January 1, 2006  

Fallujah: The iconic battle

Two perspectives on a turning point for U.S. strategy in Iraq

There is considerable bloodshed, but little battle, in most accounts of the war in Iraq. Acts of terrorism and small-unit skirmishes, not the clash of armies, define the conflict. And although the condition of Iraqis under arms or the demographic breakdown of an election may offer the best evidence as to whether we are winning or losing, neither gives the same visceral clarity as the rout of an army or the fall of a city. It is hard to follow counterinsurgency operations on a campaign map.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Fallujah holds an iconic, even hyperbolic, place in the intellectual landscape of the Iraq war. In contrast to the muddle of violence that has seemed to characterize so much of American experience since the capture of Baghdad — an IED attack here, a suicide bombing there — Fallujah in 2004 presented, at least from a distance, a reassuringly straightforward military narrative. The enemy had seized a city; after months of dithering in Washington, the Marines took it back. When Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the Marine commander in Iraq, infamously remarked that the recapture of the city in November 2004 had “broken the back of the insurgency,” it was hard not to feel a little sympathetic to his assessment. Battles, after all, are supposed to be turning points.

But while the fighting in Fallujah may not have ended the war in Iraq, it did help reveal a great deal about its nature — insights that Bing West and Robert D. Kaplan explore in their respective new books, “No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah” and “Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground.” Both authors were embedded with the Marines in Fallujah, and both dedicate their works to infantrymen who were killed or wounded in combat there.

For West, the battle offers important clues about what went wrong in postwar Iraq. At heart, West’s book is a close study of two key U.S. decisions in April 2004: the first, to storm Fallujah, following the grisly lynching of four Blackwater USA security contractors; and the second, to call off the attack and cede responsibility for the city to a brigade led by Sunni generals. Both choices, “No True Glory” shows, were the products of a dysfunctional decision-making process, characterized by conflicting lines of authority and crossed communications.

When the Marines were initially ordered to take Fallujah, for instance, it was against their own recommendation to U.S. Central command — information that was never shared with senior civilian decision-makers. “To rush into a city of 280,000 made no strategic sense. Once they occupied the city, what would they do with it?” West writes. Furthermore, even as the troops prepared for battle, they noted that there was no overarching strategic plan for either its run-up or aftermath. “The [Joint Task Force] order didn’t specify what the seizure of the city was intended to accomplish,” West writes. “The anticipated phases and timelines of the strategic campaign — warning the population, consulting with allies, gaining Iraqi agreement, preparing the press, briefing the Congress, marshalling the forces for ? re-establishing a city government — were not laid out.”

The inept decision-making was a function, West contends, of a Balkanized chain of command, in which civil-military responsibility for Iraq was split among the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. Central Command under Gen. John Abizaid, and the Iraq Stabilization Group, led by then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Ambassador Robert Blackwill. “The priorities and the information sources of the three were vastly different,” and their lack of communication — much less consensus — repeatedly fouled things up. As of April 2004, it appears, no one was in charge of running the war.

This civil-military divide also ran straight through the development of Iraqi security forces, whose mutiny, collapse, and all-around ineptitude were on prominent display during the first battle of Fallujah. While responsibility for building the new army and police force initially went to the CPA, it fell to the U.S. military to link up with units in the field. In addition to compromising unity of command, the arrangement was indicative of a broader failure to reallocate resources in the face of a rising insurgency. Remarkably, at least six months after Abizaid described the threat in Iraq as a “classical guerrilla-type campaign,” his own planners airily declared that, “it is not our desire to use the Iraqi Army internally.”

Such systemic flaws are only part of the story of Fallujah, however. The city also showcased the intransigence and hostility of the Sunni public toward the U.S. agenda in Iraq. The notion that the insurgency was limited to a trickle of foreign fighters or Baathist diehards should have died a swift death in Anbar province. West echoes complaints from soldiers on the ground that the CPA failed to pour enough money into the region during the summer and fall of 2003, but everything else in his account suggests that the problem was a function less of resources than of raw power.

As one Fallujan noted in early 2004, “If we cooperate with the mujahideen, we get raided. If we cooperate with the Americans, we get killed.” A dozen new soccer fields or health clinics would have not shaken this calculus.


Whereas West keeps a tight focus on Fallujah, peeling away from the field of battle only when absolutely necessary, “Imperial Grunts” treats the city as just one stop on a larger tour of the U.S. military’s far-flung deployments. Nonetheless, it’s an important moment for the book’s thesis. The lesson of Fallujah, Kaplan writes, is that “the more subtle and cautious its application of power, the greater would be America’s sustaining impact. ? The American Empire of the early twenty-first century depended upon the tissue of intangibles that was threatened, rather than invigorated, by the naked exercise of power.” Specifically, Kaplan sees the Bush administration’s abandonment of the April offensive as evidence of “the weakness of nation-states against the thundering new forces of a global media.” Or, as Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the Marines in Iraq, succinctly put it: “Al Jazeera kicked our butts.”

