Colonel Douglas Macgregor doesn’t mind bucking the conventional wisdom. He’s an outspoken critic of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the military leaders who’ve been running them. He’s also not too keen on the army’s full scale shift towards counter-insurgency. (“It’s absurd,” he says, “It makes no strategic sense.”)
He has the credentials to back up his criticisms: he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor for commanding a tank squadron in battle in 1991, helped plan the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1998, and was called in by Donald Rumsfeld to brief Tommy Franks on an alternative plan for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (His plan called for keeping the Iraqi military intact to secure the country after the invasion, an idea that looks pretty smart in hindsight.)
Macgregor’s latest book, “Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting,” takes us back to Iraq in 1991, during the largest tank battle America was involved in since World War II. It’s a fascinating and compelling read—on the one hand, it’s a war story, with vivid descriptions of a brutal moment in the history of modern conflict. On the other hand, the book offers a devastating look into the culture of the Army’s officer corps, lessons Macgregor applies to the last six years in Iraq, and what’s currently going on in Afghanistan. (“The personality types of the generals promoted to general officer rank were much like their own,” he writes of the current crop of military leaders, “Those of men who thrived on the sycophantic culture of the post-war Desert Storm garrison army. They were men for whom it was always easier to move up then to speak up.”)
Colonel Macgregor, now retired from active duty, was kind enough to speak to The Hastings Report. Read on for the highlights from the wide ranging interview—from how the Saudis are cozying up to the Russians to why it makes sense to fire your generals to the lessons we missed from the first Gulf War.
First off, let’s start with the news. Anything popped up on your radar this summer?
It’s been quiet through most of August, but things are starting to pick up. I just got a frantic call from one of my clients because the Saudis are about to close a deal to buy $2 billion of Russian arms. This is very upsetting to the U.S. defense industry.
Why’s that—the Saudis aren’t happy with the U.S.?
If the United States advanced the border of Iranian strategic power to your border, would you be grateful? Since we have no influence over Iran, who does? If you are looking for an opportunity to influence your security—the Iranians don’t invade overtly. They develop fifth columns in your Shiite populations and eastern Saudi Arabia is heavily Shiite. The deal involves tanks, BMPs, a lot of armaments. These are the things we’ve been selling the Saudis for years, and it looks like we’re being edged out of that market. This has nothing to do with Russian success. It has everything to do with our behavior in the region. People don’t understand that something that everybody in the Persian Gulf understands, in Saudi Arabia understands that is, Iran controls Iraq, not the United States or its forces.
What are you hearing from your sources in Iraq about the beginning of American withdrawal?
American withdrawal has always been imperative. The whole point of the opening chapter in my book is that, at least before we went in, there was, in the key political circles, including Rumsfeld, that whatever you did, you did not want to dismantle the state and the army and govern Iraq with U.S. troops. If you did that, you would precipitate a hostile response. Rumsfeld always understood that—he was not the architect of the occupation. The problem is, people mistake the weakness of these Islamic societies as opportunity for development. They don’t understand you cannot drag a billion people in the Islamic world through the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in just a few years, install U.S. concepts of governance and expect them to embrace it and maintain it. Not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan.
The book’s narrative centers around a tank battle you fought in the first Gulf War. What prompted you to go back and write about this?
The issue to me is three fold. The point of the book—this battle was the battle that nobody wanted to happen in the chain of command. If you read it carefully, you realized I maneuvered the squadron into action. The order said pull into the enemy’s security zone, where he’s established his prepared artillery and lots of reconnaissance and just sit there. I thought that was extremely dangerous and ill advised. I made up my mind we would blast through or otherwise it would be extremely dangerous. The soldiers performed brilliantly. The point of the book is that this is the true story of what happened, how it happened and why it happened. It’s also the true story of how the soldiers won the battle. The chain of command, the generals in particular, threw it all away. They had no desire to fight this particular conflict.
So you don’t think Desert Storm was a success?
