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America's bewildering battle in Iraq follows new rules

Repressed people won't defend their country as expected

By Ann Scott Tyson / June 8, 2004



Far more than an account of the battles and strategies during 2003, this compact history of the Iraq war manages to span the ages from ancient Mesopotamia to the recent excavation of Saddam Hussein from his "spider hole." Highly readable, "The Iraq War," by military historian John Keegan, contains both plenty of tactical detail for war buffs and ample historical insight for a general audience. Above all, Keegan has a knack for crystallizing the motivations and mind-sets of key players and how they clash.

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For example, he notes, "Saddam was never a soldier." Poor and uneducated, Hussein's early exclusion from Iraq's class-based officer corps bred in him a deep jealousy that later led to repeated purges of Iraqi generals, whom he saw as potential rivals. Keegan argues that this weakened Hussein's support within the Army and the Iraqi public, especially as he instigated years of conflict beginning with the Iran-Iraq War in 1980.

This helps explain one of Keegan's central points: The Iraq war "was not, by any conventional measure, really a war at all."

When Hussein once again led his conflict-weary country to the brink, much of the Iraqi military refused to fight and melted away. "By the time the coalition forces actually appeared, the Iraqi soldiers were gone, to disappear into the civilian population and not to be seen again."

With "few episodes of organized resistance" by Iraqi conventional forces, Keegan says, irregulars such as the fedayeen proved the most dedicated fighters. Yet they, too, were poorly coordinated. In one of the costliest such encounters for US forces - the unexpected and chaotic battle of Nasiriyah in which the Jessica Lynch convoy was ambushed and a company of marines was hit by friendly fire - Iraqis merely profited from US missteps, he says.

America's campaign in Iraq thus defied the classical military theory that predicted a country's defenders would resist attack. Keegan claims that theory now applies only to the advanced Western countries where it originated.

The US-led coalition achieved a lighting-fast victory, but in what Keegan calls a bewildering war: Iraqi soldiers abandoned their tanks, artillery, and even their uniforms, while Iraqi civilians "drove about" either "disoriented or in denial" about the war, leading to numerous civilian deaths.

With few complex engagements to detail, Keegan spends two-thirds of the book analyzing the background and causes for the war, both in Iraq and the West, and, to a lesser extent, its consequences.

His perspective on the split between the United States and key European allies such as France and Germany leading up to the war is particularly interesting. Sept. 11 provoked what he calls "a revolution" in American policy: It shifted the US world outlook from one of benevolence to one of suspicion and allowed the rise of a doctrine of preemptive military action backed by a belief in Washington's right to act unilaterally.

In contrast, European powers such as France and Germany were increasingly rejecting the idea of military action for state purposes, while embracing the ideal of a supranational order exemplified by the European Union.

"The crisis of 2002-03 revealed a fundamental breach in foreign policy," he writes. "The United States ... had been hardened by 50 years of cold war to settle for nothing less than bringing transgressors of international order to compliance by military action.... The Europeans, once so militarist, had by contrast espoused a philosophy of international action that ... took refuge in the belief that all conflicts of interest were to be settled by consultation, conciliation, and the intervention of international agencies."

Keegan leaves little doubt as to which side he favors in this debate, calling "illusory" the idea that laws will be obeyed without the threat of force. "Covenants without swords are but words," he writes, quoting 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

However, Keegan does offer some criticism of the US-led campaign in Iraq - particularly in the postwar phase. The United States government, given its lack of Arabic speakers, is, he says, "ill-equipped" to address militant Islam and the Arab world generally. It lacks the European colonial experience of ruling Arab countries and has a comparatively small Muslim community.

This inexperience contributed to severe mistakes in the war's immediate aftermath, he says, such as the US decision to disband the Iraqi Army and exclude Baath Party members from the new government. Motivated by an ideological desire to nudge Iraq immediately toward democracy, these decisions ignored lessons from the de-Nazification drive after World War II and contributed to America's current difficulties with the transition of power.

Ultimately, however, Keegan stands as a staunch supporter of the war, which he says has made the world "undoubtedly a safer place," although, he acknowledges, "even more divided."

Uncomfortable as the "spectacle of raw military force" is, he concludes that the Iraq war represents "a better guide to what needs to be done to secure the safety of our world than any amount of law-making or treaty-writing can offer."

Ann Scott Tyson is the Monitor's military reporter. She reported from Iraq in the spring and summer 2003.

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