(February 14, 2019 / JNS) The Army War College report, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War, is a masterpiece that covers the history of the army in the Iraq war (“Operation Iraqi Freedom”) with incisive critique of the massive amount of mistakes, miscalculations, ignorance and malfeasance that characterized our invasion/liberation of Iraq. One of the two primary authors of the report, Col. Frank Sobchek, in an National Public Radio interview characterized the report as an “academic after-action review,” intended to make the army better prepared for the next military action.
Unfortunately, as a “lessons learned,“ it will be largely set aside as too long, too complex and irrelevant to the next war. In fact, it is largely applicable only to an Iraqi-peculiar environment. U.S. government officials flying into Iraq reading accounts of our post World War II rebuilding of Japan and Germany found the lessons useless for Iraq, so it will be the next expeditionary war. It was a matter of different people, different culture and different circumstances.
In the massive amount of post mortems on Vietnam, one can find almost all the issues and problems that were surfaced in the study of the Iraq war. Obviously, the “lessons learned” were not learned. First and foremost, in both cases, the army, as well as all the other American institutions and agencies involved, were abysmally ignorant of the people, culture, history and terrain. On the ship transporting us to Vietnam, I gave classes to the troops using an old textbook on Southeast Asia. During the Iraq wars, both “Desert Storm” and “Iraqi Freedom I” presented cultural briefings of perhaps two hours, often with most of the officers and senior Non Commissioned officers (NCOs), who needed to be there, absent. The deployment schedules were so crammed with requirements, many non-combat-related (another story) that much of the essential knowledge was simply a matter of checking the blocks.
Secondly, in both cases we went in blissfully assuming that somehow we could confine the war within the borders of Vietnam and Iraq. Unfortunately, both Syria and Iran were deeply involved in supplying fighters, equipment and sanctuary to our enemies. They were able to do this without cost to themselves, as we in typically cautious fashion, did not want to “widen the war.” In Vietnam, the Russians and Chinese poured armament into North Vietnam and we, eschewing the prospect of precipitating a third world war, did nothing. North Vietnamese used sanctuaries in both Laos and Cambodia with only sporadic and generally ineffective measures taken to punish the leadership allowing or condoning it. One would think that our intelligence and political leadership when contemplating a major operation in country. In Iraq, as the War College study points out, the Syrian regime facilitated hundreds of Sunni fanatics pouring into Iraq to kill Americans but more often Shi’a civilians, ultimately provoking a civil war. The Iranians perfected weapons for use against our armor and trained Iraqis well to use them against our troops. Again, we did nothing to raise the price of them doing so.
There are many other commonalities of misjudgments, hubris, arrogance, and poor leadership at the top that could be applied to both conflicts, but a glaring one is our national insistence that all people in the world share our values in political systems. In both Vietnam and Iraq, we fell into the trap of “hearts and minds” dabbling in political cultures we did not understand. In Vietnam, we conspired to overthrow the “brutal” Diem regime because of the Buddhist protests and general unpopularity. His rule, however unpopular, was stable. With his demise, the fortunes of South Vietnam and Americans began a slow but continual descent into failure. In Iraq, applying American political values to those of the Iraqis, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) assumed the Iraqis would enthusiastically acclaim the CPA turning over sovereignty to them. Instead, the general disorder turned into chaos with crime, ethnic warfare and the remaining fabric of Iraqi society being ripped apart.
In retrospect, after reading this report on Iraq, and the hundreds of books and articles over the years, the only viable solution to the Iraqi calamity—but one likely to be arbitrarily dismissed—would have been to have immediately declared martial law, imposed with draconian measures, combined with sending in another 100,000 American troops. Of course, it will be pointed out, quite rightly that we did not have the troops to send. In Vietnam, we had to rely on draftees, and in Iraq we had to depend on the National Guard and reservists. For expeditionary war, this is unacceptable.
If we wish to continue as the foremost world power, and maintain a military prepared, sized and equipped for the Iraqs of the future, our senior political and military leadership cannot keep on making our soldiers pay, in blood, by trying to sustain our military on the cheap.
Norvell DeAtkine, a retired U.S. Army colonel with nine years’ residence in the Arab world dealing with their militaries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, and has spent about 40 years studying the region. He still instructs army personnel assigned to the Middle East.