almost as lethal to ourselves as the enemy is. And that's something I think we're going to have to think about very carefully. Do we want to take technology to the nth theoretical degree when it may not translate on the battlefield necessarily into a safer environment?

MR. MORALES: Professor Hanson, let me stay with you for just a moment. Early on, a lot of people voiced concerns about what they saw as an over-reliance on high-technology weapons and perhaps not enough emphasis on men and materiel on the ground in order to win the war quickly. Were those concerns valid?

MR. HANSON: I was one who was very critical of people who were criticizing the Bush administration for that pause [in the advance toward Baghdad because of a sand storm and attacks on coalition supply lines]. I kept thinking that 300 miles in eight days is something we haven't seen since the Germans went into the Ardennes or Patton went to the Siegfried Line. All of those rapid assaults stalled. This really didn't stall. There was a sand storm, a few hours of resupply, but it was absolutely quite amazing. So, I thought this idea of "in-echelon" resupply and adding troops as you go, continually feeding them, rather than staging them in one vulnerable place, was quite unusual.

MR. PETERS: I disagree on that. Based upon what I'm hearing and continue to hear from my friends in the Gulf and who are in Baghdad right now, there weren't enough troops. There weren't enough troops, for instance, both to go into Baghdad and to push on immediately to Tikrit. We couldn't seal the Syrian border in time. It also made it difficult to secure supply lines. There was an operational pause.

But perhaps the worst penalty was actually after we got into Baghdad. We didn't have enough troops to put a presence throughout the city and to deter the looting. Now some of the looting was inevitable. But the destruction of the National Museum of Antiquities, the looting of the hospitals, events of that nature, cost us tremendous goodwill. And I think we are foolish if we don't think that matters.

Even now, we don't have enough people to have a presence throughout Iraq -- and sheer presence matters. And so even as the aircraft carriers and the aircraft come home, you still have more than 100,000 Marines and soldiers remaining in the area. And we're going to be there in those numbers for a few months to come, certainly in the tens-of-thousands for months and perhaps years to come.

MR. MORALES: We have just a few seconds left and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with Victor David Hanson: In your view, what is the number one military lesson learned in Iraq?

MR. HANSON: I think the lesson is that there is no way to accurately gauge what the United States is going to do and that these old inter-service rivalries between the Army, Navy and Air Force are going to become sort of redundant and less important as the military starts to function as a far more integrated unit.

MR. MORALES: And Ralph Peters, the last word to you.

MR. PETERS: Mine is on a related note. The real lesson to me was that joint forces -- a combined, balanced military -- is important. We need balance. And the arguments -- and you're hearing them already -- that the Air Force won the war; no, it was the Army -- are just a disservice to our country. All of the services played indispensable roles. Without any of those services, including the Navy, it would have been much tougher to do this campaign. So, the real lesson is that we need balanced forces, balance also between technology and personnel. Numbers matter. But I'm not sure it's a lesson that Washington is going to learn.

MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we'll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: military historian Victor Davis Hanson of California State University in Fresno; and military strategist, retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters.