Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Time to Think

It is often said with due irony that armies are always prepared to win the previous war. That is supposed to be a sad commentary on the learning curve in military circles, but, alas, this time around, such an assessment would be cause for celebration.

After three years of “missteps,” military commanders in Iraq are now proud to remark that they are finally getting it right. They’ve embraced the “idea” that there is an insurgency, they’ve realized that the Army’s official counterinsurgency manual is 20 years old, they now call cultural awareness a “force multiplier,” and they even see that the lessons of the Vietnam War might be worth learning (from the WSJ via Think Progress):

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. […]

Col. Nagl’s book is one of a half dozen Vietnam histories — most of them highly critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam — that are changing the military’s views on how to fight guerrilla wars. […]

The embrace of these Vietnam histories reflects an emerging consensus in the Army that in order to move forward in Iraq, it must better understand the mistakes of Vietnam.
[emphasis mine]

First, it’s pretty clear that Don of the Dead didn’t read Nagl’s book, since (as I recently noted) he is still casually making comparisons to Germany and Nazis, but second: EMERGING consensus???

The Vietnam War was lost thirty years ago, and General Casey and his band of brothers are just thinking that they should study what happened in Vietnam? Am I supposed to feel good about that?

I know that with ‘Nam deniers like Rumsfeld and Cheney once again running the show, I shouldn’t expect anything but more blind and futile “strategy” from the executive branch, but that the military is just getting the memo on Vietnam—that is wholly and thoroughly inexcusable! Honestly, how is going to war without studying every war that lead up to this one not grounds for courts-martial?

And, if this is the state of military “intelligence” (as opposed to military intelligence) today—broadcasting self-satisfaction over thirty-year-old lessons learned three years and 2,300 dead soldiers into a war—am I supposed to trust that these guys can learn quickly enough to effectively evolve going forward? If US soldiers and those who command them are, as Lt. Gen. David Patraeus now likes to say, up against a highly adaptive, “thinking” enemy, am I to believe that a group of guys who take three decades to figure out what happened during the last military debacle will not always be several steps behind that enemy?

Give me a generation or so, and I’ll get back to you.


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