Thunder Run

The New York Times Magazine
December 14, 2003

A convention of military strategy is that you do not rush tanks into the center of a hostile city unless you wish to lose them. In 1994 the Russians learned this fatal lesson when they sent an armored column into Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and guerrillas picked the tanks off with rocket-propelled grenades.

The Third Infantry Division of the U.S. Army turned convention on its head on April 7, when 88 Abrams tanks and 44 Bradley Fighting Vehicles shot their way into the heart of Baghdad, signaling to Iraqis and the world that the city was no longer under the control of Saddam Hussein. It was an audacious and ad hoc operation, planned only on the evening before its execution, and it was given, by the army colonel who commanded it, the name Thunder Run.

The commander, Col. David Perkins, gambled that if his armored column moved quickly enough and with enough firepower, they could surprise the city’s defenders and move behind their lines. “We wanted to create as much chaos as possible,” Colonel Perkins said in an interview. “It was their city, so they had the advantage–they knew the streets; they had put up defenses. But they were in rings of static defense. If you can break through and get into the center of the city and get behind them, you have the advantage.”

The Thunder Run was a vindication of the be-quicker-and-more-flexible ethos expounded by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. It demonstrated that rapid movement, combined with heavy and precise firepower, can disorient and demoralize an enemy. It also showed that letting combat leaders choose tactics, as Gen. Tommy Franks did in Iraq, rather than keeping them on a tight leash, can really pay off.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.