On the defensive

The Iraq War

John Keegan <em>Hutchinson, 254pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0091800188

John Keegan, the veteran defence editor of the Daily Telegraph, is a man for whom I have considerable respect - although I disagree fundamentally with him about Iraq and Tony Blair. On the dust jacket of this book, he is described as "the most readable and most original of living military historians", or simply "our greatest modern military historian". It is his military analysis of the prosecution of the war itself, and not the diplomacy or political controversy surrounding it, that provides value.

His book is easy to navigate. Each chapter deals with a self-contained issue. Keegan provides a solid history of Iraq before Saddam Hussein, steering readers through the Ottoman empire to British rule from 1918. The attempts to graft a constitution on to a country of disparate and competing ethnic groups are particularly relevant today. He then provides a potted history of the great tyrant him- self, from the role of his Hitler-admiring surrogate father and his strong-willed mother, who made a living as a clairvoyant, to his clamber up the political ladder and his violent assumption of power. Keegan notes:

Saddam was never a soldier. That omission in the story of his life may help to explain much about his behaviour as he grew to manhood and afterwards. It had been his ambition to train as an officer at the Iraq Military Academy in Baghdad but he lacked the education even to attempt the entrance exam.

He suggests that Saddam's inadequacy in this regard was an important factor in his need for the military aggrandisement that led him to take Iraq to war with Iran, to invade Kuwait and to confront the outside world in the two Gulf wars.

Keegan's most important insights come in three chapters entitled "The American War", "The British War" and "The Fall of Baghdad". He provides a good assess-ment of the strengths (and the many weaknesses) of the Iraqi armed forces in 2003 as compared to 1991, when it was a serious fighting force of more than 40 divisions. He discusses US military strategy, casting the American forces chief, General Tommy Franks, his most pub- lic source for the book, in a favourable light. He contrasts Franks's "thoughtful" approach with that of his predecessor in the first Gulf war, the more charismatic but (according to Keegan) less accomplished Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf. The book takes the reader through the Americans' rapid and inexorable push north through Iraq that resulted in them taking Baghdad a mere three weeks into the 2003 invasion.

Disappointingly, Keegan is as effusive in his praise for the US and UK governments during the build-up to war as he is for the actual military campaign. The closest he comes to analysing the Prime Minister's faults is to describe him as

not an intellectual, though highly intelligent, his centre of gravity is moral; he has deeply held religious beliefs and an unshakeable conviction in the necessity to do what is right. He speaks easily and fluently, too much so at times, succumbing to the seduction of his own voice, and he possesses elements of the actor.

Keegan then suspends his critical faculties and applauds Blair's speech in the pre-war parliamentary debate: "At a most difficult time for his premiership, he showed himself to be a master of the British political process and a fine national leader." Some might disagree.

While a few of his swipes at journalists are merited, such as his complaint about some reporters' scant understanding of the nature and terminology of warfare, Keegan shows Campbellesque tendencies in attacking the "anti-Americanism" of those who criticised the rush to war. There are also touches of Hutton in his willingness to give governments the benefit of the doubt. He rightly denounces the media myths surrounding the Jessica Lynch story, but fails to point out that the US military actively encouraged correspondents to give false accounts of her captivity.

His reluctance to criticise the US and UK governments makes it all the more striking when he does. He notes that as the Pentagon assumed complete control of the occupation in April 2003, the state department's plans, including an elaborate collection of policy documents called "The Future of Iraq Project", were set aside. He adds:

In retrospect the disbandment of the army was a serious mistake, one of several made by the American interim administration in the immediate aftermath of the Saddam regime's collapse. It released several hundred thousand young men on to the unemployment market, leaving them unpaid and discontented, at precisely the moment when the need became apparent to rebuild . . . security forces.

The consequences of this mistake are all too clear as Iraq plunges further into chaos.

A revised and updated paperback of John Kampfner's Blair's Wars will be published by the Free Press in June