A Soldier’s View of the Iraq War

From early 2004 until a year later, the Australian Major General Jim Molan was Chief of Operations in the coalition military forces in Iraq. He was the most senior non-American officer in the force and was responsible to the commanding general for all operations by the force. Among these were the second battle for Fallujah and the organisation of the first of three elections for a democratic Iraqi government. For most of his time in Iraq, he also battled to get the infrastructure of oil production, transport and power generation back into working order.

Molan’s book describes in great detail the life of a senior commander in an extremely intense combat environment. Producing Running the War in Iraq was encouraged by the Australian Defence Force leadership, and Molan was assisted by the Military History Committee and those outstanding military historians Bob Breen and David Horner. But the book is his; no one else could have written such an intensely personal story.

Molan writes well and with a refreshing directness. He eschews discussion of the politics, concentrating instead on the military task and the immense personal stress endured by all the troops in Iraq. Although theoretically a subordinate staff officer, Molan directed operations of an army larger than any commanded by an Australian since the Second World War. The book is an important one for the lay as well as professional reader with an interest in modern asymmetric conflict. It contains colour photographs, an abbreviated list of some of the many acronyms that blight the lives of the professionals almost as much as the general reader, and a list of all the individuals mentioned in the text, but regrettably for such a significant book, no index.

Molan was appointed apparently as a result of pressure on President Bush from Australia’s prime minister, John Howard, to give Australia, a loyal coalition partner, a higher-level operational role in the war. Molan’s career to that point had been fairly conventional for a senior officer but he had experienced sensitive appointments in Jakarta. A Duntroon graduate to the infantry before the establishment of the tri-service Australian Defence Force Academy, he had qualified as a helicopter pilot. One of the post-Vietnam crop of junior officers, his career included senior instructional appointments as well as command of a battalion, brigade and division. He had been Army attache and Defence attache in Jakarta, the latter during the plebiscite in East Timor and the resultant rioting and destruction. Over the years he had been involved in a wide range of contacts with the US Army. Before the posting to Iraq, he had been Commandant of the Australian Defence College responsible for middle and higher level education for all three services in the Australian Defence Force.

Upon arrival in Iraq, Molan quickly discovered that politicians may plan but the workers have their own ideas. The American commander, Lieutenant General Ricardo (Ric) Sanchez wanted to retain his own American chief of operations in that post even though that officer was due for relief after a year in the job. Clearly, Sanchez was uncomfortable with an unknown Australian in a key job, perhaps because there were few Australian troops in Iraq and most of them in “safe” jobs. In any event, Molan discovered that he was not to be chief of operations under Sanchez and went looking for something useful to do.

Molan is by no means the ruthless general of popular myth—if indeed there are any such in the West. He makes plain that his Catholic upbringing led him to a deep examination of the justice of the Iraq conflict in accordance with traditional just-war principles. His conviction that it was indeed a just war was reinforced by his experience, especially in the face of the almost incredible viciousness of the sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia, and the imported jihadi fighters sponsored by al Qaeda and others.

That the Iraq conflict was a classic insurgency rather than a conventional war was immediately apparent. Insurgent warfare is that of the militarily weak against the strong. Thus the coalition response was necessarily a counter-insurgency campaign, with all the difficulties involved in fighting an enemy that uses the population as both its target and its shield. Australian counter-insurgency doctrine recognises that the civilian population must be protected, necessarily passing up opportunities to damage the enemy’s forces. Molan notes that the occupation was not popular with the Iraqi community, although medium-term experience suggests that it is now regarded as the lesser evil than government by the fanatics.

In looking for something useful to do, Molan noted that little was being done to protect the national infrastructure of roads, railways, power distribution and the oil production upon which Iraq’s economy was based. Yet these were the very targets that the insurgents favoured if only because they were strategically vital but not well protected.

There is a parallel here with naval warfare in which a weaker adversary will attack his enemy’s supply lines in preference to his combat forces. The classic response is to concentrate the targets and their defences, to force the attacker to deal with those strong defences. This approach—convoys with powerful defences—does not appeal to the American ethos of offensive warfare at which, it must be said, they are without peer. Molan was able to persuade Sanchez that, for all the very real difficulties, more should be done to protect those infrastructure targets. He was given the job, although the reader might gain the impression that it was more to relieve Sanchez of some potential embarrassment than anything else; certainly Molan was not given adequate resources for the task.

The war is one of enormous intensity, a fact that is not evident from the highly politicised media reporting which is about all we in Australia receive. Thus the criticism that the Americans have failed to restore Iraq’s infrastructure suggests neglect of the damage done by the initial invasion in 2003. Not so, asserts Molan. In fact, the insurgency that comprises many disparate groups including plain criminals has targeted infrastructure in a deliberate campaign to discredit the occupation and the move to establish a democratic nation. Oil pipelines, electricity transmission lines, road and rail links are destroyed almost as fast as they are repaired. All too often, Molan reports, the insurgents are assisted by “helpers” in the Iraqi ministries who advise when repairs have been completed. In-fighting within the Iraqi ministries was an important factor in impeding restoration. Clearly, some Iraqi government agencies were more interested in their own political standing than in real government.

