To soldiers on the ground, most wars look like giant screwups. But the “Phase IV” aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom—intended to bring some semblance of civil order in the wake of the successful spring 2003 US invasion—eclipsed most running, jumping, and leaping records for military misfortune. Recently retired army colonel Peter R. Mansoor traces the trickle-down consequences of the Pentagon’s rosy insouciance in Baghdad at Sunrise, an insider’s account of his command year in Iraq at the head of thirty-five hundred personnel of the First Armored Division’s Ready First Combat Team, a mongrel detachment of active, reserve, and national guard units. Mansoor’s mission was to provide security for 2.1 million people shoehorned into two of Baghdad’s toughest neighborhoods. The streets flowed with pestilence, much of it human—brothels, chop shops, men selling AK-47s looted from military arsenals out of the trunks of their cars. GIs on patrol struggled not to vomit from the stench of raw sewage and a local tannery.
Mansoor, a son of a Palestinian immigrant and a brilliant product of the United States Military Academy at West Point who later earned a Ph.D. in military history, crisply narrates the dizzying foul-ups in an occupation that has owed more to P. G. Wodehouse than Clausewitz, beginning with the pivotal Pentagon doctrine that focused on the “shock and awe” of short, high-tech wars. Nothing in the Joint Professional Military Education system, still fixated on fighting the Red Army in the Fulda Gap more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, had trained officers for Phase IV pacification operations. And there was no end of civilian leaders who confused military warnings about the intensive boots-on-the-ground requirements of postconflict stability with fuddy-duddy ignorance of the army’s enhanced technical capacities—and, in numerous cases, interpreted the army’s cautions as nothing less than opposition to the war. As Mansoor relates, these factors added up to one crucial fact on the ground: US forces were ill prepared to fight a counterinsurgency war.
It fell to Mansoor to contend with the implications of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s glib nostrum that “freedom is untidy.” The US invasion blew away many Saddam-era controls, transforming Baghdad into a massive traffic jam and sending the dinar into a tailspin. Ethnic and religious conflict was stoked by increasingly lethal and sophisticated improvised explosive devices and extrajudicial murders, while employees of private security firms like Blackwater practiced “fire and movement” in rush-hour traffic, all unrefereed by a police force or an adequately trained native army. This was the setting in which Mansoor attempted to tutor Iraqis in civics and participatory government. The spectacle of the Ready First Combat Team commander explaining the policy directives of L. Paul Bremer III’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to town-hall meetings of skeptical Iraqis amid life-threatening chaos and destitution would be comic were it not so horrifying.
While he places much of the blame—properly—at the feet of civilian leaders who failed to plan the occupation, Mansoor also fully admits that many of the army’s problems in confronting an agile and increasingly lethal insurgency were of its own making. The army lacked dedicated helicopter support—and with troops spread thin to protect a long list of government installations, insurgent snipers occupied the rooftops. Indiscriminate return fire and lack of coordination and communication among coalition forces produced friendly-fire incidents and the deaths of innocent Iraqis. With few Arabic interpreters and a deficient human-intelligence structure, the Ready First Combat Team had a hard time knowing whom to trust, Mansoor writes. As a result, his command was continually surprised and ceded the initiative to the insurgency.
Mansoor’s troops were driven to employ what one officer calls “ad hockery in action.” The colonel charged around like Bill Belichick on steroids, ordering and cajoling, forcing the various parts of the Ready First Combat Team to actually fight like one. Gradually, the troops mastered the intricacies of urban counterinsurgency, controlled the choke points leading into their sector, and recruited Iraqis to guard infrastructure. Mansoor also discovered that a generous budget for public-works projects, a pocket full of weapons permits, and some get-out-of-Abu-Ghraib-free cards translated into good relations with local sheiks—and that, in turn, was the key to throttling the insurgency. The mystery, in his meticulous account, is why it took the CPA so long to figure this out.
At the end of his chronicle, Mansoor weighs the lessons of his Baghdad tenure with an eye toward prescriptive solutions. To fight future counterinsurgencies effectively, the US military must alter its culture so as to create a cadre of officers with linguistic, intelligence, and advisory skills, together with heightened “cultural awareness.” He also proposes the institution of a complementary corps of civilians able to assume some of the non-security-related tasks of nation building. All of this makes sense—indeed, many of these innovations were being worked out beginning around 1999 as part of the military’s anti-drug-trafficking initiative known as Plan Colombia, so one must wonder whether Central Command in Tampa has been in contact with Southern Command in Miami.
Mansoor need no longer worry about such things, however, since he’s traded his army command for a distinguished history chair at Ohio State University. In 1999, Mansoor won a prestigious military-history award for his book The GI Offensive in Europe. Baghdad at Sunrise seems all but certain to net him another.
Douglas Porch is professor of national-security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. He is currently researching a book on the Colombian conflict.