The 2003 Iraq war has diminished every individual and institution it has touched, including the U.S. armed forces. The war's proponents provided a master class in getting your way in government while not preparing for actual events. It was undertaken on the basis of assumptions of the worst that would happen if it was not fought and the best that would happen if it was. The consequences, particularly from the perspective of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, are described in these two thoroughly researched and depressing books. They do not tell us large things we did not already know but rather many small things that reveal much about the perils of abusing the military instrument in foreign policy.
Cobra II, by Gordon, of The New York Times, and Trainor, a retired Marine Corps general, is a worthy successor to their excellent account of the 1991 conflict, The Generals' War. The research is meticulous and properly sourced, the narrative authoritative, the human aspects of conflict never forgotten. Cobra II focuses on the rushed and haphazard preparations for war and the appalling relations between the major players -- with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld contemptuous of military views and the compliant Generals Richard Myers, of the Joint Chiefs, and Tommy Franks, of Central Command, showing scant interest in exactly where they were leading their forces. As they faced a sullen population and Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen, it soon became apparent that the optimistic assumptions on which Iraq had been entered were fallacious. Saddam remained the victim of his own illusions, which his frightened advisers dared not challenge, and the regime was quickly overthrown. But there were insufficient coalition troops to maintain civil order, even if there had been plans to do so. The occupying forces soon came to be seen as a menace to the local people rather than as their liberators. This set the scene for growing chaos. The one disappointment here is that the post-2003 story is only sketched: hopefully, the authors will make that the third book in the series.
Meanwhile, Ricks, of The Washington Post, offers a much more appropriate title and a more thorough look at the inability of the U.S. forces to adjust quickly and sensitively after the invasion to the reality of an insurgency. He demonstrates the constant tension between a strategy that depends on winning over the local population and tactics that assume that all Iraqis are potential killers. The book suffers from its narrow focus: after the opening sequences, the key players in Washington make few further appearances, and the diplomacy surrounding the war is also neglected. In contrast to Cobra II, there is little on the enemy and the nature of the insurgency, including the troubled political process and the developing Sunni-Shiite tension; the recently deceased insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi does not ever appear in the cast of characters. Equally surprising for this reviewer is that only a careful reading reveals that anyone is fighting alongside the Americans. The British experiences in southern Iraq are not chronicled at all, which is a shame because they provide a relevant comparison in counterinsurgency methodology.