SHAFR: Findings from Iraqi Records

If any of you are at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) conference going on right now in Madison, I strongly encourage you to stop by the following panel.  Unfortunately, it’s scheduled for Sunday AM, but it should be well worth it.

Panel 58:  New Perspectives on U.S.-Iraq Relations under Saddam (Room 213)

Chair:  Jessica Huckabey, Conflict Records Research Center

“This Stab in the Back”: Saddam Hussein, Irangate and the United States

Hal Brands, Institute for Defense Analyses

Understanding Saddam’s Non-Use of WMD in the Gulf War

David Palkki, University of California at Los Angeles and Institute for Defense Analyses

Saddam’s Perceptions and Misperceptions: The Case of Desert Storm

Kevin Woods, Institute for Defense Analyses

Comment:  Thomas Mahnken, U.S. Naval War College and Johns Hopkins University

All three of these papers draw heavily on captured Iraqi records copies of which are or will be in the Conflict Records Research Center.  (Official site here.)  Hal’s paper will discuss how Saddam reacted to news of the Iran-Contra scandal, in particular the fact that the United States had been shipping weapons to Iran, a country with whom Iraq was at war at the time.  Though the Iran-Contra affair came to light pretty late in the Iran-Iraq War, I think is paper should encourage historians to reconsider the question of the extent to which Saddam really was our man, in our pocket, during the 1980s.

David’s paper should prove equally interesting and deals with the effects or lack thereof of the famous Baker-Aziz meeting of 9 January 1991 at which Baker issued a veiled threat–often thought to refer to the possible use of nuclear weapons–of the consequences if Iraq were to use CBW against American forces.  Dave gave a version of this paper a couple of months ago at a conference at the CSIS.  Here is the abstract from that talk:

Ever since the Gulf War, scholars have debated why Iraq did not use chemical or biological weapons
against Coalition forces or US allies. Many analysts have suggested that Saddam didn’t use WMD
because the ferocity of the Coalition onslaught, adverse weather, difficulties mating toxic materials with
warheads, or other factors rendered Iraq physically unable to deliver them. Others argue that US Secretary
of State James Baker’s ambiguous warning that the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapon
strikes, and/or by replacing Saddam’s regime, deterred Iraqi use. I find that Iraq was physically able to
attack Coalition forces and US allies with chemical and biological weapons, yet refrained from doing so
for fear of US nuclear retaliation. Deterrence, however, was largely existential, as Saddam considered US
nuclear strikes plausible long before US officials issued even the most veiled of threats. My argument is
based on captured recordings of private conversations between Saddam and his inner circle, declassified
US interrogation reports, defector accounts, and recently released memoirs. My findings have important
implications for the ongoing debate over the role of the US nuclear arsenal and the question of a US no first
use declaratory policy.

Kevin will talk about work that he and I did on the lessons Saddam learned from DESERT STORM, how he was able to calculate that he won that war and how these lessons may have served him poorly in the run-up to 2003.  For more on that, see my previous posting here.


The Royal Armouries Museum

While I was in Leeds, England a couple weeks ago, I had an opportunity to visit the Royal Armouries.  This museum is, in essence, an overflow museum of arms and armor, excuse me, armour, from the Tower of London.  I found it an interesting experience, though not necessarily for the all reasons that the curators had in mind.

Royal Armouries, Leeds, England

As might be expected from a country that once had an empire on which the sun never set, the museum has an extensive collection of weapons from all over the world, with the exception of South America, I suppose.  The jewel in the collection in the world’s only surviving set of Asian elephant armor, a Mughal item, dating from approximately 1600.  Actually, the set is missing the armor that would have protected the elephant’s right side, but that doesn’t in any way make it less impressive.


The cases at each side of the elephant contain reproductions of the various types of armor the elephant is wearing so you can touch it and really appreciate how it’s put together, which I found a nice touch.

A closeup of the actual elephant armor.

A real winner of a display, and it gives me new appreciation for the cover of Delbruck’s volume 1.  My understanding is that in the early months of World War II, infantry soldiers sometimes suffered what was called “tank panic” or “tank fright,” when faced with these armored behemoths.  Must not a similar phenomenon have occurred at least occasionally when meeting a war elephant?

Warfare in Antiquity: History of the Art of War, Volume 1

But I digress.

In the terms that the curators meant the museum, this was by far the highlight because, frankly, a few swords in a case go a long way for me, and I say that as a former fencer.  It is true that, as Stalin said, quantity has a quality all its own, but still…

No, the other really interesting part of the museum for me was the section devoted to personal protection.  Here was a varied collection of shotguns, hand guns, sword canes, switch blades, brass knuckles, etc.  Some of this was of purely historical interest, but a good bit of it was quite modern.  These modern artifacts were set in one of two distinct contexts: noble law enforcement and base criminality.  Large statistic-laden graphics on the wall invited visitors to consider whether the availability of weapons caused crime.  Meanwhile,  little placards adjacent to many of the actual weapons indicated either the licensing requirements for legal ownership or outlined the criminal penalties to which one was liable for illegal possession.  This was most definitely a government museum propagandizing the public.  (While I was in the UK there was a tragic mass shooting in Cumbria.  In the wake of this, the museum is probably pushing on an open door, politically speaking.)  As an interesting parallel to the suggested link between weapons and crime, one of the last parts of the museum asked visitors to consider the potential causes of war.  You guessed it, building armies was one of the five or six choices.

