Sunday, June 25, 2006
# Posted 11:37 PM by Ariel David Adesnik
Although hindsight is often profoundly flawed, it nonetheless tends to result in realizations that are nothing less than startling. The invasion of Iraq went forward about a year after Max Boot published The Savage Wars of Peace. It is a book about America's "small wars", defined not so much by their size as by the absence of organized forces confronting one another on a conventional battlefield.
In small wars, soldiers fight along side guerillas, propagandists, policemen and politicians. Decisive battles are rare. Even the outcome of the war itself may not be known until well after it is over. Clearly, the occupation of Iraq belongs to the United States' 200-year old tradition of engaging in "small" or irregular conflicts.
Even in 2002, Boot's prescience was fairly self-evident. In the preface, Boot asks,
What lessons might these small of the past teach us about small wars in the future? In the late 1990s -- the decade of Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo -- I was intrigued by these recurring conflicts and hoped to read a book to answer that question. Not finding one, I decided to write it myself.Before the book was published, the United States found itself in another small war in Afghanistan, except the stakes involved were anything but small. And after the book came out, there was Iraq.
In April 1914, Woodrow Wilson ordered the US Navy to occupy the Mexican port of Veracruz. Wilson did not have permission from Congress, but felt it necessary to overthrow Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta sooner rather than later. Even though international law clearly prohibited such a policy of regime change, Wilson expected liberation to popular south of the border. Boot writes that:
Wilson had counted on a peaceful occupation; he assumed that the Mexcian people -- "the submerged 85 per cent of the people of that Republic who are now struggling toward liberty" -- would welcome American intervention to topple their dictator. This view turned out to be dangerously naive. (p.151)The parallel to Iraq is obvious, but its significance may not be so apparent. Is the lesson here that naively idealistic presidents stumble into dangerous and bloody wars? And that this president would have known better if he had studied more history?
Or is the lesson that even a population that broadly welcomes a change of regime may have within it enough defenders of the status quo to complicate the task of the liberator? The 85% figure mentioned by Wilson is an interesting one. In Iraq, the Kurds and Shi'ites comprise about 80% of the population. And yet that has clearly not been enough to ensure a smooth occupation.
My purpose here is not to suggest that one of these interpretations is right and one of them wrong. Rather, it is to argue that the careful study of events such as the US intervention in the Mexican civil war might allow to have a much more sophisticated and practical debate about the perils of occupation.
Although Boot only devotes a few pages to the occupation of Veracruz and related events, some of the details are eerily reminiscient of events ninety years later in Iraq. For example, one of the great challenges of the occupation has been to facilitate the establishment of legitimate local governments in insurgent held areas. Ninety years ago,
An [American] messenger discovered the mayor of Veracruz cowering in his bathroom, but the mayor said he had no authority over his armed countrymen.I think many Iraqis mayors would empathize with his plight.
One of the great challenges that America faces in terms of learning such lessons is that its small wars barely register in the national consciousness. Most adults can tell you a few things about World War II and the Civil War, or even Korea. They know World War I happened and that it happened before World War II. They probably remember the first Gulf War.
But who knows anything about US involvement in Tripoli, Tunisia, Nicaragua the Philippines or imperial China? There is one small war that every American knows about, however: Vietnam. As Boot observers (p.287), the war in Vietnam was anything but small, although its style was much more reminiscent of the conflicts in Nicaragua and the Philippines than of World War II.
Nonetheless, Boot says, the US Army tried to fight the Vietcong the same way it had fought the Wehrmacht. Drawing on the seminal work of Col. (Ret.) Andrew Krepinevich, Boot argues that the US Army brass was conceptually incapable of recognizing that not all wars are about technology and firepower.
In contrast, the Marines understood the difference thanks to their experience -- and frequent success -- in fighting small wars. But the Army lacked that experience and refused to learn either from the Marines or from British military advisers who sought to share their own experiences.
Of course, there is considerable disagreement about how America should've fought in Vietnam or if it should've fought at all. My purpose here is not to take sides in that debate, although I think my position is clear. Rather, my purpose is to point that there is latent potential for a broader understanding of small wars if the American public can overcome its visceral aversion to the tragedy of Vietnam and instead come to see it as a bloody but instructive experience.