We lost an opportunity to remove Saddam Hussein without occupying the place. That was something that should have happened. In 1991, you still had millions of people in Iraq who were well educated, these people were all there. There was a rising middle class. The outcome would not have been perfect but the people who lived in the country would ultimately have determined its destiny—there was a chance to set up something that worked for them. It would not have been an Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy, but then again they don’t exist outside of Europe or North America. That’s fine, ultimately what the people invent for themselves is the only thing that’s going to survive. That was a missed opportunity that was won on the battlefield. There was an unwillingness to fight. There was no desire for fluid, open maneuver warfare. What the generals have today Afghanistan and Iraq, they like. There is no maneuver. You move in, you have a very weak adversary, you set up a base, and you do operations from the base. Your enemy has no armor, no artillery, no air force. You are able to go where you like and do what you like. There are no high risk maneuvers. There are no exceptionally agile or dangerous enemies that can put your forces in complete risk. This is not 1950—the 8th Army is not in danger of being overrun by the North Koreans or the Chinese. The generals are much more comfortable with static light infantry warfare against a weak adversary that drags on for years because it is low risk for them.
By choosing to fight as “static light infantry”—by choosing to fight counterinsurgencies, in other words—you think the U.S. is giving away a lot of its military advantages, right? Our technology, our airpower, our advanced weaponry.
I didn’t say it made sense, or that it was in the strategic interest of the American people. But the generals like it because it’s something they can manage and control, at least in their minds. If you have a temporary problem you bring more firepower to bear on an enemy that has no means of defending itself. In the case of Iraq, when the situation has advanced to the point where you have an Iranian backed government and Shiite Arab army that is well armed, you adversary, the Sunni insurgent is willing to do business with you, he’s willing to take hard cash. He realizes he can’t prevail against both the United States military and the Iranian backed government. Those conditions don’t pertain to today inside Afghanistan. These are things the generals are comfortable with. They’re not looking at strategic outcomes. There is no strategy, in both cases. There was no strategy in 1991. ‘We’re going to throw the Iraqi military out of Kuwait, then the Iraqi military is so weakened, Saddam Hussein will be weakened, that miraculously, people inside Iraq who don’t like Saddam Hussein are going to remove him.’ That’s not a strategy, that’s a list of wishful thinking and objectives. What’s been absent from everything we’ve been doing since this disaster in Iraq got started in 1991 is strategy. There is none.
How do you mean?
There was no recognition in 1991 that you had at your disposal this remarkable force of enthusiastic young men, well trained, well equipped, ready to fight. It wasn’t appreciated. It wasn’t appreciated because virtually all of the generals and colonels were people whose only experience of warfare was Vietnam, and their memories were not very positive. They didn’t understand that this  was not an ambiguous conflict, as Vietnam had been. We weren’t exporting democracy, or all that other nonsense. We were interested in preventing Saddam Hussein from threatening the oil supplies or gaining control of the oil supplies. We understood that. That meant we had to go after his force, he had to be defeated and he had to be removed. No one ever sat down and put together a coherent strategy for the use of military power to achieve that outcome. What you got instead was this massive build up, insisted upon by Powell, Schwarzkopf, Franks, and the others. They were all very much the same. They all saw potential disaster up until the very last moment. There was this assumption they were fighting some great and powerful force, there could be lots and lots of casualties, but casualties could undermine everything. Avoiding casualties became the rational for doing nothing. They succeeded. They didn’t do anything. After having done nothing of strategic value for the American people, they advertised themselves as great heroic figures. In 1991, Powell and Schwarzkopf had the temerity to ride through Manhattan in a ticker tape parade, pretending they had won a great victory for the American people. Today that seems the distant past. To me it’s incomprehensible they had done such a thing. There was a complete lack of honesty about what really happened.
Do you think they were kidding themselves—that they themselves believed they had won a great victory in 1991?
