Victor Davis Hanson’s Observations About The Iraq War


This email sent by Victor Davis Hanson needs to be read in its entirety, so the whole thing is posted below.  He is returning from his second trip from Iraq and has some remarkable observations as a military historian.  Please take the 10 minutes to read it all, well worth it:

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: NONE

Observations about the war

Last week’s quiet

I just returned to Kuwait, and have been in Iraq visiting forward operating bases in Anbar and Diyala provinces, as well as suburbs of Baghdad the last week, hence the recent silence on this blog given sporadic internet facilities in Iraq. I hope to post a series of observations. But for now here are a few initials impressions from my second visit to the country. (Please excuse the typos, writing in haste from Kuwait City)

Better News?

Almost all the Marines and Army units I visited from Ramadi to Taji to various hot spots in Baghdad and Diyala believe there has been a sudden shift in the pulse of battlefield. Sometimes without much warning thousands of once disgruntled Sunni have turned on al Qaeda, ceased resistance, and are flocking to join government security forces and begging the Americans to stop both al Qaeda and Shiite militias.

Commanders in the field are cautious. They know that if the Shiite dominated government in Baghdad stays vengeful for decades of past suffering at the hands of Sunni Baathists, the reconciliation will fail. So thousands of American officers are desperately pressuring ministries to start distributing the vast wealth of Iraq’s $80 a barrel oil revenues to Anbar and Diyala before the Sunni revert back to insurgency.

The U.S. military

The brilliance of U.S. army and marines officers has not been fully appreciated. I met scores with PhDs and MAs, from Majors to Colonels, who are literally all at once trying to defeat al Qaeda gangs and Shiite militias, rebuild government facilities, arbitrate tribal feuds, repair utilities and train Iraqi army and police. As was true of the last trip to Iraq, I am left with three general impressions about the military.

(1) Our army and marines are far too few and overextended. The United States must either radically increase the size of these traditional ground units or scale back its commitments in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Through constant rotations, we are literally burning out gifted officers and lifetime professionals- and will lose their priceless expertise if they begin, as I fear, retiring en masse due to the sheer exhaustion.

(2) There is more optimism about success among the battlefield soldiers than present with analysts in Baghdad. The sudden decrease in violence has left many units stunned that Iraqis who used to try to kill them are suddenly volunteering information about terrorists and landmines, and clamoring to join the joint security force. Usually those behind the desk are the optimists, the soldiers who die the pessimists. But instead there is genuine feeling on the front that after four frustrating years of ordeal, at last there are tangible signs of real, often radical improvement.

(3) As a supporter of some four years of the now unpopular effort to remove Saddam and leave a democracy in his place, I continue to have only one reservation, albeit a major one. The U.S. soldier in the field is so unusually competent and heroic that one comes to despair at the very thought of losing even one of them. As a military historian I know that an army that can’t take casualties can’t win, but I confess after spending 16-hour days with our soldiers in impossible conditions one wonders whether the entire country of Iraq is worth the loss of just of these unusual Americans. I understand both the lack of logic and perhaps amorality in such a sweeping statement, but feel it nonetheless out here.

The complexity of the effort

The military is pulling out all the stops. Some examples. They have flown Vietnam-era veterans to lecture on counter-insurgency in their school at Taji, in addition to clinic psychologists and veterans of recent wars from Panama to Afghanistan. The problem is now not too few interpreters, but too many trying to join us. Some of the best are Iraqi-Americans, who know American idiom and deeply appreciate being an American.

Hundreds are working on IEDs, not just counter-technologies and aerial surveillance, but sophisticated methods of learning how they are made, how the bombers function, and how they are paid and maintained. Thousands of other reserve and retired engineers have come to Iraq to build and advise Iraqi contractors. I met a fascinating engineer in his mid-fifties who volunteered to return to the Marines and is now supervising the reconstruction of the governmental center in Ramadi.

Again, they are trying not just to defeat the insurgency, but to literally take Iraq from its primordial past to the twenty-first century within four years. A Herculean Task.


A common slur is that Halliburton is looting the treasury and contractors in Iraq are greedy profiteers. I again found the opposite to be true. Thousands of construction personnel build bases, road, and Iraqi facilities, sometimes under fire, but living with the notion of shelling or shooting any minute. I consider them more likely under- rather than overpaid.

Iraq is not a poor country. Flying over the Tigris-Euphrates valley (I speak now a farmer) is unlike anything in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. The soil is rich, the water plentiful and the dry climate perfect for intensive agriculture. That the country in theory within a year or two could pump well over three million barrels of petroleum a day, gives some indication of just how badly Iraq has been run the last forty years to screw up such natural bounty of a country-the Baathist-terror state, the attack on Iran, the massacres of Kurdish and Shiite innocents, the 1991 Gulf War, the no-fly zones and UN embargo, et al.

