Looking back at how our folly and ignorance fanned the flames in Iraq

Summary:  A vital aspect of high performance is the “lessons learned” exercise after every operation, however painful. Watching the game films to see what we did right and wrong, so that we can do better.  Unfortunately America’s broken observation-orientation-decision action loops makes this impossible.  We prefer to tell ourselves lies, hiding in myth.  It’s a driver of national decline. The truth is out there; we need only look for it.  Today we review a book about our expedition to Iraq, now clearly a failure by the objectives set forth at the start.



  1. Review from the Marine Corps Gazette
  2. About the authors of the book
  3. About the reviewer
  4. Excerpts from the book
  5. Other insightful reviews
  6. For more information about the War in Iraq


(1)  Review from the Marine Corps Gazette

COBRA II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael R. Cordon and Bernard E. Trainor (2006)

Reviewed by Harry W Jenkins.  Originally published as “Underestimating the Enemy” in the Marine Corps Gazette, July 2006. Republished here with their generous permission.


Cobra II is clearly the best contemporary account to date regarding the planning and execution of the American invasion of Iraq. The authors have done a superb job in researching material for the book that includes documentation and extensive interviews with sources high in the Bush administration down through the military chain of command to the troops who faced combat in the air and on the ground. Based upon the report, “Iraqi Perspectives,” by Joint Forces Command, Gordon and Trainor have been able to reconstruct some of the decisions by Saddam and his war council, to include Saddam’s perceptions of the American war plan as well as the Iraqi dictator’s deception regarding his weapons of mass destruction.

The accounts are fascinating and illustrate the gross misperceptions on the part of the senior American civilian and military leaders concerning Iraqi intentions and culture during the planning and actual invasion. The book is balanced and unemotional. The facts as displayed in the text will speak for themselves.

A substantial portion of Cobra II concentrates on the planning process within the Department of Defense (DoD) for the actual invasion of Iraq. It starts with secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld’s arrival at the Pentagon and his determination to remake the U.S. military into a leaner and more lethal force. Following 11 September 2001, and a subsequent, relatively easy success in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld, supported by the administration, was determined to go after the Iraqis with a relatively small but high-tech force structure. After directing that the original war plan, Gen Anthony C. Zinni’s 1003-98 plan, be dropped, GEN Tommy Franks was ordered to start planning all over again.

The authors document the next 18 months where Central Command was bombarded with questions from Rumsfeld on why the command could not deploy more quickly and fight with fewer troops. Gordon and Trainor provide ample evidence of the arrogance and overwhelming ignorance regarding the Iraqi culture and infrastructure that prevailed among the civilian leaders in DoD about what could be realistically accomplished with the new war plan.

It is clear that the intelligence from the beginning regarding Iraq and its systems had been less than satisfactory. Nowhere is this more evident than in the telling of Saddam’s concerns and how he and his generals planned for civil unrest as well as how they would wage the war. Access to the “Iraqi Perspectives” report has enabled the authors to dissect much of the available information on some of the key fears that drove Saddam, much of which seems to have been missed by our intelligence community.

With the preservation of the regime as Saddam’s top priority, it was the Shi’ites in the south who were seen as the most direct threat. Next came the Iranians and then the United States. To guard against the direct threat, the Iraqi leadership created the Ba’ath Emergency Plan to deal with uprisings, such as the one that occurred after Operation DESERT STORM. This plan led to the formulation and placement of the fedayeen and other militia in the towns and villages all over Iraq that would contain any uprising until the Republican Guard could arrive and put it down. It was the fedayeen, who we did not know was there, that provided most of the resistance to Army and Marine units in Nasiriyah, Samawah, Najaf, Kifl, and Baghdad. This oversight is a classic example of our overreliance on satellite and other forms of technical reconnaissance and the distinct lack of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) human intelligence capability to ferret out guerrilla infrastructures within the population.

