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World News
How the bold run to Baghdad paid off

Sunday, April 13, 2003

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Security Writer

DOHA, Qatar -- Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division that dashed from Kuwait to Baghdad in two weeks, has much in common with a fellow southerner, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Major General Buford Blount, center, U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division, looks over destruction at a presidential palace in Baghdad Wednesday. Most of the damage was caused by Air Force bombing ahead of the Army's land invasion. (John Moore, Associated Press)

Robert E. Lee may have been the most respected Confederate general during the Civil War, but Forrest, famous for lightning strikes with his division of mounted infantry, was the most feared. The self-taught Forrest distilled his military philosophy into a single phrase: "Git thar fustest with the mostest."

Forrest knew intuitively, and demonstrated repeatedly, that success on the battlefield is determined more often by shock and surprise -- by-products of speed -- than by superior firepower.

The 3rd Infantry employed all three in Iraq, and it also benefited from vastly superior real-time information about enemy movements. That is why Blount and his troops now hold the world's record for the most rapid armored advance.

George Patton's Third Army, in what had been widely regarded as the most impressive armored attack in history, took four months to battle from the Falaise Gap to the Rhine. The 3rd Infantry traveled the same distance in two weeks.

Of course, the 3rd Infantry barely beat the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force to Baghdad, which encountered more resistance on its approach from the east. "Speed, speed speed," emphasized Maj. Gen. James Mattis, the commander of the 1st Marines, according to reporters embedded with his units.

The arrival of U.S. forces in strength in places where the Iraqi military did not expect them is the main reason Baghdad was seized so quickly, with so little loss of life, U.S. and foreign military analysts generally agree. The rapid fall of Baghdad, in turn, appears to have prompted the disintegration of virtually all remaining organized military opposition.

Blount's bold decisions -- to bypass opposition on the way to Baghdad, to grab Baghdad International Airport, to launch a "thunder run" through the capital last Saturday and then to occupy the heart of the city -- were based on his rapid exploitation of intelligence indicating that indicated Iraqi military leaders had no idea U.S. forces were moving so fast.

One Republican Guard colonel was captured on Baghdad's door step, reportedly expressing complete surprise that U.S. armored forces were anywhere near his position.

The disorganized state of Baghdad's defenses astounded foreign military observers like retired Indian Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta: "There was no preparation by the Republican Guard for the battle of Baghdad -- no defense fortifications, no mines, bridges were not prepared for demolition, nothing at all to suggest they were going to fight a major battle."

There were plans for such defenses, prepared with the assistance of two retired Russian generals who were decorated by Saddam Hussein's defense minister just days before the war began.

"U.S. tanks would be burned if they entered the city, and U.S. infantry would be slaughtered," retired Lt. Gens. Vladislav Achalov and Igor Maltsev told the Moscow Times.

And the Iraqi/Russian plan was a good one, according to U.S. Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, one of the Army's leading strategists until his retirement a few years ago.

"Far from being technically incompetent, Saddam's plan was right out of Clausewitz," Peter said. "Its models were the Russian defeat of Napoleon in 1812, and the Soviet victory over the Germans in the Second World War... Saddam didn't so much plan the defense of Baghdad as he tried to re-fight the defense of Moscow."

However solid the Iraqi/Russian plan was on paper, it was frustrated by the unexpected arrival of the 3rd Infantry and the 1st Marines at the gates of the city.

Tactical surprise was achieved not only by the speed of the American advance, but by the sluggishness with which the Iraqi high command assimilated information and made decisions. Saddam has a history of taking out his frustration with bad news on the messenger, which made subordinates reluctant to tell him when things go wrong, according to one U.S. intelligence officer quoted in the Los Angeles Times.

"Nobody wants to tell Hussein and senior leaders bad news, so lots of times they don't. They tend to believe things are going better than they are, and before you know it, coalition forces are up close and personal."

Fearing a coup, Saddam organizes top echelons of both his intelligence and military services so that top officials cannot easily contact each other, which further complicates the Iraqi military's ability to respond quickly to changing conditions on the battlefield.

Iraqi decision-making was also slowed by American air attacks on leadership and communication facilities, which made it hard to get information from the field to the high command -- and made the high command reluctant to transmit orders back in ways that might make them targets for a satellite-guided bomb.

The combination of the audacity of the American battle plan, its prompt and effective implementation by field commanders, and the impediments to prompt decision-making the Iraqis imposed upon themselves made it easy for Americans to operate within what maverick U.S. military strategist John Boyd called the "OODA loop."

The acronym stands for: Observation. Orientation. Decision. Action. Whoever works through that cycle fastest in making decisions on the battlefield would win, Boyd theorized, often with little bloodshed.

Boyd's ideas were unpopular with most generals, even after his death in 1997. But Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were big fans, and Boyd's ideas went on to inform "rapid dominance" and other such theories that the Pentagon clearly applied in Iraq.

The Iraq war plan called for a speedy advance on Baghdad, bypassing Iraqi garrisons in the south, much as Douglas MacArthur had bypassed Japanese outposts in New Guinea on his "island-hopping" campaign to re-take the Philippines in World War II.

"It was an audacious plan, a risky one," retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona, an expert on the Iraqi military, told the Washington Post.

The plan received savage criticism from retired and even active-duty officers after the U.S. advance was halted for several days to permit the logistics "tail" to catch up with the combat "teeth." The war had begun with too few combat forces in the region, retired Gens. Wesley Clark and Barry McCaffrey said, and it was a mistake to bypass Iraqi units, which posed a threat to supply lines.

The attack on the maintenance unit to which Pfc. Jennifer Lynch belonged received a great deal of publicity, but it was the only successful attack by Iraqi irregulars on U.S. supply lines. U.S. forces did take some other casualties behind the front lines, and the relatively small size of the combat forces employed is making it more difficult to control looting and other law-breaking in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. military's northward march, as well.

Nevertheless, from a strictly military point of view, it is hard to argue with a three-week drive that brought down a regime and caused a sizable military machine to collapse. And to keep peace now, additional troops can be flown directly to Baghdad.

The results of the war appear to support those who had confidence in the U.S battle plan. The 3rd Infantry and the 1st Marines easily swatted aside such opposition as they encountered. More combat troops at the outset turned out to be unnecessary to bring down the Saddam government and would have imposed a greater burden on the logistics system.

The debate between the overwhelming-force and speedy-action schools of military strategy is sure to continue, although the Rumsfeld rapid-maneuver side of the argument is sure to be ascendant for some time. It has simply been going on too long to stop.

In the Civil War, Union Generals George McClellan and Henry Halleck followed the overwhelming-force model. They slowly built up huge troop concentrations, and then used them cautiously, more concerned about minimizing risks than in seizing opportunities. They never won a battle.

Ulysses S. Grant and Tecumseh Sherman behaved in an "audacious, risky" manner. They won the war.

Jack Kelly can be reached at jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.

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