The war in Iraq has dominated the news for the past several years, and recent months have seen several books emerge dealing with events leading to the American-led invasion and its aftermath. Among the best of these books is Cobra II, by New York Times chief military correspondent Michael R. Gordon, and retired Marine Corp Lt. General Bernard E. Trainor.
Cobra II deals largely with the run-up to war, and America’s initial military successes on the field. Well-written and thoroughly researched, the book tracks events leading up to the March, 2003 invasion of Iraq and ends with the reelection of the Bush Administration in 2004, recounting all of the major battles and most of our early troubles with the occupation. Showing the miscalculations on both sides that may have made the conflict inevitable, the authors bring a wealth of experience and insight to the task of making the chaos of battle intelligible to the outsider. And among the revelations is that few of our leaders ever considered the possibility that Saddam’s posturing might be directed toward local enemies in the region–a failure that, given the course of events in the years since, is tragically ironic.
Initial Success and Future Problems
Disturbingly, they also show that many of our early successes were not quite what they seemed. Much of the vaunted push to Baghdad came over lightly-guarded terrain, from which the enemy had largely withdrawn in the face of our superior forces. Still, the seeds of future problems were there for all to see, and many of the soldiers in the field saw them. Unfortunately, however, the civilians in the Pentagon, and the commanders on the scene simply refused to listen to their warnings. The book also describes the lengths to which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld went to seize and exercise total control over our venture into Iraq. Astonishingly, these lengths included freezing the one official in the Bush Administration with experience planning and executing a war plan, Secretary of State Colin Powell, out of any substantial role in pre- or post-war planning. Rumsfeld’s Defense Department even went so far as to punish a general who committed the sin of candor by publicly acknowledging that the enemy our soldiers were facing was different than the one they had war-gamed against. His subsequent marginalization within the Pentagon sent a sharp and unmistakable message to the rest of the uniformed military, signaling that their job was to follow orders, not to tell Congress or the public about any possible problems that might be lurking around the next dusty bend in the road.
Coming to press as our problems were becoming apparent even to most early supporters of the war, Cobra II also notes that the lack of available “boots on the ground” seemed to be largely responsible for the wide-scale looting and chaos that followed the invasion. Alarmingly, the book suggests that our misreading of the enemy and our inability to recognize and adapt to the changing developments on the ground reflect the dysfunctional nature of our military institutions under Rumsfeld. These problems include a prevailing assumption among many top military planners that invading Iraq in 2003 would be little more than a reprise of the successful Gulf War of 1991–problems that may not end with Rumsfeld’s departure from the Pentagon.
Cobra II succeeds in translating many of our blunders into terms and concepts that the non-military layman can easily grasp. It gives us a candid, professional analysis of events before and since the invasion. And it provides the reader with a sobering assessment of what can go wrong when optimism and resolve come to equate doubt or skepticism with disloyalty.