Next posting…

Hope to leave Kuwait tonight and post more on Iraq-some thoughts on our chances of winning, the nature of our colonels in the field, an interview with General Petraeus, the real Al Qaeda (or what Sunnis who once joined them now say about them) and other observations. .. Again, excuse the typos, since I write in haste.


Hope to post tomorrow. One final thought. I must emphasize that we as a country have to support those in the field of fire. They believe not just that we can win by securing Iraq, but that they are doing a moral good by giving millions a chance of something quite different. Whatever one’s views on the war are, it seems to me morally reprehensible that anyone would slander an American soldier, whether comparing them to terrorists or their General to a betrayer. We have a very rare precious resource in today’s military that really does represent the moral upper crust of American society, and as long as it is engaged, we need to support it. We may come to the day that the military itself thinks victory is beyond our resources or not worth the cost, but from what I saw this week, as in 2006, we are not there at that day yet by a long shot.


Just arrived home and here is the second of three postings on impressions of Iraq.

First-Some Responses to readers’ postings

I hardly speak for soldiers, never professed that I did. Mine are the mere observations of an outsider, nothing more than thoughts of a military historian after a second visit to Iraq. Take them or leave them: my feeling that those in Iraq are the moral upper-crust of our society is not cheap moralizing or patronizing, but the simple truth-as hard as that is for some to accept.

Most think that our military should be increased at least by the number of ground troops thought necessary in two or so years to monitor Iraq post-surge, or by about 50-70,000 Army and Marines in aggregate. We are almost doing that in planned ongoing increases. Should we withdraw permanently another 20,000 or so others from Europe and Korea, our rotations would be manageable.

Our problems with Nato allies in Afghanistan, and sometimes sharp anti-American outbursts from South Koreans, should be a warning about dependency and laxity. Putin, Islamism, the Balkans, al Qaeda, Iran-all that and more should have convinced the Europeans to step up their own defense.

We are all tired of European and even former commonwealth politicians lecturing Americans about how the future will be different as they go their own way-even as they expect US material and manpower support for their current defense needs. Americans would be delighted to see our allies rearm, take up the cudgels of their own defense, and start dealing with threats to Western life and civilization. No American is worried about Sarkozy’s current braggadocio. It is welcomed, not lampooned.

My past note about what Iraq was worth was qualified, as one reader conveniently ignored: I said a natural emotion after seeing our soldiers’ sacrifices was that the entire country was not worth a life of a US trooper-not that I felt such feelings were either logical or moral, much less shared by those who must do the bleeding.

US troops believe in their mission, not just because they are killing terrorists, but because that they are rebuilding a society and see tangible positive results in their humanitarian efforts, despite the costs-and that a free and secure Iraq will be critical to the region and diminish the chances of yet more global jihadist attacks.

Radical Islam, for all the criticisms of the Left, is declining in popularity in the Middle East, and its agents are dying in droves, both literally and metaphorically, at the US military’s hands in Iraq.

Thanks for those who wrote in or posted about advice with kidney stones-e.g., magnesium, diuril, diet, flomax, lemon juice, olive oil, etc. I have had them for 30 years (one major, one minor operation) but never in serial fashion, with 10-11 in a row. They are embarrassing: without warning one can burst into sweats, vomit, bloody urine, etc. and then suddenly recover as the bb passes-embarrassing when listening to Iraqi officials explain their problems, as if they might think you are becoming flushed in disagreement rather than just in pain.

I will post a third and last essay this week on Iraq. In the meantime, some further reflections after getting back home.


The present course is a departure from the past idea that US troops were “antibodies” to Iraqi culture and that a large presence would only alienate Iraqis.

The divide is still present between the Gens. Casey/Abezaid (and perhaps present Centcom command) school of steady, and uninterrupted transformation, training, and reduction in Iraq troop strength (and the notion that the Iraqis will weary of killing each other in time)-and the current counterinsurgency doctrine of intervening more directly to reassure the people that they can be safe to rebuild their country.

Both schools have their advantages, but the third alternative: a massive build-up and enormous commitment of troops to smash al Qaeda and, in post-Japan-like fashion, saturate the country with troops is not in the cards.

If we fail, then some will say the surge was the wrong idea and prior commanders were right in steadily reducing our presence and keeping back to safer compounds (more on the notion of compounds being “safe” in the next posting) in the process. If we succeed, then Gen. Petraeus will become our next Matthew Ridgeway.

Sent to Iraq?

John Kerry once quipped, “You know, education – if you make the most of it – you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

But perhaps we should amend that to something like ‘if you get educated, you serve in Iraq.’

I say that because in the small circle I met or corresponded with the last week in Iraq the number of MAs and PhDs there is astonishing. Colonels Rapp, Gibson and McMaster have PhDs, as does Gen. Petraeus, scores of others I talked with as well. I don’t mean to suggest that PhDs are smarter (some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met have them), only that the military puts a high emphasis on continuing education and original research, especially valuable in a complex, if not bewildering situation like contemporary Iraq.

