Repeating History in the Swamps of Mesopotamia

Though many have forgotten it -- if they ever noticed it in the first place -- Donald Rumsfeld once ran for president of the United States, modestly declaring in 1988 that the he was the "best among the candidates to assume the reigns of government." It's worth recalling this now because even though the eventual US military victory in Iraq seems assured (the peace may be lost, but that's another story), the strategy formulated by the utterly confident, fawned-over-by-the-public, deferred-to-by-the-press Rumsfeld didn't worked as planned.

Iraqi forces were not "shocked and awed" into submission. Iraqi citizens and soldiers did not turn on Saddam with the rapidity and force the Iraqi exile groups who have the Pentagon's ear swore they would. The initial invading force -- numerically larger than Rumsfeld and his lieutenants deemed necessary -- turned out to be too small, requiring the deployment of tens of thousands of reinforcements . . . whose deployment time to the Gulf has been less than speedy, thanks to micromanaging by Rumsfeld and his crew.

In this sense, "Operation Iraqi Freedom" bears some resemblance to a previous British imperial incursion into Iraq. While that campaign was ultimately successful, it was hallmarked by arrogance fused with an initial impudence that produced results so deceptive and disastrous that the British government later felt obliged to convene a commission of inquiry. And much of the blame, that commission found, could be put on a civilian imperial leader with grandiose ambitions contrary to Britain's national interests, as well as two senior military officials -- one who was convinced that any pressure exerted on the enemy would cause the inferior enemy to crumble, and the other who knew planning was dangerously flawed but proceeded anyway, as he was "an egotist driven by ambition and ravenous for popular acclaim," in the words of one noted military historian.

The exercise in imperial overreach now all but forgotten is the first part of the British colonial Indian Army's Mesopotamia campaign of World War I, an endeavor that went horribly awry due to overconfidence, and a fixation on Baghdad that led to going too far, too fast, with too few, outpacing thinly-stretched supply lines left vulnerable to a marauding enemy. (Déjà vu, anyone?) And rather like the confusing political backdrop to today's military action in Iraq -- are "coalition forces" going in to disarm Saddam? Liberate Iraqis? Control oil? Beget "domino democracy" in the region? -- British imperial intentions with regard to Mesopotamia were hopelessly tangled due to competing internal influences as well.

In 1914, the British War Office in London simply wanted a defensive force to protect British oil interests in Persia from possible attack by the Ottoman Turks -- still neutral, but about to come in on the German side in World War I -- in neighboring Mesopotamia. Yet rather like today's crop of neoconservatives on the Potomac, the imperial Viceroy and his cronies in India were keen to spread the empire -- or, perhaps more precisely, the Viceroy's power -- beyond India and into Mesopotamia, which technically fell into the Viceroy's area of operations.

Unlike the mandarins in London, the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, felt that war against the Turks should occasion what was euphemistically referred to as "forward defence" -- in essence an effort to rapidly take a strategically-unimportant but symbolically-charged swath of the Ottoman Empire. In October of 1914, Hardinge dispatched units of the Indian Army under the command of General Sir Arthur Barrett to secure the oil fields. Unknown to London, however, were orders given to Barrett by Hardinge to seize Basra in the event of war with the Turks. When the Turks joined the war against the British on November 5, Barrett's forward forces quickly took the al-Fao peninsula and easily dispatched Turkish forces that defended and futilely counter-attacked at Abadan.

Though a larger Turkish force had assembled at Saihan to defend Basra, Barrett decided to quickly take the fight to them. Thanks to the use of 18-pound artillery guns -- something like the "shock and awe" devices of the day -- Barrett was able to take Basra in five days. But Barrett seemed to confuse scattering Turkish troops with actually defeating them; though outgunned on the heavy artillery front, the Turks took advantage of heat mirages and cavalry-unfriendly heavy mud from rains to disperse. Acknowledging A.J. Barker's The Bastard War -- a neglected but definitive study of the Mesopotamia campaign -- Chris Baker of the Centre for First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham notes: "Misled by the apparent fragility of Turkish defences into assuming this to be the case generally, the Indian administration felt sufficiently encouraged to determine to extend Anglo-Indian operations further beyond expectations previously established in London."

A few months later in 1915, an ailing Barrett was replaced by General Sir John Nixon, who arrived bearing orders from the Indian Army's commander-in-chief that reflected Lord Hardinge's grand aspirations. (Critically, the orders had not been shared with the War Office in London, where they would have been overruled.) The orders were to take Baghdad, and as far as Nixon was concerned, even though the Anglo-Indian forces were comparatively small and lightly equipped, they would be more than enough for the job, as the taking of Basra -- and repelling a subsequent attempt to reclaim it by the Turks -- had been an easy affair.

