Is Iraq Vietnam?

By William Christie

Special to Defense and the National Interest
December 12, 2006


Is Iraq Vietnam? Admittedly, that’s the shortest possible version of an enormously complicated question. But I did get your attention.

I’m certainly not the first to ask this. The ground has been well trod, particularly in the journal, Foreign Affairs, By Andrew Krepinevich (“How to Win in Iraq,” September/October 2005), and former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird (“Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam,” November/December 2005).

In the March/April 2006 issue (“Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon”) Stephen Biddle argues that the comparisons are not only mistaken but dangerous, and have actively harmed our efforts in Iraq, that it makes all the difference in the world that Vietnam was a Maoist people’s war of national liberation, while Iraq is a communal civil war.

More recently, the historian John Keegan in the British newspaper The Telegraph (“Bush is Wrong: Iraq is Not Vietnam,” 10/20/2006) makes a similar point, while serving up that old chestnut (his quote): “The Vietnam War was not lost on the battlefield, but in the American media’s treatment of news from the front line.” Keegan wrote in response to President Bush’s October admission that the jump in American casualties in the last pre-election (U.S., that is) month in Iraq had given rise to comparisons with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam during the 1968 election year.

We shouldn’t be surprised when academics frame an argument by narrowing it down to some version of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But interestingly, and probably amazingly to his detractors, the President was closest to the mark, because I’m certain he wasn’t talking about strategy, or tactics, or counterinsurgency. He was talking about politics, and in particular, about being painted into the same political corner by Iraq in 2006 as Lyndon Johnson was by Vietnam in 1968.

This brings us to the point of the commentary, which is not to quibble about the unique circumstances of the conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam, or list specific counterinsurgency approaches and other roads not taken, but instead to point out how almost the exact same kinds of disastrous mistakes were made in each case. As I (and other DNI commentators) have previously pointed out, our situation in Iraq is irrevocable, whether we care to admit it or not, and it’s high time we started learning from our mistakes.

I’ll use military examples as an antidote to what I suspect is going to be the party line in the future: that the villainous micromanager Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (as did Robert McNamara) led the military against their will into a failed strategy and a war we couldn’t win.

To keep from making a head count on those dancing angels, I’ll try and stick to the big-arrow stuff.

The Iron Law of Matching Goals to Means

Wars of choice afford a nation the luxury of weighing its goals against the means available to achieve them. Unfortunately, this requires both intellectual rigor and moral courage.

It’s unsurprising that these aren’t traits commonly associated with politicians or national security intellectuals, but it’s a tragedy they’re so seldom possessed by our military leaders.

In 1954, with the French Army besieged at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, there was great pressure within the U.S. government to assist the French through air strikes on the Viet Minh. The air power advocates, then as today, thought that bombing alone could do the job.

The Chief of Staff of the Army, World War II paratrooper General Matthew Ridgway, was uncomfortable with this proposition, knowing that if air strikes failed the U.S. would be committed to the war and ground troops would be necessary. He dispatched a survey team to Vietnam to determine the numbers.

The answer was five divisions minimum, and ten to twelve would be needed to conduct effective offensive operations. This stood in contrast to the six Army divisions and one Marine division that fought the Korean War. In addition, fifty-five engineering battalions would be required, bringing the total to between 500,000 and 1,000,000 men. To achieve this kind of force, the country would need to draft 100,000 men a month and would have to finance the war through a proportionate drain on the national budget.

It’s important to note that no one had asked for this report. Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7, 1954. Ridgway briefed the Secretaries of the Army and Defense on May 11, expressing his opposition to any intervention in Indochina. He briefed President Eisenhower shortly afterward. Ridgway argued that Indochina was important but not vital, so committing virtually the entire U.S. military to the region was definitely not worth the strategic cost to our vital interests elsewhere in the world. The idea of intervention was abandoned.

Unfortunately, this intellectual rigor and moral courage vanished once Ridgway left office. None of the conditions dealt with in his report had substantially changed by 1965, yet the U.S. military was eventually committed to Vietnam piecemeal. Even at the peak of its strength, the maximum force the United States could afford to maintain was only just large enough to keep North Vietnam from conquering the South, a mission it could accomplish only as long as it remained in the country.

