Michael Gordon on Reconstructing the Iraq War

The co-author of the new book Cobra II discusses the planning failures of the Iraq War and how he researched his account.

Michael Gordon

Michael Gordon is co-author of the new book Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. Gordon is the chief military correspondent for the New York Times, where he has worked since 1985. He and co-author Bernard Trainor also combined to write The Generals’ War about the planning of the first Gulf War, which was published in 1995. In addition to covering the Iraq war, Gordon has reported from Afghanistan, the Kosovo conflict, Chechnya and the American invasion of Panama.

Paul McLeary: In your new book you and retired lieutenant general Bernard Trainor explore, in minute detail, the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the fighting that took place in March and April 2003. You rely heavily on military oral histories, interviews with military officials, classified reports and information gleaned from senior Iraq officials from the Saddam Hussein regime. Was it difficult gaining access to this material?

Michael Gordon: Well, general Trainor and I did this for three years, so this is something we worked on for a sustained period. I was in Iraq for four or five months and met a lot of people during that time, both in Kuwait and Iraq, since I began the embedding process before the war and essentially stayed in Iraq through the summer of ‘03. So I invested a lot of time in making contacts and meeting people in all different sorts of units.

PM: Was general Trainor in Iraq, as well?

MG: No — but we had done a Gulf War book together, The Generals’ War, so we had had a previous collaborative relationship and he was a retired Marine lieutenant general so he has his own contacts. Some of the documents obviously had to be obtained from sources and contacts, but a lot of the oral histories are actually available in military archives. The problem there is not getting access to them, but it’s digesting all the information. [The military] hasn’t transcribed any of this stuff, so you have to listen to it, or have your research assistants transcribe it, and I did a lot of that with my team, so I invested a lot in it.

PM: As you said, this is the second book you’ve written with Bernard Trainor, the first being The Generals’ War in 1995, which essentially did for the first Gulf War what Cobra II does for the 2003 invasion. How do you go about splitting the reporting and information collection duties for putting together such an intricately reported work?

MG: It’s important when you write a book that it has a single voice, so the way we worked that was that I was the voice, so I wrote everything, or I took everything general Trainor wrote and kind of put it though my Cuisinart. Sometimes when two authors work together, the book appears disjointed. We avoided that by having one scribe. But you know, in the age of email where you can pass things back and forth, which we did very often, he would write in his comments and thoughts, and he did his interviews and wrote sections and emailed it back to me — it’s not as hard to do as it once may have been.

PM: You mentioned that you were embedded. What was your impression of the embedding process, as compared to the restrictions placed on reporters during the first Gulf War? Do you think embedding is a good idea?

MG: I was embedded with the Land War Command. I was the only newspaper reporter there, so that gave me a very unique vantage point in terms of seeing how decisions were made and an understanding of the interaction with Washington. It was because I had written a book previously and had covered that first war that I chose the Land War Command as a place to be embedded, because I thought I’d get more a strategic overview as to how this was all done.

The embedding process, in my judgment, worked well, and is essential. If you cover the White House, you have to go to the White House and talk to officials, if you cover Congress you have to go to the Congress and interview the lawmakers, so if you cover the military, it’s important to be with the military and see how they perform their operations. I don’t really see any way around it. It worked much better than in the Gulf War, where they had a pool system that was essentially dysfunctional and did not work well.

I don’t think the media were co-opted by the military. I could give you examples where journalists from the Washington Post and the New York Times wrote very accurate and not always favorable accounts from their embedded station. In point of fact, there was very little choice — a number of people who went in as [freelance reporters] in this war very soon became de facto embeds simply because the battlefield was so dangerous.

PM: What are some of the primary differences you found in your reporting concerning the planning stages of the first Gulf War in 1991 compared to the invasion in 2003? What about the differences between the civilian / military relationship?

MG: Well, in the Gulf War the Joint Chiefs of Staff played an important role, and the chairman was Colin Powell, and he and [then-Defense Secretary Dick] Cheney did not see eye to eye — there’s a lot about that in The Generals’ War. However, even though they had their differences, including over the advisability of going to war, Powell was a real force in the Pentagon in terms of shaping the war plan. In this war, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were largely marginalized and [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld was really the dominant person. He worked things out with General [Tommy] Franks [chief of the United States Central Command during the invasion of Iraq], and these two individuals were really the key people in putting together the plan. The whole style of the operation was different. Powell favored the use of overwhelming force, while Rumsfeld favored the so-called “lean and mean” military.

