Why America Lost the War in Iraq

Rumsfeld loved Future Combat Systems (FCS), and would list its development as one of his major accomplishments at the end of his six years at the Pentagon, by which time the overall cost of FCS, as estimated by his own office, had climbed to $307.2 billion. But complex as it was, FCS was only one aspect of a truly esoteric concept of war fighting that flourished under his patronage. It was dubbed Effects Based Operations, or EBO, a theory that emerged from the experience of a group of targeteers on the air staff in the first Gulf War. They believed that precision guidance techniques had made it possible to gauge, and therefore anticipate, the ultimate effects of a bomb targeted on a specific location, which of course could be identified and located thanks to the wonders of the latest surveillance technology. So the destruction of a few critical targets, such as power stations and communications centers, would bring the entire enemy society to a halt. In practice, the bombing campaign against Iraqi infrastructure in 1991 did little to affect the military situation, but it did ruin the civilian economy, guaranteeing the onset of unending misery for ordinary Iraqis.

Notwithstanding these unintended consequences, which were generally ignored or glossed over in official circles, the concept became more refined over the following decade, the classic example being the “crony targeting” of Kosovo war in 1999. On the assumption that the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic required the support of a specific group of business cronies to rule, and on the further assumption that these individuals could and would pressure him into withdrawing from Kosovo if they themselves suffered economic damage, the targeteers rained bombs on specially selected factories and other businesses across Serbia. There was no indication that the approach had anything to do with Milosevic’s ultimate cave-in, but the doctrine of EBO had taken root, not least in a complex of architecturally challenged low-rise buildings across the street from a Wal-Mart in Suffolk, Virginia. This was the home of the Joint Forces Command, or JFCOM.

At Rumsfeld’s meeting with cronies at the Pentagon the day after the inauguration, someone had mentioned that he should pursue “Jointness” as a goal. While individual services defended their traditional customs and practices like tigers, JFCOM, which had been created only in 1999 and drew its staff from all four services, was charged with coming up with new ideas about military organization and strategies. From 2001 on, the organization proved to be an enthusiastic source of upbeat commentaries on transformation, a sure way to the defense secretary’s heart. “It was kind of his pet command,” pointed out Jim Warner who, as a one-star general, served a two-year tour at the command in the Rumsfeld years. “For example, yhe sent his M.A. (military assistant), (Admiral) Ed Giambastiani, down there as commander and then brought him back as Vice Chief.”

Given Rumsfeld’s sources of military inspiration, not least Andrew Marshall (a former RAND analyst who had displayed a genius for bureaucratic durability in heading up the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment since 1973), it is hardly surprising that he should have been so attracted to JFCOM. The concepts being explored here accepted the premises of the Revolution in Military Affairs and took them to new heights. As with Marshall’s original suggestions about the Revolution, the doctrines preached at the Suffolk center took as a fundamental assumption the idea that it was possible to purge warfare of uncertainty and ambiguity, and that war could become simply a mechanistic procedure, in which actions and reactions of the enemy could be effortlessly programmed, anticipated, and dealt with. Along with EBO, which as already explained grew out of the experience of Air Force targeteers in the 1991 Gulf War, the bright young officers assigned to the command were also developing the concept of rapid decisive operations (RDO) as facilitated by the wonders of operational net assessment (ONA), described in the command’s in-house glossary as “A continuously updated operational support tool that provides a JTF commander visibility of effects-to-task linkages based on a “system-of-systems” analysis of a potential adversary’s political military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information (PMESII) war-making capabilities.”

In plain English, they believed that it was possible not only to know everything about the other side’s society in all its ramifications and connections, but also to forecast the enemy’s reaction to any action against any component of that society, and how that would affect all the other components. Rumsfeld liked this kind of thinking. In December 2001, he sent General Tommy Franks a “snowflake” (an action memo, which Rumsfeld deployed in vast quantities) commending a study called “Shock and Awe” by two defense intellectuals that argued the case for disorientating the enemy’s capacity to resist with devastating salvos of munitions precisely targeted at command centers.

Toward the end of the following July, Rumsfeld made a special trip down to Suffolk. He was there to survey preparations for Millennium Challenge 2002, an enormously elaborate war game that its designers ­ the JFCOM commanders ­ confidently expected would fully vindicate the arcane theology of EBO, RDO, ONA and PMESII that they preached so enthusiastically. It would also give Rumsfeld something to show, as he said during his visit, “the progress that we have made this far in transforming to produce the combat capability necessary to meet deep threats and the challenges of the 21st Century”. Viewing the arrays of computer terminals and esoteric communications equipment, he may well have been reminded of happy times in the COG exercises, waging nuclear war. (COG is the acronym for Continuity of Government, a top secret series of exercises to test the ability of the government to continue to function during and after a nuclear attack. At the start of the 1990s, Rumsfeld was part of the team scheduled to take over the Defense Department if nuclear apocalypse struck. In practice runs Rumsfeld, according to a former senior DoD official, “always wanted to move on to nuclear retaliation as quickly as possible. He was one who always went for the extreme option.” Dick Cheney was another regular participant in these rehearsals.)

