A (Slightly) Better War: A Narrative and Its Defects

A useful narrative?
DOD/Tierney Nowland

The U.S. Army’s new strategy in Iraq—launched in February 2007, along with a surge of 25,000 additional American troops—qualifies neither as particularly new nor even as a strategy. Better to call it, instead, an enhanced reliance on tactics and operational concepts previously in use. Or, put less charitably, an over-hyped shift in emphasis that, on the one hand, will not necessarily yield an American victory in Iraq but, on the other, might well leave the United States Army crippled in future wars.

Properly understood, the surge narrative is really not about Iraq at all. It is about the past and future of the U.S. Army. It resurrects dubious battlefield lessons from the past—Vietnam, principally—applies them to Iraq, and extrapolates from there into an unknown future. On all three counts—past, present, and future—the narrative suffers from numerous and irreparable defects. Its reading of the past, grounded in the cliché that General Creighton Abrams’s “hearts and minds” program “won” the war in Vietnam, is a self-serving fiction. Its version of the more recent past and even the present is contrived and largely fanciful, relying on a distorted version of both to tell a tale in which U.S. forces triumphed in Iraq in 2007 and did so despite the misguided efforts of their predecessors even a year before. More than anything else, the surge narrative stakes a claim on the future, instructing us that its methods of counterinsurgency will be uniquely suited to the next war and to the one after that.

From the surge, its most fervent advocates have extracted a single maxim: that they and only they have uncovered the secret to defeating insurgencies. Prior to the surge, in this telling, only a few exceptional units were engaged in proper counterinsurgent operations. These included the 101st Airborne Division under then-Major General David Petraeus in Mosul, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment under Colonel H. R. McMaster in Tal Afar, and the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division under Colonel Sean MacFarland in Ramadi; other American units were supposedly bulldozing houses or hunkered down in their forward operating bases or engaging in what the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks dismissed as “large-scale, cordon and search operations.” As Colonel Pete Mansoor, a former member of General Petraeus’s brain trust, wrote on the popular Small Wars Journal blog, prior to the surge “our forces were poorly positioned on large bases, unable to protect the Iraqi people.” With the surge finally unveiled, the editor of World Affairs, then reporting from Iraq for The New Republic, praised a new “strategy that rejects nearly four-years worth of big-unit sweeps and the widespread application of conventional tactics against an unconventional foe.” These assertions contain a kernel of truth, but no more.

A record consisting of published articles and anecdotal accounts as well as my own observations during two combat tours in Iraq shows clearly that most U.S. Army units had learned, adapted to, and absorbed the array of techniques and procedures for counterinsurgency at least as far back as mid-2004. When I was in Tikrit as a Brigade Combat Team Executive Officer in mid-2003, my unit was already executing counterinsurgency operations, rebuilding the area’s economic infrastructure, restoring essential services, and establishing governance projects. When I was training my cavalry squadron a year later, we focused nearly exclusively on counterinsurgency. In 2005, the president himself committed the United States to a “clear, hold and build” doctrine in his “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” even as the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command devised a new counterinsurgency doctrine, units at training centers immersed themselves in counterinsurgent tactics and procedures, and company commanders arriving in Iraq rotated through the counterinsurgency school in Taji.

A cursory glance at the U.S. Army’s Military Review, which features articles written by and meant for officers with on-the-ground experience, makes the point. In an article written after a tour with the 1st Cavalry Division in south Baghdad in 2004, Lieutenant Colonel Doug Ollivant notes that his combat battalion quickly adopted the precepts of counterinsurgency, taking its cue from theories detailed by French officer David Galula in his classic 1964 volume Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. In a similar vein, Colonel Ralph O. Baker, a brigade commander in the 1st Armored Division, wrote in Military Review that to be successful during its 2003­–2004 deployment in Baghdad, his brigade devoted nearly 70 percent of its time and activities to nontraditional missions such as information operations and other counterinsurgent functions. A recent report from a junior noncommissioned officer currently on his third tour in Baghdad observed that “nothing has changed” in his unit’s operations in the eastern side of the city from his previous two deployments.

There are, to be sure, distinctions to be drawn—though mostly on paper—between pre- and post-surge operations. General George Casey’s (and the White House’s) official strategy was to “stand-up” Iraqi Security Forces; under his successor, General Petraeus, the favored concept tends to be population security. Even during my 2006 tour under General Casey, however, I was never prodded to modify the counterinsurgency operations for which my battalion had trained and which it was executing around the clock in west Baghdad; nor were the units operating alongside mine similarly dissuaded. On the contrary, by providing a baseline of security in our sector, we were assured and encouraged that our counterinsurgency operations furthered the goal of transferring authority to the Iraqi Security Forces. The counterargument—that American forces had settled so comfortably on forward operating bases that they all but quit the country around them—is flatly and directly contradicted by the operational record. My squadron, 8-10 Cavalry, Fourth Infantry Division, conducted close to 3,500 combat patrols and operations during our year in west Baghdad.

