Among defense intelligentsia, there are few mantras more chic than that which claims the U.S. military “forgot the lessons of Vietnam.” Had it not done so, received wisdom insists, America’s armed forces would not have struggled in Iraq for so long. Powerful adherents to this theory have spawned a follow-on analog, that we must not “forget the lessons of Iraq.”
Unfortunately, some of the key lessons these enthusiasts believe should be learned are the wrong ones, and these mistaken ideas are causing America’s military to be altered in ways that may prove troubling as the U.S. faces an increasingly complex and dangerous range of security threats.
Indeed, the devotees of the forgot-the-lessons-of-Vietnam philosophy have become so ascendant that they might be said to form the New Establishment of defense strategists. The New Establishment is especially strong in the Army. As a result, much of the service is being reconceptualized into a constabulary force in which nation-building and stability operations all but trump force-on-force war fighting.
It is, of course, a truism that forgetting the lessons of any conflict is unwise — there is always something to learn. At the same time, allowing assumptions about the “lessons” to go unchallenged carries great potential to distort strategic thinking to the point where real vulnerabilities arise. The aim of this article is to suggest that strategists today should scrutinize the supposed “lessons” before embarking on a path that may lead the nation to the wrong destination. It cautions that the lessons of Iraq must not translate into an erosion of the Army’s capability to engage in high-intensity conventional conflicts. It also argues that the manpower-intensive “Iraq-style” approach to the challenge of counterinsurgency (COIN) and irregular warfare is not necessarily the right lesson for U.S. military professionals to learn from Iraq.
That said, the New Establishment theories are correct in many respects. It is accurate, for example, to say that following the withdrawal from Vietnam, the Army focused on high-end conflict against peer-competitor states, most specifically the Soviet Union. Because of this “mistake,” the critics maintain, the Army was wholly unprepared to meet the asymmetrical challenge of Iraq’s insurgency in the 21st century.
Nonetheless, was the Army’s post-Vietnam focus really the horrendous miscalculation so many deem it was? Even with the benefit of hindsight, the Army’s strategy seems rather prescient — indeed, wise. In fact, the U.S. military was not called upon to fight another major insurgency for nearly 30 years. During that period, America’s Army faced down the masses of its Soviet counterpart while at the same time successfully fighting a series of brushfire conflicts in Grenada, Panama and elsewhere.
In the grand scheme of defense planning, “getting it right” for three decades is an exceptionally fine record. This is especially true when one considers that during this period, a genuinely existential threat to the very survival of the U.S. was not just contained, but actually driven to collapse — all without the need for a single American soldier to die in combat against that threat.
If the U.S. had converted its Army into a constabulary/counterinsurgency force as some believe it should have, one must consider whether doing so might have invited more aggressive behavior from a declining but still militarily powerful Soviet Union.
There have been numerous instances where a nation has sought to divert attention from internal problems by engaging in external aggression. Many experts believe that Argentina, for example, precipitated the 1982 Falklands-Malvinas war for just such reasons. Furthermore, the military junta misperceived the ability of the British military, then in a period of reconfiguration, to project conventional armed force thousands of miles distant. Plainly, if there is a perception of conventional weakness, some adversaries will seek to exploit it.
The old-line communists who were still influential in the later stages of the Soviet Union might have contemplated just such a strategy if the post-Vietnam U.S. military had converted itself into a counterinsurgency force. Other nations around the globe, North Korea among them, might have thought militarily confronting America was in the realm of the doable if the Army had been postured to fight principally low-tech, “irregular” opponents instead of one with nearly 7,000 armored vehicles and 20,000 artillery tubes. Obviously, the history of the latter part of the 20th century could have been very different had the Army embraced the supposed lessons of Vietnam in the way the New Establishment would have had it do.
The two wars with Iraq might have played out differently as well. In the 1991 Gulf War, it is likely that the coalition of forces would have eventually ejected the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait regardless of how the U.S. military was organized. The sheer quantity and quality of the Western and Arab forces assembled for that effort would surely have triumphed sooner or later. However, employing a force configured mainly to fight another Vietnam might have had costly stumbles against Iraq’s then-relatively competent conventional forces.