It may take a generation before that kind of change sets in. In the short term, the issue of vital importance may be whether or not the US Army can assimilate the lessons of America's small wars in time to apply their lessons to Iraq. And there are some promising signs in that direction. For example, Lt. Col. John Nagl's book on the lessons of Vietnam has been embraced by the Army's top generals. Like Boot, Nagl draws extensively on the work of Krepinevich and shares his interpretation of the war.
The foreword to the second edition of Nagl's book was written by Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff (it's top general). In March, the Wall Street Journal [no link] reported that the first thing US commander Gen. George Casey did after Donald Rumsfeld landed in Iraq was to give him a copy of Nagl's book.
Yet as any college professor knows, distributing material to be read is not the same as having it read. As Boot recounts (p.294), Gen. William Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam, had a copy on his nighttable of Mao Zedong's classic text on guerrilla warfare. However, Gen. Westmoreland was too busy fighting his war to read much of the book.
With any luck, books such as The Savage Wars of Peace will help ensure that when the United States finds itself inevitably involved in another small war, its leaders know how to win it. (7) opinions -- Add your opinion
The calculus seems to be that, done right, small wars will incur politically acceptable costs to serve as a kind of armed diplomacy promoting nonessential national interests. The important words in that sentence are "done right." Boot (and your review) are somewhat short on prescriptions for avoiding the Vera Cruz/Anbar experiences.
As for Vietnam and "done right," what of the NVA? Krepinevich, et al, are a useful counterweight to some other professional tendencies. However, Vietnam may be the exception that proves the proverbial rule in that debate.
One also might try harder to filter out bureaucratic imperatives. Rumsfeld might not be the best example of someone earnestly and humbly striving to find the best way to fight small wars.
First, one is still not sure that Westmoreland could read.
Second, Britain fought the Falklands War, mainly on our insistance, that's right the British army and Air Force wanted no part of it, because to have lost the war would have opened up Latin America to at least three border wars and diminshed to near zero the world's regard for British military power. We, America and the UK fought this small war to avoid the outbreak of other small wars in South America and to preserve the Special Relationship. Please dear hearts read my short(293 pages) book on the war; "2 Para's Battle for Darwin Hill and Goose Green" ISBN 0-9660717-1-9.
Learning the lessons of history in order to fight future counterinsurgencies is all well and good, but the problem can easily become that you are just reading the wrong lesson into history. Even during the Vietnam, the US Military was trying to learn lessons of previous insurgencies (ie bringing Sir Robert Thompson in to advise on the Strategic Hamlets, which were a throwback to the Brits' counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya.) Unfortunately, these projects simply didn't work. Because Vietnam, it turned out, was not Malaya and you couldn't compare the Vietnamese insurgent population with the Chinese ethnic minority Maoist insurgents in Malaya, who were a completely different demographic.
Boot argues that if the US military had simply fought a proper counterinsurgency campaign, extending programs like CAPS all across Vietnam, than the war might have been won. This is an extremely speculative assumption that ignores a wide variety of variables. In particular, it ignores the fact that the government of Vietnam was so corrupt, so cut off from Vietnamese support, so ineffective that as it remained under Thieu there was virtually no chance that it would win the mass of the population's support.
Now Nagl, Krepinevich and Boot are saying we need to fight Iraq as we should have fought Vietnam. Perhaps they're right, but maybe they've forgot another important lesson of Vietnam -- that ideology is not such an easy thing for military might, even "counterinsurgency" military might, to change.
Great book. Should have ignored vietnam and spent more time on the phillipine insurrection.
I suppose 'Treason' is next on the reading list.
I think Annie is quite right. The problem with "Small Wars", indeed all historical perspectives, is that history teaches too many contradictory lessons. As the cliche goes, History is an interminable dialogue, and it is always possible to say that this or that leader should have learned this or that lesson from this or that conflict. In the end all we have are extremely speculative assumptions that [necessarily] ignore a wide variety of variables. History can provide illustrations and suggest options. It cannot tell us what we must do.
The military did not "lose" Vietnam--the politicians did. I'm curious about the lack of follow up on the consequences of a political decision to leave...the millions slaughtered by the left's comrades....
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