Mosul and Churchill’s Wisdom: Put a Lid on It!

by Richard Langworth on 24 October 2016

Churchill’s wisdom speaks to us across the years. Take the controversy of whether we blab too much in advance about military operations, like Mosul.


Mosul’s attackers. Not often noted, many of them are flying the flag of Kurdistan, not Iraq. They are not brothers in arms. (CBC)

In the October 19th presidential debate, Mr. Trump said the U.S. and Iraqis forfeited “the element of surprise” in publicizing the coming offensive against Mosul. This, he insisted, allowed Islamic State ringleaders to remove themselves from the danger zone: “Douglas MacArthur, George Patton [must be] spinning in their graves when they see the stupidity of our country.” Earlier in the week he had asked: “Why don’t we just go in quietly, right? They used to call it a sneak attack.”

The New York Times, ever watchful for gaffes by Mr. Trump, jumped on this comment: “Donald Trump is Wrong on Mosul Attack, Experts Say.” Their article was not all wrong, but I’m not sure its ideas are Churchillian.

This is not an endorsement of Mr. Trump. (I am the only undecided voter left in New Hampshire.) I am not comparing Trump with Churchill. (After all, we aren’t working with the same raw materials.)

The question I pose is: was Churchill right about keeping mum over operations like Mosul?

Mosul Redux

Here is the essence of the Times’s critique of Trump on Mosul:

• Mr. Trump’s armchair generalship revealed a fundamental lack of understanding of Iraqi politics, military warfare—and even some of the most famous campaigns commanded by MacArthur and Patton.

Try to think of which of their attacks were ballyhooed three weeks in advance. MacArthur’s Inchon landings in the Korean War, Patton’s shortcuts to Palermo and Messina in the battle for Sicily, are examples of campaigns kept very quiet beforehand. They would have been far less successful had they been announced in advance.

We may think of more. Normandy, as the site of the World War II D-Day landings, is of course the biggie. Hitler knew an attack was coming. Thanks to secrecy, he did not know when or where.

• Unlike the top-secret raid by American commandos to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, there are many good reasons to foreshadow an impending ground offensive, like Mosul, mainly to reduce civilian casualties, isolate the enemy and instill fear within its ranks, military scholars and retired commanders said.

There is a difference between a commando raid and a major ground offensive. But the “many good reasons” to pre-announce the attack on Mosul are questionable. Mosul civilians have nowhere to go. It’s not like they’re living next to an on-ramp for I-95 with a BMW in the garage. I.S. fighters are demonstrably afraid of nothing. Advance warnings gave them extra weeks to complete and provision their underground tunnel network.

They and Us

• Ever since Iraq’s second-largest city fell to Islamic State fighters in June 2014, American and Iraqi officials have made no secret of their larger goal to recapture Mosul. It has been a political imperative for Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to rally public support for an Iraqi-led military campaign to reclaim cities such as Tikrit, Ramadi, Falluja and, the major prize now, Mosul.

This is ivory tower commentary which supposes that “they” are like “us.” And that “Iraqi public support” actually matters. What is remarkably absent from news accounts so far is that so many units we see attacking Mosul are flying Kurdish not Iraqi flags. When so identified, they are glossed over by the implication that Kurds and Iraqis are brothers in arms. They are anything but. What will happen if Mosul falls and they get on to its future administration was perhaps an important question to be considered in advance. What are the odds that it was?

• Moreover, it would be impossible to hide a force of about 30,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops that have been massing for weeks on the outskirts of Mosul, gradually encircling the city while conducting artillery fire and airstrikes to soften up enemy defenses in advance of the main ground offensive.

How hard would it have been to obscure preparations, given an enemy with no air force, no serious surveillance and no satellites? Obviously, as the circle tightened, they would realize what’s going on. But proclamations weeks in advance only enable the ringleaders to clear out, and the remainder to set up human shields with innocent civilians.

Mixed Messages

• Before this week’s offensive, Iraqi warplanes dropped thousands of leaflets and Mr. Abadi broadcast into the city, urging Mosul residents to hunker down, if they could, to avoid getting caught in the crossfire or adding to the sea of refugees already gathering outside the city and surrounding areas.