Three weeks ago I heard a formal lecture presented by Col McMaster at Hillsdale College on the history of Vietnam and then found myself being led by him in full combat gear throughout Anbar. Similarly I was talking just six months ago at the Hoover Institution with Col. Gibson about his soon-to-be published book on military command and then saw him up in Baqubah, where he is yet again back in Iraq.

I learned a great deal about Iraqi topography from Major Rayburn after we coptered over the desert-no surprise, he is writing his PhD thesis on the British experience in Iraq. Camp Victory literally has dozens of PhDs-who see combat often-and MAs in everything from Arabic and Islamic studies to military history. COIN, the counterinsurgency center at Taji, under the direction of the talented Col Jan Horvath, draws in a lot of diverse thinkers, who are blunt in their assessments, good and bad, of the progress.

So it is not uncommon to be in a forward operating base and meet someone who taught at the Naval Academy or West Point, or whom one has met at an academic conference, or who had written a journal article one reads, inter-splicing their stories about a recent attack with discussion of academic bibliography. One West Point professor told me so many of his former students were in Iraq, he simply asked for deployment to be among them.

Again, we might also amend Kerry’s much lampooned comment even further to say that the brighter one is, the more likely they seem to be in Iraq.

Asking Questions

One result of the Petraeus appointment seems to be a more constant reappraisal of almost everything we are doing. Officers freely speak about our prognoses, what we doing right, what wrong, some more glum than others. A few officers in Iraq were outright pessimistic and candid about the outlook, saying that the Iraqis were perfidious, hopeless, and the effort impossible. But they were in a clear minority. The point again is that they were encouraged to speak out rather than dubbed defeatist and silenced. (Try speaking out in similar fashion on campus, or even ask a Larry Summers to lecture).

There is a sense that American army and marine captains to colonels were instrumental in the so-call Anbar Awakening, often forced to make critical decisions on their own and almost with no time for reflection or guidance-and often, thankfully, the right ones about enlisting Sunnis into the security services.

We are using all of our 21st-century capability, money, education, and experience to fathom what is going on in the minds of millions of Iraqis-of lost pride, a ruined country, thirty-years of abject suffering-and to what degree honor, status, and pride can be channeled away from fueling insurgency to building their own country. And it is a close-run thing always.

A Delicate Balance

It is the task of an intellectual surgeon to prod the Iraqis to step forward, without creating either dependency or create a sense of hopeless abandonment. I don’t envy those entrusted with the responsibility of trying to quell insurgency in areas the size of Colorado while rebuilding it at a current stage of, say, circa America, 1910? Few back here could pull it off.

One example of the dilemma: the tribal sheiks are coming forward to offer support against al Qaeda; but they cannot ipso facto run a government or supersede provincial administration and the rule of law. So how do you encourage their quasi-vigilante efforts and self-help militias while delicately reassuring officials that these grassroots efforts will be incorporated into government? If they execute an al Qaeda murderer on the spot, they then are undermining all the careful attempts to inculcate a judicial system. So it ain’t easy as they say.

Al Qaeda is perverted

A common theme heard from analysts and intelligence officers is the abject irreligious nature of al Qaeda. It is not quite zealotry to cut off the fingers of smokers, take 14-year old “brides”, mutilate the dead, force bodies to remain unburied, and steal businesses, homes and cars. Those are verifiable incidents-in addition to the other often told rumors of the terrorists serving children up to their parents or the employment of former male prostitutes as Al Qaeda heads. We think of bin Ladenism as a perverted distortion of Islam, but on the street level it is more a cover for gasoline and food racketeering, petty theft, and murder by young criminally-minded youth.

Soldiers spoke of confiscated computers of al Qaeda with the worst sort of pornography on them, or stories by Iraqis of known deviants, thugs, and criminals now masquerading as religious jihadists.

Here we prove incompetent in not publicizing the nature of hard-core jihadists, not just their hypocrisy and brutality, but their criminality. No doubt many of the 100,000 felons Saddam released on the eve of the war ended up working for al Qaeda, a fact we blithely forget.

How we can be doing so much in so many areas, but almost nothing to bring to the world’s attention the abject fraud of al Qaedism? Here we are reminded of anti-Western moralist Bin Laden’s kids watching video games, or the sheik himself buying a 15-year old bride on the eve of 9/11, or Dr. Zawahiri supervising the forced sodomy (to video cameras) of young teenage male captives. We are at war not just with radical Islam, but with the dregs of humanity, a sort of updated SS group of psychopaths.

Tea for me-or for you?

American officers, of course, wear almost identical camouflage. It is very hard to detect rank; only a small black insignia sewn at the breast indicates status. There is a free flow of information at all briefings. Some of the most thoughtful, blunt analyses came from majors to full colonels. This is really a war to be won or lost by middle-echelon officers, who like Roman proconsular officials must reorganize with Iraqis provinces the size of large American states.