PM: You write about guys like Doug Macgregor in the Pentagon and the war plans he came up with that Rumsfeld seemed to love. One of Macgregor’s plans was to invade Iraq with about 16,000 troops and bring in another 16,000 to secure the country once the bulk of the fighting was over. Have you had any feedback from people like that, or General Franks, who don’t come off so well in the book?

MG: I’ve had a fair amount of feedback from military officers who were involved in the war one way or another. So far, it’s been favorable. I mean, they lived it, they were there, they were the people that were on the ground and had to make it work, despite the erroneous planning assumptions in Washington.

I have not had any feedback from Rumsfeld or Franks or Cheney, but you know, Trainor and I made a sustained effort to interview Rumsfeld over many, many months. He was actually promised to us as an interview at one point, and it got to the point where we were supposed to see him on a specific day at a specific time, and then they postponed it. To our surprise, at the very end they cancelled it, and it was Rumsfeld himself who decided he didn’t want to do it. So it wasn’t for want of trying. I had interviewed general Franks in 2004 for a Times series on postwar problems, and that became an element of the book. But then I tried to interview him after that for the book, and he declined. None of this really hampered our research because officials who interacted with these people and worked with them were available, including people who attended meetings with them and had notes from these meetings.

But we really did want to give them their say in the book, and I wrote letters and emails, and I really made appeals over a long period of time for both these guys. I also tried over a sustained period to interview Dick Cheney because I interviewed him at some length for The Generals’ War and he had been helpful to me…I thought for a while that might happen, but then there was a change of staff in Cheney’s office, and I understand [Cheney’s Chief of Staff] Scooter Libby got involved in the decision — I don’t know exactly what happened — but, anyway, after months and months of importuning, he decided not to do it. But I would say most everybody else was cooperative.

There is a big debate among journalists over anonymous sources and how to handle those — and certainly we have that at the New York Times. Obviously there’s a great deal of material in the book that comes from [such sources] because of the sensitive nature of the episodes we recounted, but at the very end of the book, we quote all of these senior generals on the record about how the “window of opportunity” in the summer of 2003 closed — General [James] Conway, General [David] McKiernan, General [“Buff”] Blunt, General [James] Mattis, General [John] Kelly, the acting Army chief of staff Jack Keane, General [Raymond]Odierno — these were key figures in the war, and they’re quoted on the record as being unhappy with [Coalition Provisional Authority head] Jerry Bremer’s policies, like the decision to abolish the Iraqi army, the decision to cancel elections in Najaf and some other matters. Spider Marks, McKiernan’s chief intelligence officer, says there weren’t enough troops, also on the record. I’m a little surprised people haven’t taken more note of that, because you have really the senior military leadership from that time — on the record — giving their views on some of the things that could have been done better during the war.

I tried to put as much as I could on the record, but it couldn’t be done in all cases, but at a time when people are questioning what your sources are and how you know things, we tried to establish that. That’s because I was trying to establish a historical record here, because there isn’t a historical record of this war. There isn’t a good after-action assessment that the government has issued on this war. The Army has given a pretty good account of their operation and the Marines of theirs, and the Pentagon has given itself a high grade in a “lessons learned” report, but there hasn’t really been a good official government account of this. So I feel we were not just writing about the war, but we were laying down a record of the war and the history of the war.

PM: In writing about some of the battles during the military’s race toward Baghdad, you show that much of the fighting was much more vicious and back-and-forth than many earlier accounts have led people to believe.

MG: We actually reconstructed many of the battles, which have not really been well-covered. But I think the embedded reporters did a pretty good job, under difficult circumstances. It was a fast-moving war, they didn’t stay in the same place for long, and they were operating under security constraints. For example, when a colleague of mine was at the Kifl bridge [a hard-fought and decisive battle on the drive toward Baghdad] the day after the fight, he couldn’t identify where the bridge was located. It’s hard to explain the significance of the battle if you can’t give the location of the bridge.

I actually went back to many of these battle locations with the people who fought there, because when I was in Baghdad the Third Infantry Division was doing — for its own purposes — a reconstruction of what happened … So I’ve been to most of these places, with the guys who fought there, and they would reenact it and describe it and I had my tape recorder and I would take it down and I kept in touch with these people. And because I did that, I was able to put a lot of this together, and when you put it together it’s not just a story of this or that battle, but it’s a tale of how the U.S. military encountered a different enemy than it had anticipated and how the forces in the field, I think, adapted very well to it, but the senior level officers at CENTCOM and Secretary Rumsfeld failed to adapt at all.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.