Escorting Rumsfeld round the premises, in which Millennium Challenge 2002 was to take place, the commanding general, William Kernan, took care to keep his distinguished guest away from a tall, bald-headed man in civilian clothes, for he was the enemy. A retired marine general and Vietnam combat veteran, Paul Van Riper had been had been called back to command the Red Team in the Millennium war game. In such exercises, the enemy is always red; the U.S. side is always blue. But Van Riper was a twofold enemy. Not only was he playing the role of an opponent, he made no secret of his derisive opinion of the concepts underpinning JFCOM’s approach to war.

“The hubris was unbelievable”, he told me some years later, after delivering a droll recitation of the full range of acronyms pumped out by the command. “They claimed to be able to understand the relationship between all nodes or links, so for example if something happened to an enemy’s economy, they could precisely calculate the effect on his military performance.”

In the scenario designed by the exercise planners, Van Riper was playing the role of a rogue military commander somewhere in the Persian Gulf who was willfully confronting the United States. Though there were more than 13,000 troops, as well as planes and ships taking part in the game across the country, much of the action was to occur in computers and be displayed on monitors, the ultimate video game. Thanks to their enormous operational net assessment databases, the Blue Team thought they knew all they needed to know about their enemy, and how he would behave. But they were wrong. For a start, they did not know what he looked like. The Blue commander, a three-star Army general, worked in full uniform, surrounded by his extensive staff. Van Riper, dressed in casual civilian clothes, took a stroll, unrecognized, through the Blue Team headquarters area to get the measure of his opponent. With his own staff, he was informal, though he forbade the use of acronyms. “We’ll all speak English here,” he told them.

In the first hours of the war, the Blue Team knocked out Van Riper’s fiber-optic communications, confidently expecting that he would now be forced to use radio links that could be easily intercepted. He refused to cooperate, quickly turning to motorcycle couriers and coded messages in the calls to prayer from the mosques in preparing his own attack. He was no longer performing an assigned part in a scripted play; Van Riper had become a real, bloody-minded, Middle Eastern enemy who had no intention of playing by the rules and was determined to win.

Just a month earlier, the Bush administration had announced a new national security policy of pre-emptive attacks “in exercising our inherent right of self-defense”. So, when a Blue Team carrier task force loaded with troops steamed into the Gulf (at least on the computer simulation) and took up station off the coast of his territory, Van Riper assumed that they were going to follow the new policy and attack him without warning. “I decided to pre-empt the pre-empter,” he recalled later with satisfaction. Oddly enough, the Blue general sensed this, saying, “I have a feeling that Red is going to strike,” but his staff was quick to assure him that their ONA made it clear that this could not happen.

Van Riper was well aware of the U.S. Navy’s “Aegis” anti-missile capabilities, and how many missiles it would take to overwhelm them. “Usually Red hoards its missiles, letting them out in dribs and drabs”, he told me in retracing the battle. “That’s foolish, I did a salvo launch, used up pretty much all my inventory at once.” The defenses were overwhelmed. Sixteen American ships sank to the bottom of the Gulf, along with twenty thousand servicemen. Only a few days in, the war was over, and the “transformed” military had been beaten hands down.

For Gen. William Kerner, the JFCOM commander, there could be only one solution to this crisis. Van Riper was informed that the sunken ships had magically re-floated themselves, the dead had come back to life, and the war was on again. But this time there would be no surprises. He was not allowed to shoot down Blue Team V-22 troop transports, though these are highly vulnerable planes. The Red Team was ordered to switch on their radars so that they could be more easily destroyed. The umpires announced that his missile strikes had been intercepted. In short, the game was now unashamedly rigged to ensure that the U.S. won and all the new theories proven correct. Van Riper resigned as Red leader, but stayed on to monitor the predictable rout of his forces under these new conditions. Afterwards he wrote a scathing report, documenting how the exercise had been rigged and by whom , but no outsider could read it because it was classified secret. Asked when Van Riper’s report would be declassified and released, an embarrassed Gen. Kerner said that it would remain under wraps “until I’ve had a chance to brief my boss”.

His boss, of course, was Donald Rumsfeld, who showed no interest in the report, still less of releasing it to the public. Rumsfeld was interested less in facts or fundamental realities, than “by will and force”, pulling all the resources that he could possibly pull together to achieve his goal, which was to show that he could conquer Iraq with a small light force, a truly rapid and decisive operation. This would prove that he had indeed carried out the mandate for transformation, confounding the generals who had dragged their feet and mocked his efforts the year before. His inspiration had already defeated the Taliban; now he would prove his case on the banks of the Euphrates. It did not seem to occur to him that there might be an equally bloody-minded Van Riper, worse, many Van Ripers, waiting on the other side, all equally determined to ignore the rules. Six months later, as the Americans advanced on Baghdad, one of the commanders, General William Wallace, made a plaintive admission. “The enemy we’re fighting”, he told reporters, “is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against.” The remark came close to costing the general his job.

Excerpted from Rumsfeld by ANDREW COCKBURN. Copyright 2007 by ANDREW COCKBURN. Reprinted by permission by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

ANDREW COCKBURN is the author of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy.



Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino. His latest book is  The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine. (Verso.)