(I note that in contrast with the university, American officers seem much less concerned with rank: not a single officer reminded me that he or she had an advanced degree from a blue-chip school-an unsolicited offering common on campus. The university is a natural comparison, since much of the anti-war sentiment emanates from it, and invites an obvious contrast about the relative degree of diversity, privilege, competence, and free speech).

Iraqi officers come from entirely different traditions of perks and privilege-whole suburbs of Baghdad reveal the former sumptuous digs of retired Baathist officers, replete with gardens, courtyards, and multistoried homes.

Iraqi officers, colonel and above, insist on tea being delivered and a retinue of hangers-on who give constant obeisance-sort of the traditional Hellenic complaint against Easternism kowtowing. (American officers more often open a frig and offer you water themselves). That said, Iraqis are trying to adopt much of the ethos of the American office corps, and thus a constant refrain in training is the need for them to get out, risk danger, and treat their subordinates with respect.

Many are doing just that-to such a degree entire units are starting to emerge that are probably better than any in the Arab Middle East. Surely one fear of Iraq’s neighbors is that if this country ever gets settled down, its army will be one of the most professional and competent in the region.

Who’s the American?

Another ubiquitous contrast. In every Iraqi conversation Sunni/Shiite divides came up. But on the American side, Mexican-American, African-American, Asian-American, so-called white, as well as religious differences mean nothing. In this regard our military does a far better job with “diversity” than does the hot-house university where “difference” is artificially emphasized, often for personal advantage. On the front lines it is incidental not essential to identity-something that amazes Iraqis who sometimes seem puzzled about what constitutes an “average” American. Often the Ugandan security guards, the Iraqi interpreters, or the Sudanese contact workers seemed indistinguishable from what Americans are supposed to “look” like.

Iranian anger

The Iranians are on everyone’s mind, especially in the Sunni provinces. What to do with Basra (perhaps nothing since the Iraqi-Shiite government will have to deal with its own militias to keep their own city functioning)? What to do with Iranian super-IEDs (machine-milled explosive devices, with copper plates that liquefy on detonation and, in slug form, can penetrate all of our existing armor, resulting in terribly horrific wounds (won’t mention the details related)? What to do with Iranian-bound hacks in the government who are taking money and orders from Teheran?

And yet the last thing American officers wish is a war with Iran, a conflict that would immediately jeopardize everything they have achieved since May. The result is sort of a desire for tougher sanctions, perhaps an embargo, to squeeze Iran enough to stop sending its agents and weapons to kill Americans, but without galvanizing the Shiites into a surrogate Iranian army.

A shooting ground war with Iran, if it widened to include ground operations, really would lead to a civil war in Iraq with clearly defined sides, large armies and full-scale battle, rather than the current sectarian bloodletting-something perhaps welcomed by the theocracy in Teheran. Watch that: if our success continues, the Iranians will become desperate to stop it at any cost. Only our being “bogged down” in Iraq, so they think, stops their own rendezvous with the Americans.

Define Winning!

Most of the officers and their soldiers believed we could win-are winning-but most qualified that optimism: the Iraqis would have to step forward much more rapidly and competently, mostly the Ministry of Interior, dominated by Shiites. The subtext of all conversations, between Americans and mostly Sunni Iraqis, was that with the removal of the grotesque Saddam we had turned the country upside down, in typically radical American fashion.

The once despised Shiites, many having no education or experience outside of Iraq, were now running the country, while the 2 million who used to manage things were exiles: a sort of justice, but one that immediately posed a myriad of problems.

So we are asking from the Shiites instant experience, learning, skill, magnanimity, and forgetfulness of past abuse to take up government, include the Sunnis, and let Anbar and Diyala have their fair share of revenues-and to do all that while stopping the influx of Iranian weapons. If that should happen, the surge of money and work would keep the youth out of al Qaeda and too busy to resume attacks on Americans. That’s a simplification, but more or less a common sentiment of Sunni Iraqi provincial officials.

It is also absolutely NOT true that the American military cannot define victory. They can and do all the time. It is the creation of a stable state that enjoys something of the calm of a Gulf monarchy-but without the monarchial authoritarianism or the Sharia law of Saudi Arabia. In other words, they hope for something like a Kurdistan or Turkey, and believe the oil and agricultural wealth of Iraq, and its past experience with secular traditions, might make that possible.

Further, many of the most thoughtful majors and colonels defined the cost/benefit analysis not in terms of Iraq per se, but in view of the entire region where a stable Iraq would pressure Iran, and stop being a quarter-century long nexus of terror and trouble for others. (Speaking of officers below the rank of general-we may see soon a revolution similar to that on the eve of WWII, when George Marshall leap-frogged a number of officers to high rank. Promotion within the military is not a civilian’s business, but let us hope that we can keep the current crop of colonels in Iraq in the army, and promote them rapidly: right now they are our nation’s best military resource.)