I think privately, they knew they hadn’t. They weren’t going to speak the truth. There was no incentive for them to do so. I think President George H.W. Bush gradually came around to realizing that he failed—I think he had taken bad advice. On the one hand he was told by Powell and Schwarzkopf that Saddam Hussein wasn’t going to survive. We needed to quit while we’re ahead. Brent Scowcroft said we were going to march in to Iraq and occupy it. Neither the generals or Scowcroft had any appreciation for the broad spectrum of uses for military power. They didn’t understand that we could have done what the Germans did in 1917. When the Bolsheviks stalled and refused to negotiate an end to the conflict on the eastern front, the German army resumed its advance on Moscow. As soon as word came back to the Bolsheviks up in Riga that the Germans were marching to Moscow and nothing was going to stop them, the Bolsheviks said that’s it, we sign, we’re out of here. That was the end of the war in the east. The Germans didn’t want to occupy Russia. They were simply going to go to Moscow and shoot Lenin. They weren’t going to occupy the damned country. They were much more sober minded people then their successors in World War II. We didn’t want to occupy Iraq in 1991, but we did want to get rid of Saddam Hussein. There was no appreciation of the fact that the Iraqi generals hated him. No one considered the possibility of marching towards Baghdad, bringing the Iraqi general officers around you. No one made it clear that once you got Saddam and his inner circle, you were out. There was no appreciation for what are our real interests were. Our interests in that country were always limited. We repeated the same mistake in 2003. We learned nothing from our experience in 1991. In 2003, instead of advancing very resolutely and quickly into Baghdad, we dragged this thing out for two and half weeks and the one damn thing we needed to do was to get to Baghdad in four days and get rid of Saddam. We didn’t understand most people shooting us were shooting at us because we were in their country. We got Baghdad, we took too long, we missed the opportunity to capture Saddam, we don’t get to him until November. Meanwhile we decide, we’re going to transform this country into an Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy. The Saudis and everyone else watching said, don’t do this. The only outcome will be majority rule by the Shiite Arabs. We ignored them. We didn’t understand. The point is, if you go back to 1991, all of these things were evident if they took care to pay attention to what was happening on the ground.
In the book, you cite a conversation you had with a captured Republican Guard commander to prove your point.
We called him Major Mohammed. He was the brigade commander. He looked at me and he said ‘You got to go to Baghdad and finish this, you have to get rid of this man.’ He didn’t say, ‘You have to occupy Iraq, bring us your culture and democracy.’ He said, ‘Get rid of this man, everyone will support you.’ We didn’t listen. We missed all the vital lessons of 1991, and on the battlefield, we didn’t walk away with any understanding of what happened. We were fascinated with these precision guided missiles that seemed to work miraculously when we know they didn’t. We missed the value of this armored force. This irresistible juggernaut, once it is set in motion is unstoppable by anybody on the planet. We lost our appreciation for that. Now we’re building a new army, a kind of a poor man’s Marine Corps. Lots of men with rifles on trucks. They take lots of casualties. We’ve opted for symmetry. You’ve heard everyone talk about asymmetry. When we talk about a large number of units, that are filled with men carrying their firepower and are dependent on moving by foot or being dropped off by a helicopter or a truck, you’ve essentially put yourself on a level playing field with your enemy. The lesson of warfare is you never want to be on a level playing field with your enemy. The armored force was that force can be remarkably precise and it doesn’t have to shoot back at everything that shoots at it. Most of the time, it can ignore what shot at it. It bounces off, it’s ignored, and that sometimes is a good thing, particularly when you’re operating in these Muslim countries because you happen to be in their neighborhood.
You open the book when you’re called to CENTCOM, on behalf of Rumsfeld, to brief Tommy Franks. Give us the background on how that came about, and what plan you suggested.
To back up a little bit. My book, “Breaking the Phalanx,” has a chapter in it, called Fighting with the Information Age Army in 2005. This book came out in 1997. I reorganized the ground force, integrated it with the air and naval forces, and replayed Iraq with a new force—a scenario of a futuristic fight involving both Iraq and Iran. I argued that we would go back, and I argued that we would end up at war with Iraq and/or Iran. In 2005, I postulated a scenario where they signed a mutual defense pact. I set the wheels in motion, and within two weeks, we had cleaned out Iraq. Rumsfeld read this, and was very impressed, and said to Gingrich, go find this man. All I’m hearing from Tommy Franks is that we need 500,000 men. And I want to find out from Macgregor why he thinks we can do it with 50,000. We got into a discussion about weapons of mass destruction, and I said well, you’ve seen the intelligence, I haven’t seen it all, I’ve seen some of it, I don’t know if he’s got WMDs, but if it does have weapons of mass destruction, the last thing you want to do is put 200,000 men in this corner pocket of Kuwait—it’s an invitation to lose them. What you want to do is have a sudden, unanticipated attack. You don’t want to warn everyone that you’re coming. Gingrich said, Rumsfeld agrees with you, Rumsfeld doesn’t want to go to the United Nations. I had been the director of joint operations for Wes Clark during the Kosovo air campaigns, we all agreed that if we go to the UN to launch the campaign against the Serbs, not only would you not get permission, it would be a long painful process. The Serbs obviously would have the support of the Russians, and it would give them time to prepare for your air assault. We don’t want to go there. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. My plan for Iraq said, when we get there, we get the Iraqi army and police back in control, and we begin looking for away to get out, we work through the military and police, and even invite the United Nations in to run the elections. There was no reason for anybody to occupy the place. Even Tommy Franks understood that. The problem was that Tommy Franks, that he like rest of the generals imputed capability to an enemy that didn’t exist. In 2002, Franks talked about a fight that would last 90 days that would get to Baghdad. I was talking about 96 hours, you’re there. That what’s the 3rd ID did, within 96 hours they were there, and then it sat for there for three or four days. You’re dealing with deliberate planners, risk averse, Cold Warriors. Their thinking is really routed in 1916 on the Somme.
