Iraq: The Army Knew Better

News Abroad

Christopher McKnight Nichols is Postdoctoral Fellow in U.S. History at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is currently revising a book for publication on American isolationism and internationalism. He can be contacted at:

R. Joseph Parrott is a graduate student in Public Policy at the new Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. He recently completed a study of American military preparations for post-World War II occupation. He can be contacted at:

Violence in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since 2004. That's the good news. The bad news, and the subject of great debate, is how the situation got so bleak. So, why do the American military presence and rebuilding operation still seem to teeter on the brink of failure? Poor planning and flawed execution under difficult circumstances certainly bear some blame. However, the most egregious sin of America’s Army war planners may have been to ignore their own lessons of past occupations.

The just-released U.S. Army history On Point II: Transition to the New Campaign reveals how senior Army leaders lost precious time in creating a postwar strategy. They also took too long to adjust to new conditions in Iraq from 2003 to 2005. While critics have overplayed parallels with Vietnam, other historical examples, particularly from the turn of the century and World War II, amply demonstrate that mistakes made by U.S. political and military leaders in Iraq could have been prevented.

For more than a century, the U.S. Army has embraced history through an “applied lessons-learned” philosophy. This perspective has led to striking achievements based on the imperative to learn from success as well as failure. Until recently, the process has been hidden from the public, known only to various Army and Congressional staff members and scholars willing to wade through vast unclassified reports.

The On Point II report, prepared by the Army’s Combat Studies Institute, provides fresh insights based on more than 200 interviews with members of the Army. The report is remarkably self-critical and details how political turf battles in the Bush administration and at the highest levels of the Army and Department of Defense trumped sound military decision-making. Voices calling for planning and training based on historical experience were drowned out.

An effective and intelligent military relies on tactical experience, avoiding past mistakes and building on successes. Take an old example. In 1900, Gen. Arthur MacArthur, then the military governor of the Philippine Islands, changed strategies on the fly by adapting past experience to new circumstances. He reauthorized the 1863 General Order No. 100. The order allowed guerilla soldiers to be treated as spies (including suspending their civil rights, trying them by provost court, deporting them, destroying property held by insurgents, and summary execution). His order also imposed a strict set of standards of conduct on occupying forces to try to win the hearts and minds of the Filipino people. Most scholars agree that these stringent measures, though exacting a brutal toll, helped wear down the insurgency.

In the Philippines, the Army’s harsh tactics mirrored atrocities committed by insurgents and provided incendiary fodder for domestic critics. But MacArthur recognized that a severe strategy could work when combined with a policy of “attraction.” His little-known civic reconstruction efforts amounted to what one contemporary officer called the Army’s local governance plan for the “establishment of educational, sanitary, fiscal and welfare systems.”

As in the past, the first challenge the Army confronted in Iraq was political coordination of military operations. In 2003 the Bush administration tasked the Department of Defense with taking care of the postwar policies for what it termed “Phase IV operations.” However, most planning divisions within the Army were devoted to the first three “active” military phases of traditional combat operations. According to the report, the few officers who did tackle Phase IV rarely communicated with each other. Nor did they consult State Department experts on Iraqi society, some of whom had discussed the likelihood of an insurgency. In fact, only one Army planning group attempted to bring in outside experts when creating its plans. Meanwhile, an abrupt change in command on the ground shortly after the end of active combat operations further complicated the situation. Initiated by Gen. Tommy Franks, leadership shifted from an experienced Army headquarters in Baghdad, with a staff focused on Iraq since the 1990s, to a “caretaker staff” led by the strategically minded Army Fifth Corps whose new commander had just arrived in country.

As On Point II unequivocally shows, almost limitless optimism about Iraq’s future was prevalent throughout the Bush administration. That optimism infected Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon as well as Army planners, leading to a neglect of detailed postwar preparations. The widespread assumption that civilian agencies would rapidly take up the lion’s share of reconstruction and occupation led to the failure of Army planners to explore possible outcomes once initial military objectives were accomplished.

An interview in On Point II underscores this failure. Col. Thomas G. Torrrance, the commander of the Army’s Third Infantry Division’s artillery, sadly commented that before the war in Iraq began, “I can remember asking the question during our war gaming and the development of our plan, ‘O.K., we are in Baghdad, what next?’ No real good answers came forth.”

Why did good answers fail to come forth? After all, the plans of the military in previous conflicts have been well researched. During World War II military officers and the politically powerful secretaries of the Department of War, including Henry Stimson and the future U.S. High Commissioner of Germany John McCloy, looked to experts and precedent for guidance. Unlike in Iraq, these officials studied the successes and failures of past occupations (including the Philippines and WWI) and recognized the importance of this immediate post-war period. Overcoming a number of other cabinet-level departments for effective control, military leaders tried to centralize planning and occupation authority into one office. Eventually housed in the Army General Staff, this innovative Civil Affairs Division drew up wide-ranging policies for the occupation and deployed specially trained soldiers with language skills, cultural awareness, and other talents. Members of this division followed directly behind advancing forces and occupied the foremost policy offices under military commanders in every major city and region in Axis territories.