The second difference between earlier and current operating methods revolves around the use of combat outposts. In line with earlier operations in Tal Afar and Ramadi, American units have now fanned out and essentially planted themselves in these outposts—abandoned houses, usually—at the center of select Iraqi neighborhoods. Proponents of the surge largely credit the decline in violence to these outposts and to the troops occupying them.

But there is a disconnect between claims and reality that runs through the surge narrative. The two factors overwhelmingly and demonstrably accountable for the diminished violence haven’t depended on the surge at all. The first was the 2006 decision by senior American officers to pay large sums of money to our former enemies to ally themselves with us in the fight against al-Qaeda—a decision that, according to a January 2008 report from U.S. Army headquarters in Iraq, made “significant contributions” to the lowering of violence. The practice began in 2006 in Ramadi, where, tellingly, the resulting decline in attacks predated the surge. The second factor was Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to stand down, flee to an exile in Iran, and order his forces to suspend attacks against Americans—a decision that top U.S. officers in Iraq praise nearly every day for the ensuing reduction in violence. Absent these twin developments, Americans would still be dying in large numbers.

Finally, there is the issue of presumptuousness. For surge enthusiasts, there is no such thing as declaring victory too soon. Historically, in order for a counterinsurgency to succeed, the counterinsurgent force must operate in a society with a relatively cohesive identity and alongside a government that possesses at least some measure of legitimacy—two conditions plainly spelled out in the new counterinsurgency manual. Neither apply to Iraq, where ministries operate by sect rather than by function, sectarian hatreds have gone well beyond the point where “hearts and minds” campaigns will dampen them, and only a decades-long American occupation can prevent the country from coming apart at the seams. We are fighting an insurgency; they are fighting a civil war. In 2006, a Sunni brigade commander in the Iraqi National Police (a rarity in the Shia-dominated force) told me, shortly after the destruction of the Samarra mosque, that it would take “400 years” for Iraq to resolve this war. Recent history suggests that for Americans even ten years might be too long.

By asserting, moreover, that the surge amounts to a new strategy, its proponents confuse tactics—ones used widely since mid-2004—with strategy and, further, they credit this “strategy” with success when in fact victory in Iraq is anything but assured. The whole business reflects the surge’s insistence on substituting tactical scoring for genuine strategic measures of effectiveness. The idea is to offer action instead of purpose. The army’s new counterinsurgency manual, Field Manual 3-24, plays a key role in this respect: it is so persuasively written, so clear in its aims, that it makes the impossible seem possible. The manual has had a trance-like effect on policymakers, members of the military, and numerous other opinion makers. (The American Enterprise Institute recently unveiled its plan for an Afghan version of the surge.) Yet whether the issue has been corruption, infrastructure, or legitimacy, the fundamentals of the Iraq War run counter to nearly every requirement contained in the counterinsurgency manual.

The false chronicle of the surge in Iraq not only camouflages realities on the ground; it is recklessly ahistorical. It twists the history of the Iraq War and the Vietnam War and, in doing so, perpetuates illusions with very real consequences. During the run-up to American involvement in Vietnam, according to surge architects like Andrew Krepinevich, the U.S. Army ignored counterinsurgency operations because of its propensity to fight large-scale wars. In his hugely influential volume The Army and Vietnam, Krepinevich writes,

[T]he Army’s experience in war did not prepare it well for counterinsurgency, where the emphasis is on light infantry formations, not heavy divisions; on firepower restraint, not its widespread application; on the resolution of political and social problems within the nation targeted by insurgents, not closing with and destroying the insurgent’s field forces.

Thus, the army fought in Vietnam with conventional methods and lost. But there was an escape clause: The war could have been won if only General William Westmoreland had discovered the counterinsurgent methods finally adopted by his replacement, General Abrams. By then, however, it was too late. Drawing the analogy to Iraq, Colonel Stuart Herrington (ret.) writes in Parameters, the journal of the Army War College, that “having wasted more than three years (until 1968) pursuing a flawed strategy, the Pentagon lost the support of the American population, and was not given the time to get it right, even when it was clear that General Creighton Abrams’ pacification and Vietnamization approach might have worked.”

Historian Lewis Sorley tells the same story in his widely read 1995 book, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. Picking up where Sorley left off, in 2006 Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl published an article in Armed Forces Journal called “A Better War in Iraq,” in which he revised and updated the Vietnam morality tale for Iraq. Never mind the strange assumption that what was effective, or was guessed to have been effective, in Vietnam will be effective once more in Iraq. Never mind the rather telling differences between the South Vietnamese armed forces and the Iraqi armed forces. The United States lost the war in Vietnam. And we lost it for reasons having less to do with tactics than with the will, perseverance, cohesion, indigenous support, and sheer determination of the other side, coupled with the absence of any of those things on the American side. Now there is a similarity worth pondering.