Gordon and Trainor provide excellent descriptions of the tactical plans to be executed by Army and Marine units in the invasion of Iraq. The key commanders in both the Army’s V Corps and the I Marine Expeditionary Force are vividly portrayed as they prepare their plans for the attack. Descriptions of special operations forces and their employment plans for western Iraq and later in the north are excellent. The authors give considerable coverage to the planned deployment of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division (4th ID) in the north on the so-called “second front.” When the Turks refused to allow the 4th ID to go through their country and into Iraq, the consequences for the attack plan, along with the frustrations for both Franks and his Combined Force Land Component Commander, GEN David McKiernan, are described in detail.

The initial assault into Iraq is described in vivid detail and supported by accurate maps. While there was not much doubt about the eventual outcome of the invasion, the surprises for the troops came when they were not greeted as liberators — as they had been assured by the CIA they would be — and when they were attacked by armed feyadeen in lieu of the Republican Guard or regular Iraqi Army units. Aggressive commanders of both the 3d ID and the 1st Marine Division maneuvered their units north against resistance that had not been wargamed, but the generals adjusted to the circumstances on the ground and continued the attack to Baghdad.

The authors point out that while the tactical units adjusted to the threat they were fighting, both Franks and Rumsfeld remained wedded to the prewar analysis regarding Iraq even after the enemy was showing his ability for guerrilla tactics in urban settings. While failing to understand the enemy, they also did not understand the actual structure of political power in Iraq that would grow to haunt them later.

The authors zero in on the Bush administration’s aversion to nation building and the impact of that philosophy on the planning for Iraq after the invasion. In a classic statement in the book, the authors declare that “there is a direct link between the way the Iraq War was planned and the bitter insurgency the American-led coalition subsequently confronted.” Gordon and Trainor contend that both Rumsfeld and Franks believed that victory would be sealed with the seizure of Baghdad, which had been identified as Iraq’s center of gravity.

In reality, the authors state that the center of gravity was the entire Sunni Triangle, as well as the Iraqi people themselves. While the war planning went on for 18 months, the postwar planning began only a couple of months before the invasion. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Franks spent most of their time planning for the defeat of the already weakened Iraqi forces, and they spent the least amount of time on security and rehabilitation of infrastructure for postwar Iraq.

Through interviews conducted with commanders after the war, the authors indicate that there was general agreement that there had been a window of opportunity for some stabilization in the country in the weeks that followed the fall of Baghdad. However, the lack of “boots on the ground” to provide the necessary security against the wholesale destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure by Iraqis, our ignorance of the dilapidated state of Iraqi services, and the collapse of the political system all contributed to the demise of any opportunity for any set of normal stabilization.

This situation, combined with the arrival of L. Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad, only exacerbated the problem. Bremer, in a move to demonstrate his authority and control, disbanded the Iraqi Army and in effect put close to 300,000 armed men on the streets with no jobs. In addition, Bremer canceled some local Iraqi elections because he had concerns about the candidates. Finally, a new U.S. military headquarters was established in Baghdad with inexperienced leadership that quickly became at odds with the CPA. The perceived window of opportunity was now gone.

The authors complete the book with an excellent analysis of what they call the President’s team and its five grievous errors. In short, the errors are misreading the foe, overreliance on technological advancement, failure to adapt to the battlefield, dysfunction of American military structures, and the administration’s disdain for nation building. It will be some time before the history will be written on what will finally come to fruition in Iraq. In the meantime, Cobra II is the best account of what occurred in the plan to bring a democracy of sorts to Iraq to include some of the rationale for where we are now.

For any thinking person who desires to know how we arrived at where we are in Iraq today this book is a must-read. For the current generation of military officers who will be the senior leaders in the future, Cobra II should be studied carefully for the lessons learned. In fact it should be required reading in most of the Service schools.

(2)  About the authors of the book

Michael R. Gordon is chief military correspondent for The New York Times. He was the only newspaper reporter embedded with the Coalition land command during the first phase of the Iraq war, that “granted him unique access to cover the invasion strategy and its enactment” (source).

Bernard E. Trainor is a Lieutenant General (USMC, retired).

(3)  About the reviewer

Harry W. Jenkins (Major General, USMC, retired) runs his own consulting firm, Soaring Eagle Consulting, LLC. He lives in Gainesville, VA.