A Heck of a Lot of Money

A last note. Flying and driving through Iraq, one notices the enormous US investment in trucks, cars, military equipment, bases, houses, reconstruction, Iraqi outfitting-literally billons evident to the naked eye, everywhere at every moment. Whatever this is, it is not a “no blood for oil” war, more like “billions in aid for a region with their own $80-a-barrel oil.” We are stealing no one’s petroleum, but rather trying to secure their naturally rich country to allow them to profit on it. The Chinese may soon have a concession; one wonders whether al Qaeda will go after them-or whether our Left will cry “No blood for Chinese oil.”

A final Iraqi Tuesday posting on casualties, a talk with Gen. Petraeus, some of the colonels working in the provinces, and what the future holds.

Iraqi Impressions-Final Part III

Our Equipment is Tired Too

The number of vehicles, arms, bases, and American infrastructure in Iraq is staggering. And the wear and tear on it all is evident everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised that 30% of our equipment is worn out to the degree that it wouldn’t make sense hauling it back, and would be better off left to help transition the Iraqis. Humvees have sprung doors, broken glass, missing pieces, well in addition to the wear from sand and heat. I think the American people should accept that after Iraq we have an enormous tab to pay to reequip the air force, marines, and army. When you ride in a Ch-46 Frog marine helicopter, or a chugging Humvee or see banged up looking semis, you get some idea of the huge refitting job awaiting us after this is over, I’d say $30-40 billion at least.

Gen. Petraeus

I had an hour conversation with Gen. Petraeus, along with Rich Lowry of National Review, on Thursday evening at Camp Victory. He is trying to reconcile two widely divergent views. Petraeus knows his commanders in the Sunni provinces warn that the good news of calm is tenuous, dependent on good-faith efforts by the Shiite government to allot a fair measure of money to these minority constituencies that have sheltered both al Qaeda and former Baathists.

And yet he accepts that hyper-criticism of the elected Shiite government for their spite and intransigence can prove counterproductive, creating only resentment-especially since it is almost impossible to separate out the deliberate and malicious from simple incompetence within the ministries. An elected government, after all, is sovereign, and we work with those elected by a plurality of Iraq voters.

The result? One must constantly pressure, coax, argue for a Sunni constituency that until very recently was trying to blow apart your own soldiers. And that isn’t easy either. We liberated the Shiites, found them allies against Al Qaeda and Baathists, and now worry more about them than the Sunnis who killed us far more frequently for the first four years-only in Iraq.

Iran came up. Again, a dilemma. Everyone knows Iran is sending lethal copper-tipped IEDs into Iraq, along with agents and cash, to either destroy the country or reduce the government into the status of a puppet state. It gave aid to both Sunni and Shiite militias on the principle that whatever caused turmoil for Iraq could not be bad for Iran.

Solutions? What I gathered from Petraeus is that we have to find a way to stop Iranian infiltration and direct weapons deliveries, perhaps at first by moving our military compounds closer to the border, and getting Iraqis to monitor the intrusions along with us. We must get the Europeans to curb trade and investment; that alone would cripple the theocracy.

What we must be careful about are direct strikes against Iranian weapons’ facilities that would only prompt a terrorist response-or worse-in Iraq. So how one does balance that act-wean the Shiites of Iranian help, have the government rein in the Iranian-backed militias, and convince Baghdad that the new Sunni protection forces are no threat to the government?

Gen. Casey had a brain trust in Iraq, and he set up the counter-insurgency center in Taji. Col. Bill Hix (now in Afghanistan), whom I know well, was on his staff and representative of the highly-educated, talented colonels in the army I wrote about last posting and whom Casey brought with him. I think Petraeus has only accelerated that trend, in getting the likes of Cols McMaster, Kilcullen, MacFarland, and Mansoor all assembled together. No one knows more about the seams of wartime Iraqi alliances than they.

Imagine a university seminar, the professors with sidearms and M-16s at their side, the stakes not a change in curriculum but the life and death of thousands. So one’s final impression of Petraeus is pretty clear: this is about the only person who combines all the experience necessary for this now nearly impossible task. If he cannot pull it off, I don’t think any military commander could.

I found him at times soft-spoken, gruff but polite, blunt, candid, and informed, and generous with his praise of his subordinates. He is a colonel’s general, and represents this effort by the army to bring in those with advanced degrees, who question the status quo, and find that their intellectual skills and education are nearly as important as their military acumen in solving this Byzantine labyrinth of what is now Iraq.

He is not prone to misstatement or bluster or partisanship, and would seem a natural leader that the Democrats could rally behind as well-taking undue credit for demanding changes that led to his appointment. So the tactic of slandering him as we saw last month with the “Be-tray-us” ads is nothing short of political suicide-as the Democrats also belatedly learned who finally distanced themselves from their in-house zealots. But again, this is a mere sideshow, the real challenge being solely can the violence be stopped to allow reconciliation?

