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A Wound That Does Not Cease to Bleed: The War in Vietnam

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Amigo of ZP blog, West Point military historian Colonel Gian Gentile, throws down the gauntlet in his review of Lewis Sorley’s new biography, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, in The National Interest:

The Better War That Never Was

DID GENERAL Westmoreland lose Vietnam? The answer is no. But he did lose the war over the memory of the Vietnam War. He lost it to military historian Lewis Sorley, among others. In his recent biography of William C. Westmoreland, Sorley posits what might be called “the better-war thesis”—that a better war leading to American victory was available to the United States if only the right general had been in charge. The problem, however, is that this so-called better war exists mostly in the minds of misguided historians and agenda-driven pundits.

In the battle over the memory of the Vietnam War, Sorley annihilates Westmoreland and leaves his character and reputation in smoldering ruins. Yet Sorley’s victory in the fight for the memory of Vietnam has not brought us a balanced historical biography of Westmoreland.  

 ….The better-war thesis argues that if only the U.S. Army had concentrated from the start on building up the South Vietnamese armed forces and winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people through limited applications of military force, we would have won the war. But the question remains: Precisely how could tactical adjustments early in the war have overpowered the political constraints placed on the army by the Johnson administration, which kept it from taking the fight to the North Vietnamese? Or the dysfunctional nature of the South Vietnamese government and military that precluded them from standing on their own? Or the declining popular support and political will in the United States as the war dragged on without a decent end in sight? Or, perhaps most importantly, how could tactical adjustments toward better methods of counterinsurgency have overpowered a communist enemy that fought the war totally while the United States fought it with limited means? In his Westmoreland biography, Sorley essentially ignores these questions.

Could the United States have prevailed in Vietnam? Yes, but it would have had to commit to staying there for generations, not a mere handful of years. The Vietnam War was an attempt at armed nation building for South Vietnam. Nations and their societies, however, are not built overnight, especially when they are violently contested by internal and external enemies. Thus, to prevail in Vietnam, the United States would have needed the collective will that it mustered to win World War II and would have had to be able to maintain it for generations. That kind of will—or staying power—was never a real possibility.

In war, political and societal will are calculations of strategy, and strategists in Vietnam should have discerned early on that the war was simply unwinnable based on what the American people were willing to pay. Once the war started and it became clear that to prevail meant staying for an unacceptable amount of time, American strategy should have moved to withdraw much earlier than it did. Ending wars fought under botched strategy and policy can be every bit as damaging as the wars themselves.

Well worth the read, not least for Gian’s model of how one historian carefully dismantles the thesis of another.

We are a mere three years from the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, less than two years from the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy that brought LBJ into power and a year from the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous coup d’etat against American client, President Ngo Dinh Diem, that JFK had approved. Finally,  fifty years ago, Kennedy drastically increased the American military advisory mission to South Vietnam to just under 10,000 men and signed off on clandestine operations against North Vietnam.

All those fiftieth anniversaries amount to a golden jubilee of rancor.

The bitterness sown by the lost war in Vietnam still burns in American politics like red hot coals. Less bright perhaps than the open flame of 1968, but if you scratch the surface, you will find with no less heat. The war spawned division and polarization that twisted our politics and poisoned public debate to this day, echoing now as farce as much as tragedy.

During the 1980’s, Vietnam historiography was virtually a cottage industry. It was the subject that ate the profession as a generation of academics who cut their academic teeth during the era of antiwar protest on campus acquired tenure, middle-aged paunches and lost hair while nursing their political grievances in their scholarship. I personally recall, as an  undergraduate, the war being referenced (usually along with vitriolic abuse of Ronald Reagan) in every humanities class, no matter how remote the course, with some professors being known for the quality of their off-topic rants.

While Westmoreland bears heavy responsibility for his part in a losing a war, even as theater commander in Saigon he was only an executor, not a maker, of strategy, much less national policy. Westmoreland did not lose Vietnam in a stunning battlefield capitulation, so Gentile is right to defend “Westy” from being scapegoated for the poor strategic reasoning hatched in the Oval Office. Where Westmoreland was at fault was in his inability to either intellectually comprehend the bigger strategic picture in which he found himself struggling (most likely) or if he did, to effectively articulate the strategic environment in Southeast Asia to a domineering President who was stubbornly determined to brook no contrary advice (possible). Had Westmoreland tried, he likely would have failed (Brute Krulak’s effort in this regard got him physically ejected from the Oval Office by the seat of his pants by Johnson himself. I am dubious that LBJ would have been any happier with contradiction of policy from Westmoreland).

