By James Kitfield
May 6, 2003
When addressing U.S. Army troops shortly before the Iraq war, V Corps commander Lt. Gen. William Wallace frequently noted his Scottish ancestry, drawing inevitable comparisons to his namesake of Braveheart fame. Yet his highlander fortitude was tested when the campaign seemed to sputter after the first week.
Comments Wallace made to a reporter that Iraqi resistance was fiercer than expected, and that the war might take longer than anticipated, became the center of a whirling controversy over Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's war plan. As the commander of Army maneuver forces and of the battle for Baghdad, however, Wallace was a key leader in a campaign that defeated the Iraqi army and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in roughly three weeks. Embedded with V Corps throughout the war, National Journal Correspondent James Kitfield spoke with Wallace at his headquarters in Baghdad on April 20. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ: In recent comments to U.S. troops in Baghdad, you commended them for "traveling farther in less time, and fighting more decisively, than any army in history." In general terms, what do you think were the key ingredients to this Iraq victory?
Wallace: My overriding impression is one of admiration for the bravery, heroism, and aggressiveness of our young soldiers. Unless they were in an advantageous position to defend, they just constantly attacked throughout the whole campaign.
The other aspect of this campaign that really impressed me was the ability of my young field-grade officers to employ combined arms-direct fire, indirect fire, close air support-in the right balance on the battlefield, and to great advantage. I would also note that this war was executed almost exclusively at the battalion level and below. The divisions moved guys around the map, but the guys who really did the fighting were the lower echelons, at battalion and below.
I was also very impressed with the way our young leaders in those units got out in front and led when their troops were in harm's way. I gave out 26 Purple Hearts the other day, and many if not most of them were to young sergeants and lieutenants. That's different from a Desert Storm type of campaign.
NJ: When we talked shortly before the war began, you stressed that there would be several different fights going on simultaneously within the overall campaign, and I would like you to comment on how each of those fights went. The first was the fight to get your forces deployed and ready in a theater halfway around the world. From my perspective, it seemed that forcing all of those troops and equipment through the eye of a single needle, in terms of the Kuwaiti port and airfield, was very constraining. Was it?
Wallace: First of all, I think we were right to characterize the fight to get here as a critical part of the equation. Certainly the fact that we only had a single airport and port through which our entire formation had to flow was a limiting factor in our operations. I think we did pretty well in adapting ourselves to that reality, but in hindsight, I might have made some different adjustments in terms of what flowed into the country, and when.
For example, early in the flow we were very concerned about fuel. There was a company's worth of 5,000-gallon tankers sitting in Kuwait, but the truck drivers weren't due into the theater for weeks. Ultimately we asked for and received permission to fly in truck drivers from V Corps to fall in on that equipment, in order to get our truck companies moving. Those kinds of decisions and adjustments were being made virtually every day by our logisticians and leaders in the rear area. And ultimately, it worked.
NJ: In retrospect, do you believe this "rolling start," with its necessary focus on deploying new forces even while the war was being fought hundreds of kilometers away, and delivering "just-in- time" supplies, was the best way to go?
Wallace: Well, it's hard to argue with success. All of us would like more predictability in our lives and jobs. But we made this work-that's how I would phrase it. We had some very talented people who made it work.
There are also advantages to a "rolling start," because it allows you to get into the fight quicker. You gain some strategic as well as tactical advantages from that fact. The impression we have from talking to some Iraqi officers, for instance, is that some were expecting a Desert Storm-type campaign preceded by a long period of aerial bombardment. As you recall, instead we actually started the ground war before we started the air war. That decision was made for a number of different reasons, but I have to believe it surprised some Iraqi military officers who found themselves confronting U.S. tanks very early in the war.
NJ: One of the other major fights involved in this war was against tough and variable terrain, from the dusty desert of western Iraq to the fertile farmland between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, with its many canals and waterways. How well did your forces cope with that?
Wallace: I was certainly happy with the way our forces handled the terrain. We captured a map that an Iraqi reconnaissance battalion commander in the Republican Guards was carrying, and it showed they were anticipating our forces to go exactly where we decided not to go, largely because the terrain between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers was so difficult for maneuver forces.
Having said that, we were surprised by the texture of the desert terrain. The dust problem in those areas was orders of magnitude worse than any of our terrain analysts had predicted. That caused us a number of problems. It caused us a problem in terms of convoy movement, and in terms of aviation assets. Anytime anything moved out there, it kicked up a dust cloud. It was like driving through talcum powder.
NJ: You said from the beginning that maintaining a fast pace of operations would be crucial to this campaign, which brings us to the question of the so-called "pause" in offensive operations that began with the sandstorm near the end of the first week. That halt to your forward progress obviously sparked some controversy back in the United States, didn't it?
Wallace: I would suggest to you that "tempo" can be fast or slow, either of which is OK as long as you are in control of the tempo, and the enemy is not. When we slowed our forward progress and tempo, it was for a very deliberate, two-fold reason. First, we wanted to build our logistics stance prior to moving into the battle for Baghdad. Second, even though we weren't moving forward, we were attacking the enemy every day. We had three fights going on nearly simultaneously around Najaf in that time frame, and a very serious fight down in Samawa. The fact that we weren't advancing through the Karbala Gap didn't mean that we weren't fighting. We continued to fight, we continued to secure our [logistics] lines, and we continued to kill a lot of bad guys.
NJ: At one time, you were dealing simultaneously with a dust storm of near-biblical proportions, unexpectedly fierce fights with Iraqi paramilitaries, and the distraction of the controversy back in Washington over your comments. What was that period like for you personally?
Wallace: Personally, the period during the dust storm was the low point of the entire campaign for me. That was definitely the hardest part and the low point of the war. You have to remember that the 3rd Infantry Division crossed the line of departure to open the war with about five days of supplies in terms of water, food, and ammunition. Then the dust storm hit on the fifth day of the fight, and lasted for most of three days. During that storm, our convoys took three to four days to reach our forward forces, and they were carrying two days of resupply. So the math didn't add up at that point, which concerned me. Not that we couldn't hold on to the ground we had gained, but we couldn't advance a lot further in our plans until we had solved the logistics issue.
The period of the dust storm was also tough because we were fighting our tails off. There was all of this discussion on the lack of progress, but in actual fact, we were still maintaining a high operations tempo. We just weren't gaining ground. What we were doing was setting conditions for a decisive fight to follow.
NJ: The period of the dust storm also revealed the other great surprise of the war, which was the suicidal fanaticism with which the Fedayeen Saddam and some other paramilitary forces fought. How did you react to that?
Wallace: At the time, we simply couldn't discount the fanaticism with which those paramilitaries fought. I was not willing to ignore the threat it posed, or to expose my critical logistics train to it.
In terms of forces to meet that threat, I had a very strong point of the spear with the 3rd Infantry Division. What I didn't have was a heavily mobile secondary force. The ability of the 101st Airborne Division to move itself around at that time was limited, quite frankly, because some of the trucks they rely on for mobility hadn't arrived in theater yet. So I was constrained in my ability to get one of the divisions around the battlefield. That led to some really tough calls on where to employ the 101st Division.
NJ: Also at that time, some of your commanders characterized the fighting taking place around Najaf and Karbala as a preview of the battle of Baghdad. Did it turn out that way?
Wallace: That may very well represent the single most significant adjustment we made in this entire war. We never had any intention of fighting in those southern cities, because we felt that would put us at a disadvantage; so we intended to bypass them.
As it turned out, the enemy was so aggressive in coming out of the cities and attacking us that we had to counterattack, first to secure our lines of communication, and second because the enemy was going to keep coming at us until we went into the cities and whacked him. So we had to make an adjustment to our battle plan and tactics to compensate for that aggressive tactic by the enemy.
I think Saddam's forces were trying to draw us into the cities, where they thought they had an advantage. Instead, we turned the cities into a disadvantage, with our armored raids taking out their heavy equipment, technical vehicles, and bunker complexes. Once we did that with our heavy armored forces, we switched to light infantry, backed by heavy reinforcements, to do the more detailed clearing operations. In the process of those fights, we not only secured our lines of communication and diminished the enemy's capabilities, but we also began to take control of population centers that we had anticipated addressing later, in Phase 4 stability operations. We just ended up confronting that issue earlier in the campaign than we anticipated.
NJ: Once you went back on the offensive at the start of April, and pushed your forces successfully through the Karbala Gap, the campaign seemed to come quickly to a head. Why was that?
Wallace: For nearly a year, we had recognized collectively that once we were through the Karbala Gap, the fight would not be over until we seized the international airport in Baghdad. The entire fight from Karbala to the airport was considered as one continuous assault, because once we crossed through the gap, we were inside the range of all the artillery that was in support of Baghdad and all the Republican Guard divisions around Baghdad.
We were also obviously worried about if and when Saddam would use chemical weapons. If you got 10 people in a room, you'd get 10 opinions on the subject, but clearly Karbala Gap was one of those choke points where Saddam could have used those weapons to some effect in terms of slowing us down. So the judgment I stated to my commanders was that once we crossed through the gap, we would be within Saddam's red zone in terms of defenses, and we had damn sure better be ready to continue the fight all the way to the encirclement of Baghdad.
NJ: At what point in that offensive from Karbala Gap to Baghdad did you sense that you had your enemy defeated?
Wallace: When we seized the bridge over the Euphrates River at what we called Objective Peach. At that point, I was pretty confident that we had Saddam by the balls. If we hadn't seized that bridge, we were prepared to put our own bridges in the water, but that probably would have added 24 hours to our operations. If he had the capability at the time-and it's not clear to me now that he did-he could have used that 24 hours to reposition forces and mass artillery, making life a lot harder for us. So when we got the main bridge across the Euphrates, I knew we were essentially home free.
NJ: Before the war, you targeted the Republican Guard Medina Division, which defended the southern approaches to Baghdad, as the center of gravity in the campaign. Yet the Medina never seemed able to fight as a coherent division-sized force, did it?
Wallace: No, it never did. As I look back, I think it fell victim to a successful, joint, combined-arms fight. I'm about 95 percent convinced that when we crossed the Euphrates in a series of feints just after the dust storm hit, it forced the Medina to start repositioning its forces to counter an advance between the rivers that was never our main intent.
We had beautiful weather with clear skies at that point, and we started getting reports of enemy armor moving on trucks, of Iraqi artillery forces repositioning, and of attempts by Medina brigades to occupy what they believed would be optimum defensive positions. All that happened in the full view of the U.S. Air Force, and they started whacking the hell out of the Medina. So that was a pretty good feeling, knowing that the enemy felt he had to move his forces under conditions that were of great advantage to us as the attacker.
NJ: Perhaps the place where reality deviated most dramatically from your war plan was in the battle of Baghdad, which you planned as a very methodical series of strikes from staging bases on the city's periphery. The reality happened much faster, in two successive armored assaults into the city, didn't it?
Wallace: Once again, you have to go back to the battle of Najaf to understand our actions at that point, because that's where we learned we could do better. We learned that armor could fight in the city and survive, and that if you took heavy armored forces into the city-given the way Saddam was defending the city with technical vehicles and bunker positions-we could knock all of those defenses out and survive. As a result of Najaf, I think our soldiers also gained an extraordinary appreciation for the survivability of their equipment. So Najaf made decisions associated with being more aggressive when we got to Baghdad a hell of a lot easier. We didn't have to be as cautious as we had anticipated, because by the time we got to Baghdad we had learned some important lessons along the way, and we applied them to the Baghdad fight.
NJ: On the second of those armored assaults into downtown Baghdad, elements of the 3rd Infantry Division captured the main palace and city center, and then unexpectedly asked if they could simply stay and occupy downtown. That wasn't planned, was it?
Wallace: No, it wasn't. And it brought concerns. Not about our ability to stay in Baghdad, because we had already demonstrated an ability to dominate the urban battlefield. Rather, the concern was about our ability to get light-skinned vehicles in to resupply those armored forces sitting downtown.
In the end, we were able to protect those convoys, allowing us to stay in downtown Baghdad. In fact, we found that the positioning of our forces around the palace downtown was actually more defensible than our positions on the outside of town, because the parks and broad plazas in the city gave us good fields of fire, and we were in a place where he couldn't mass his artillery on us because we were in the middle of his artillery forces. When you got right down to it, all of that added up to making our decision to stay in downtown Baghdad a good one. Third Infantry commander Maj. Gen. Buford Blount called me up and said, "Well, we control all the intersections, and I recommend we stay, because if we stay, we have the city." I agreed.
NJ: In many ways, doesn't this transition now under way from combat to stability and peace enforcement seem more difficult than pure war fighting?
Wallace: We train for war fighting, but peacekeeping is something that we do. If you look across our formation, I would bet that 30 percent or more of our soldiers have had some real-world peacekeeping experience in the Balkans. So we have a lot of experience in how to deal with civil affairs, with civilian populations, with establishing institutions to get civilian populations involved in their own destiny. There is just a lot of experience in our forces with this civil-military dynamic, largely as a result of our operations in Bosnia and Kosovo.
NJ: Even in the Balkans, however, you didn't have to make that transition from such intense combat operations, did you?
Wallace: The rapidity with which we have transitioned from one to the other in Iraq is the real trick. One day our troops are kicking down doors, and the next they're passing out Band-Aids. And in some cases, they're kicking down doors without really knowing if they are going to have to pull a trigger or pass out a Band-Aid on the other side. And it's really a remarkable tribute to the mental acuity of our soldiers that they are able to do that.
NJ: Other than the Fedayeen Saddam fights, were there any surprises that Iraqi forces threw at you that forced you to react or adjust?
Wallace: We should be careful at this point, because wars are kind of like good wine, they tend to get better with age. But it seems to me that regardless of whether Saddam still had a command-and-control apparatus in place toward the end, it continually took Iraqi forces a long time-somewhere on the order of 24 hours-to react to anything we did. By the time the enemy realized what we were doing, got the word out to his commanders and they actually did something as a result, we had already moved on to doing something different. For a commander, that's a pretty good thing-fighting an enemy who can't really react to you.
By James Kitfield
May 6, 2003