Monday, March 20, 2006

Heeding Santayana

Listening to people like Richard Belzer opine on the situation in Iraq, why it's a quagmire, another Vietnam, etc. you get the idea that their condescending, smarter than thou attitude extends toward all levels of the military. They view the generals running the war as incompetent, blood-thirsty Neanderthals, too stupid and ignorant to learn obvious lessons from the past. One can imagine Belzer reading one of the twenty papers he allegedly consumes a day, dismissively shaking his head and muttering, "Fools. Can't they see they're making the same mistakes in Iraq that they did in Vietnam?"

Fortunately, the top commanders conducting the war are far more intelligent than the Belzers of the world imagine (and far more intelligent than the Belzers of the world for that matter). Today's WSJ features an article on how the Army is Re-Examining the Lessons of Vietnam (subscription required):

The last time Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad, back in December, the top U.S. military commander there gave him an unusual gift.

Gen. George Casey passed him a copy of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife : Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, written by Lt. Col. John Nagl. Initially published in 2002, the book is brutal in its criticism of the Vietnam-era Army as an organization that failed to learn from its mistakes and tried vainly to fight guerrilla insurgents the same way it fought World War II.

In the book, Col. Nagl, who served a year in Iraq, contrasts the U.S. Army's failure with the British experience in Malaya in the 1950s. The difference: The British, who eventually prevailed, quickly saw the folly of using massive force to annihilate a shadowy communist enemy.

"The British Army was a learning institution, and the U.S. Army was not," Col. Nagl writes.

Thankfully, that unwillingness to learn and adapt doesn't seem to be quite as much of a problem for the Army anymore:

The newer analyses of Vietnam are now supplanting that theory -- and changing the way the Army fights. The argument that the military must exercise restraint is a central point of the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine. The doctrine, which runs about 120 pages and is still in draft form, is a handbook on how to wage guerrilla wars.

It offers Army and Marine Corps officers advice on everything from strategy development to intelligence gathering. Col. Nagl is among the four primary authors of the doctrine. Conrad Crane, a historian at the U.S. Army War College, is overseeing the effort.

One of the doctrine's primary goals is to shatter the conventional wisdom that defined the post-Vietnam Army. "We are at a turning point in the Army's institutional history," Col. Nagl and his co-authors write in a forthcoming essay in "Military Review," an Army journal.

Drawing on its frustrating struggle to prop up a corrupt government in Saigon, the Army in its new blueprint counsels soldiers that anti-guerrilla operations must be focused on building a government that is seen as legitimate in the eyes of the locals. "Military actions conducted without analysis of their political effectiveness will be at best ineffective and at worst help the enemy," the draft doctrine states.

Not exactly "Bomb 'em back into the Stone Age" is it?

The first Gulf War seemed to vindicate the Army's big-war approach. The Army had finally been allowed to fight the conventional, firepower-intensive war it wanted to mount in Vietnam. It prevailed quickly and with few casualties. "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all," the President George H.W. Bush gushed in 1991.

To Col. Nagl, the Army's quick, low-casualty win wasn't necessarily a good news story. "The lesson of the Gulf War was: Don't fight the U.S. conventionally," Col. Nagl says. "The way to defeat the U.S. Army is to use guerrilla warfare and exhaust the will of the U.S. At least you have a chance to win."

Col. Nagl reread Mr. Krepinevich's account of the Army in Vietnam, which he says had a big influence on his doctoral thesis. "I stole from it shamelessly," he says today, although he fully credited the work in his own. He also immersed himself in the papers of Sir Gerald Templer, who led British counterinsurgency efforts in Malaya in the 1950s. "I wanted to figure out why the British Army was able to learn how to defeat an insurgency after starting out badly and why the American Army was not able to learn as well in Vietnam," Col. Nagl says.

He concluded that the Army did learn in Vietnam, but far too slowly. By 1969 the military had shifted away from large-scale search-and-destroy missions and was putting a far greater emphasis on building indigenous security forces, safeguarding villagers and developing the local economy. However, "at that point the American people had already lost their faith," he says.

Colonel Nagl's ideas quickly found favor with the brass:

While Col. Nagl was in Iraq, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's top officer, picked up his book and was taken by its argument that the Army's big-war culture in Vietnam often overpowered innovative ideas from inside the service and out.

The general ordered his fellow four-star generals to read it. Before he went to Iraq to take over as the top commander, Gen. Casey read Col. Nagl's book as well. "The thesis that the U.S. military was too prone to [big offensive strikes] to be good at counterinsurgency was something I noted to watch for when I got here," says Gen. Casey in an email from Baghdad.

The tome has already had an influence on the ground in Iraq. Last winter, Gen. Casey opened a school for U.S. commanders in Iraq to help officers adjust to the demands of a guerrilla-style conflict in which the enemy hides among the people and tries to provoke an overreaction. The idea for the training center, says Gen. Casey, came in part from Col. Nagl's book, which chronicles how the British in Malaya used a similar school to educate British officers coming into the country.

"Pretty much everyone on Gen. Casey's staff had read Nagl's book," says Lt. Col. Nathan Freier, who spent a year in Iraq as a strategist. A British brigadier general says that "Gen. Casey carried the book with him everywhere." Both Col. Nagl's and Mr. Krepinevich's books are included on a recommended counterinsurgency reading list included in the draft doctrine.

How many members of the media covering the war in Iraq have read the book? How many have even heard of it?

Other Vietnam histories have also drawn the interest of senior Army officers. Lt. Gen. John Vines, who was until recently the No. 2 commander in Iraq, recommended his staff read Col. McMaster's "Dereliction of Duty." The book portrays the military's senior Vietnam-era generals as a feckless lot, unwilling to confront President Lyndon Johnson over what they believed to be a bankrupt strategy. Its message: Military commanders must always speak the truth to their civilian bosses.

What? You mean they're not a cabal of mindless automatons willing to go along with the neocon Cowboy In Chief on any reckless military adventure as long it serves to advance their careers?

Let's hope that one of the twenty papers that Belzer claims to read daily is the Wall Street Journal. Somehow, I doubt it.

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