Al Qaeda

We sometimes think religion trumps human nature. It doesn’t. Remember the Rafsanjanis of Iran: under the cloak of religious zeal, that crooked clan wormed into businesses and ministries like a Costra Nostra family bent on cash and perks. So too with al Qaeda in Iraq. They are criminals first, pseudo-fundamentalists second. The military knows that well enough since it has seen their pornography, syringes, shake-down schemes, and petty criminality etc. “Al Qaeda” gave a lot of young criminals cover to steal cars, take over houses, and take young girls.


Col. Hickey gave a scholarly presentation about IEDs-a frightful weapon that kills randomly, without recourse to reply to the attacker, and quickly instills a sense of dread among those forced to drive over highways seemingly devoid of enemies.

I won’t go into detail, but answers offered are not merely technological since we are in a constant challenge/response cycle against sophisticated enemies, in which the deadlier and more sophisticated mine can gain the edge much more quickly than the commensurate expensively armored vehicle or jamming device. Even the new wedge-bottom marine vehicles (I rode in a MRAP [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected] vehicle and found that it seemed to ride much more cumbersomely than the up-armored Humvee) are very vulnerable to Iranian-machined copper-headed IEDs, as are at times even Abrams tanks. All the jamming gear in the world, and up-armored plating, can’t save our men driving down roads with occasional Iranian IEDs or large al Qaeda brands.

So the answers are found in intelligence, and that means getting the local population to identify the bomb makers, the mules who plant them, the houses where they sleep, and the places where they eat. I think we are winning that race, but the rub is that an exasperated public has zero tolerance for further casualties. So to maintain our pressure on al Qaeda we must suffer almost no losses, and that means almost no IEDs. And even a analyst like Col. Hickey can’t promise that.


The number of Defense Intelligence Agency analysts, Provincial Reconstruction teams, investigators from the Pentagon, and mid-level diplomats in transit hourly around Iraq is astonishing. In the present calmer climate, their duties, ironically, can pose even higher risks than combatants, since they hop from one area to another, in convoys and in aircraft, often given tours of the front immediately upon arrival.

I have only the highest regard for all of them-a large number of whom are courageous women-who think nothing of jumping on a Blackhawk to copter up to Fallujah, tour the town, meet Iraqis, write reports, fly back, low and in pitch black night on an Army helicopter, and then repeat the sequence the next day or so.

The Arbitrariness of Death.

Soldiers die in Iraq in very unexpected ways, as is true in all wars. But the line from rear and front is blurred to an astonishing degree, the enemy has no uniforms, and we know sometimes very little about shifting alliances-and who is who on any given week.

Shrapnel can fly into a tent at the hospital in Balad. An overloaded Humvee can careen into a canal. Someone walking in Camp Victory can be mortared. With so many poorly trained Iraqis with so many guns, accidental firings are common. Paid insurgents can mortar into, and drive-away from, even the most fortified target. Listening to the stories of how our 3,800 something have died, I was struck how often death came in moments that were outside “combat,” and involved simply driving, or sleeping, or eating dinner.

There are no fronts in Iraq. That does not mean that a private in a Humvee driving outside Tikrit is not in vastly more danger than a staffer in one of Saddam’s grotesque palaces at Camp Victory-only that the war can be everywhere and nowhere, and no one is immune at any time.

One small example of what must be an everyday occurrence. After visiting areas in Anbar deemed active, one hardly thinks that the ten-or-so mile drive from Camp Victory to the tarmac poses much danger.

But on arrival about 7:30 PM, while approaching with two Air Guard pilots our light prop plane, without warning a mortar round landed thirty yards from us. We six (journalist Rich Lowry and two National Guard lieutenants were also there) dived to the tarmac.

All that saved us was that instead of immediately exploding and showering us with shrapnel, the nearby round hit the cement runway obliquely and for some reason skipped before exploding at a safer distance. The entire airport was shut down for considerable time after the attack, and when it reopened we walked over to the impact hole in the tarmac and saw that even without going off immediately, the unexploded round, if aimed just few yards differently into our midst, would have taken at least one of us out.

To stave off defeat, the insurgents, whether ex-Baathists, al-Qaeda, or Shiite militias are embedded within terrorized communities. And they know that while a firefight with a US Marine or Army unit means instant death, an occasional quick rocket or mortar salvo might kill randomly an American-and with that death another headline in a U.S newspaper and another thousand or more citizens back home sick of Iraq, the war, and Iraqis. The war now has increasingly become defined only on the basis of how many of our own die, and that’s the metric the enemy welcomes.

But then after 9/11 we learned there are no fronts, and the worst “battle” still was the first that saw 3,000 incinerated in minutes in Manhattan. Behind all this lies the reality that Islamic radicals and their patrons fear any conventional fight with the US military, be it from the grand scale to the mere skirmish. Their only home is terror and its twin of demoralization and fear.

Final note. After beating this reoccurring stone problem, I hope to make a third visit next year, and see to what degree the Anbar awakening has taken hold.

