Tuesday, Apr. 15, 2003
As soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division moved into positions around An Najaf two weeks ago, one of their commanders learned that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had just told America that everything was going exactly as planned. Colonel Hodges, the 1st Brigade Commander, laconically replied, “Funny, I don’t remember ever rehearsing the Battle of An Najaf.” The reality is that no one expected that U.S. troops would have to fight for the southern Iraqi city.
The 1st Brigade’s initial mission was to have been an air assault on key bridges and road junctions along the route of the 3rd Infantry Division. But, just prior to departure for the Gulf, the Division was told that the 3rd ID was confident it could seize all of these key positions unassisted. Staff officers planned a new mission: to drive up behind the 3rd ID and, from positions southwest of Baghdad, launch air assaults to the north of the capital. This would isolate Baghdad from the four Republican Guard divisions deployed around Mosul and Tikrit. That mission never happened, either.
The war, in fact, unfolded faster then any plan had predicted. Over one eight-hour period, the 1st Brigade received four major changes to the next day’s plan of operations. Half jokingly Lieutenant Colonel Lehr, the Brigade Executive Officer, said, “Plan early, plan twice.”
The German strategist Helmut von Moltke once observed, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” For the 101st Airborne Division that dictum struck with a vengeance. But, according to LTC Lehr this was a good thing. “In the past, the Army has had a tendency to try and fight according to plan, not according to what the enemy or situation dictated,” he said. “This time we adopted our plans to what the enemy was doing.” Moltke would have understood. His second dictum states, “War is a matter of expedients.”
Years ago there was a quote, from an unknown German officer, found on the walls of many military offices that read, “The reason the American Army does so well in war is because war is chaos and the American Army practices chaos on a daily basis.” Planning of course is supposed to eliminate the chaos of the battlefield, but every soldier knows that’s impossible. According to Lehr, “Planning is a point of departure. It is all about flexibility.”
For Major Frank, plans are meant to be changed. He says, “Though we never pulled off any of our plans, they became the baseline for everything we did.” Units of the 101st were, in fact, constantly dragging out old plans whenever they received new missions. Many times, the old plan was just fine with a few modifications of times and locations and some new analysis of what enemy they might find on the ground.
Colonel Hodges constantly reminded his staff that the key to success was flexibility. After the bulk of the fighting was over he said, “I knew from Day 1 that there would be changes, but I may not have been prepared for the speed, number and breadth of them. The Commanding General was always telling me to keep my forces postured for any change that might occur.” Hodges says his driving goal had been to always have some combat power not fully committed, kept available for anything the Commanding General asked. “It was my duty to give him flexibility,” he says.
For the soldiers of 1st Brigade, the fact that things didn’t go according to plan did not mean that they were unprepared. As one soldier said, “We trained for urban combat, for a possible street fight in Baghdad. That same training works just as well in An Najaf.” It also worked fine in Karbala and Hilla, two other cities where the 101st had to squelch strong paramilitary resistance, which had not been in the original plan.
Throughout the war, officers and soldiers referred to training events back at Fort Campbell or at the military’s training centers to build mental images of the tasks ahead. Major Hart, the 1st Brigade Air Force Liaison, said, “I had to constantly remind myself that this was not another JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center) rotation. Everything we encountered in JRTC we are encountering here. It is almost uncanny how everything we trained for is happening.”
Though nothing went according to plan, another dictum applies: there is no arguing with success. While none of the 101st Airborne’s plans were executed, by the end of last week 101st soldiers were patrolling the streets of Baghdad and the Iraqi Army had ceased to exist. But some things never change. The end of the week found staff planners preparing to move North to secure Kirkuk, continue to occupy Baghdad, patrol all of southern Iraq, and redeploy back to the United States. No one knows what the final mission will be, but there will surely be a plan for it. And if there isn’t they can make it up as they go along.