WarningThis information has been archived for reference or research purposes.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats on the "Contact Us" page.

Book Reviews

Cradle Of Conflict: Iraq And The Birth Of Modern U.S. Military Power

by Michael Andrew Knights

Annapolis, Maryland:
Naval Institute Press, 2005
462 pages
ISBN: 1-59114-444-2

Reviewed by Paul Hussey

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

Book coverIn his preface, Michael Knights begins with the fact that the U.S. and its allies have been involved in combat operations in Iraq, the cradle of conflict in the post-cold war world, every year since 1991. This is a period of U.S. military engagement that has gone on longer than America’s direct military involvement in the Vietnam War. It has been the formative experience of modern warfare for many of its citizens. The author’s contention is that careful study of this 15-year conflict offers a “unique prism” through which to study the strengths and limitations of U.S. military power in the post-cold war era. He then goes on to survey this period at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels by focusing upon practice rather than theory. It is a wild ride. This is not a book for the casually curious. It is a roller-coaster experience, from strategic and political level observations, to fascinating tactical details from the battle space itself.

At the strategic level, Knights touches upon many issues. They include early concerns with respect to the first real test of combined arms capabilities of a revitalized post-Vietnam U.S. military. Specifically, there is commentary about Schwarzkopf’s concern as to whether quality and technological superiority substitute for raw numbers of ground forces, or if they fully negate the power of an enemy willing to make battlefield use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). He comments upon political concerns over collateral damage, and how the national command authority’s involvement in the selection of target lists, and the assignment of restrictions to Rules of Engagement (ROE) resulted in 25 percent of all combat missions having undelivered ordnance. He reveals how the strategic/political focus changed throughout the 15-year involvement, from looking for WMD targets (the “smoking gun”), to dealing with Saddam Hussein’s “cheat and retreat” tactics, to identifying and countering Iraq’s threats to its neighbours, to convincing the “coalition of the willing” to go along, and, finally, to identifying the politics and tactics of “No Fly Zones.” Indeed, Knights spends a great amount of time writing about the strategic, operational, and tactical concerns of operating and maintaining those No Fly Zones. Perhaps this is because they represented the majority of effort that occupied the space between the two major ground conflict segments of this story. Were there lessons learned during that period? Yes – and on both sides. Knights makes this point loud and clear in the following statement: “A U.S. pilot over flying Iraq at medium altitude in January 2001 was no safer than a pilot flying at the close of the Gulf War in 1991.”

The author takes Network Centric Warfare (NCW) down to the “tactical lessons learned” level with narrative concerning the first encounters at Tallil and Nasariyah on 21-22 March 2003 – the first U.S. encounters with the “supposedly ready to capitulate” Iraqi 11th Infantry Division. Apparently, this was not the case, and it led to the following quote by embedded journalist Rick Atkinson: “What did an 8 digit coordinate tell you about your enemy’s willingness to die for his cause?” Knight reveals other NCW issues, such as the supposedly outstanding command level sensor integration that was not the same at all at the tactical level, where the problem became available bandwidth. As it materialized, demand for bandwidth could not keep up with the ever-moving combat divisions, even though it was 40 times greater in 2003 than that available during Operation Desert Storm.

The author then takes the reader deeper still to describe a firefight in Samawah, with Iraqi irregulars in white pick-up trucks executing crazy waves of attacks. And he discusses the adaptation of the Iraqi resistance, whereby, after 12 years of experience with Americans targeting their air defence systems, they developed a simple response that was virtually impossible to detect or to suppress. The Iraqis also had developed decentralized Command and Control (C2) that could not be disrupted. The result was a resounding defeat of a U.S. Apache Battalion’s deep raid into Iraq during March 2003. The regiment was shot to pieces and left in shock – all this in exchange for the destruction of less than a half dozen Iraqi vehicles.

And so it goes... The book is packed with material and issues – in fact, so much so that, while done in a very readable style, it will be overwhelming for most who pick it up, as they will tend to come from an uninitiated general readership pool. While that is not a criticism, but simply a “heads-up,” the one critique I do offer is that the text appears to expend more acronyms than the number of artillery rounds used in Iraq, albeit dutifully explained, for the most part, during each first use. Still, the book will overwhelm most readers in the sheer volume of those acronyms alone, because they are distractive and they tend to interrupt reading flow.

The author concludes with some interesting points. He feels that one of the most important lessons to emerge from America’s struggle with the Baathist regime is that while the U.S. military may have been the pre-eminent military power at the dawn of the 21st Century, it was far from being invincible. A dangerous myth of invincibility had built up around the post-Cold War U.S. military, creating unrealistic expectations with respect to its capabilities. During the Iraqi campaigning, the fallibility of the U.S. military was subtle. The emergence of attritional warfare, clearly visible in the No Fly Zones and the post-war insurgency, is the clearest indicator of an inability to shock the adversary. This resulted in periods of military deadlock, and even partial withdrawal. If the U.S. military is not invincible, and if its success relies upon suitable conditions, then it needs to be employed selectively and carefully. For example, it should never be used to undertake hollow or cosmetic military operations that stand little chance of achieving political objectives.

Thus, if you are studying this conflict, or the longstanding U.S. involvement in and with Iraq, or if you have a genuine professional interest in modern warfare, I recommend Michael Knight’s Cradle of Conflict. Once it is read, you may even find yourself referring back to many of the keen observations made within this book for lessons learned, or even for an explanation of what is happening in Iraq today.

CMJ Logo

Major-General Paul R. Hussey, OMM, CD, is the Commander of the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston.