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Published: Sunday, 4/13/2003

3rd Infantry got to Baghdad `fustest' with the `mostest'

BY JACK KELLY
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

DOHA, Qatar - Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division that dashed from Kuwait to Baghdad, has much in common with a fellow southerner, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Robert E. Lee may have been the most respected Confederate general during the Civil War, but Forrest, famous for lightning strikes with his division of mounted infantry, was the most feared. The self-taught Forrest distilled his military philosophy into a single phrase: “Git thar fustest with the mostest.”

Forrest knew intuitively, and demonstrated repeatedly, that success on the battlefield is determined more often by shock and surprise - by-products of speed - than by superior firepower.

The 3rd Infantry employed all three in Iraq, and it also benefited from vastly superior real-time information about enemy movements. That is why General Blount and his troops now hold the world's record for the most rapid armored advance.

George Patton's 3rd Army, in what had been regarded as the most impressive armored attack in history, took four months to battle from the Falaise Gap to the Rhine. The 3rd Infantry traveled the same distance in two weeks.

Of course, the 3rd Infantry barely beat the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force to Baghdad, which encountered more resistance on its approach from the east.

“Speed, speed speed,” emphasized Maj. Gen. James Mattis, the commander of the 1st Marines, according to reporters embedded with his units.

The arrival of U.S. forces in strength in places where the Iraqi military did not expect them is the main reason Baghdad was seized so quickly, with so little loss of life, U.S. and foreign military analysts generally agree.

General Blount's bold decisions - to bypass opposition on the way to Baghdad, to grab Baghdad International Airport, to launch a “thunder run” through the capital on April 5 and then to occupy the heart of the city - were based on his rapid exploitation of intelligence that indicated Iraqi military leaders had no idea U.S. forces were moving so fast.

The disorganized state of Baghdad's defenses astounded foreign military observers like retired Indian Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta: “There was no preparation by the Republican Guard for the battle of Baghdad - no defense fortifications, no mines, bridges were not prepared for demolition, nothing at all to suggest they were going to fight a major battle.”

There were plans for such defenses, prepared with the assistance of two retired Russian generals who were decorated by Saddam Hussein's defense minister just days before the war began. And the Iraqi/Russian plan was a good one, according to U.S. Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, one of the Army's leading strategists until his retirement a few years ago.

However solid the Iraqi/Russian plan was on paper, it was frustrated by the unexpected arrival of the 3rd Infantry and the 1st Marines at the gates of the city.

Tactical surprise was achieved not only by the speed of the American advance but by the sluggishness with which the Iraqi high command assimilated information and made decisions.

“Nobody wants to tell Hussein and senior leaders bad news, so lots of times they don't. They tend to believe things are going better than they are, and before you know it, coalition forces are up close and personal,” one U.S. intelligence officer told the Los Angeles Times.

Fearing a coup, Saddam organizes top echelons of his intelligence and military services so top officials cannot easily contact each other, which further complicates the Iraqi military's ability to respond quickly to changing conditions on the battlefield.

Iraqi decision-making also was slowed by American air attacks on leadership and communication facilities.

The combination of the audacity of the American battle plan, its prompt and effective implementation by field commanders, and the impediments to prompt decision-making the Iraqis imposed upon themselves made it easy for Americans to operate within what maverick U.S. military strategist John Boyd called the “OODA loop.” The acronym stands for Observation. Orientation. Decision. Action. Whoever works through that cycle fastest in making decisions on the battlefield would win, Mr. Boyd theorized, often with little bloodshed.

Mr. Boyd's ideas were unpopular with most generals, even after his death in 1997. But Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were big fans, and Mr. Boyd's ideas went on to inform “rapid dominance” and other such theories that the Pentagon clearly applied in Iraq.

The Iraq war plan called for a speedy advance on Baghdad, bypassing Iraqi garrisons in the south.

The plan received savage criticism from retired and even active-duty officers after the U.S. advance was halted for several days to permit the logistics “tail” to catch up with the combat “teeth.” The war had begun with too few combat forces in the region, retired Gens. Wesley Clark and Barry McCaffrey said, and it was a mistake to bypass Iraqi units, which posed a threat to supply lines.

The attack on the maintenance unit to which Pfc. Jessica Lynch belonged received a great deal of publicity, but it was the only successful attack by Iraqi irregulars on U.S. supply lines. U.S. forces did take some other casualties behind the front lines, and the relatively small size of the combat forces employed is making it more difficult to control looting and other law-breaking in the aftermath of the U.S. military's northward march, as well.

Nevertheless, from a strictly military point of view, it is hard to argue with a three-week drive that brought down a regime and caused a sizable military machine to collapse. And to keep peace now, additional troops can be flown directly to Baghdad.

The results of the war appear to support those who had confidence in the U.S. battle plan. The 3rd Infantry and the 1st Marines easily swatted aside such opposition as they encountered it. More combat troops at the outset turned out to be unnecessary to bring down the Saddam government and would have imposed a greater burden on the logistics system.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jack Kelly, a former Marine, was deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration.



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