The Truth Behind the US’s ‘Iron Fist’

Remember the Third Infantry Division? The “Iron Fist” of the United States Army’s 18th Airborne Corps was one of the primary combat units during Operation Iraqi Freedom. It saw action from the first crossing of the Iraqi border to the final days of fighting in Baghdad, and was hailed as the new model for the vision of a transformed military; one that could fight flexibly and lethally over long distances. But there was both more and less to its story, as it turns out.

Recently, the division’s official after-action report was obtained by the Alexandria, Virginia-based group and posted on its website. The 281-page report is notable for its dispassionate warts and a record of how it performed during the war. While it does not stint on praising itself for things that went well, it does not avoid discussing the things that went badly and the need for improvements.

The report shows that despite the proliferation of hi-tech weaponry and military equipment in US military units, the basics are still as important as ever; namely training. It notes, “The requirement for tough realistic training has not changed in the past 227 years. The division lived under the ‘train as you fight’ motto for the 12 months preceding the war.”

And, in light of all the current publicity given to former US army prisoner of war Jessica Lynch, it is interesting to note that it was the ambitious nature of Operation Iraqi Freedom itself that exposed her unit to attack. In the words of the report, “The continuous pace and extended distance of OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] taxed the division’s logistics systems to the maximum extent. In anticipation of the ambitious maneuver and expected austerity of the theater logistics environment, the division commander accepted risk in some classes of supply in order to accommodate the burden of independence and ensure the flexibility required to exploit success.”

Although many commentators claimed that the Iraqis did not fight, or at least not as fiercely as anticipated, the report states that the battlefield was often more dangerous than noted at the time. The report states, “All commanders faced a multifaceted threat. Throughout the operation, units fought conventional regular army and Republican Guard forces, as well as paramilitary and terrorist threats … The extended battlespace created a nonlinear battlefield. All units of the division were on the ‘front lines’. There was no sanctuary on the battlefield. Virtually every element of the division was engaged at some point in the fight.”

Especially in light of the ongoing insurgency in Iraq, details in the report concerning postwar planning, or lack thereof, are especially revealing. Although it is hardly a novel insight at this point in time, the report confirms that planning for post-major combat operations was inadequate. The report states that the division “did not have a fully developed plan for the transition to SASO [stability and support operations] and civil military operations in Baghdad prior to entering the city”.

The report also supports those who criticized Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials for not sending a larger force to Iraq. According to the report, “As the division transitioned to SASO, it did not have sufficient forces or effective rules of engagement to control civilian looting and rioting throughout the city [of Baghdad]. Looting by the local civilians was a significant obstacle to the reestablishment of order in such a heavily populated area.”

The division also came up short in terms of particular specialties that were critical to being able to do reconstruction quickly and effectively. That is something that the US is not only obligated to do as an occupying power, but would have done much to gain the confidence and cooperation of the Iraqi people. For example, it suffered an acute shortage of explosive ordinance detachment personnel to clear enemy weapons caches and unexploded ordnances, of which there are hundreds of thousands of tons.

Also, in terms of dealing with damage to infrastructure, combat engineers were simply out of their league. While it is true that such tasks are not their primary, or even secondary, mission, there was much that they did do in terms of rebuilding. But they could have done much more if adequate prewar planning had taken place. The report notes, “If the final objective of an operation includes existing buildings and facilities, there needs to be a clear plan for the occupation of the facilities as well as a plan for the re-establishment of the basic infrastructure needs.”

Not surprisingly, given that this is the report of an army unit, it found that “shock and awe” was not something that was the exclusive realm of air power. It found, contrary to the predictions of some, that armor units could operate effectively in urban areas. “The lethality of a mechanized force enables the attacking force to not only destroy the enemy, but also create a shock effect that destroys his will to fight.”

However, that is not say it could do so without costs. As human rights groups have documented, there was much unintentional targeting of civilians. The report notes that both the Army Tactical Missile System and Multiple Launch Rocket System were used to engage artillery and surface-to-surface missiles in Iraqi cities, but caused heavy collateral damage.

Perhaps the most striking section of the report, considering the Bush administration’s generally hostile relationship with the media, was the effort they put into developing a trusting relationship with the embedded media. The division devoted great efforts to “team building” between the various units in the division and the media who were assigned to them. Not only did it conduct extensive training exercises prior to deployment, but two days before the start of the war it provided the media a broad overview of the plan, including tentative timelines. The “media were allowed unprecedented access to plans. We know of no media that violated the trust during the entire operation”.