This trip the general feeling was one of almost abject disbelief that ‘lost’ provinces could suddenly change so quickly. But to sum up: there has been a dramatic change on the battlefield, to such a degree not only is the media largely clueless about it, but our own military is so surprised that it doesn’t wish to make any sweeping predictions.

But if the Sunni transformation continues, this is an historic development that may well tip the scales in our favor-with enormous political ramifications throughout the region, and indeed the world at large. How the Arab world-or indeed our own Left-will handle scenes of former enemy and hard-core Sunni nationalists working side-by-side with Americans I don’t quite know, but it should be interesting…

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: NONE

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Amazing report. Outstanding research-being there, talking to the Phd officers, the BA and BS soldiers and Marines, and so forth.

I can confirm two things that I’ve heard directly from friends over there:
1) Hummv’s (in particular) and other vehicles are really REALLY worn out. One guy told me that he hadn’t seen a hummer with a door that worked in two entire tours. Yes, refitting’s gonna cost. My bet’s that the money’s already in the pipeline, but hasn’t been spent (as is the case with most of the supplementals)
2) Without getting into details, there’s a new generation of IEDs that’s causing trouble, but (again, from a very good friend of mine who is over there and emailed me) the ingenuity of US forces from the airman, sailors, soldiers, Marines etc who are over there is incredible. American ingenuity has a long history in war dating back to putting wax over their powder before crossing the Delaware, but read some of the tell all books from returning pvts, sgts, captains, etc, and you’ll see it.

These people are America’s finest. I have no doubt whatsoever of that. It’s why I support them, and I support what they do, and because I want to see the US succeed, I want to see Iraqis succeed, and I want to see Al Queda defeated, I support the efforts of those troops; ie I support the war.

At this point on the political calender, there is no other choice.

OT…this week I saw an article from a fervent opponent of the Bush Administration (and thus the war as a catalyst for that opposition). The article from this hard working leftist acknowledged that:

-the Democrats’ Congress is not going to force a political end to the war

-Democrats running for President (Clinton, Obama, Edwards) are not going to end the war

-Republicans aren’t going to order a cut and run

-Troops are scheduled to come home in the Spring, and probably many more in the summer

His response to all this was that it wasn’t good enough. He (like Michael Moore btw) want every American to pack their gear and get to the nearest plane/ship/border as fast as they can. Since it ain’t gonna happen, this far left guy ranted on and on about how we ought to impeach Cheney, then Bush, then if Hillary, or Obama, or Edwards, or a Republican were elected by the American people, we should all join this guy’s group and impeach any and all of those people until (irregardless of the will of the American people) a President or Speaker or Sec of State or whoever can take control at 1600 Penn Ave, and order a rout.

Brilliant plan. Don’t get your way, throw a fit and demand impeachment rather than face the reality that opposing the war via non-violent political means is useless at this point. Doing so in violent means is straight up joining forces or allying one’s self with Al Queda and Saddam’s regime remnants. That is the state of the opposition to the Iraq War. Clueless, frustrated, in denial, and living-actively LIVING in a dream world.

I liked the comparisons between the military culture and the university/academic culture.

Our military doesn’t go around wearing their degrees on their sleeves, are free to express themselves without being intimidated by rank or position and it’s an honest diversity of backgrounds and races, not some artifical scheme for the sake of diversity.

Excellent article. And an honest appraisal with the good, the bad and the ugly.

Iraq has a 25% unemployment rate so it’s only natural that’s the best place to expand the forces. I really don’t think the U.S. needs to be the one to expand in Iraq. What the Iraqis lack in equipment and training, they gain in intellegence gathering, smaller supply lines and are politically more feasable for the U.S. and the Iraqis.

As far as no end in sight to the violence, the U.S. does have a long history of violence between groups that have lasted decades. The fight against the Indians/Native Americans lasted 100 years or so, the fight between the Irish and Italian mobs lasted about hundred years, the racism in the South against blacks is still going on with church bombings and who knows how long the Bloods and Crips will fight each other. At some point the violence will have to be labelled tolerable since it’s not going to go away completely.

My armchair quarterbacking is that the U.S. should move it’s European bases on both sides of the Turkish/Iraqi boarder to help Turkey vs the PKK which has claimed 30,000 lives since 1984. Then the U.S. could place boarder forts on the Iraqi side of the Iranian and Iraqi boarder and the Syrian/raqi boarder. The U.S. could use those forts as training bases for the Iraqi military and police. This would minimize the exposure of the U.S. supply lines (since most of the roads are way out of civilian population making it easier to tell the good guys from the bad guys) and since there would be only two roads it would be easier to defend, help cut off the insurgent supply lines. This would also help cut down on the need for heavy equipment since the patroling would be done by the Iraqis and not the U.S. I do believe the insurgence is now not capable of overthrowing the Iraqi government or even temporarly taking over even a police station at this point. Just look at the latest tally, a group of 20 or so insurgence were attacked which made the news. What really stands out was this group was smaller than a high school football team. The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to hunt groups made up of 5, 10, 20 guys at a time when the 300,000 already trained Iraqis could be dealing with them. It’s probably been a year since the U.S. went up against 100-500 of them at a time. Meanwhile it’s said that there are about are approximately 407 gangs and over 56,000 members in Los Angeles ( You don’t see the police calling in airstrikes or running around in strykers. The insurgence in Iraq probably are 1/3 that number or less by now.