But it gets worse. Iraq, the most enthusiastic counterinsurgents assert, provides the model for America’s wars to come. Former Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker says that counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan offer a “peek into the future,” while Nagl insists that counterinsurgencies will be “the face of battle in the 21st century.” To venture otherwise, to suggest that perhaps the U.S. Army ought to tend to its withered conventional capabilities, is to brand oneself a troglodyte or a contemporary version of British General Douglas Haig singing the praises of the well-bred horse.

Here, too, the ghosts of Vietnam haunt surge devotees. Ricks, citing Krepinevich and Nagl, laments that after Vietnam the American Army “washed its hands of the entire experience and essentially concluded that it was never going to do anything like that again. It was almost as if the very word ‘counterinsurgency’ was banned from official Army discourse.” Serving army officer and defense analyst Robert Cassidy, in a widely read and influential article on counterinsurgency, notes that the army’s desire to “exorcise the specter of Vietnam” kept it “as an institution, from actually learning from those lessons.”

But why the obsession with motives? Returning to conventional doctrine made perfect sense during the Cold War, when the army’s central mission was to counter a Soviet thrust across the Fulda Gap. Parochial or not, it was the correct decision, serving the army well in Europe and later in Operation Desert Storm. Ironically, it was Creighton Abrams, the general so admired by today’s counterinsurgency enthusiasts, who directed the early effort to move the army toward conventional war and the Soviet threat. In a 2006 speech, General Don Starry recalls that when he was an assistant to then-Army Chief of Staff General Abrams in 1972, the army faced a dilemma: Either it could prepare to combat the Soviet Union and the threat to end “civilization as we knew it,” or it could concentrate on the less “understood threat of the destruction of states and their peoples by the work of radical revolutionaries of various persuasions.” Abrams chose the former.

Critics of this decision ought to ask themselves: If Abrams had chosen otherwise, would the ground phase of the 1991 Gulf War have been completed in four days? Would the 2003 drive to Baghdad have been accomplished in three weeks? In an important and highly critical 2002 essay, army historian Conrad Crane accuses military leaders of running away from the lessons of Vietnam by tailoring a force for conventional warfare. (He would later become the primary author of the army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine.) But even Crane has admitted that its attention to conventional doctrine accounts for the army’s decisive performance in Desert Storm.

If we can concede this about the past, as officers like Nagl do, how can we be so sure that we have been endowed with a unique ability to predict the wars of the future? Who exactly qualify as the forward-thinkers here? Proponents of counterinsurgency routinely damn the army for wanting to fight the Second World War all over again. This, even as they’re busy fighting Vietnam all over again in Iraq.

Let’s be clear: the U.S. Army needs to be able to conduct stability operations, to combat insurgencies, to keep the peace. But after six years of performing almost nothing but counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Army Chief of Staff General Casey is quite correct to assert that the army is “out of balance.” And the balance, such as it is, ought to be weighted more heavily toward the requirements of conventional warfare.

Absent a “full-spectrum” of capabilities, the U.S. Army could easily reprise Israel’s experience in southern Lebanon two years ago. Because the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had devoted themselves nearly exclusively to low-intensity conflict in the West Bank and Gaza, their conventional warfighting skills atrophied to the point where they could not fight effectively against a semi-conventional foe in Lebanon, according to U.S. Army historian Matt Matthews, relying heavily on the Israeli Winograd Commission that studied the reasons for the IDF’s disastrous showing. Or as author Andrew Exum points out in his study of Hezbollah tactics, from 2000–2006 the average Israeli infantryman had for the most part manned “a checkpoint in the Palestinian territories.”

Despite all this, the purported success of the surge has encouraged policymakers to prod the military into doubling down on its experience in Iraq. Far from rediscovering the art of conventional warfare, we are told, the present foretells the future. Yet one could (and should) imagine many types of conflict in the near-to-medium term, not all or even most of them counterinsurgencies. A clash between Iranian forces and an American combat brigade in Iraq could erupt in a minute. A North Korean march on Seoul will not be a fight for hearts and minds. Nor will ground fighting on Taiwan in the event of a Chinese assault.

The ability to fight such wars, however, has atrophied severely since 2001. In a recent white paper for the chief of staff of the army, three officers who commanded combat brigades in Iraq—one of whom, Colonel Sean MacFarland, has been hailed as a counterinsurgency expert for allying with local tribes to pacify Ramadi—argue that the war in Iraq threatens to transform artillery into a “dead branch walking.” More than that, Iraq bids to transform the entire force into a “dead army walking.” We who believe this to be the case may be in error on some counts. Preparing to fight the last war will not be one of them.

Army Lt. Col. Gian P. Gentile commanded a combat battalion in west Baghdad in 2006. He teaches American and military history at the United States Military Academy. The views expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the Department of Defense.

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