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The Army’s Iraq War History: Truth-Telling or Mythmaking?

The military is great at telling us what went wrong but who they blame is more controversial.
Iraqi Freedom

The U.S. Army in the Iraq War, published by the Army War College, January 2019, volumes 1 and 2

Soldiers love history, particularly if it’s about them.

Back in 1863, Union General Henry Halleck asked the Senate Committee on Military Affairs for funds to collect and publish the Civil War battle reports of the Northern and Southern armies. The request was unusual, as the documents memorialized a war that wouldn’t end for another two years, and the rotund Halleck might have reconsidered his request if he’d known how monumental the task would become. But never mind: “The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies” (“OR” in historical shorthand) was completed in 1881, all 128 volumes of it. It can be seen, arrayed like leather-bound soldiers, on the shelves of any self-respecting Civil War library.

No comparable project followed until, in 1943, the U.S. Army decided that future commanders might learn something by studying how battles had been won—or lost. It thus recruited a team of writers, scholars, editors, translators, and cartographers to document World War II. The object was not to spin a good yarn, but to provide a factual account. The result, called the Green Book series (or, more properly, The United States Army in World War II), weighed in at 78 volumes, and, unlike the “OR,” provided a narrative of the conflict written by professional historians. The Air Force and Marines followed suit with more modest efforts, while the Navy contracted the otherwise estimable Samuel Eliot Morison to produce an ain’t-it-grand 15-volume descent into triumphalism.

It’s notable, however, what the military hasn’t produced: there’s no official account of World War I or Vietnam, because the former was too controversial, while the latter was a defeat. (The lone exception to this is a tucked away and largely unread multi-volume Air Force account of its actions in Vietnam.) The rule of thumb seems right: victories end with parades, defeats with silence. Of course, “it’s difficult to write a history when everyone is still alive,” as retired Army Colonel David Johnson, a principal researcher at the Rand Corporation, rightly notes. “I mean, how do you write a history of Vietnam when General William Westmoreland is still the Army chief of staff?”

Which makes the Army War College’s publication of the Army’s two-volume assessment of Operation Iraqi Freedom (more formally, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War) all the more surprising. The Wall Street Journal‘s Michael Gordon reported in October that, while the study was pushed by former Army chief of staff Raymond Odierno, it was subsequently waylaid by senior officers who feared that its release might harm the reputations of those still in uniform—or conversely provide a “hear hear” validation for the authors’ institutional patrons. The internal melee that resulted was resolved when Army chief Mark Milley, Odierno’s successor, gave the report his blessing—and penned a personal “foreword” calling the publication an “interim work.”

That’s good news, though it’s mitigated by the fact that, while the Army has always given primacy to its post-war reports by assigning them to the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH), which reports to the civilian Secretary of the Army, current plans call for the CMH to be folded into the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), where its historians will be answerable to a four star officer.

That means future CMH reports are likely to be mired forever in TRADOC’s bureaucratic maze—or, more likely, squelched altogether by fearful careerists bent on shining up their reputations. “That’s that,” Richard Kohn, emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina and one of America’s foremost authorities on civil-military relations, says. “Putting the CMH under TRADOC will kill the army history program.”

That said, Odierno was right to push the controversial Iraq study, just as Milley was right to be cautious. The final 1,300-page study was written by a team led first by retired Colonel Joel Rayburn and later by retired Colonel Frank Sobchak. It offers an unflinching critique of a military campaign fought by U.S. commanders who didn’t understand the country they’d invaded, who made assumptions about an enemy that proved to be wrong, who didn’t have enough soldiers to win the fight, who fought alongside a coalition whose forces were largely ineffective, who bungled the military’s detention policies, who failed in their efforts to adequately train an effective Iraqi security force, and who were penalized by their superiors for offering innovative solutions to unpredicted problems.