(4)  Material from the book

(a)  Chapter One from Cobra II

(b)  New York Times articles based on the book:

(5)  Other insightful reviews of Cobra II

(6)  For more information about the War in Iraq

For all post ee the FM Reference Page listing all posts about our war in Iraq.

(a)  Most important post about Iraq, describing why it need not have ended list this:

(b) The reasons we fought in Iraq:

(b)  About our victory in Iraq:

  1. The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007
  2. Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007:
  3. Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008
  4. Slowly the new Iraq becomes visible, 18 July 2008
  5. If we won in Iraq, what did we win?  Was it worth the cost?, 15 July 2009
  6. We collect our winnings in Iraq, 12 December 2009
  7. One criterion of victory in Iraq: when will the oil flow?, 3 February 2010
  8. The end of our Expedition to Iraq: war-boosters cheer despite its long-predicted failure., 24 October 2011



3 thoughts on “Looking back at how our folly and ignorance fanned the flames in Iraq”

  1. I just finished reading “Imperial Life In The Emerald City” which is a depressing account of the US’ reconstruction efforts post-war in Iraq. What I gathered from the book is that we’d have probably done better for the Iraqis if we’d taken all the money we spent and had a large bonfire/beach party with it. The book is a ruthless litany of stupidity piled atop cluelessness, with a few people – in over their heads – desperately trying to make headway against an impossible mission.

    I’m sure that it’ll compliment well a book about the military side. No doubt I’ll learn that it was as big a CF as the reconstruction. My copy is on order from amazon; thanks for the suggestion.

    Perhaps Rumsfeld’s great mark on history will be by leaving a new term for posterity alongside “Phyrric victory” we may have the “Rumsfeldian victory” – when you carefully balance your forces so that you’re sure to win all the battles but still lose the war.

  2. Rumsfeld’s approach brings to mind the discrepancies between the Air Force Academy’s teachings on Economy of Force and Clausewitz’s. USAFA taught it as at tension with the principle of mass, using as little as possible to do the job. Clausewitz (Paret version) emphasized that it was impossible to bring the full mass to bear on the point of most importance, so all troops should be used for something productive even if they can’t be used for the main effort. I much prefer Clausewitz.

  3. I just finished “Cobra II” and am now re-reading it for a higher level view.

    What leaps to my attention is that the “plan” really was just a gigantic fudge; stumbling around and “adapting to circumstances” is not quite the same thing as “nimbleness” – I heard over and over again the echoes of the heyday of the British Empire, in which unorganized upper class twits would take fine troops and go in harms way, then generally shoot their way out successfully and declare victory. Here I see over and over the theme that the high-tech gimcracks were a contributor to friendly fire killings on one hand and incompetent overconfidence on another. The victorian British, at least, didn’t shoot their own people up a tiny fraction as often as the US military appears to, probably because they were operating in daylight and rifle-shot range and wearing red. But it seemed to me that the strategy of parking a “thunder run” expedition in the middle of Baghdad and letting the Iraqis run at it was as brilliant as Chelmsford’s maneuvering at Isandlwana, only more successful. US battlefield situational awareness was about on par with Chelmsford’s as well – if the Iraqis had been anything more than a rabble committed in accidental packets, if they had preregistered fire missions, used direct fire artillery, or had a command structure that allowed any initiative at all, there were many places where US forces could have been catastrophically damaged. As it was, reading about the apache helicopters’ attack – “I know! Let’s fly right at them and kill them all!!” is not good battlefield leadership – getting 2 brigades of apaches shot up with nothing to show for it – rank incompetence where you’d expect highly trained expertise. And everywhere, the “spin” and preening; it is as if half the US higher command had learned their battlefield demeanor from Stransky (the character played by Maximillian Schell in “Cross of Iron”) – when I read about the B2 bomber crew that were awarded the air medal for successfully dropping 2 JDAMs on a restaurant, that was all I could think of.

    My summary on read-through one is that the US fought that war as badly as the British Empire fought some of its colonial engagements: supremely overconfident, incompetent, and lucky combined with the obvious truth that they had picked an enemy that literally didn’t have a chance against them. Of such fumblings, glory is not made.

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