The book is a tough critique of the military brass, from the regimental commander to the general staff. What in your view is wrong with these guys? Is it a cultural thing?
At the beginning of the Civil War, by 1862, at the beginning of World War I in 1917 and 1918, again in ’39 and ’41, there was tremendous turn over in the general officers. There was recognition that the peacetime bureaucratic army did not promote the right people, that the peacetime bureaucratic army tends to favor the wrong solution. In 1862, there’s a famous conversation between Jefferson Davis and PT Beauregard: “Does the union army have anybody who’s any good?” Davis asks. “Yes, there was a man I knew in the Mexican war who was very capable, and he’d be very dangerous. But I don’t know what’s happened to him.” Grant was washed out of the system. Stonewall Jackson had also been ejected out of the army. Jackson, and Grant, only made it to the top with great difficulty. In 1917, when Pershing takes over the American Expeditionary Force, Pershing eliminates 63 generals from command. From 1917 to the end of the war, the old expression ‘canned’–you get canned, meaning ‘fired’–that comes from the city Cannes in France. So many generals were being relieved, a holding pen was set up at Cannes. Pershing put one of his West Point classmates in charge of it. “I’m relieving these guys, I don’t have time to screw around, maybe I’m making some mistakes. Your job is to investigate everyone I fire, and if I made a mistake, I’ll reinstate them. Out of the 60 some generals, only two were reinstated. George Marshall was on Pershing’s staff and he watched the bloodbath. This bloodbath continued to October 1918. If you didn’t advance, if you didn’t fight, if you couldn’t coordinate your artillery power, you were gone. So when Marshall becomes chief of staff in 1939, he knows we’re going to end up at war, and this general officer corps is a disaster. He retires 54 general officers and he retires over 400 colonels because he knows the war is coming and he can’t go to war with these guys. Between March of 1942 and May of 1945 he removes from command 32 generals. They were relived because they didn’t perform. Because we were in a real war, against a real enemy. We couldn’t afford to lose. In Korea, Ridgway does the same thing. He was up against a very dangerous enemy. We were almost pushed into the sea and annihilated. What happened in Vietnam? None of that. Nobody was relieved or removed. As far as general officers were concerned it was a pretty static operation. What was Vietnam like? Build a base, operate from the base. Fast forward to Iraq and Afghanistan. Name all the commanders who were removed because they failed to perform. Maybe you’ll find four battalion commanders, but that’s it.
General David McKiernan was probably the most high profile, no?
In my view, McKiernan wasn’t relieved–and he was disaster in front of Baghdad. He should have been relieved for that—along with Petraeus and Wallace. They were all running around screaming in panic because of men in pickup trucks. At the time, I was asked about it by Gingrich. I told him we would have been delighted to see men in pickup trucks in 1991. Could you imagine had they contacted Joe Collins or George Patton in World War II and say, ‘Sorry, we can’t advance, there are too many Germans in pickup trucks.’ They say there’s this and this and this, if they refuse to advance, relieve them. This is 2003, the objective was to get to Baghdad fast. We did the opposite. Then everybody turns around and pats themselves on the back, and all the neocon journalists at the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times all run forward and talk about what a great achievement this is. It’s absurd. Patton would have been in Baghdad in a few days. Rommel would have been there in a couple of days. And anybody who refused to advance would have been gone.
You see your book as a corrective to the sort of military thinking that dominates the Army now.
We lost our sense of what fighting is all about. That’s the beauty of this book—this book is about fighting. This is what should happen. This is what should have happened in 2003. The enemy is there, you go out, you get rid of him, and you don’t stop.