An Iraq War Planner Reflects on Lessons Learned

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RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP / Getty Images)

The dawn of the Iraq invasion: "shock and awe" over Baghdad, March 21, 2003

In 2002/03 as a colonel in the Army I directed the development of the plan for the ground invasion of Iraq.

Many learned people, pundits and academics have chimed in on supposed “lessons learned,” the waste, the inanity of the effort and so on.

Others opine that defense leaders are too enamored of old ways of thinking; some even claim we will never fight a war in the mud again.

Wars will be conducted in cyberspace, invulnerable aircraft, manned and unmanned, surface ships and submarines will deliver precision guided munitions and destroy only what we wish to destroy.  Peacetime “engagement” and building partner capacity will prevent and deter wars from happening.

Warfare, if it ever happens again, will be bloodless and frictionless, and of course not require a large Army and Marine Corps because we will “never again” and so on.  Along with directing the development of the plan for the ground invasion of Iraq, in 2010/11 I assisted in developing the plan to conclude our participation.

Based on that experience, and my own personal reflection of what I did well and did not do well, I feel I too can offer reflections on Iraq and cautions for the next war.

First reflection; War is an extension of policy by other means.

The great German philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, was correct.  In the 21st century war MUST be guided by policy.  One assumption I stated during planning for Iraq was that policy guidance would change throughout the campaign.  I was told to stay in my lane, I was chewed out by a few generals, and I was absolutely correct.  Planners and commanders now and into the future must ensure that tactical success is linked to what is required to attain the objectives of policy.  This is the essence of the art of strategy.

Second reflection; Professional military officers must have the ability to give politically aware military advice.

Without coherent policy and strategy we risk squandering tactical success.  We risk making meaningless the sacrifices of the Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen who face the fires of combat.  Policy making and politics is a profession that requires exclusive study and experience in how policy is developed and implemented.

While professional soldiers study war, in the 21st century a they must also study policy making because war is so serious. Soldiers and policy makers cannot afford the risk of talking past each other as happened during the Iraq war.  Again to quote Clausewitz, “To bring a war, or one of its campaigns to a successful close requires a thorough grasp of national policy.  On that level strategy and policy coalesce.”

A final reflection from Clausewitz: “Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed…Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed…”

Our Army exists to defend the Republic by making war in its name.  Of course the Army will do many things for our Republic. from fire-fighting to disaster relief. But its primary purpose is preparing for war and — when directed — fighting and winning war.

We started out in Iraq with a doctrine that guided action and it was incredibly successful.  The conduct of the war began to change and the Army and Marine Corps recognizing this adjusted its doctrine while fighting, trained units in new methods and delivered them to the war.  This is an astounding accomplishment.

The U.S. armed forces also concluded the Iraq war in a manner that must be considered a victory; never defeated in battle, accomplished objectives that led to attaining the policy objective of handing the security challenge over to the Iraqis, and departing in accord with a nation to nation agreement in December 2011.  This is something never done before in that region of the world — an Army leaving in accord with a treaty and not remaining indefinitely as an occupying power.

After the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, Robert E. Lee said that it was good war was so terrible “lest we grow too fond of it.”  Lessons are never really learned until they are incorporated into a professional body of knowledge that also transforms the composition and behavior of the relevant institution.  Professionals will argue about what to include and what to discard.  This is a fact of history.

The Army and indeed the Armed Forces will shrink in size.  Policy will be debated and national interests will be argued, but the fact remains that when the Republic calls the Army must respond, no matter the funding levels, readiness levels, and so on.

The Army must fight.

It would be a good thing if Army professionals think on the reflections I offered.

Retired Army colonel Kevin Benson served in the U.S. Army for 30 years, following his graduation from West Point in 1977. He participated in the planning for both the start and conclusion of the war in Iraq, and now teaches at Fort Leavenworth’s University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies.