Heed the Lessons, Not the Lies

Victory in future wars is often a function of learning from the one just fought. In 1944, President Roosevelt learned from France's failure to learn from its victory in 1918 and told his secretary of war, "It would be valuable . . . for postwar planning to obtain an impartial and expert study of the effects of the aerial attack on Germany." The result was the 1946 "United States Strategic Bomb Survey," by such scholars as Paul Nitze and John Kenneth Galbraith, which had a profound effect on the U.S. military.
After the first Persian Gulf War, Franklin C. Spinney cited Roosevelt's missive in a March 1991 Newsday commentary recommending a study of Operation Desert Storm.

Spinney, described in the news media as a "Pentagon maverick," argued that the world was again changing and that the U.S. military needed another thorough and impartial evaluation to chart defense planning. He suggested that the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences lead the analysis.

No such study resulted.

Air Force Secretary Donald Rice commissioned a "Gulf War Air Power Survey" in 1991, but when its findings failed to conform to Air Force dogma, he limited printing to just 500 copies. In April 1992, the Defense Department produced its official "Conduct of the Persian Gulf War," but the study was thinly disguised self-promotion. Several books were written about the conflict, but none of the authors had access to critical Defense Department data, which remained classified.

In the absence of readily available, comprehensive information, a public image of the first Gulf War emerged. It all added up, most agreed, to the supremacy of American high-tech weapon systems and a revolution in warfare.

It also was garbage.

In 1997, the General Accounting Office released a 235-page study. It had none of the eminence of the fabled "United States Strategic Bomb Survey," none of the authority of an official Defense Department study, not even the selling point of an effort to censor it. But it did have data.
The report was "Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign," which I produced along with four smart, tough colleagues at GAO. Not only did we win access to virtually all of the Defense Department's relevant data, but military officials were unsuccessful in manipulating the results. The report is crammed with information the myth-makers of Desert Storm never wanted anyone to know:

  • On the first night of the war, F-117s successfully destroyed just two, maybe three, of the military's 15 air defense targets. By day five, Air Force Intelligence assessed those defenses as being "down, but not out."
  • About half the Tomahawk missiles launched "failed to arrive at their intended targets."
  • Instead of "one target, one bomb," successful attacks against bridges, for example, required an average of 10 bombs-all of them precision-guided.

In the new, 2003 war against Iraq, some people seemed taken aback by events that should not have surprised them. As many as several hundred innocent civilians may have been killed by U.S. precision-guided munitions. This seemed to shock some U.S. journalists; others nodded knowingly as Defense spokespeople explained that these weapons go wrong only on the rarest occasions and that maybe Saddam's weapons did the damage. Scores of American soldiers were killed not by Saddam's over-touted Republican Guard and Iraq's best weapons, but by poorly trained fanatics with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers designed in the 1940s. The news media and the U.S. command were caught flatfooted.

Today, we are setting ourselves up for a replay. The hucksters of various technological wares are selling the same snake oil we saw immediately after Desert Storm:

  • Air power, especially stealth, decimated the Republican Guard.
  • This war had fewer civilian casualties than any comparable one in history.
  • In response to mid-war critics who called for more "boots on the ground," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "Never have so many been so wrong about so much."

Rumsfeld should not be leading the gloating. He should be reviewing lessons from the past, quietly noting who are today's loudest data-free prognosticators and demanding answers to unsolved operational problems such as friendly fire. Indeed, Rumsfeld has more to lose than anyone. The "Rumsfeld Doctrine" is now being proclaimed as the model for the future even before this war is understood. If his doctrine flops the next time around, Rumsfeld will be the goat, not the acclaimed Caesar.

We need a thoroughly independent comprehensive analysis of this war from a collection of nonpartisan, unbiased scholars, evaluators and experts. Rumsfeld should be begging for it. He could be sorry if he doesn't.

Winslow T. Wheeler is a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information. Wheeler spent 31 years working for four senators from both political parties and for the General Accounting Office, where he directed "Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign."

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