“It is not possible to negotiate peace with an enemy that only wants war and sees that you only want peace”


Yes wow 2 of my favorite people Mark and David.
Keep up the great work.
Lost in a time warp.

“The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to hunt groups made up of 5, 10, 20 guys at a time when the 300,000 already trained Iraqis could be dealing with them. It’s probably been a year since the U.S. went up against 100-500 of them at a time.”

One of the most ignorant things I’ve read in a long time. 5-guys in a hummv vs “5,10, 20 guys at a time” What’s that? They send out several vehicles at once? Yep, and terrorists don’t always stick in a 5 man group to a city. No. Please re-read the news reports from when the surge operations started a few months ago, and you’ll see that US forces gutted AQ wholesale where there was a lot more than 5, 10, 20 guys. If you’re not keeping up with the news-the dramatically good news from the past few months, then you’re opinion and comments are grossly ill-informed.;_ylt=AuH.DJ7VkXWfWbcmANzY264LewgF

A very thorough analysis of the situation. This is what makes Victor Davis Hansen the preeminent military historian he is.

While some question the strategy prior to the current “surge” strategy, to an extent, the prior strategy set the stage for the surge operations. Though Anbar was “written off,” the Sunni population was already weary of AQI. They just didn’t know how to get out from under. Hansen makes this point. Further, one needs to remember the Iraqi population as a whole is new to freedom and self-determination that goes beyond the Saddam era, but also their entire history as “Iraq” and before then. So, the learning curve is steep.

Do the Iraqis need to step up? Yes, they do. Do they need help? Yes, they do. Who’s the best equipped to help? We are. Certainly not the UN, or some half-hearted coalition others have suggested. Are the Iraqis making the cut? Some are, some aren’t. But, it will take time.

The other supposed solutions, such as suggested by the Iraq Study Group or Biden’s “decentralized government” (read as partition), only plunges Iraq deeper into disarray. A rapid or too early drawdown of US military power will only invite the major bloodletting we fear, and invite military disaster for ourselves. A redefining of the military mission (only concentrating on counterterrorism ops and force protection) does the same.

From the very beginning, I’ve been very optimistic of our effort in Iraq. And, even more so with the strides we’ve made the last few months. If we can’t prevail in Iraq, the whole effort in the terror war will be undermined and be for naught. The war will come home. I think we can agree that is something we do not want or imagine.

Excellent post. VDH is always worth reading. The unvarnished truth from Iraq is a heartbreaking mixture of failure and success, and as such it doesn’t fit into the simplistic story templates of the MSM. God bless the men and women serving far from home.

As usual, VDH hits another out of the park. He states what a vast majority of Soldiers and officers have been stating for years. It also appears he is getting the same reaction from the left that us Soldiers and officers do.

I appreciate his pointing out the education level of the US Military. I am saddened every time I have to remind leftists that ALL officers O-3 or higher MUST have a BA/BS. I meet many leftists who fully believe we are high school dropouts (though these same people worship Hollywood celebrities who really ARE dropouts). Actually most officers have their degrees when commissioned at O-1, but some who go OCS get a few additional years to earn a degree. I am working on my Masters now, but with the war, I cannot take two years “off” to get it. Thus I am trying for the Naval Post Graduate School program. Though, as VDH points out, none of that matters much to Soldiers and officers. Degrees matter the most on OERs and when seeking a “subject matter expert” on some things. Wisdom does not come solely from degrees or books, but from experience. Usually, after a while of brainstorming, we turn to the NCOs and ask, “Ok, we’re spent, what’s the correct answer?” In this aspect, the US Military represents one of the few military forces where the enlisted are valued as more than cannon fodder.

VDH’s critique of our universities is also accurate. So much artificial status is derived from who has what degree and who wrote which paper. New, contrary thought is forcefully silenced. This leads to an “Old Guard” mentality and the inability to use debate in the shaping of positions by the ivory “elites”. Thus, most universities are ‘stuck’ in the 60s.

The military is not safe from this path, however, unlike intelligencia, hard reality often trumps “Party Truth”. A casual look at the interwar period (1920s-30s) shows the inability of militaries to transform in peacetime. The crushing of the unimaginative forces by German panzers and Imperial Japanese bombers put an end to much “Party Truth” and allowed the military to innovate quickly. Now we are able to use history, like the above, as a bulwark against the “old guard” trap. “Innovate or die” takes on new meaning when “die” really means its dictionary definition.

Back to the article, there is nothing I can add to it. VDH did a great job, as usual. As usual, the left will only attack and/or ignore his work.