The account also offers up a bare-knuckled denunciation of civilian policymakers whose pre-war assumptions led the U.S. to an ignominious near-defeat. In this well-known telling, the disinterest of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld in what was happening in Iraq was compounded by the feckless decisions of an arrogantly led interim governing authority that, as the study says, adopted policies “based on an inappropriate analogy between Baathist Iraq and Nazi Germany” that “collapsed the edifice” of the Iraqi state. “This is a sad history,” Richard Kohn says. “The banishing of the Iraqi military and the Baath Party by U.S. officials at the end of the war made it impossible to occupy and rebuild the country. It was the cardinal error, and where was Rumsfeld, Rice, Bush, or Cheney? Their arrogance, their belief that they could overpower a small country and solve its problems was just nonsensical, and a perfect emblem of their own inadequacies.”

Put simply, the study reflects what senior military officers have been telling each other quietly for many years: that the American people should not expect their military to win on the battlefield what has already been lost in the Oval Office.

Which is not to say that the study’s critique has been widely accepted—it hasn’t. The release of The U.S. Army in the Iraq War was accompanied by rumblings that, in highlighting civilian incompetence, the review had provided an escape hatch for senior military leaders. “The after action report has become the Army’s way of doing business,” Colonel Kevin Benson says, “and this is clearly in that tradition. In fact, it’s become second nature for the Army to review what it’s done, to raise issues that need attention. It’s in our DNA. The challenge isn’t getting people to offer criticisms; the challenge is to get people to listen to them. So, you know, it’s an open question whether a study like this leads to real changes.”

A retired and influential senior Army officer agrees—but offers an even more withering judgment. While the two-volume review has been welcomed by many as an unvarnished criticism of the military, this officer argues that the authors have actually pulled their punches.

“This is a replay of the Vietnam parable,” he explains, “which retails the myth that the military wasn’t allowed to win because the anti-war movement undermined its efforts at home and then, just when we were on the verge of winning in 1973, the Congress turned tail and ran. That myth provided us [in the military] with a convenient out: we didn’t need to change because Vietnam wasn’t our fault.” The same parable is being spun yet again, the officer says, this time in Iraq: “The story you get when you read this study is that the civilians screwed this up until the 2007 surge turned the tide. But then, just when the victory was being sealed, in 2011, we were told to get out. In Vietnam, the villains were the antiwar movement and the Congress; in Iraq, it’s George Bush and Barack Obama. It’s not honest, is it? We’re saying, ‘yeah, we did a shitty job, but it’s not our fault.’ Frankly, I think that’s ghastly.”

But perhaps the most blistering appraisal of the Iraq study comes from those who have focused on its final three pages, where Iran is named as the Iraq war’s real victors. “At the time of this project’s completion in 2018,” the authors conclude, “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor. Iraq, the traditional regional counterbalance for Iran, is at best emasculated, and at worst has key elements of its government acting as proxies for Iranian interests.” That claim, a number of these critics claim, is wrong. “These guys are repeating the same mistakes on Iran that they say we made on Iraq. They’re parroting the ignorance they decry,” a senior Army officer who served in a senior command position in Iraq says. “Their whole thing about Iran is an embarrassing oversimplification, but it proves their point: these guys don’t really know anything more about Iraq now than they did in 2003, when we invaded.”

Another reason the assessment’s Iran conclusion is controversial is because the study’s primary author, retired Colonel Joel Rayburn, is well known in Army circles as a partisan of retired General David Petreaus. “He’s a cheerleader in fact,” as one of his colleagues describes him. He’s also a “super-heated anti-Iran warrior—an Iran regime change groupie” as this same colleague says. (Rayburn served with H.R. McMaster in the Trump White House and is now the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Levant affairs and special envoy for Syria. He could not be reached for comment.)

Then too, the Iran-focused conclusion seems oddly out of tune with the rest of the Rayburn-Sobchak storyline—an unnecessary political judgment at odds with a sometimes eloquent, precisely written, and otherwise military-centric critique of a war that was poorly fought and should not have been waged. Readers, no matter their political hues, are likely to come away with a simple if obvious conclusion: there’s a damn good reason there wasn’t a parade.

Mark Perry is a contributing editor at The American Conservative and the author of  The Pentagon’s Wars. He tweets @markperrydc.