In any event, should you find yourselves in northern England, I would definitely recommend a visit.

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 8:30 AM  Comments (2)  
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Education by Role-Playing

I’m recently back from the UK where I defended my dissertation and then took a vacation to drink Scotch and travel about the Highlands.  As I’m almost de-jetlagged and as the airline has finally coughed up my luggage, I’ll soon be returning to proper blogging.

In the meantime, I thought I’d just post a link to a really interesting site from Barnard College about a technique for teaching undergraduates about critical periods in the past, emphasizing the role of historical contingency and (more controversially, but, in my view soundly) about the agency of individuals.  Their technique is a game called “Reacting to the Past.” It involves roleplaying and does have some sort of determination of winners and losers.  (How this determination is made is not clear.  My impression is that entails voting by a panel of judges, but I may be wrong.)

As Israel and Palestine are on everyone’s minds these days, check out the video of the students playing a scenario of “Reacting” dealing with the founding of Israel.  “The game was based around the work of the Palestine Royal Commission (also known as the Peel Commission) which arrived in Jerusalem in 1936 to try and determine the causes of conflict and make recommendations for the future.”  It’s fascinating and really powerful, not least because most of the students were Jews or Muslims and they were purposely cast against type for the purposes of the game.  I applaud all of them for their intellectual integrity and for the research and effort that they clearly put into their preparations.

That scenario clearly has some connection with military history.  Another scenario in development which deals more directly with military history is entitled “The Second Crusade: The War Council of Acre, 1148,” and it deals with the decision to launch the…Second Crusade.  Barnard has in the can already yet another scenario dealing with New York City during the Revolutionary War. Rather amusingly, the description of this scenario includes the amusing line, “Winning requires the ability to master the high political arguments for and against revolution as well as the low political skills of logrolling, bribery, and threatened force. [However] Military force often determines the winner, much to the surprise of the students who concentrated merely on internal game politics.”  Never forget Mao: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

I wonder if it might not be possible to apply the “Reacting to the Past” methodology to a course that is more specifically related to military and diplomatic history.  Possible scenarios.

  • The run-up to World War I.
  • The decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
  • The run-up to the U.S. Civil War.
  • The Prague Spring of 1968.
  • Perestroika, the USSR and the East Bloc.
  • Japan and the United States: The Road to War.

Of course, if one wanted to be particularly controversial, one could create a REALLY interesting scenario around the Arab mujahidin at the end of the Soviet War in Afghanistan.  Near enemy?  Far enemy?  Azzam or Bin Laden?  I shan’t hold my breath, but that would be really cool.

[Update:  Gah.  Always follow every link.  Grants have been given for two additional games that deal to some degree with military history:  “Kentucky in 1861: A Nation in the Balance” and “Petrograd, 1917.”]

Published in: on June 9, 2010 at 1:50 AM  Comments (2)  
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Captured Iraqi and Terrorist Records Now Available

I am delighted to draw your attention to the fact that the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) is now open to scholars at the National Defense University.  It presently contains a collection of some 22,000 pages of records captured from Saddam’s regime and from Al Qaida and its allies.  However, that total is simply a drop in the bucket compared to where it is going to be.  The collection grows on a daily basis and there is reason to believe that that growth will accelerate over time.

The CRRC’s website describes the two collections this way:

The Saddam records consist of a wide range of government files—audio recordings of high-level meetings, speeches by Saddam and senior officials, correspondence between ministries, records of the Presidential Diwan, and others—that bear mainly on issues related to national security, defense policy, and diplomacy. These records are categorized by their originating agency or office (for instance, Iraqi Intelligence Service or General Military Intelligence Directorate), and will eventually constitute the vast majority of CRRC holdings.

The [Al Qaida] records also consist of a wide range of files, including everything from al Qaeda “pocket litter” to financial records, theological and ideological documents, strategic plans, operational guidebooks, and histories of individual operations from the Afghan war in the 1980s through the early 2000s. These documents are grouped thematically. There are also a small number of documents generated by the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The website is a little sparse at the moment, but expect it to grow richer over time.  I imagine that Jessica Huckabey, the acting director (and a friend and occasional co-author of mine) can give you more information on the collection, its future prospects, and how to use it.