Kaplan is correct that the U.S. withdrawal from Fallujah flowed from an institutional weakness in strategic communications — the way the Pentagon explains to the world what is happening on the battlefield. As the Marines began their assault against the city in April, Arabic-language cable channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya fanned the impression of widespread civilian casualties and indiscriminate slaughter, backed by video footage from cameramen who had effectively embedded with the insurgents. Although tactical-level reporting from the Marines flatly disproved these claims, the images of televised carnage had a profound impact on perceptions and decision-making in Baghdad and Washington.

Kaplan has consistently written some of the sharpest and most provocative prose on how the U.S. military might transform itself to operate in the information and media “commons.” In a commentary in the Wall Street Journal in May 2004, for instance, he observed that, “Without a communications strategy that gives the public the same sense of mission that a company captain imparts to his noncommissioned officers, victory in warfare nowadays is impossible.” New battlefield doctrine for influencing public opinion, he went on, should involve “the flattening out of bureaucratic hierarchies within the Defense Department, so that spokesmen can tap directly into the experiences of company and battalion commanders and entwine their smell-of-the-ground experiences into daily briefings.”

Kaplan’s diagnosis is on less certain footing, however, when he invokes “subtlety” and “caution” as the principles to guide the American exercise of power, especially in the context of Fallujah in April 2004. Kaplan’s worldview is heavily influenced here by his travels with U.S. soldiers across the “quieter” fronts of the global war on terror, such as in Yemen and the Philippines, where they can operate out of the media klieg lights. But if anything, the U.S. experience in Anbar suggests that there are times when a little raw military muscle is exactly what’s required.

By the spring of 2004, progress in Fallujah was contingent on breaking the insurgents’ reign of terror over the city. Yes, political and public affairs strategies were needed to shape the battlefield, and yes, indigenous forces were needed in the aftermath of an assault to help hold the city, along with reconstruction aid and aggressive political-military support for a new local leadership. But none of these capabilities would have provided a way around the fact that Fallujah had become a safe haven for insurgents, a large number of whom had massed there, and that they needed to be drawn out, confronted and killed.

Likewise, to the extent there was a way to prevent Fallujah’s slide into anarchy in the year between the arrival of U.S. troops in April 2003 and the murder of the Blackwater contractors in April 2004, it would have meant garrisoning the city with a large number of U.S. troops and preventing the insurgency from getting footholds in neighborhoods like the Jolan, which had already become a no-go zone for the Iraqi police by late 2003.

The model, in short, might have been Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s hometown and the logical place to have predicted a postwar insurgency. Yet Tikrit, interestingly, is one of the cities that never fell to insurgents during the summer and fall of 2004, even as numerous other strategic Sunni population centers to its north and west — Fallujah, Samarra, Baquba, Tel Afar, Mosul, Ramadi — were swallowed up.

No discussion of Fallujah would be complete without mentioning the U.S. Marines and soldiers who fought there. To their considerable credit, West and Kaplan have produced books that stand — independent of whatever strategic analysis they offer — as profiles in courage, chronicling the valor of U.S. troops in combat. Both writers unabashedly draw inspiration from the company of soldiers.

“No True Glory,” in particular, describes scenes of battle with unerring precision. Soldiers, William Tecumseh Sherman once remarked, “are not blocks of wood but human beings who are seized by fear and sustained by leadership.” Consistent with that dictum, West presents the Marines at Fallujah not as automatons, but as flesh-and-blood individuals, whose bravery is all the more stirring for the plain language in which it is depicted.

Kaplan, on the other hand, looks at soldiers with the respectful, at times even reverential, distance of an awed anthropologist who is trying to go native. As much as he delights in cataloging the culture of the military, Kaplan comes from a different tribe, and he knows it. There are advantages to this approach as well, and Kaplan certainly has a sharp eye for detail.


“There is an inherent truth in battle,” Victor Davis Hanson wrote in “Culture and Carnage: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.” “It is hard to disguise the verdict of the battlefield, and nearly impossible to explain away the dead, or to suggest that abject defeat is somehow victory.”

What, then, is the verdict of Fallujah? Arguably, the battle represented a turning point in U.S. strategy in Iraq — less for the victory in November than for the reversal in April. The collapse of Iraqi security forces and the subsequent unraveling of the Fallujah brigade, in particular, riveted attention on training of the Iraqi Army, which finally began receiving the priority it deserved in the summer of 2004. Likewise, insurgent-controlled Fallujah made clear the disastrous consequences of allowing safe havens to open up in Iraq, driving the series of offensives that have been rolling through western Iraq for the last year. “Clear, hold, and build” — the administration’s current mantra on Iraq — was born out of the failure in Fallujah.

The extent to which the slogan is being effectively translated into reality is another matter. Press reports suggest that control over the villages of Anbar province, and even the provincial capital, Ramadi, remains tenuous at best. On Dec. 2, 10 Marines were killed in a roadside bombing in Fallujah, one of the worst single terror attacks in months — and a grim reminder that in Fallujah, as in the broader war, there is unlikely to be any clean ending to the extended battle that has been waged there.