What We Won in Fallouja

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.

The Duke of Wellington


The news media are taking Wellington’s dictum to heart. They seem positively despondent over the battle of Fallouja.


It is right and proper to mourn the death of 71 Americans and the wounding of hundreds more. As Wellington realized, martial glory rings hollow when weighed against the cost in blood. But it is wrong to rush to the opposite extreme by assuming, as so much of the current commentary implicitly does, that war solves nothing and that all casualties are meaningless. In fact, many of the turning points of history have been battles, such as Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, which ended for all time the threat of French expansionism in Europe.

Obviously the battle of Fallouja was not be as decisive as Waterloo; few battles are. But that shouldn’t blind us to the accomplishments of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which led the offensive along with U.S. Army and Iraqi soldiers.

Coalition troops killed 1,200 to 1,600 guerrillas and captured more than 1,000. They uncovered 26 bomb factories, 350 arms caches (containing thousands of weapons), several chemical weapons laboratories and eight houses where hostages were held and probably tortured and killed. And they accomplished all this with less than half the number of casualties suffered in Hue, Vietnam, in 1968, the last major urban assault mounted by the Marine Corps.

As significant as what happened is what didn’t happen. The second battle of Fallouja did not turn into a public relations debacle, as did the attack in April. The Marines cleverly began this campaign by occupying the main hospital in Fallouja, which, in the spring, had been the source of inflated claims about civilian casualties. There was no uprising in the streets of Najaf or Karbala -- or Cairo or Amman -- to protest the second assault on Fallouja. The Iraqi interim government held together behind the fierce determination of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to fight the terrorists.

The only major PR snafu came when a journalist taped a Marine shooting a wounded insurgent. Though endlessly replayed on Al Jazeera (which refused to show the video of terrorists apparently slaughtering aid worker Margaret Hassan), there is no sign that this action has cost the U.S. any public support in Iraq. On the contrary, many Iraqis, fed up with terrorist attacks, no doubt applauded the Marine’s ruthlessness.

This is not meant to suggest that everything went perfectly. Many terrorists were able to escape Fallouja before the assault and create mayhem in Mosul, where the local police folded with dismaying speed. But U.S. and Iraqi forces quickly shifted their focus to the north and snuffed out the uprising in Mosul. Now they are pressing their offensive in the “triangle of death” south of Baghdad.

The best news of recent days is the growing competence of Iraqi security forces. Two thousand Iraqis fought alongside 10,000 Americans in Fallouja and, by all reports, they performed reasonably well. In the operations south of Baghdad, Iraqis are said to outnumber British and American troops.

Skeptics are right to point out that no insurgency can be defeated by force alone, but it’s also true that effective military action is usually a prerequisite for a political settlement. Only if the insurgents are convinced they cannot shoot their way to power will they give up their guns.


The clashes with Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia this summer proves the point: After being whipped by U.S. forces, the Shiite rabble-rouser decided to join the electoral process. Sadr City, once among the most dangerous areas of Iraq for U.S. troops, has become relatively quiet. The hope now is that the fall of Fallouja will convince more Sunnis of the futility of armed resistance, while elections on Jan. 30 will convince them that their grievances can be addressed through peaceful means.

Even in a best-case scenario, however, the bombings and beheadings won’t end the day after the vote. It can take a decade or more to defeat an insurgency (Colombia has been fighting Marxist guerrillas since 1966), and even a small number of determined fighters can wreak mayhem. In the 1970s, fewer than 100 members of the Baader-Meinhof gang terrorized West Germany, a country that is considerably more populous and more stable than Iraq, which is estimated to have at least 10,000 insurgents.

Thus, for all their success in Fallouja, we should not expect U.S. troops to completely pacify Iraq anytime soon. What they can do -- what they are doing -- is to keep the insurgents from derailing a political process that, one hopes, will soon result in the creation of a legitimate government that can field indigenous security forces and defend itself.