If Saddam Hussein had demonstrated the ability to inflict significant losses against U.S. troops unprepared for the force-on-force style of war his sizable military was organized to fight, he may have been left considerably stronger both in terms of his military assets as well as his disposition to use them. If that had happened, he would have been able to exercise considerably more influence on the peace negotiations than was the case with a military crushed by American forces well-disposed to fight the Soviet-style war the Iraqis attempted to conduct.
With respect to the second war against Iraq, it is not at all clear that an Army focused on fighting another Vietnam would have fared better. As suggested above, even Iraq’s much-reduced conventional capability of 2003 might nevertheless have proven to be a far more difficult opponent for a force overpopulated with Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles instead of M1A1 Abrams tanks. In short, even if the “lessons of Vietnam” were, in fact, “forgotten,” doing so may not have been the strategic disaster the New Establishment thinks it was — even if one accepts the general principle that there are always lessons to be learned from every conflict.
The flawed New Establishment notions about the post-Vietnam era do not portend well for efforts to learn lessons from Iraq, as the faulty-assumption syndrome certainly seems to be repeating itself. For example, consider the utterly unchallenged belief that the situation in Iraq today would have been different had the current counterinsurgency strategy been implemented from the very beginning.
Is not the lesson more complicated? Insurgency is an asymmetrical form of warfare that often fails and is seldom preferable to symmetrical warfare — even by its practitioners. By definition, an insurgency is not yet able to impose its will on the population as a whole and is unable to exercise governmental power. In other words, the problem of insurgency does not arise unless the adversary’s ability to conduct traditional, symmetrical operations has been effectively destroyed. As difficult as COIN operations against irregular forces may be for U.S. troops, they are far preferable to facing a conventional, “regular” opponent with forces inadequate for the task.
Of course, mistakes were made in Iraq. Gen. Tommy Franks’ outmoded idea that the capture of an enemy capital would produce a societal capitulation led him to misinterpret the concept that “speed kills.” In truth, haste kills, too. The overenthusiastic and unnecessary race to Baghdad stretched logistics lines of communication to the point of vulnerability, and allowed nascent insurgent forces to achieve their earliest, proof-of-concept successes against rear-echelon troops poorly prepared for infantry combat.
In this respect, the “lesson” of Iraq should be that to suppress the rise of an insurgency, it matters how major combat operations (MCO) are conducted. In the case of Iraq, it would have been far better for U.S. troops to have fixed enemy forces in place during the MCO phase. They then could have sat back and watched as American artillery and airpower decimated, among other things, the still-resisting officer corps — which formed the core of the insurgency’s initial leadership cadre — as well as obliterated Iraqi weapons caches, before either could fuel an insurgency.
However, these are conclusions drawn with the benefit of hindsight. It was entirely understandable for any American leader at the time to believe that the majority of Iraqis would have welcomed and appreciated the freedom from tyranny that U.S. troops provided. We are only now fully realizing that other cultures do not cherish our values in the same way as we do. This is another lesson of Iraq that the New Establishment ought to internalize as it revamps the Army into an organization where nation-building is put on a par with war fighting: Not all societies want to be rebuilt in America’s image.
Sadly, the attrition of the Iraqi insurgency that took place in the years following the initial invasion came at great human and material cost. Nevertheless, the success of the U.S. surge beginning in 2007 may well have required the sacrifice of the previous years. It is not at all clear that the purportedly “kinder and gentler” approach the Army allegedly embraced with the issuance of the new COIN manual in December 2006 (Field Manual 3-24) would have worked before the Iraqi insurgency — not to mention the supporting civilian populace — was exhausted by years of confronting a more conventionally minded American military.
One of the most prominent — yet most problematic — lessons the New Establishment seems to be drawing from Iraq is that most future conflicts involving the U.S. will be some replay of Iraq (or Afghanistan). Propelling this belief are many of the Army’s junior and mid-grade officers whose combat experiences in one or both countries consume their thinking to the point where they are blind to other possibilities — despite, for example, Russia’s conventional assault on Georgia in summer 2008.
The depth of the New Establishment’s belief is such that “Iraq-style counterinsurgency” as the Army’s “organizing principle” is being seen everywhere in doctrinal documents. The tilt is hardly limited to FM 3-24. One need look no further than the Army’s new FM 3-0, “Operations,” issued in February, and FM 3-07, “Stability Operations,” issued in October, to find additional convincing evidence that the New Establishment’s views are firmly and pervasively in place.
What these doctrinal documents show is that the New Establishment believes not just that the U.S. will conduct more Iraq-like operations, but also that they will be carried out in essentially the same manpower-intensive way. This supposed “lesson” of Iraq underpins the enormously costly expansion of ground force numbers. Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Ryan Henry proclaimed in 2007 that the increase of nearly 92,000 ground troops — 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines — was “an adaptation to this prolonged, irregular type of campaign that we can find ourselves in.”
Iraq’s real lesson
Much evidence is emerging, however, that the real lesson of Iraq is exactly opposite of what the New Establishment thinks. Specifically, the American people do not want another “Iraq-style” operation — despite the remarkable military successes of 2007 and 2008. Even James S. Corum, one of the contributors to FM 3-24, concedes as much in his new book, “Bad Strategies: How Major Powers Fail in Counterinsurgency,” Corum concludes that the experience of Iraq has so damaged support among the American people for similar operations elsewhere that they are unlikely for the future “no matter how necessary or justified they might be.”
Furthermore, polls as late as October confirm Corum’s views. They show that 66 percent of Americans still oppose the Iraq war, and only 38 percent believe it was right to go to war in the first place. Remarkably, this comes at a time when 53 percent believe that the war is going well. In other words, even though Americans appreciate the success in Iraq, they regret having become involved in the first place. These polls point to a profound disinclination among the public to use American troops in precisely the fashion the Army is refashioning itself to be used.
The evidence is becoming overwhelming. For example, the Pew Research Center reports that the U.S. public “has a sharply diminished appetite for U.S. efforts to deal with an array of global problems.” No doubt that much of the aversion among the electorate is due to the tragic loss of American life in five years of war, a loss made all the more hurtful by the fact that as recently as March, 42 percent of Iraqis still found attacks on U.S. forces to be “acceptable.”
Additionally, the financial meltdown of fall 2008 is likely another significant factor that will dampen the inclination to conduct COIN or stability operations that would require maintaining large numbers of U.S. troops in contingency areas. The public, while still strongly supportive of its service members, is becoming increasingly — and justifiably — concerned about what some pundits are claiming is a $3 trillion bill for Iraq. All this ought to make it crystal clear that there is little chance that the American public and, most importantly, its elected leadership, would commit to any large-scale deployment of U.S. forces to engage in another “Iraq-style” COIN or stability venture for the foreseeable future.
Therefore, while no one can exclude the possibility, it would not appear prudent to fashion an Army primarily prepared for such operations, especially if the only strategy offered to conduct them requires deploying tens of thousands of American ground troops. To be clear, one may agree with Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ National Defense Strategy issued in June 2008 that “[f]or the foreseeable future, winning the Long War against violent extremist movements will be the central objective of the U.S.,” yet still differ with those of the New Establishment who think the lesson of Iraq for “the Long War” will be to conduct operations in anywhere near that same way the Iraq war was fought.
A vital lesson of “the Long War” much overlooked by the New Establishment is that small-footprint operations can work. The relatively quiet successes in the Philippines and Colombia are more appropriate and realistic models for post-Iraq COIN operations than is Iraq. Along these lines, the 20,000-man adviser corps recommended by retired Lt. Col. John Nagl and others is exactly the kind of initiative that should be adopted because it aims to keep the “face” of COIN forces to the indigenous population primarily native.
Still, too many in the New Establishment just do not want to accept the reality that masses of American ground troops — regardless of their intentions — are rarely welcome virtually anywhere in the world outside of our borders.
Yet the New Establishment stubbornly persists in the idea that hundreds of thousands of soldiers ought to be recast into urbane and cultured “stabilizers.” Specifically, FM 3-24 quotes COIN expert David Galula for the proposition that the “soldier must be prepared to become … a social worker, a civil engineer, a school teacher, a nurse, a boy scout.” Even if one accepts the dubious assumption that the U.S. is likely to deploy large numbers of troops for another Iraq-like operation anytime soon, the reality is that the Army does not, and cannot, and likely should not, recruit and retain masses of troops with the qualifications FM 3-24 says are required.
