AS 2004 draws to a close, our military can be proud. Once again, our troops de feated our enemies, redeemed the mistakes of our civilian leadership and defied the prophets of disaster.
Iraq will shortly hold national elections. Afghanistan is a functioning democracy, despite the critics who claimed the goal was impossible. Islamic terrorists remain on the run, unable to strike our homeland. And the battle with terror in the Middle East has taken a terrible toll on our enemies.
This was a year of major policy errors and deadly challenges. U.S. election requirements conflicted with military necessity. Troop levels were capped too low. Their civilian superiors prevented combat commanders from taking decisive action, fearing that casualties would become a political football. The terrorists and insurgents put down deep roots while our election campaign dragged on.
But our troops always came through for us, no matter the limits imposed upon them. Whenever they were allowed to fight, they won. Our tragic reverses, such as the disastrous First Battle of Fallujah or the initial rounds of fighting in Najaf, resulted from indecision and miscalculations at the highest levels of civilian leadership, not from any military failings.
Throughout the year, commanders and soldiers reinvented warfare under fire. Old doctrine was cast aside in favor of combat techniques suited to a new century. Urban warfare lessons were studied in the field and combat in cities was revolutionized — the triumphant Second Battle of Fallujah shattered every historical precedent.
Commanders grasped the paramount requirement for speed when war must be waged under the scrutiny of the global media. The traditional importance of mass — of having the numbers overwhelmingly on your side — regained respectability. Even civilian decision-makers belatedly recognized that war cannot be waged by garden-party rules.
As a result, an overwhelming, multi-service force won Second Fallujah in a week, with less than 10 percent of the casualties traditional urban-warfare models would have predicted. The major fighting was over before a hostile global media could undercut our efforts — as al-Jazeera and the BBC did back in April, during First Fallujah.
If any lesson permeated our military experience in Iraq, it was the requirement to speed the kill, to operate within the media cycle. Operations that once would have stretched over days were condensed to start and finish between midnight and dawn.
On a darker note, it became evident that our strategic failure to mount a robust occupation immediately in the aftermath of Saddam's fall allowed our enemies to retake control of the timetable. An occupation that could have gone relatively smoothly turned instead into an ugly unconventional war that tears at the sinews of Iraqi identity.
There's an old military maxim to the effect that it's difficult to recover from "faulty initial dispositions." By failing to use our power aggressively early on, we only strengthened our enemies.