Throughout the 1990’s various commanding generals of U.S. Central Command ran a number of war games and determined that 400,000 troops were the baseline for any intervention into Iraq, with no guarantee of success. How this was to be accomplished by ground forces that had shrunk from 18 Army and 3 Marine divisions in 1991 to 10 Army and not quite 2 Marine divisions in 2003 was the crucial question. A division, consists of roughly 10,000 to 20,000 troops, depending on its type (armored, mechanized infantry, airborne, light infantry, Marine).

The Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, was the only one to publicly mention the 400,000 figure. And even though he did it quite halfheartedly, the Secretary of Defense ran him out of Washington on a rail. As far as is known, none of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the retired generals who subsequently criticized the war in Iraq followed the Ridgway model while serving.

So we invaded and initially occupied Iraq with 3½ divisions, which were perhaps the equivalent of the 10 German Panzer divisions that defeated France in 1940. Those, however, were followed up by approximately 93 German infantry divisions that physically occupied every city, town, and village in France, and as a result precluded any serious guerrilla resistance until those troops left for Russia.

For further comparison, a thoroughly defeated Germany (of roughly the same size as Iraq but greater population) was similarly occupied in 1945 by approximately 45 U.S. divisions, 20 British Commonwealth and French, and over 100 Soviet.

The neoconservative viewpoint was that none of those historical precedents was valid, as we were liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein and they would welcome us accordingly.

PR spin is one thing, but for such a ridiculous fantasy to gain any traction at all within the U.S. military casts serious doubt on either the professional competence or the moral courage of the senior leadership. Sorry, but it’s one or the other. No other explanation is credible.

And just to be clear on terms, we invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. We liberated France in 1944, and many (though not all) threw flowers at us. We invaded and occupied Germany in 1945, but the reception wasn’t quite as warm.

The paramount lesson of both Vietnam and Iraq is that if the national means are not equal to the national goal then failure is an absolute certainty. And no amount of wishful thinking, number fudging, or goalpost moving will make the slightest bit of difference to the outcome.

If No One Wants to Come to Your Party, It Ought to Tell You Something

As the United States began to intervene in Vietnam, we also began to try and round up allies to help out. We ended up with a genuine participation by Australia and a semi-mercenary one from South Korea. We received polite demurrals from everyone else, and even the alleged domino nations that were allegedly on the verge of falling to Communism didn’t seem all that concerned.

A less enthusiastic effort was made in 2003, reportedly because the vice president felt that the majority of the large number of Desert Storm allies in 1991 had been far more trouble than they were worth. We wound up with a genuine participation by Britain, and once again Australia, with the remainder either token, mercenary, or intentionally assigned well away from the line of fire. Please note that I cast no aspersions on the individual heroism of any of those troops.

The lesson? It’s fairly easy to delude yourself about the rightness of your cause. It’s much harder to delude everyone else. You should realize that there may be a very good reason, other than rabid anti-Americanism, why you’re having trouble rounding up support.

The Army That Doesn't Do Windows

Lately a great many authors have made the point more ably than I that the U.S. military, and particularly the Army, has been utterly dismal at counterinsurgency. But I’d like to offer a slightly different take on that.

It’s always said within the U.S. military that there’s a plan for everything—except what the generals don’t want to do. The best case in point is Afghanistan, when the President discovered after 9/11 that the military had no plans for any military operations there, even after years of al-Qa'ida using Afghanistan as a base to conduct terrorist attacks against United States interests. Fortunately this vacuum made room for a semi-unconventional plan by the CIA and Special Operations Command to defeat the Taliban. As we all know, however, that story has no happy ending.

It’s important to note that the Army’s cluelessness about counterinsurgency has largely been a later 20th and 21st century phenomenon, because it did wage successful campaigns against both Native Americans and insurgents in the Philippines.

I’d argue that these campaigns took place when the Army was both small and resource-poor. This was also its condition at the beginning of World War II. Under the intellectually rigorous and morally courageous leadership of Chief of Staff General George Marshall, that Army developed new organization, weapons, and doctrine to wage modern war, while simultaneously undergoing an unprecedented mass mobilization. It’s one of the most impressive achievements of the last millennium. That Army made terrible mistakes, but also made sure that it learned the lessons of the battlefield every step of the way, disseminated those lessons throughout the organization, and kept only what worked. Its leaders remembered the 16th largest Army in the world training with cardboard tanks and sticks instead of rifles, and knew there was an excellent chance they could lose the war.

