Who Disbanded the Iraqi Army?
And why was nobody held accountable?
What we do know is that both orders directly violated decisions that had been made at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
On March 10, 2003, a week before the invasion, the National Security Council held a principals' meeting, attended by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, the Joints Chiefs of Staff, and the top aides to all these officials. They decided that after the war, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be set up—similar to such panels in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Communist Eastern Europe—to ferret out the undesirable Baathists from those who could reliably work for a post-Saddam regime. Most Baathists were ordinary, even apolitical, people whose jobs required them to join the party. A rough calculation by NSC staffers and intelligence analysts was that only about 5 percent of the party—the leaders—would have to be removed, and even they would have the right to appeal.
On March 12, at another principals' meeting, on what to do about the Iraqi military, these same top U.S. officials decided to disband the Republican Guard—Saddam's elite corps and bodyguards—but to call the regular army's soldiers back to duty and to reconstitute their units after a proper vetting of their loyalties.
Both of these decisions were unanimous. NSC staff members had briefed officials on these plans before the meetings, up and down the chain of command, and they encountered no substantive dissent.
Most of these officials learned about Bremer's orders the way that most citizens did—by reading about them in the newspaper. Colin Powell, then secretary of state, called Gen. Peter Pace, then vice chairman of the JCS, and asked if he had known about the order. Pace replied that he hadn't and that none of the chiefs had been consulted.
In Baghdad, a U.S. Army colonel named Paul Hughes had spent weeks contacting officers of the Iraqi regular army, paying them to call up their troops to rejoin the new government—just as the NSC had directed. He was flabbergasted when Bremer's orders came down. (Hughes' travails are well documented in George Packer's book The Assassins' Gate and in the documentary film No End in Sight. In the movie, Hughes convincingly demolishes Bremer's claim that there was no Iraqi army left to reconstitute.)
When Saddam's regime collapsed, Iraq's security system collapsed as well. Rumsfeld had failed to draw up a postwar "stabilization" plan; he deliberately sent too few troops for such a mission, in any case. There was no Iraqi army or police force to keep order. And so there was disorder and the horrors that followed.
Perhaps the most galling part of this sad saga is that nobody was held accountable for this extraordinary act of insubordination.
Many stories have since been told about the dysfunctional nature of the Bush administration—the many instances when a decision would be made, in some cases by the president himself, only to be reversed or simply ignored by (most often) Rumsfeld and/or Cheney. But this story had, very possibly, the most destructive consequences.
Did Bush realize the magnitude of the act? Did he so much as read the letter that Bremer later sent to the Times? Did he order an investigation into how this order could have been promulgated? Finally, did he care?
Bush's casual reply to Robert Draper's question about Bremer's orders—"Yeah, I can't remember"—suggests that the answer to all these questions is, pathetically, tragically, "No."
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.
Photograph of Paul Bremer by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.