I do know that at the moment only documents with full English translations are being entered into the database, so don’t allow lack of Arabic skills to deter you.  The originals were “seized” as provided for under international law and are held by the US Government. The US and the Iraqi Governments have agreed that Iraq will receive the originals back.  Don’t count on Al Qaida ever getting their documents back.  The records open to scholars at the CRRC consist of digital copies of the originals, plus translations and file information sheets. In other words, this is the modern day equivalent of the microfilming of the German, Japanese, and Italian records that were captured in World War II.  It is also worth noting that the records at the CRRC are not the Ba’ath Party records that are held at the Hoover Institution nor the so-called “Jewish Archives” which are at the U.S. National Archives.  (

In a past life I worked with the materials that Jessica and her colleagues are migrating into the CRRC and I can tell you that for those scholars interested in modern Iraq, terrorism, or modern military history, there is a goldmine here.  Reputations to be made.  Dissertations to be written….

Still, according to an e-mail to The Daily from Kanan Makiya, the founder of IMF, there is a “deep rift” within the Iraqi Ministry of Culture about whether or not any of the records should be returned now.

Makiya said that in an Iraqi radio program that aired last Thursday, which he heard in Erbil, Iraq, “a deputy minister of culture, senior to Eskander and his team who visited Hoover, tore into his colleagues’ allegations, supporting enthusiastically the IMF and Hoover’s role.”

A Call to Action: Military History of the Global Jihad

I’m off to the Society for Military History’s annual conference in Lexington, Virginia today.  The SMH conference is always well worth attending and it never fails to demonstrate the remarkable breadth of “military history.”  If you want to know about ancient military history, naval operations during the Cold War, King Philip’s War, paramilitary operations, the religious lives of soldiers, or the role of sugar in World War I, it’s here.  There will  be 600+ historians from the US, Canada, Europe, and South Africa in attendance.

What disturbs me about this conference and has disturbed me about other SMH conferences that I’ve attended is that the military history of the Middle East, including of our jihadist friends, is largely neglected.  I think this is something that we should address at the next SMH conferences in 2011 (Lisle, IL) or 2012 (Arlington, VA).  I’ll get to my specific suggestion at the bottom of this post.

It is true that there several papers that appear to bear on the “war on terrorism” are to be presented.  I find the title of Michael Palmer’s paper particularly intriguing.

  • “A Strategy of Tactics: What Population-centric Counterinsurgency Has Done to the American Army”  Gian P. Gentile, U.S. Military Academy
  • “Whirlwind, Whiz Kids, Waziristan, and the Realization of the Airpower Cause”  John  G. Terino , U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College
  • “’No One Put a Gun to Their Head and Forced Them to Come Here’: Representing the All-Volunteer Army in Narratives on the ‘War on Terror’”  David Kieran, Washington University
  • “The Influence of History upon Modern Jihadists”  Michael A. Palmer, East Carolina University
  • “The War at Home: Responding to Terrorism and Racketeering in France during the Algerian Conflict”  Barnett Singer, Brock University

There is also one panel that promises to be extremely interesting in this regard:

“Counterinsurgency Across History” (A Roundtable Presentation)

Chair: H. R. McMaster, U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center, Training and Doctrine Command


  • Andrew J. Birtle, U.S. Army Center for Military History
  • Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Mark Moyar, U.S. Marine Corps University

Brigadier General McMaster is one of those guys in the military who is not only a great warrior but whose ideas have really mattered.  I briefed him once on the Salafi jihadists’ views on strategy and war and I was really, really impressed with his intellect.  It’s always a pleasure to brief someone like that.  I can’t wait to hear him.

All this said, however, with the possible exception of Palmer’s talk, all of these presentation are about the “war on terrorism” from our side.  However, scholars of modern jihadism have lots of material that is military history.  Most of us don’t think of it that way, however.  Think of it, we know quite a lot about the development of strategic thought in the movement.  Abu Musab al-Suri was, among other things, a military historian within the movement, we know a great deal about the operations of the Arab Afghans during the war with the Soviets.  Jessica Huckabey and I have written an article which is forthcoming in Intelligence and National Security, which discusses the defeats of al Qaida and its affiliates at the hands of Arab security services resulting in a repetitive loss of sanctuary.  A great deal of interesting work could be done about the military history of the GIA in Algeria and the effects of Algerian military intelligence service upon it.  Then, of course, there is the Conflict Records Research Center, which I’m told has been physically established and may be opening within days.  It will eventually hold thousands of previously unseen documents from the jihadists.  Who knows what will be found there?

I do not claim that the study of the Salafi jihadists is only a question of military history.  However, I do suggest that military history–its people, its methods and its ethos–can help us think about certain problems in the field.  And if they can help us, then they should.  They just need to be alerted to the issue.

So, a modest proposal.  I expect to attend the SMH conference next year.  When the call for papers comes out, I’m going to try to put together a panel on the Military History of the Global Jihad.  I’m hoping that some people reading this now will be prepared to help me take this topic to the military history community.  Let’s see what results.