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Were the US military really dominant in Iraq? Or were they not really tested?

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 13 June 2003


The war in Iraq will greatly shape the unfolding of the new century because so much is at stake. More people have been killed elsewhere (the Congo, for instance) and some recent storms or earthquakes probably did as much physical damage, but the war was important because it was laden with so much symbolism. An emerging new world order, oil, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction - it had the lot.

Wars always generate stories that shape how they are seen and how things will develop afterwards. These stories close off some options and open up others. They always contain a message about what should be done, and what should not. These stories - and their message - really matter.

There are a number of stories about the war already out there. Perhaps the most important one is that the US is now the sole global hyperpower and that new technology can win fast, relatively bloodless conflicts. And the message in all this is clear.

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But let us consider this particular story in more depth, and see if it holds water.

One important element of this story is that a technologically advanced US is now unassailable by any other power on Earth. It won all too easily in Iraq and has terrorism on the run, so any putative challengers to American power better rethink their plans.

In more detail, this story goes like this: with the end of the Cold War the US was faced with a number of new security problems. To paraphrase the head of the CIA, the dragon was dead but there were now a lot of snakes to deal with. In response, the US reorganised its military away from Cold War-style large-scale nuclear war fighting and towards flexible and limited response to more numerous but lower-intensity conflicts. More fundamentally, the US military adopted a new approach that optimised use of the new information and communications technologies constantly under improvement. This restructuring of the US military was called the revolution in military affairs (RMA).

Debate on the RMA raged within the US military itself between the old soldiers, who thought war still came down to discipline, death and the fog of war, and a new generation of technically minded soldiers who thought the new technology would work to ensure quick, decisive and low-cost victory. So, along came the invasion of Iraq, and the new approach of the RMA could be tested in the field.

US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld apparently supported the RMA and pushed the high-tech, low numbers on the ground strategy in Iraq against strong opposition from some inside the Pentagon. Despite a few setbacks, the US, with a little help from the British - and the Australians - quickly demolished the Iraqi forces, including the supposedly formidable Republican Guard. It was no contest - whenever the Iraqis resisted, their formations were wiped out by concentrated artillery and air attack with minimal Coalition casualties.

So, the RMA seemed to be a resounding success. This sent shock waves through the Chinese, Russian, and any other military establishments who could conceivably see themselves contesting US power one day. The Chinese in particular were stunned. Their current long-term military strategy is to shift from quantity to quality, and their only option if they wish to eventually challenge the US is to continue their program of upgrading technological capability. An indication that they are having some success in this effort, greatly helped by astute filching of US secrets, is the manned space program.

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For their part the Russians, it is reported, have decided to shift to a much more nuclearised military posture because they simply could not compete with US technology. The irony in this is that the US high technology (and nuclear) approach was originally developed as a response to perceived Soviet conventional military superiority in Europe, with which the US thought it could not compete.

The story of total US dominance in military affairs has completely transformed international relations. There are major implications for the US's allies as well as potential competitors. But was the US military really that effective in Iraq?

Recently stories have emerged that the US bought off significant units of the Iraqi armed forces, just as they did in Afghanistan. Such rumours have been circulating in the Middle East since the end of the fighting and would explain some strange anomalies of the war. Like why Bagdad fell so easily, obviating the passibility of protracted and bloody street fighting. Indeed, in the very first days of the war Rumsfeld himself said that the US was in touch with various Iraqi commanders by phone and e-mail in an attempt to get them to give up without a fight.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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