What lies behind the military's victory in Iraq.
Written doctrines are one thing, actual operations another. However, the new structures and doctrines did breed, in the words of one Joint Forces Command publication, "a common joint culture." The institutional barriers of inter-service rivalry, even hatred, were gradually broken down. Once new technologies made joint coordination possible, and once the war in Afghanistan showed that coordination could reap tremendous advantages, resistance seemed futile.
Operation Desert Storm was really two wars—the air war and the ground war—each fought autonomously and in sequence. Gulf War II was an integrated war, waged simultaneously and in synchronicity, on the ground, at sea, and in the air. The vast majority of airstrikes, from Air Force bombers and attack planes as well as Navy fighters, were delivered on Iraqi Republican Guards, in order to ease the path of U.S. Army soldiers and Marines thrusting north to Baghdad.
Another new thing, which started in Afghanistan and continued in Iraq, was the systematic inclusion of the so-called "shadow soldiers," the special operations forces. The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which was best-known for giving new authority to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also made special ops a separate command, with its own budget. (Before then, each branch had its own special-ops division, which tended to get the big boys' leftovers, in terms of money, equipment and everything else.)
Gen. Schwarzkopf didn't think much of special ops, so didn't use them in Desert Storm, except toward the end of the war, to go hunt for Scud missiles in Iraq's western desert. In Afghanistan, these forces were central. They could be parachuted into the country in small numbers, set up airfields, and develop contacts with rebel leaders. The information about Taliban targets, which the Predator drones transmitted back to headquarters, usually came from a special-ops officer riding on horseback with a laptop.
We may never know how much special ops have been doing in Gulf War II. Certainly, these forces were in the Iraqi capital days or weeks before the war began, scoping out targets and lining up contacts. They were in the western deserts again, hunting Scuds and preparing airfields. They were in the north, training Kurds and securing oil fields. They were probably accompanying, and perhaps advancing, the 3rd Infantry and 1st Marine divisions all the way from Kuwait to Baghdad, scouting targets and transmitting their positions to the air commanders back at headquarters.
We don't yet fully know the lessons of this war—in part because it isn't over yet and in part because, as James Carafano, a former Army officer now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, put it, "90 percent of the war was going on out of our vision." Most of that 90 percent was being conducted by special ops (no embedded reporters there) and by the laptop-wielding joint-forces crew in Qatar (a few embeds, but no access to that part of the operation). What they were and are doing, however invisible, formed a large part of what made this war so stunning and new.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.