The Army Stymied Its Own Study of the Iraq War by Michael R. Gordon – Wall Street Journal
Army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno issued the marching orders in the fall of 2013. Some of the Army’s brightest officers would draft an unvarnished history of its performance in the Iraq War.
A towering officer who served 55 months in Iraq, Gen. Odierno told the team the Army hadn’t produced a proper study of its role in the Vietnam War and had to spend the first years in Iraq relearning lessons. This time, he said, the team would research before memories faded and publish a history while the lessons were most relevant.
It would be unclassified, he said, to stimulate discussion about the intervention—one that deepened the U.S.’s Mideast role and cost more than 4,400 American lives. He arranged for 30,000 pages of documents to be declassified. For nearly three years, the team studied those papers and conducted more than 100 interviews.
By June 2016, it had drafted a two-volume history of more than 1,300 pages. H.R. McMaster, the former national security adviser to President Trump, reviewed the tomes while a three-star general. He said in an interview last month it was “by far the best and most comprehensive operational study of the U.S. experience in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.
The study’s title: “The United States Army in the Iraq War.”
It has yet to be published.
Gen. Odierno retired before the team could finish the history, which then became stuck in internal reviews and procedural byways. Under new Pentagon leadership, Army priorities changed from counterinsurgency to countering powers such as Russia and China. Senior brass fretted over the impact the study’s criticisms might have on prominent officers’ reputations and on congressional support for the service.
The study’s very existence is little known outside the Army. The Wall Street Journal pieced together its history through dozens of interviews with former and current officials familiar with the effort, and from reviews of internal memorandums and emails.
In the past few months alone, Army officials debated whether the study should be embraced or disowned. After a high-level review last month, Army officials issued instructions to remove a foreword noting the study had been “commissioned” by the Army and to scrub it of other signs that it had top-level sponsorship.
After the Journal last week asked Gen. Odierno’s successor as chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, about the Army’s handling of the study, he reversed those moves and vowed to write his own foreword. He says that although the study isn’t an official history and has gaps in areas such as special operations and enemy activities, the study team “did a damn good job.”
“We owe it to ourselves as an army to turn the lessons learned as quickly and as accurately as we can,” he says, “understanding that they are not going to be perfect.” He says he hopes to publish the study by year’s end.
The saga shows the Army’s difficulty in engaging in the self-criticism needed to improve its military performance, say some familiar with the effort, including Frank Sobchak, the study team’s final director, who retired as a colonel in August.
“We worked tirelessly for three years to complete a scholarly product that captured the war’s lessons in a readable historical narrative,” he says. “That the Army was paralyzed with apprehension for the past two years over publishing it leaves me disappointed with the institution to which I dedicated my adult life.”…