Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq, by Peter R. Mansoor (Yale University Press, 416 pp., $28.00)
Any Iraq combat memoir blurbed as a “must-read” by General David Petraeus deserves serious attention. Sure enough, Army Colonel Peter Mansoor’s account of his one-year post in Baghdad, where he commanded a 3,500-man brigade, is a valuable addition to the literature of the war.
Mansoor’s great strength as an author is his insight into the nature of insurgent warfare in Iraq and the tactics required to defeat it—subjects on which he brings impressive credentials to bear. As a senior officer in the war’s early stages, Mansoor witnessed the genesis of the bloody insurgency that consumed the country for nearly four years. And as an executive officer to General Petraeus—or “Dave,” as Mansoor calls him—he was one of the architects of the 2007 troop “surge” that turned the tide against Shiite militias and Sunni jihadists. For anyone wishing to understand how the U.S. salvaged something approaching victory from imminent defeat in Iraq, Baghdad at Sunrise is a good place to start.
The bulk of the book covers Mansoor’s service in the Iraqi capital. From June 2003 to July 2004, his 1st Brigade Combat Team was responsible for the recurrently restive districts of Rusafa and Adhamiya in central and northeast Baghdad. Hotbeds of insurgent operations, both districts served as bases for the Mahdi Army, the thuggish Shiite militia loyal to rogue cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. After periodic clashes with the Mahdi Army throughout 2003, Mansoor’s combat team again had to do battle with Sadr’s guerillas in the spring of 2004, when its tour of duty was extended to quell Mahdi-instigated uprisings in the Shiite shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf.
The main lesson Mansoor draws from these engagements, underscored by the success of the surge, is now familiar: the U.S. simply did not have enough troops in the beginning to fight insurgents, protect civilians, and rebuild the country. But while that fact may be appreciated in the abstract, Mansoor provides a commander’s view of the sometimes fatal frustrations that limited manpower could cause. In Baghdad, Mansoor’s 3,500 troops were in charge of 2.1 million Iraqis—that is, one soldier for every 600 Iraqis. For purposes of comparison, consider that New York, a far less lethal environment, has one police officer for every 209 residents. To compensate for the numerical imbalance, Mansoor writes, “troops were working twenty-hour days, and the vehicles were being driven until they fell apart.” Some soldiers, forced to do too much with too little, paid the ultimate price.
What American forces were able to achieve despite such constraints is impressive. Those who think that military hierarchy and discipline stifle imagination should consider the ingenious measures that senior officers introduced to combat insurgents. Learning on the fly, they showed an acute understanding of Iraqi culture and shaped their tactics accordingly.
For instance, Mansoor’s combat team won Iraqi cooperation by offering to pay “blood money” to tribes for any family members killed or injured during counter-insurgent operations, even if the U.S. wasn’t directly at fault—a tribute to Arab “honor” culture. Mosques presented another challenge. Protected by international laws of war, they became favorite hideouts for insurgents, who could also rely on the Arab media’s eagerness to portray every U.S. military misstep as an attack on Islam. Mansoor’s men overcame this obstacle by sending Iraqi troops to clear out the mosques. On other occasions, the military used Islam in its favor. When pro-Saddam graffiti on Baghdad’s walls threatened to bring already simmering tempers to boil, Mansoor ordered it covered with Koranic verse. The graffiti did not reappear.
Shrewdest of all, perhaps, was Mansoor’s strategy for collecting much-needed intelligence and getting a grip on Iraq’s rumor-reliant culture. In a brilliant stroke, Mansoor hired Iraqi civilians to mingle in Iraqi coffee shops, markets, and universities, and then report back on the talk of the day. Thanks to these ties to Iraq’s chattering classes, Mansoor’s team had a clear sense of the popular mood and gained advance warning of insurgent attacks.
When those attacks did come, Mansoor’s team was armed—with algebra. After a series of particularly destructive al-Qaida bombings, the brigade developed a mathematical formula—the force of a bomb, it turns out, is “inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the explosion and the target”—to set up more effective security barriers. Later, when improvised explosive devices (IEDs) came into use, Mansoor countered with Operation Whitetail. Using “pattern analysis” to determine when IEDs were planted (just after dawn) and when they exploded (midmorning), Mansoor increased reconnaissance patrols on major roads, hired Iraqis to rid road shoulders of garbage that could hide the bombs, and placed snipers in strategic positions. The measures paid off: insurgents planting IEDs began to be picked off like deer during hunting season (hence the operation’s name).
What also damaged the early war effort, Mansoor argues, was the absence of a “clear, hold, and build” strategy. Whether in Baghdad or Fallujah, the military would conduct successful assault missions only to yield the battlefield to insurgents. Highways became no-go zones, streets were ceded to Sadr’s forces and Sunni terrorists, and sectarian violence swept the country. When Mansoor’s unit wound up repositioned from its makeshift headquarters in the Martyr’s Monument in Baghdad to the city’s periphery, security in the capital swiftly deteriorated. Had American forces retained a visible presence in Baghdad, he believes, the violence that followed their exit “would not have occurred.”
In the book’s concluding section, Mansoor offers concrete suggestions for defeating future insurgencies. Most critical, he says, is getting Americans at home to understand that such wars will always be long ones, perhaps even “generational struggles.” Moreover, size matters. Mansoor suggests that in a country as large as Iraq, the U.S. will need some 500,000 troops to maintain stability, though he notes that properly trained and equipped Iraqi troops can make up most of this figure.
More generally, the U.S. must be better prepared for nation building. That means more battalion-sized forward-operating bases (typically numbering between 500 and 1,500 troops) and fewer calls to “commute to the fight.” Mansoor doesn’t explicitly disparage the idea of a so-called “rapid reaction force” outside Iraq as a substitute for an American presence in the country—a strategy favored by, among others, Barack Obama—but he is skeptical about its effectiveness in fighting insurgencies. A successful counterinsurgency also will require more civilians to join combat forces and military police. Engineers, translators, civil-affairs experts, and psychological operations specialists will all be crucial. Sophisticated weapons can “win the war,” Mansoor notes, “but they cannot create peace.”
Baghdad at Sunrise occasionally reads like the journal entries from which it is drawn. As such, its descriptions of people tend to be perfunctory. Beyond acknowledging the soldierly virtues—duty, courage, professionalism—Mansoor has little patience for personality profiles. And because the book proceeds chronologically, important events intermingle with more trivial ones, causing the pace to lag at times.
But it’s best to approach the book as a firsthand study of counterinsurgency, rather than as a more literary war memoir. “We had cleared Karbala,” Mansoor writes after the successful siege of the Shiite holy city in 2004. “The task now was to hold and rebuild it.” It’s a credit to strategists like Colonel Mansoor and General Petraeus, as well as the troops who put their plans into action, that today one can increasingly say the same thing about Iraq as a whole. The war isn’t yet won, but it is not too ambitious to suggest that it is no longer lost. For the first time in years, there truly is a “sunrise” over Baghdad.