Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, and tyranny makes armed forces—or any institution, really—stupid.
A ruler like Saddam, who appoints himself generalissimo of the armed services and regards ideas that contradict his own as a threat, squelches the lively debate that constitutes the lifeblood of strategic thought. Had Saddam encouraged freethinking among his commanders instead of crushing it mercilessly, it’s possible Iraqis would have fared far better in 1991—and that the defenders of occupied Kuwait may have landed far more telling blows against coalition navies, including battleships, that menaced their maritime flank.
Alternative history is a pleasant diversion—and useful when it furnishes a reminder of timeless verities such as the need to size up prospective foes’ martial cultures as well as their arsenals.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.
This article first appeared in April 2019.
Image: U.S. Navy photo