Expert Witness is Cranfield University Professor Christopher Bellamy’s account of his experience as defence correspondent for London’s Independent newspaper during the 1991 Gulf War.
The title was derived from the fact, as one can see in his present appointment that he was no ordinary journalist. Indeed, Dr Bellamy, as he then was, had been a Sovietologist, one of a select group that had studied under the legendary University of Edinburgh professor John Erickson, who wrote the definitive Cold War account of the Russo-German war, the Road to Stalingrad and the Road to Berlin.
Bellamy has since writing Expert Witness returned to academia and has sought to improve on Erickson`s work, by writing Absolute War, a new account of the war of annihilation in the east.
Just before joining the Independent in 1990 Bellamy, who had also been a regular officer in the Royal Artillery, had completed his PhD, with some US military funding, on the Soviet/Russian view of future war – some of which came to pass in the Georgian war two months ago. As such he also played, by his account, a small role in the development of the US Army`s AirLand Battle doctrine and introducing to it the concept of the operational level of war. Indeed an expert witness to the events that would unfold in the largely featureless deserts around Kuwait.
Bellamy delayed publishing his book – it only went to print in 1993 – for a variety of reasons. “By standing back the author had hoped to identify errors and misperceptions and give a more complete picture of what happened than would have been possible had the book been completed sooner.” These include a better appreciation of the war`s casualties, the effect of air power, Saddam Hussein`s nuclear and chemical arsenals.
The author`s background allows him to make a number of frankly startling points about the 1991 war – the more so as they are not evident in other accounts this reviewer has seen to date and because the contentions are well supported by the text and by sources. Along the way he also makes a few telling points about the relationship of the media and military in war that should be carefully studied by all commanders and any every reporter.
Reading Expert Witness and looking at events since one comes to the conclusion that overall commander Norman Schwarzkopf was something of a Wellington fighting Waterloo. The Liberation of Kuwait was a Cold War battle transferred from the Fulda Gap to the desert wastes. Many of the units that fought it were subsequently disbanded (this was also the case with Wellington`s forces) and it is unlikely any battle will be fought on that scale any time soon. For the British, the next big clash after 1815 was 1914. For the Germans it was 1866 (Austro-Prussian war) and for the French 1870 (Franco-Prussian War).
But what does Bellamy say? He calls Schwarzkopf a Prussian figure, fighting a Prussian war using Russian means. Ever heard that before?
“The author`s overall impression of the 1991 war s reflected in Clausewitz`s dictum that ‘the maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect,” Bellamy writes in his introduction, where he states a case the following pages seek to prove.
“The whole operation, led by the Prussian figure of General Schwarzkopf, reminded the author, above all, of the triumphs of the elder Moltke and the Prussian/German General Staff in the 1860s and 70s. Or perhaps the younger Moltke and the Schlieffen Plan – executed in 1914 but not taken far enough. It was a very Prussian operation – militarily brilliant, but ultimately let down by politics, or politicians.”
“It was also a very Russian operation. After years of studying the Soviet military system as a potential adversary, it would be surprising if US and British generals had not been impressed by parts of it, and imitated it, consciously or subconsciously.
It was the first war fought by US and British generals who explicitly recognised and thought in terms of the operational level, the level between strategy and tactics, the level at which great campaigns are orchestrated.”
He argues that encirclement of Kuwait rates alongside Cannae (Hannibal, 216 BC), Khalkin Gol (Zhukov, 1939) and Stalingrad (Zhukov, 1942). The “great left hook” by 7th and 18th US Corps also had something in common with the 3rd Army`s great wheel across France under Patton in 1944 and compared with Omdurman in 1898 where the Mahdi`s forces chose to engage a “highly disciplined force using the latest technology” on the latter`s terms.
“The use of artillery was very Russian. … The commander of the artillery of the British 1st Armoured Division described the division as an OMG (Operational Manoeuvre Group – a Soviet nostrum), and the arrangements for finding and allocating a target as a ‘reconnaissance-strike complex` – a Soviet term.
“At the beginning of the ground war, the US 1st Infantry Division created a breach and the powerful 1st British Armoured Division – the OMG – was pushed through – exactly as the Soviet Army would do it.
“In the deployment before the ground war, 18th Corps passed through 7th Corps, leapfrogging ahead, out to the west – a Soviet move – passing one corps through another – which the Americans had never emulated before.`
A Russian military attaché to London a year later said: “it was pure Soviet… manoeuvre of fire, not of troops.”
Bellamy continues: “Furthermore, Operation Desert Storm and especially Desert Sword, the ground component, were the most cerebral campaigns ever fought. Technology, surprise operational skill, heuristic and academic training: taken together, they represented the triumph, above all, of intellect.”
It may also have – if only for a while – forced back into its box that other horror of the French revolution: total war, and returned us to an era of “Frederician limited war”. Whether this is a long term change or just the consequence of the cost of modern technology and professional soldiers, remains to be seen. The Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998-2000 re-enacted some of the worst of World War One, while the Russian counter-offensive in Georgia in August builds on lessons learned from 1991.
We have since returned from the certainties and paradoxical comfort of war to the ambiguity of disorder and insurgency. But that is another story and another review.
Expert Witness is an immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking book. It deserves reading, study and debate.
A Defence Correspondent`s Gulf War, 1990-91