They Knew That They Could Lose

Losing was something their successors had no conception of. We need to realize that the Second World War was the only truly decisive military campaign since Rome’s final destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War (149-146 BC). Yet the U.S. military has been hungering for decisive battle ever since. If you have enormous resources at your disposal and no conception of defeat (or at least no conception of any consequences to defeat), then you can be like General William Westmoreland in Vietnam and insist on applying the concept of military operations you’re most comfortable with in a situation totally unsuited for it.

Westmoreland's orientation, however, didn’t lead to a happy outcome. Defeat usually spurs innovation, yet in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam the Army decided that it hadn’t been defeated, merely stabbed in the back by politicians and the media (see Keegan). I personally heard this expressed often by senior officers well into the late 1980’s. So the Army decided that the lesson it needed to learn was not how to defeat an insurgency, rather it was to never get involved in anything like Vietnam again. So with lightning speed it turned its attention to the war it wanted to fight: conventional tank battles with the Soviet Union on the north German plain.

This has been the trend from then on: Planning for the war you want to fight, rather than the one you’re most likely to fight. Luckily for the military, Saddam Hussein decided to fight the Soviet-style tank battle in the desert. They, and we, were less lucky in Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq.

But why? Other armies and even specific U.S. units in both Vietnam and Iraq have been able to reorganize themselves and develop effective counterinsurgency tactics. Why has the U.S. military as a whole been so singularly ineffective?

You might as well ask why almost all major business and technological innovations come from smaller, leaner, hungrier companies rather than the General Motors of the world.

More specifically, you might blame a closed system in which the next generation’s general officer corps is grown from the same gene pool as today’s, in which advancement is gained by never telling bad news, and subsequently never hearing it. The military's promotion system is more political than military, a system in which high ranking incompetents cannot be weeded out through fear of their even higher ranking backers. Or you could blame the incestuous relationship between the senior leadership and military contractors. At one time weapons supported doctrine but now doctrine must support the weapons. Or blame an anti-intellectual culture where ironically everyone considers themselves a warrior-scholar—it’s mandatory to attend top level schools but no one ever flunks out, and there are more shake-and-bake Masters and PhD’s than you can shake a stick at.  for all these reasons, today's military always embraces a technical and bureaucratic solution for every problem, which is why every problem for which there is no technical or bureaucratic solution, like counterinsurgency, leaves them at a total loss.

The US military has, in short, evolved into a system in which groupthink rules, and it has become, therefore, an institution that never learns and always relies on the schoolbook solution.  It is an institution that would read T.E. Lawrence’s 1920 essay, "The Evolution of a Revolt," only because it was on a staff college reading list, or more likely, would order an executive summary or PowerPoint presentation on it. In either case, it would definitely not comprehend it nor turn to Lawrence of Arabia’s last chilling paragraph in this December of 2006 with a sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs:

“It seemed that rebellion must have an unassailable base, something guarded not merely from attack, but from the fear of it: such a base as we had in the Red Sea Ports, the desert, or in the minds of the men we converted to our creed. It must have a sophisticated alien enemy, in the form of a disciplined army of occupation too small to fulfil the doctrine of acreage: too few to adjust number to space, in order to dominate the whole area effectively from fortified posts. It must have a friendly population, not actively friendly, but sympathetic to the point of not betraying rebel movements to the enemy. Rebellions can be made by 2 per cent. active in a striking force, and 98 per cent. passively sympathetic. The few active rebels must have the qualities of speed and endurance, ubiquity and independence of arteries of supply. They must have the technical equipment to destroy or paralyse the enemy's organized communications, for irregular war is fairly Willisen's definition of strategy, "the study of communication" in its extreme degree, of attack where the enemy is not. In fifty words: Granted mobility, security (in the form of denying targets to the enemy), time, and doctrine (the idea to convert every subject to friendliness), victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical factors are in the end decisive, and against them perfections of means and spirit struggle quite in vain.”

I’ll try and continue in this same vein with further installments of "Is Iraq Vietnam?"


William Christie is a former Marine Corps infantry officer who left the Corps as a First Lieutenant in 1987. He is the author of six novels, most recently The Enemy Inside, just published in paperback from Pinnacle Books/Kensington Press. He can be contacted at christieauthor@yahoo.com.

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