Perhaps some portion of the U.S. military ought to be ready to perform such “soft power” duties, but it is too much to ask the bulk of the Army to acquire and maintain such a diverse set of skills in each of its soldiers. A division of labor that tasks (and funds) other elements of government with such responsibilities will better permit those in uniform to maintain unequalled excellence in the “hard power” tasks America’s armed forces must always be prepared to execute.
There are other lessons the New Establishment ought to re-think about the manpower-intensive approach. Consider that it is becoming increasingly evident that — contrary to the Army’s recent doctrinal documents — the much-disparaged notion of killing and capturing actually is more important to COIN success than many thought. And that killing and capturing often is best done by small numbers of elite troops empowered by high technology. In evaluating Bob Woodward’s new book, “The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008,” The Washington Post insists that the surge “was not the primary factor behind the steep drop in violence there during the past 16 months.” Instead, it reports that it was new covert techniques to “target and kill insurgent leaders and key individuals in extremist groups” that bred success.
Still, so powerful is the New Establishment’s sense of themselves that even otherwise respected soldiers have become astonishingly deaf to the limitations of an Army focused mainly on confronting another low-tech Iraq-type foe. Recently retired Col. Peter Mansoor, a much-admired COIN authority, claimed that the Army schooled in the streets of Baghdad also is prepared to face conventional opponents. Mansoor thinks that because combat units in Iraq “routinely use armor, artillery, mechanized infantry, attack aviation, close-air support, and other assets to accomplish their missions,” the Army has not lost its capability to fight high-end conventional wars.
In war, however, the enemy gets a vote. And the enemy’s ballot may include artillery, armor and — yes — airpower. The Army’s COIN experience, while plainly informative on close-quarters combat that can occur anywhere on the spectrum of conflict, nevertheless hardly prepares the surface force to survive and operate under, among other things, conventional airstrikes. The Army’s brand-new MRAP vehicles, for example, would be quite vulnerable to such attacks, as they would be even to the main guns of the thousands of tanks dating from the early Cold War era still in service around the world.
One can only hope that as critically important as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are, a lesson that emerges from these conflicts is that each must be considered in a context larger than itself. As Caspar Weinberger Jr., wrote in Human Events in June: “While wars of insurgency are what are happening now, it is correct to say that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, regardless of these two wars’ outcomes, will cause the downfall of America. However, a loss of any type of World War III most certainly would.” Weinberger quotes George Friedman: “The United States can lose a dozen Vietnams or Iraqs and not have its (most important) interests harmed. But losing a war with a nation-state could be catastrophic.”
America needs a large and powerful Army prepared to engage innovatively across the entire spectrum of conflict as part of the joint team. Hybrid conflicts that combine elements of low- and high-intensity war will be common in the 21st century (as they were in many wars of the past). The point is that excessive focus on one sort of operation — and particularly the type that every indicator suggests that the American people are loathe to repeat — as an organizing principle puts at risk the entire armed forces’ ability to provide decision-makers with options that reflect the military’s fullest potential.
While we have got to do what we must to win our current conflicts, that does not mean we have to fight the inevitable next war the same way, even if it is an irregular war scenario. If the “lessons of Iraq” are that America’s armed forces must focus largely on preparing for more Iraq-like operations, and that it should execute them in a way that requires the extended deployment of masses of U.S. troops, then those are indeed lessons that should be forgotten. It is, however, time to learn the right lessons from Iraq through unvarnished and realistic analysis.
This means we must explore how technology might serve to limit the numbers of young Americans who must be sent in harm’s way. Certainly, we should unapologetically look for opportunities to replace people with machines. In that regard we need to acquire systems that can flexibly and economically be employed across the full spectrum of conflict. We also must institutionalize more aggressively the tactics, techniques, and procedures that the relatively small numbers of U.S. advisers in the Philippines, Colombia and elsewhere used to produce progress in COIN efforts.
Recalling the timeless lesson President Eisenhower’s words evoke could illuminate our thinking: “Every war is going to astonish you in the way it has occurred and in the way it is carried out.” Relying on the experience in just one kind of conflict to redefine America’s military carries the dangerous potential to have the nation learn the harsh lessons of defeat on tomorrow’s battlefields where the enemy chooses not to fight as Iraqi insurgents did. AF
Charles J. Dunlap Jr. is an Air Force major general. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Department or the U.S. government.