Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book review 289: The Iraq War

THE IRAQ WAR, by John Keegan. 268 pages, illustrated. Vintage paperback, $14

The war against Saddam Hussein exposed the incompetence of just about everybody concerned, including the newspaperman and military historian John Keegan.

The incompetence of the American high commands, military and civilian, ought to have been easy meat for Keegan, with his long experience of analyzing at leisure the errors of soldiers made (often) on the fly.

He whiffed three times, first in his contemporary reports in the Daily Telegraph, then again when writing this book after (as he vainly thought) the conclusion of the campaign, and again in 2005 when he added a postscript.

There is not enough room in a review to take note of all the errors, but some cry out for mention.

Keegan begins with a long review of the history of Iraq, which he observes correctly was never a country, although later he treats it as if it were. He gives no sources but lists Karen Armstrong in his bibliography. She no doubt is the origin of his ridiculous misunderstanding of jihad. It is not and never has been principally a term for an inner moral struggle of a Muslim believer.

He cannot even locate the Kurds where they live in Turkey.

He then provides a reasonably clear explanation of the political runup to the initiation of fighting. But he fails to mention anything about a strategy for the war.

It was not up to Keegan, a newspaperman, to identify a strategy; that was the job of the politicians. Incurious George and his moron advisers never did. It was Keegan’s job to notice they hadn’t.

On the military side, it was obvious that the United States did not have sufficient infantry  to win a war in Iraq, and Keegan ought to have noticed this. He does point out that a 21st century US “infantry” division is really an armored division (with more tanks than a World War II armored division). Later, he repeats the observation, mentioning that while the Army was (and is) deficient in infantry, the Marines are infantry-oriented.

So they are, but they are a small force. The necessity for infantry was not to battle the Iraqi army, which hardly fought anyway, but to occupy the country after the battles were over.

There is not one word of Keegan’s about the preparations for occupying and administering Iraq after eliminating its army. That is because Incurious George and his neo-con minders (who Keegan helpfully identifies as “mostly Jews”) made no plans whatsoever. When Incurious George posted the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner, he really did think that defeating Iraq’s joke army in the field was the extent of the mission.
With a large force of infantry, the Americans could have cowed and frightened most of the people in Iraq into submitting to another in history’s longest series of occupations of one place. Since the US had no infantry, it not only couldn’t do that, it could not even secure the munitions dumps that were (and still are) scattered everywhere in Iraq.

Keegan does not even mention these, although they supplied the explosives that were used to kill thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, and are still being used against Iraqi civilians.

Since there wasn’t any fighting worth mentioning, the scope for a military analyst/historian is limited. But Keegan should have noticed that the US and Britain lost the war.

His triumphalism, more suited to a writer for the Telegraph in 1903 than in 2003, is not only distasteful but inaccurate. After the “complete victory” the victors couldn’t even drive from the Baghdad airport to their headquarters.

In his chapter on the war’s aftermath, Keegan descends into total fantasy -- following Incurious George, who started out there. After listing several imaginary accomplishments of the coalition, he concedes “the one front in which the coalition failed to make progress was in the location and identification of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”

Not only is that “one front,” it was the point of the resort to war, so failure on that front is serious. But it is fantasy that progress was made on any other front.

The revised version of “The Iraq War” was published before the false success of the surge, so Keegan does not have anything to say about that. But it was obvious at the end of the surge that it had done nothing toward achieving a postwar settlement of an Iraqi polity. Like the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, all it did was provide political cover for an American bugout, to be followed by the collapse of civilian government.

Such has come to pass.

The most that can be said for this rotten book is that at least Keegan did not waste any words on whether or not it was a war for oil. 

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