As if the poor devils will be walking around the streets when the attack moves to the city. If thought has been given to “escape routes” (believe that when you see them), the idea is commendable. But how does that jibe with dropping leaflets telling civilians to stay put? Seems a conflicted strategy—which is not surprising given the combination of 21st century military operations with what passes for same in the Iraqi army.

Expert Testimony

• “What this shows is Trump doesn’t know a damn thing about military strategy,” said Jeff McCausland, a retired Army colonel and former dean at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

He may be right; I will not reflect on who, exactly, knows about military strategy. But Col. McCausland recently retweeted, “Thank-you Robert Deniro,” who delivered a Trump-like rant that compares nicely with some of Trump’s own. So we know where he’s coming from.

• …the reverence of Patton and MacArthur, and Mr. Trump’s military assessment, do not impress national security historians like Richard H. Kohn, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina: “I don’t think it really demonstrates any understanding of warfare.”

Professor Kohn is a distinguished scholar, but this is his only quote. His presence in the discussion is one reason why I believe the article is worth considering. But it’s another expert who gets most of the ink….

• Robert Scales, a retired Army major general and former commandant of the Army War College, said the unfolding Mosul campaign is a course in Military Operations 101 that American and Iraqi armies have followed for years. A large allied force…peels away the outlying towns and villages, all the while opening an escape route for refugees….

“The American and Iraqi armies” implies that they are equal in resources, ability, leadership, strategy and fortitude. Last March in villages near Mosul, the Iraqi army turned and fled.

• “There are over a million innocents in the city so you want to give them an opportunity to take cover or to leave,” said General Scales. “If you kill too many civilians, the political outcome is a disaster.”

On 10 March 2015 General Scales said of the war in Ukraine: “The only way the United States can have any effect in this region and turn the tide is to start killing Russians—killing so many Russians that even Putin’s media can’t hide the fact that Russians are returning to the motherland in body bags.”

What Churchill Thought

The Times article glossed over the heart of the critique—that we are, in general, forever inclined to bloviate in advance on what we’re going to do. It is quite true, in fact, that fighting wars like a CNN broadcast is stupid. 

During World War II, Winston Churchill strongly objected to divulging tactics or strategy in advance of military operations. The Mosul controversy erupted as I was reading proofs of The Churchill Documents, May-December 1944, twentieth document volume in Churchill’s official biography, to be published next year by Hillsdale College Press. I flagged two memoranda by Churchill as pertinent to the discussion above.

I do not like press conferences, even off the record, on the eve of an important battle. Once zero hour has struck, the principles desired…should be inculcated upon the press, who should be allowed to mingle in the fighting. I have recently been perturbed at reported statements from Naples, one in the Corriere, explaining that we are about to attack. Is it really necessary to tell the enemy this? Of course, he may possibly think we are such fools that it is an obvious blind, but this is a dangerous chance to take.

—Winston S. Churchill to General Sir Hastings Ismay on the Italian campaign. Prime Minister’s Personal Minute D.144/4 (Churchill papers, 20/152), 7 May 1944

Tactics and Strategy

I recently made enquiries about a newspaper article which appeared to me to contain very dangerous forecasts about our forthcoming operations. During the course of these my attention was drawn to an official handout by AEAF [Allied Expeditionary Air Force]…which begins as follows:

“Striking again at the European invasion area, approximately 200 Ninth Air Force Marauders carried out a two-pronged attack in mid-morning today against military objectives in Northern France and an important railroad bridge near Rouen, near the northern coast of France.”

The Chief Censor requested the press to delete the first seven words but had it not been for his intervention a very dangerous breach of security would have taken place. I do not understand how such a statement could have been passed.

I shall be glad if you will make enquiries and take special steps to ensure that all those concerned realise the extreme importance of preventing the issue of any statement which might give the enemy any assistance in his efforts to discover our future intentions.

You will report the name and appointments of the officer concerned.

—Winston S. Churchill to Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory on pre-D-Day bombing. Prime Minister’s Personal Minute M.613/4 (Churchill papers, 20/152), 25 May 1944

The reader may decide whether Churchill’s wisdom applies to the fanfare preceding the attack on Mosul. It may be apposite in the future, in the mess that is Iraq. Essentially, Iraq is the former Mesopotamia, which Churchill once referred to as “Messpot.” Rather appropriate in today’s circumstances.




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