Military must share blame

June 20, 2006|By ERIK SWABB

It is convenient for military leaders to blame civilian officials for wars that go south. The armed forces did it after Vietnam, citing civilian interference with military decisions.

In April, a group of retired generals called for the removal of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The generals asserted that U.S. forces were capable of suppressing the Iraqi insurgency after the invasion - they just needed civilian leaders who listened to military advice and provided a sufficient number of troops.

The generals' attacks, however, mask a dirty truth: The military deserves its fair share of blame for shortcomings in Iraq. Because of the failure of the top military leadership to institutionalize the lessons of the Vietnam War, initial U.S. forces in Iraq were not prepared to wage counterinsurgency. As a result, we are facing a more difficult battle.

After the Vietnam War, the military's future leaders drew one main lesson: Do not fight another war like it. The young officers who served there and later rebuilt the military in the 1980s were loath to combat insurgencies, which they considered messy, distracting struggles. These leaders focused instead on war with the Soviet Union and built the world's premier conventional military.

In the process, however, priceless lessons from Vietnam about counterinsurgency warfare were lost. New officers in the 1980s and 1990s, who later assumed key leadership positions, did not study counterinsurgency. Only the Green Berets retained institutional knowledge because of their Special Forces mission.

Although post-Cold War conflicts such as Somalia and Bosnia should have indicated that nonconventional warfare would increase in importance, military leaders continued to train for conventional conflicts. Consequently, U.S. forces that invaded Iraq in 2003 were ill-prepared for counterinsurgency.

When my Marine unit prepared to deploy to Iraq in September 2004, we followed the standard predeployment training at the time. We conducted cultural awareness classes and practiced operations such as manning checkpoints and searching houses. But this basic training was not grounded in a larger understanding of complex counterinsurgency warfare.

We did not understand certain dynamics at play, such as the notion that excessive force protection alienates the populace, reduces intelligence and, therefore, makes one less secure. We knew how to raid a house but not how to build local relationships and learn where insurgents were hiding. We did not know these crucial aspects of counterinsurgency because we had never received training about them.

Some of the most useful "training" that I received was a 15-minute conversation with my best friend, who was an intelligence officer in another unit. He told me that some Green Berets had recently given him some advice. They told him to focus on helping Iraqis, as opposed to conducting aggressive patrols and asking accusatory questions about insurgents. The Special Forces soldiers promised that intelligence would be forthcoming.

After months of fruitless operations, I decided to try this strategy. It worked wonders. Locals told us the locations of weapon caches, roadside bombs and insurgent cell leaders that previous units had missed. In retrospect, it is unbelievable that I learned more about counterinsurgency from a 15-minute conversation than I did from two years of military training. I only wish that I had known this strategy from the beginning.

My experience was no doubt repeated throughout the initial wave of U.S. deployments for occupation duties. Units with no understanding and little training in counterinsurgency deployed to Iraq. Some units managed because of sheer professionalism and ingenuity. Others did not.

In the end, U.S. forces did the best job possible considering their lack of training. However, most would agree that a military that had incorporated counterinsurgency into its training for the last 25 years would have been more successful battling the insurgency in its critical early days.

Regardless of how the Iraq war ends, the senior military leadership again will be faced with a decision like the one after the Vietnam War: Institutionalize the lessons or say the military will not engage in another fight like Iraq again.

Lest military leaders forget, they do not choose which wars they fight. Their civilian leaders do.

Erik Swabb is a former Marine infantry officer who served in Fallujah from September 2004 to March 2005. His e-mail is cswabb9@yahoo.com.

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