There’s a line in that fairly forgettable 1998 film, “You’ve got mail” (except for the Nora Ephron dialogue) that I often think of in day to day living.  This morning I was reading the Post on-line and that line came to mind as I read the article, “In Iraq, Military Forgot Lessons of Vietnam.  The article goes into detail why the US military has not been able to win or come close to stopping the counter-insurgency in Vietnam.  This week I’ve been reading, “The Ugly American,” by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick.  The Ugly American is set in South-east Asia.Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma etc in the mid-fifties.  On Friday, I had just finished where one (there’s more than one American) American has convinced the French Colonel that you can’t fight the Vietnamese using traditional warfare.  The Vietnamese were using tactics in a Mao Zedong brochure and the American convinced the French Colonel to use the same tactics.  Finally, they did and were successful..however afterwards the American soldier was nearly court-martialed by an American General for teaching the French Colonel “guerilla warfare.”  The WaPo article goes into detail how the US Military continued to use conventional methods to fight an unconventional war unsuccessfully in Iraq…just as they did in Vietnam. 

 

Some quotes from the WaPo Article;

There is some evidence that Saddam Hussein’s government knew it couldn’t win a conventional war, and some captured documents indicate that it may have intended some sort of rear-guard campaign of subversion against occupation. The stockpiling of weapons, distribution of arms caches, the revolutionary roots of the Baathist Party, and the movement of money and people to Syria either before or during the war all indicate some planning for an insurgency. But there is also strong evidence, based on a review of thousands of military documents and hundreds of interviews with military personnel, that the U.S. approach to pacifying Iraq in the months after the collapse of Hussein helped spur the insurgency and made it bigger and stronger than it might have been.

The U.S. mission in Iraq is made up overwhelmingly of regular combat units, rather than smaller, lower-profile Special Forces units. And in 2003, most conventional commanders did what they knew how to do: send out large numbers of troops and vehicles on conventional combat missions.Few U.S. soldiers seemed to understand the centrality of Iraqi pride and the humiliation Iraqi men felt in being overseen by this Western army. Foot patrols in Baghdad were greeted during this time with solemn waves from old men and cheers from children, but with baleful stares from many young Iraqi men. A reporter pressed him one day that summer: Aren’t you facing a guerrilla war? “I guess the reason I don’t use the phrase ‘guerrilla war’ is because there isn’t one,” Rumsfeld responded.

“When you’re facing a counterinsurgency war, if you get the strategy right, you can get the tactics wrong, and eventually you’ll get the tactics right,” said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a veteran of Special Forces in the Vietnam War. “If you get the strategy wrong and the tactics right at the start, you can refine the tactics forever, but you still lose the war. That’s basically what we did in Vietnam.” For the first 20 months or more of the American occupation in Iraq, it was what the U.S. military would do there as well. “What you are seeing here is an unconventional war fought conventionally,” a Special Forces lieutenant colonel remarked gloomily one day in Baghdad as the violence intensified. The tactics that the regular troops used, he added, sometimes subverted American goals.

That summer, retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, an expert in small wars, was sent to Baghdad by the Pentagon to advise on how to better put down the emerging insurgency. He met with Bremer in early July. “Mr. Ambassador, here are some programs that worked in Vietnam,” Anderson said. It was the wrong word to put in front of Bremer. “Vietnam?” Bremer exploded, according to Anderson. “Vietnam! I don’t want to talk about Vietnam. This is not Vietnam. This is Iraq!”

Cumulatively, the American ignorance of long-held precepts of counterinsurgency warfare impeded the U.S. military during 2003 and part of 2004. Combined with a personnel policy that pulled out all the seasoned forces early in 2004 and replaced them with green troops, it isn’t surprising that the U.S. effort often resembled that of Sisyphus, the king in Greek legend who was condemned to perpetually roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down as he neared the top.

Scholars are virtually unanimous in their judgment that conventional forces often lose unconventional wars because they lack a conceptual understanding of the war they are fighting,” Lt. Col. Matthew Moten, chief of military history at West Point, would comment in 2004.

“We are finally getting around to doing the right things,” Army Reserve Lt. Col. Joe Rice observed one day in Iraq early in 2006. “But is it too little, too late?”

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