Molan makes plain the reality that since 2003 there have been two wars in Iraq. The first, highly successful, was designed to depose Saddam Hussein. This was arguably justifiable regardless of the flawed public rationale. Molan notes that the coalition has uncovered mass graves of more than 300,000 Iraqi victims of Saddam’s rule. Clearly, he believes that Iraq needed outside help to get rid of the monster and his family.

But following Saddam’s removal, another war broke out. This was the insurgency that has plagued Iraq since mid-2003. It is largely a product of the Sunni minority trying to retain their privileged role in Iraq, the Shia majority trying to assert their supremacy, and the imported terrorists of various extremist groups, many with extensive experience and training. In all of this, too, Iraq’s other minorities have suffered grievously.

Perhaps the most significant criticism that can be made of the Iraq adventure was that the Americans at one or more levels of government failed to recognise that problem even though it should have been obvious that at best Iraq was a deeply fractured society. Thus, the Australia Defence Association wrote six months before the original invasion that:

restoring Iraq as a stable and continuing buffer state against Iran is in practical terms mission impossible without a heavy and extended investment of money and skilled personnel. While Iraq’s oil wealth could probably supply most of the money, the skills needed not merely to restore Iraq’s political and economic structure but also to build a socially stable system are in short supply, especially from culturally similar countries.

As the invasion was proceeding in April 2003, the Association wrote:

The battle against the regime and for the liberation of Iraq is, however, only the first element of the campaign. Rebuilding Iraq as a secure and prosperous country with a government that respects the rights of its own people and its neighbours will take much longer.

Molan is realistic but not bitter about the ruthlessness with which the insurgents treat ordinary Iraqis. He notes that, under the internationally accepted laws of armed conflict which are based on Christian just-war principles, the coalition forces are not able to respond in kind. His acceptance of these limits is based on his own personal moral principles without reservation and he believes that to be true of the coalition forces generally. He makes no excuses for the rare actual abuses—such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal—noting that these were due to a lack of proper training and supervision. He merely wishes that the Western, especially European, media would pay as much attention to the gross violations of the innocent perpetrated by the insurgents.

Like most modern-day soldiers, Molan is tolerant of what he regards as media bias, accepting that nothing can—or should—be done about it. Without editorialising, he understands that the Arab media will be almost universally hostile, the Europeans almost so, and the rest driven by editorial directives. In one of his few comments upon the media, he describes the journalist who sought to write a story required by his editor on the “destruction” of Fallujah after the second battle. That scribe was not impressed with a description of the battle and its achievements but was enraptured by the discovery of one demolished house. Thus Fallujah, he subsequently reported, had been “destroyed”! Molan points out that journalists on the spot, especially those embedded with combat units, have a better understanding of the issues. But it is also clear that many operations are planned and managed with the assumed media coverage in mind.

This raises a serious question. If the generals are forced by political and media pressure to tailor their operations to the predilections of the media, who in fact are the real generals? Media scrutiny of “our side’s” military operations is intense and excessively directed to fault finding. Scrutiny of the “other side’s” operations is less intense, even non-existent, and where it occurs is all too often managed by their propaganda organs. One need only recall the broadcast up-beat briefings by Saddam’s Information Minister as the Americans rolled into Baghdad.

The media are entitled, required even, to be sceptical of the spin doctors but some even-handedness would be welcome. Some experience would also be welcome. I recall an Australian television current affairs program during the actual invasion where two well-known celebrity journalists decked out in flak jackets and helmets some hundreds of kilometres away from the scene of operations pontificated for their audience on the incompetence and failures of the soldiers. To say it was disgusting would be overly polite.

Molan was necessarily closely involved in the second battle of Fallujah. That town, misrepresented by much of the media as the city of mosques, had become the centre of Sunni resistance to the occupation and a safe haven and training ground for many of the imported insurgents. Certainly there were many mosques in Fallujah. Equally, as the surveillance drones had shown, many of those mosques were used for weapons storage and launching places for rockets and mortars. An important strategic aim for the operation was to clear the insurgents out of the city. The first battle in April 2004 was mounted too quickly as a result of political pressure. The results were not good and media hostility to the ensuing damage was even more destructive to the coalition cause.

The second battle was preceded by what Molan calls “shaping”, the creation of an environment in which civilian casualties and the so-called collateral damage would be minimised. The aim was to control movement in and out of the city, to isolate as far as possible the insurgents from the local population and, using the new precision weapons, to attack known centres of insurgent activity. Molan’s description of the lead-up to the decision to retake Fallujah, the “shaping” and the battle itself is a classic example of counter-insurgent warfare at its most intense and effective. In the event, the insurgents themselves wittingly or otherwise co-operated by deciding to fight for the city instead of dispersing to fight another day and Fallujah was recaptured.

