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

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

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.

I am not com­par­ing Trump with Churchill. (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.

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

  1. Splen­did insight uti­liz­ing Churchill’s own words to describe the evi­dent­ly not-so-obvi­ous mer­it to secrecy.Richard, you are cor­rect. There is no escape when you are being kept hostage and used as a human shield by bar­barous enti­ties like ISIS. Messpot indeed. 

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