The war in Iraq’s outcome was never in doubt, but the magnitude and speed of the Iraqi regime’s collapse are nevertheless puzzling and deserve closer scrutiny.
In terms of numbers and available equipment, the Iraqi military was theoretically a foe worthy of respect. Its past performance was by no means abysmal. It suffered serious reverses in the early stages of the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War, but it did not disintegrate even when casualties started running into the hundreds of thousands. In the closing stages of that war, when the Iranians turned the tables on the attackers and entered southern Iraq, it fought reasonably well and held its ground in the face of relentless attacks by human waves of Khomeini’s Pazdarans.
In 1991, the Iraqi army was comprehensively beaten by the U.S.-led coalition in Kuwait, losing almost half of its inventory, but the crushing magnitude of that defeat was the result of Saddam’s strategic ineptitude. Placing tight columns of slow-moving armor on open roads and trying to hold thinly spread, fixed defensive positions was exactly what Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf wanted him to do. With the coalition completely dominating the air, the Iraqis were doomed, no less than Rommel in Tunisia in 1943 or Rundstedt in the Falaise Gap in 1944. The ensuing meltdown of regular troops did not spread to the Republican Guard units, as the rebelling Shias of southern Iraq learned to their misfortune.
Even after the fiasco in Kuwait, the Iraqi army remained the largest in the Middle East and, nominally, the strongest in the Gulf, numbering 430,000 regular troops and close to half a million reservists and militiamen. The U.N. sanctions had prevented the refurbishment of the Iraqi military, but, of its 2,000 tanks, about 800 were T-72s or better, and it also had 2,000 armored vehicles of other types, up to 2,000 artillery pieces, and countless mortars, mines, and small arms. The Iraqi army’s ability to halt the coalition’s advance in the open field was nonexistent, but its scope for fluid defense—passive deceit, dispersal into urban areas, and guerrilla tactics—was considerable. Skillfully deployed, boldly handled, and aptly commanded—even with its limited resources—it could have created more difficulties like those encountered by U.S. troops in the first week of the war. Hit-and-run tactics, surprise raids on supply columns, and resistance from fortified urban strongholds offered the regime its only remotely viable strategy for survival: to gain time, to cause civilian suffering, to inflict casualties on the coalition forces, to prompt third-party political pressure, and to hope for increased opposition to the war back in the United States.
That none of this happened was primarily the result of the interdependent issues of morale and the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime. That regime combined the lethal brutality of other Oriental despots (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim) with the operatic inefficiency of Mussolini. Saddam’s claim in 1980 that “Iraq is as great as China, as the Soviet Union, as the United States” was almost as ridiculous as Il Duce’s pretense to parity with the great powers of his time. His boast of a “million-man army” was as hollow as Mussolini’s myth of the otto milioni di baionette. In both cases, the ambition of the leader was at odds with the capacity of his power base. Saddam could deal with the Kurds; Mussolini, with the Ethiopians; but against first-class powers, they were out of their league. In both cases, bluster was the substitute for strategy, and defeat was preordained by the unwillingness of the leader to test his assumptions against reality and by the understandable reluctance of his entourage to question his assumptions.
One immediate consequence of Saddam’s autocratic rule was an officer corps unwilling and unable to take risks and display initiative. Iraqi commanders of tactical units in the previous two wars, lieutenants and captains of 12 to 15 years ago, could have provided Saddam with a pool of battle-tested candidates for top-brass positions. This did not happen: Political loyalty—blind obedience to the leader and tribal kinship—was the ticket to promotion, while even the suspicion of the slightest disagreement with the leader was tantamount to a death warrant. The climate of fear and insecurity has reigned supreme in the Iraqi military ever since Saddam summarily executed over 300 senior officers in the aftermath of a failed major offensive against Iran in 1982. The result in the field was predictable: The bridges over the Euphrates, to take a small but significant example, were not blown up. The paralysis was comparable to what happened in the Red Army in the aftermath of Stalin’s purges of 1936-38, leading to the near-complete immobility of its command-and-control structure in the first months of the Barbarossa.
This brings us to another parallel with 1941—the importance of political warfare. Had Hitler called his attack “Operation Russian Freedom,” had he presented it from the outset as a war against a cruel, dictatorial regime and not against the Russian people, the Wehrmacht could have staged a victory parade in Red Square within months. Stalin was saved by the Reich’s self-proclaimed goal of conquering the Lebensraum in the East and clearing it of the Slavic Untermensch. He hastily reopened the churches, invoked the ghosts of Suvorov and Kutuzov, and went on to fight the “Great Fatherland War.”
Saddam tried to do something similar, invoking Allah, pan-Arabism, and even Nebuchadnezzar, but—unlike the Russians—his long-suffering subjects knew that the option of surrendering was available and that it offered interesting possibilities. We should not be misled by the scenes of joy in Baghdad into believing that most Iraqis actually like having American troops in their streets, but very few of them were prepared to risk their lives to prevent it from happening. Support for Saddam did not “collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder,” as Richard Perle had predicted. Nevertheless, the character of Saddam’s personal regime precluded the creation of necessary conditions for the country’s sustained, patriotically motivated defense. Now that the job is done, let us hope that President Bush will have the wisdom and prudence to leave Iraq to the Iraqis.