Dizzied at the symbolic value of being able to take Baghdad, the Anglo-Indian forces began an extraordinarily rapid sweep north along the Tigris river, winning a series of battles at Qurna, Shaiba, Amara, Nasiryeh and Kut. But by the time the Anglo-Indian forces had reached Amara, they were -- just like the Anglo-American forces in the current Iraqi conflict -- racing ahead of their support units, stretching their supply lines exceptionally thin and leaving them vulnerable to irregular but increasing attacks from local Arab raiding parties who weren't particularly fond of either the Turks or the British.

Leading the Anglo-Indian forces from Amara on was Major General Charles Townshend, who, unlike Nixon, readily acknowledged that because supply units were being outpaced, the combat force was in serious trouble. But like Nixon, Townshend "regarded the Ottoman ability to conduct war with contempt, and was complacent that further success could be achieved in spite of growing difficulties." Though taking Nasiriyeh proved a bit more difficult, Townshend marched on to take Kut, taking an ugly 12% casualty rate in the process.

At this point medical evacuation and supply was in an appalling shambles. Yet eager for the glory of taking Baghdad, Townshend decided to press on, and did so with the reluctant blessing of London, which, though opposed to an advance that had taken place without the War Office's imprimatur, was finding it difficult to argue with apparent success. But at Baghdad's first line of defence -- the ancient city of Ctesiphon -- Townshend encountered all the Turks he'd routed in previous months. Losing nearly half of his division, Townshend was unable to hold his position, due in part to unremitting guerilla harassment from both Turks and Arabs. Falling back to Kut, Townshend's force came under siege, requiring the dispatch of scores of additional British troops -- nearly 3000 of which died in a futile attempt to rescue Townshend. Townshend surrendered, and the British had to retool their plans -- delaying their entry into Baghdad by two years.

Admittedly, the parallels between then and now aren't precise, especially given what seems an inevitable military victory over the Iraqis much sooner rather than later. And it's likely that any sober consideration of flawed thinking will be swamped in a predictable deluge of post-combat pride. But to policy specialists skeptical of the Rumsfeld Pentagon's belief in the US Army's "transformation" to fight a "new kind of war" that even by innovative standards dispenses with some key tenets, the apparent ignorance of history is disturbing; one would think that the Mesopotamian Campaign would have merited at least a glance by the defence intellectuals currently running the Pentagon.

Yet it's possible that even the military officers whose counsel Rumsfeld ignored aren't familiar with the campaign: The only mention of it to be found in any curricula of US military institutions of higher learning is in one section of a paper on file at Air University devoted to Townshend as an example of poor leadership. And perhaps the best study of the campaign, Barker's "The Bastard War," has been out-of-print for over thirty years.

Yet there is at least one Defense Department analyst who gave some thought to what the latest invasion of Iraq might portend based on the past -- and even though George C. Wilson, the National Journal military writer considered the dean of Washington military reporters, advised Rumsfeld in a January 2001 column to make that analyst one of his first stops in the Pentagon, the SecDef is yet to grace the threshold of his office. Franklin "Chuck" Spinney is an ex-Air Force officer turned civilian analyst, one of the few remaining "reformers" left in the Pentagon who has spent most of his career diagramming how entrenched, parochial interests in the military establishment have begat everything from wasteful spending to problematic doctrinal thinking (particularly that which relies too much on technology and precision-bombing).

In a December interview, Spinney mentioned in passing that "I'm not too concerned about the US military taking out Saddam so much as I am about what comes afterwards . . . provided, on the first point, we don't make the same mistake as the British did in World War I and send in a light force that stretches its supply lines too thin from Basra."

Last week, Spinney was rueful, but not entirely surprised, that a similar lack of consideration had gone into the current operation. "There are several parallels here, but perhaps the most important one is the lack of appreciation not just for the soldiers, but the bureaucracy, the British were facing," he said. "It's not just that both then and now the assumption was the enemy would just fold and you could just march to Baghdad without any heavy artillery or defense of your flanks. David Fromkin, in "The Peace to End All Peace," has a great section on how the British misapprehended what was going on in their adversary's political structure. It's very similar to what we have going on today . . . some people around here have really believed that we'd be welcomed with flowers and that everyone would surrender. These guys are working on a set of assumptions quite similar to the ones the British used, a sort of arrogance that doesn't reflect a real understanding of what we're getting into."

And not just in terms of war, but the occupation that follows.

Jason Vest is a contributor to The Nation and The Village Voice.

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