Early in the war the military established schools to train soldiers for the postwar period, laying a firm groundwork in what to rebuild, where, and how. Field manuals, politico-military orders, and strategic examples from Cuba, the Philippines, World War I, and even the Civil War were reprinted and studied. This included the ways in which different populations had responded to specific military actions. Officers within the Civil Affairs Division — and many enlisted men as well — took extensive training courses in the United States and in theater. Experts taught them the nuances of local infrastructures, the history of Axis lands, various cultural norms, and even offered multiple levels of language training. These military men, while by no means culturally fluent, were encouraged to develop sensitivity to the values of local populations and to reach out to them.

In WWII, careful study and the use of experts were essential. For example, renowned anthropologist Ruth Benedict helped lead a comprehensive study of Japanese society, which influenced Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s decision to protect the emperor as a pacification and reconstruction strategy. (The study was later published as The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.) Still, American rebuilding efforts in Europe and Japan, including the Marshall Plan, were far from perfect. There were notable missteps in attempts to reform German education on an American model, for example. Temporary lines of occupation gradually hardened over time with the coming of the Cold War. Nevertheless, most of the detailed occupation directives were developed early in the conflict. Military officers were then able to work from and adjust these plans to fit conditions on the ground. In contrast to the first stages of Army “full spectrum” operations in Iraq, during WWII continuity and cultural fluency were emphasized. Military Civil Affairs staff remained in leadership positions in occupied areas as the Allied Armies shifted from war to peace, creating a continuous presence and mission even as political leaders debated the future of the Axis nations.

How is it possible that U.S. military planners for Iraq didn’t learn from the past? By documenting the miscalculations, political blunders, and poor planning that made a complicated situation in Iraq incalculably worse, the Army historians writing in On Point II rightly validate the lessons of the past. Will tomorrow’s Army learn them?

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/28/2008

Interesting article of cold analysis where the moral and international legal ramifications are left to others to contemplate. The fact that the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter under occupation are defined by Nurmeberg as the worst of the crimes committed--aggresive war. The ones that German & Japanese high officials were found guilty and hung from the neck until dead. But that is only if you country loses. If you win, like the USSR, nothing happens.

There is no way to win in a war crime. Doing evil 'better' doesn't help your case! However taking control of the geo-strategic and resources can be very fruitful as it has been for the likes of Halliberton, KBR and Blackwater.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/28/2008

War and occupation are always a messy business, including the occupation of the Deep South by the U.S. Army from 1865 to 1877--and whoever planned that one should have been shot.

Raul A Garcia - 7/28/2008

If the U.S. army, or any other army, hardly ever gets any campaign done comprehensively without setbacks, how can it be hoped that it will achieve a civic-social construction completely effectively in a post-war scenario? Certainly from the vantage point of a taxpayer funding such enterprises is a very long ruinous prospect. It must be admitted that both Gulf wars were extremely effective if we just limit this analysis to the military engagements themselves. The rehabilitation of an entire nation, one historically fractured and still historically young, is clearly beyond the scope of a few army planners and some cultural specialists. There is no "one size fits all" template of war/renewal; post-WWII Europe is not the early 20th century Phillipines, and there is little resemblance to Japan or Iraq.

William Marina - 7/27/2008

An excellent piece if one assumes the US Army has carte blanche authority to intervene anywhere on the planet, beginning with a crusade to "Free Cuba," and then annexing the PI, where Spain, as also with Cuba, had already been working toward a policy of autonomy.
Ah, but God told McKinley to take the Islands, just as he now, more recently, talks to GWB.
Your analysis leaves out a great deal.
My own analysis is based partly on the Index I did many years ago, in the Nat'l Archives, of the 92 reels of microfilm on the Phil.Insurgent Records, and a chapter on Taft in J. Denson, ed., Reassessing the Presidency, and see other articles at, as well as my dissertation on the Opponents of Empire.
We used a more brutal version of the water "cure" back then, and the insurgents lacked weapons for a number of reasons, not true in Iraq. Also, the investigation of this in the Senate was hushed up.
To be brief, we also promised the PI independence, as even an Imperialist like TR had by 1906 concluded the Islands were our "Achilles Heel" with respect to Japan.
How long do you think the US Army will have to be in Iraq practicing your Imperial formulae?
Is Iraq independent? I rather think not.
Where will the money come from to do what you propose?
PS: It would have been helpful had you provided a link to the Army study which forms the core of your analysis.
William Marina