Three years after its completion, a lengthy study of the Army’s role in the Iraq war remains unpublished, some say because of how it both praises certain Army leaders while also airing some “dirty laundry” regarding wartime decision-making.
A detailed account of the study’s history and current efforts to have it published was reported by the Wall Street Journal this week.
In that article, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the newspaper that he hopes to have the study published by the end of the year.
“We owe it to ourselves as an Army to turn the lessons learned as quickly and as accurately as we can, understanding that they are not going to be perfect,” he told the Journal.
The study, dubbed “The United States Army in the Iraq War,” was commissioned by then-Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno in 2013.
Army Times contacted the Office of the Chief of Public for more information on when the study would be published and why it wasn’t conducted by the Army Center for Military History.
“This paper is not an official history and it is expected to be published by the Army War College in mid-November," Cynthia O. Smith, Army spokeswoman, said in an email.
Days after the Journal report, Reps. Jakie Speier, D-California, and Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, sent a letter addressed to both Milley and Army Secretary Mark Esper about the study.
In a press release accompanying the letter the representatives blasted Army leadership for the delay.
“This is simply the Army being unwilling to publicly air its mistakes,” Rep. Speier said. “Our military, Congress, and the American people deserve nothing less than total transparency on the lessons the Army has identified so that we may use those lessons to avoid costly, and too often deadly, mistakes of the past.”
“It’s no secret that the Army and, frankly, our entire defense establishment, made serious mistakes and miscalculations in Iraq since 2003,” Rep. Gallego said. “We must not endanger the best interests of our country or the lives of future Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines simply to protect the careers and egos of Army brass. This report should be released.”
In June 2016, the two-volume, 1,300-page study was complete. But before it had been read outside of Army circles, it already was under fire.
Shane Story, a historian for the Army’s Center for Military History, authored a memo asking whether the study was an attempt to “validate the surge,” which would benefit Odierno and retired Gen. David Petraeus, who led U.S. and coalition forces for much of the surge and was widely credited, along with Odierno, for turning around the dire conditions on the ground.
Story also noted in his memo that the way in which the report was compiled did not follow typical methods of relying heavily on primary documents. He had recommended major revisions before publication.
Retired Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Allyn told the Journal that delays in releasing the report began after Odierno retired.
“Clearly, there were senior leaders who were in position when these things happened, and there were concerns on how they were portrayed,” Allyn said.
Though the first volume of the study was set to publish in October 2016, Milley said he planned to read the entire study and write a foreword. He also instructed the team to expand its research by interviewing former ranking officials, he told the Journal.
The study team was initially headed by then-Col. Joel Rayburn, who previously worked for Petraeus in Iraq.
Retired Col. Frank Sobchack took over as study team director as the team completed its findings. He told the Journal that the team worked “tirelessly for three years” on the study to capture the war’s lessons in a readable narrative.
“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,” he said.
The report praises the 2007 troop surge, which Odierno and Petraeus oversaw. As the study was being conducted, some in Army ranks foresaw problems if it wasn’t published before Odierno retired, the Journal reported.
The chief of the historical services division for the Army Heritage and Education Center at the Army War College, Conrad Crane, reviewed the study in July 2015.
In an email to the team, he told them that publication needed to happen quickly.
“You need to get this published while you still have GEN Odierno as a champion. Otherwise I can see a lot of institutional resistance to having so much dirty laundry aired,” Crane wrote.
Six outside reviewers later described the study as fair and recommended publication.
The report points out mistakes made by top leaders during the early stages of the war. Throughout that period, officials assumed that military operations would end within 18 to 24 months and therefore didn’t deploy enough troops.
Top leaders failed to create a strategy that would limit Iranian and Syrian support for militants inside Iraq.
The Journal, which conducted numerous interviews and reviewed internal memorandums and emails, highlighted some of the specific mistakes mentioned in the history. They include:
- The need for more troops: At no point during the Iraq war did commanders have enough troops to simultaneously defeat the Sunni insurgency and Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
- The failure to deter Iran and Syria: Iran and Syria gave sanctuary and support to Shiite and Sunni militants, respectively, and the U.S. never developed an effective strategy to stop this.
- Coalition warfare wasn’t successful: The deployment of allied troops had political value but was “largely unsuccessful” because the allies didn’t send enough troops and limited the scope of their operations.
- The National Guard needs more training: While many National Guard units performed well, some brigades had so much difficulty dealing with insurgents that U.S. commanders stopped assigning them their own battlespace to control. The study found that Guard units need more funding and training. (The Guard said it hadn’t seen the study and declined to comment to the Journal.)
- The failure to develop self-reliant Iraqi forces: The U.S.-led effort to train and equip Iraqi forces was under-resourced for most of the war. A premature decision to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis made it harder to blunt political pressure by Iraqi officials on Iraqi commanders.
- An ineffective detainee policy: The U.S. decided at the outset not to treat captured insurgents or militia fighters as prisoners of war and then never developed an effective way to handle detainees. Many Sunni insurgents were returned to the battlefield.
- Democracy doesn’t necessarily bring stability: U.S. commanders believed the 2005 Iraqi elections would have a “calming effect,” but those elections instead exacerbated ethnic and sectarian tensions.
Additionally, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker went ahead with a brigade combat team restructuring in 2003 and 2004, which shrunk the number of available BCTs, pushing less-proficient Army National Guard units into the fight, the Journal reported.
In response, Schoomaker, who retired in 2007, told the Journal that the restructuring made more BCTs available to the force.
The report also criticizes then-Gen. George Casey’s decision to consolidate U.S. forces on large bases, which led to a security vacuum around Baghdad. Casey, who led U.S. troops in Iraq for three years before becoming Army chief of staff, did not respond to Journal requests for comment but has previously said that the goal was to shift security responsibilities to the Iraqis.
Then-Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster called it “by far the best and most comprehensive operational study of the U.S. experience in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.”
One of Odierno’s goals, according to the Journal, was to have the study available sooner for leaders to learn relevant lessons, avoiding the lack of thorough post-war review as was the case with the Vietnam War.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.