The other key event during Molan’s term was the nationwide election in January 2005. This involved the coalition forces in widespread preparation and support because there was no other authority able to provide organisation and security. The United Nations, theoretically in charge of the post-invasion reconstruction, laid down a wildly unrealistic timetable for elections for a transitional government, a constitutional referendum and an election for a national assembly to form the ongoing government of Iraq, all within twelve months. The UN by this time had bolted from Iraq because, targeted by the insurgents, it was considered too dangerous for their personnel, so the bureaucrats mandated the timetable from the comforts of New York. Much of the job was done by the soldiers because no one else wanted to or could do it. Perhaps it was not within the soldiers’ area of expertise or even their remit but someone had to take up the challenge.

Within his fascinating description of the process and its challenges, Molan notes that the first election attracted 8 million of 14 million eligible voters, or 57 per cent, despite an extensive boycott by the Sunnis. By the third election in December 2005, voter participation had increased to more than 85 per cent, a very high figure for a country without compulsory voting and clearly involving many Sunnis. Security for the elections was provided by the nascent Iraqi army and police and the rate of effective attacks on the elections was low.

From July 2004, the political and military structure changed. The direct government of Iraq by the Americans was replaced by an Iraqi interim government, and military operations had to be conducted in co-operation with the Iraqis. Sanchez was replaced by General George Casey, a more senior officer, and Molan became the actual chief of operations directly responsible to Casey. The new relationship was much happier and Molan retains a high regard for Casey as a soldier and a man.

On a technical level, Molan gives a good insight into the reality of the modern twenty-four-hour war. For him as chief of operations, this meant a twenty-hour working day every day, provided that his four hours off was not interrupted by some emergency.

Travel by air or by road was ever dangerous and his team was frequently attacked. Molan travelled by air or in an armoured vehicle with a six-man security detachment from the Australian Special Air Service. It took some time to persuade his Australian superiors that such a level of protection was necessary. Initially he was allocated a soft-skinned vehicle from Australia and a security detachment headed by a non-combat and incompetent officer. In too many cases, Canberra acts as the quintessential ivory tower detached from the real world!

Molan also offers an insight into the close control exercised by commanders and staffs reaching right back to Washington and how this impacts upon people in intermediate headquarters and in the field. Clearly, this level of micro-management is made possible by the communications revolution but Molan offers no comment on its necessity—or otherwise. This is a pity. Generals cannot, of course, be freed of such oversight if the military are to be subject to civilian control. But that oversight has to be exercised with restraint, discretion and appreciation of the difficulties experienced on the spot. It needs to be supervision, not intervention in local tactical or operational activities.

The need to protect a politician or senior official from media or parliamentary criticism is not a good reason to interfere in actual operations. Indeed, if such people could get over their reliance on spin and sensitivity to the media whose ignorance of military operations is often profound, the need for such interference would be much less apparent. In a parallel but of course much less significant event, the uproar—and serious political fallout—in Australia over the so-called “children overboard” affair in 2001 would not have occurred if politicians and public servants had refrained from demanding minute-by-minute reports from an operation that was actually in train.

Molan pays tribute to the ordinary Iraqis, who suffered much more under the insurgency than the occupation forces. He notes the high percentages of ordinary people who turned out to vote in the election, many more on each of three occasions in a very short time, in defiance of the insurgents’ threats. Iraqis were giving themselves a stake in their future and Molan clearly believes that, in justice, the coalition must stay the course even though it will be a long one. He was impressed by the courage and quality of the growing Iraqi security forces, especially during the election of January 2005.

But it does raise the question: Would it have been better if Iraq had never been invaded? One of the just-war principles that must be satisfied is that there must be serious prospects of success. Another is that the use of arms must not result in graver evils and disorders than the evil to be eliminated. The problem with the principles is that they are just that, mere statements of ideals rather than directives, which the moralisers could not issue anyway. What it does mean is that soldiers, especially senior officers like Molan, must decide for themselves on the basis both of the principles and of their professional knowledge, experience and judgment in a fast-moving, dynamic environment. Mistakes will be made; that is human. But the mistakes are more likely to be made by those with inadequate knowledge and experience, by those who rely upon media headlines or raw emotion, or by those who do not understand the nature of this enemy.

If the coalition were to withdraw from Iraq before the new Iraqi government was well established and well served by its own security forces, there could be little doubt of grave evils that would beset the Iraqi people. Personally, I had serious reservations about the Iraq adventure before it was launched in April 2003. It might have been better had it not happened, but once the insurgent war broke out, there could be no going back. This was the personal moral challenge Molan faced. To his credit, he did incomparably better than the mindless critics of the war.

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