Who Won the Battle
Jonathan F. Keiler
Proceedings, January 2005
Enemy insurgents defending Fallujah were formidable because many of
them were willing to fight to the death. In general, however, they were
an indifferently armed rabble who could inflict casualties because of
the nature of urban warfare and U.S. sensibilities. What if our forces
find themselves facing well-trained Syrian commandos or Hezbollah guerrillas?
Was Fallujah a battle we lost in April 2004, with ruinous results?
Or was it a battle we won in November? The answer is yes. If that sounds
awkward, it is because Fallujah was an awkward battle without an easy
parallel in U.S. military history. It is hard to say whether the drawn-out
process of securing that medium-sized Iraqi city was a one-time event
or the beginning of a trend. I hope it is the former. And to make that
outcome probable, I will objectively evaluate the battle here and offer
comparisons of Marine
Corps and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) doctrine and operations.
The United States is likely to face more Fallujahs in the near future.
The Marine Corps’ reputation as an elite and feared combat force will
ride in part on how Fallujah and similar battles are perceived at home
and abroad. In evaluating the battle, I considered the differing objectives
of the two opposing forces and how close each came to achieving those
objectives. One side’s objectives were more limited than the other’s.
Third parties, such as Syria and Iran, may perceive the battle differently.
Reaching honest answers to these questions requires looking beyond convenient
bromides that recount U.S. heroics or anticipate favorable outcomes
that remain largely unpredictable.
|U.S. MARINE CORPS (KENNETH MADDEN III)
In Operation Valiant Resolve, the Marines—here, an infantryman takes
aim from a rooftop—fought impressively and with exceptional regard
for civilian lives and property. But concern for minimizing casualties
and damage quickly limited the scope of their advance.
Operation Valiant Resolve
After its impressive initial victory in Operation
Iraqi Freedom (OIF), I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) returned
in 2004 to replace Army forces in parts of central and western Iraq.
The 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (1/5), was sent to Fallujah to
relieve troops of the 82d Airborne Division. On 31 March 2004, four
U.S. contractors driving through that city were ambushed and killed
by Iraqi insurgents; their bodies were mutilated and displayed publicly
before frenzied crowds in a scene reminiscent of the Battle of Mogadishu.
A forceful response was vital and anticipated widely. Accordingly, 1/5,
along with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (2/1), and supporting
Army and Air Force special operations units were ordered to enter Fallujah
for an operation dubbed Valiant Resolve. Their mission was to find and
eliminate—or apprehend—the mujahadeen and any accomplices who had perpetrated
the ambush. Resistance was expected. Rather than a stability and security
operation, Valiant Resolve was to consist of deliberate assaults on
When the attack commenced 5 April 2004, lead Marine elements were engaged
quickly by well-armed and organized enemy units effectively using hit-and-run
urban warfare. Despite heavy resistance, the Marines limited their firepower,
relying mostly on rifles, machine guns, and snipers. They restricted
air support to Cobra attack helicopters and AC-130 gunships.
On a few occasions—only after considerable deliberation—fixed-wing aircraft
dropped guided bombs on insurgent targets, including a mosque used as
a center of resistance.
In general, Marine units fought with impressive skill and with exceptional
care for civilian lives and property. This solicitude, however, quickly
limited the scope of the advance to outlying areas of the city. They
did not attempt to penetrate the heart of the city, apparently because
U.S. casualties would have been excessive, as would casualties among
the inhabitants. The Marines did not want to “rubble the city.”
On 1 May 2004, Iraqi insurgents took to the streets of Fallujah to
declare victory over the Marines. “We won,” an Iraqi insurgent told
a reporter, explaining they had succeeded by keeping U.S. forces from
taking the city.
Newspaper and televised reports showed Muslim gunmen celebrating their
“triumph” with weapons, flags, and victory signs. U.S. authorities explained
that a new Iraqi Fallujah Brigade would assume security duties in the
city and ultimately accomplish the mission.
© 2004 The Naval Institute. All rights reserved.