Incident at Muc Wa

About a Conflict, Conflicting Verdicts

[As matters turn out, June 2004 was a bit early to assess the Iraq War, which would eventually drag on into the Obama presidency. My own judgment is that it began brilliantly and ended rather paintfully. -- DF]

by Daniel Ford (Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2004)

"Some wars begin badly," writes John Keegan. "Some end badly." And Operation Iraqi Freedom? Mr. Keegan argues in "The Iraq War" (Alfred A. Knopf, 254 pages, $24.95) that it began well and ended brilliantly. In "Dark Victory" (Naval Institute Press, 203 pages, $24.95), by contrast, Jeffrey Record argues that an awful beginning was exceeded only by a frightful outcome. Are they really writing about the same war?

Mr. Keegan is lavish in his praise of the Anglo-American (but mostly American) machine that stormed through Iraq in March and April of last year -- a 21-day campaign that, he says, has no parallel unless we go back to Prussia's "cabinet wars" against Austria and France in the 19th century. He is especially interesting on two aspects of the conflict that have been largely forgotten in the year since Baghdad fell.

[The Iraq War]

First, he contrasts the brilliance of the advance with the doom-filled media coverage that accompanied it. The drumbeat was especially funereal in Europe: A historian of Germany's 1942-43 disaster at Stalingrad was asked by no fewer than 10 British newspapers to write about the "Saddamgrad" that must inevitably be inflicted upon the U.S. Marines and armored infantry when they reached Baghdad. As matters turned out, they overran the city as swiftly and ruthlessly as they had every other obstacle.

The invasion, Mr. Keegan concludes, was "the farthest advance at speed over distance ever recorded," and that against an enemy army twice the size of the invading force. "Daring and boldness," he reminds us, "...played parts in the campaign as significant as dominance in the air, greater firepower or higher mobility on the ground." In short, the war vindicated Donald Rumsfeld's prewar planning.

Second, Mr. Keegan reminds us that the most significant resistance didn't come from the uniformed Iraqi army, but from fedayeen (martyrs) drawn from Saddam Hussein's old Popular Army militia, Baath Party faithful and fanatics from other Islamic countries. As many as 15,000 irregulars defended Baghdad at the end -- a division-sized force -- and it was the fedayeen who gave the U.S. Marines (and Army private Jessica Lynch) a bad couple of days at Nasiriyah on March 23-24. In all probability, these were the same men who morphed into the insurrection that began in earnest in November and remains with us today.

Mr. Record looks back on March and April 2003 in an entirely different way. In "Dark Victory," he doesn't even concede that the war was especially well fought: Shucks, he says in essence, poor old Saddam never had a chance, what with his feckless military, antiquated weapons and wreck of an economy. Anyone with a particle of sense knew that the Baathist regime was a house of straw that would blow away in the first adverse wind.

[Dark Victory]

Really? I don't remember any such forecasts in March 2003, unless they came from a few of the overconfident Rumsfeld advisers whom Mr. Record holds in such contempt. To believe his book is to see nothing but bumbling in the war's planning, execution and follow-up, almost all the blame, in his view, falling on "neoconservatives." Indeed, its index gives more space to neoconservatives than to Saddam Hussein -- a curious twist, given that it grew out of a 52-page monograph in which the term never appears. Mr. Record's original appraisal -- harsh but intelligent and published by the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute -- has been retreaded as an antiwar, antineocon, anti-Bush polemic.

"Neoconservative" was coined to describe the mostly Jewish intellectuals who, in the 1970s, came to reject the left in favor of limited government at home and an aggressive, ideals-based policy abroad. It's a bit of a stretch to put George W. Bush, Richard Cheney and Don Rumsfeld in this camp. (When were they ever liberals?) But Mr. Record really goes off the rails when he applies the epithet to Sen. John McCain, Republican maverick and thorn in the side of the Bush administration.

This is a pity, for there is much worth considering in his analysis, as when he quotes the warning of a prescient American official: "If you're going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you've got Baghdad, it's not entirely clear what you do with it....How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people who sign on for [the new Iraqi] government, and what happens to it once we leave?" The speaker was Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in April 1991.

Mr. Keegan devotes just one short chapter to the discouraging year that followed the capture of Baghdad, and he hazards no predictions as to how its pacification will play out. It may be that Mr. Record's more gloomy assessment will prove correct -- that this was an encounter that, however brilliantly it began, is destined to end badly. But "Dark Victory" is so wrongheaded in its account of the fighting that we can hope that it's equally wrong in its vision of disasters to come.

Mr. Ford is the author of the novel "Incident at Muc Wa," about the early years of the Vietnam War.

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