Gentile, much like my professors of yore, is deeply interested in the congruence between events in his own time with those of the Vietnam era., in particular, the salience of counterinsurgency doctrine in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. There is, of course, some continuity between the Vietnam era and today present, a historical thread seized by the COINdinistas themselves in their veneration of Galula and slurping knife-blade portions of soup, but the continuity has limits. I suspect a Millennial generation vet of Kandahar or Fallujah, should they venture to become a historian, will frame and seek to explain their wars without much reference to the societal touchstone that is Vietnam.

Perhaps by then, for American society, Vietnam will have finally ceased to bleed.

COIN may be Dead but 4GW has a New Lease on Life

Monday, December 12th, 2011

As I had predicted, a global recession, budgetary chicken in Congress and national weariness after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have forced a public rethink of the prominence of counterinsurgency doctrine in America’s military kit.  Colonel Gian Gentile, long the intellectual archenemy of FM 3-24 and the “Surge narrative” has pronounced COIN “dead” and even CNAS, spiritual home of COIN theory inside the Beltway, is now advocating COIN-lite FID (Foreign Internal Defense). As this entire process is being driven by a global economic crisis, there is another aspect to this American inside-baseball policy story.

While COIN as the hyperexpensive, nation-building, FM 3-24 pop-centric version of counterinsurgency is fading away, irregular warfare and terrorism are  here to stay as long as there is human conflict. Moreover, as economic systems are to nation-states as vascular systems are to living beings, we can expect an acceleration of state failure as weak but functional states are forced by decreased revenues to reduce services and diminish their ability to provide security or enforce their laws. The global “habitat” for non-state, transanational and corporate actors is going to grow larger and the zones of civilized order will shrink and come under internal stress in the medium term even in the region that Thomas P.M. Barnett defined as the “Core” of globalization.

The theory of Fourth Generation Warfare is helpful here. Many people in the defense community object to 4GW thinking, arguing that it is a poor historical model because it is overly simplified, the strategic ideas typified by each generation are cherrypicked and are usually present in many historical eras (albeit with much different technology). For example, eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray writes of 4GW in Another Bloody Century:

….The theory of Fourth Generation Warfare or 4GW merits extended critical attention here for several reasons. It appears to be a very big idea indeed. It’s author [ William S. Lind] and his followers profess to be able to explain how and why warfare has evolved over the past 350 years and onto the future….

….Talented and intellectually brave strategic theorists are in such short supply that I hesitate before drawing a bead on Lind and his grand narrative of succeeding generations of warfare. Nonetheless, there is no avoiding the judgment that 4GW is the rediscovery of the obvious and the familiar. 

4GW theory is not something that can be defended as having sound historical methodology. However, it works well enough as a strategic taxonomy of mindsets and political environments in which war is waged; particularly with the inclusion of the van Creveldian assumptions of state decline, it is a useful tool for looking at warfare in regions of weak, failing and failed states. The same global region Dr. Barnett has termed “the Gap” in his first book, The Pentagon’s New Map.

Tom predicated his geostrategy on the power of globalization being harnessed with judicious use of Core military power to “shrink the Gap” and provide connectivity as an extremely powerful lever to raise up billions of the world’s poor into a more stable, freer and middle-class existence. While that still holds, the flipside is that times of  sharp economic contraction limit the ability of the Core, led by the United States, to intervene robustly, permitting the “bad guys” to make use of connectivity and black globalization for their own purposes. Where the great powers are disunited, disinterested or increasingly in the case of European power projection, disarmed, the Gap could potentially grow.

A new Iraq or Afghanistan sized campaign is not in the American defense budget for at least a decade. Or NATO’s. Hence the newfound interest in cheaper alternatives to massive intervention on the ground, for which the Libyan campaign might charitably be classed as an “experiment” ( where it was not simply bad strategy and negotiated operations) or as a multilateral reprise of Rumsfeldian ideas of transformative, light and fast military force mashed up with Reagan Doctrine proxy warfare, justified under a new ideological theory of R2P.

These are rational policy responses to conditions of parsimony, but it also indicates a coming era of strategic triage rather than grand crusades in using military force to stabilize parts of the global system.  The US and other great power  are going to be more likely to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have” than they are to heed JFK’s call “to pay any price, bear any burden”. The politics of hard times means that we will be minimizing our burdens by replacing, where we can, boots with bots, bullets with bytes and Marines with mercs. Not everywhere, but certainly on the margins of American interests.

Beyond those margins? We will aid and trade with whatever clients can maintain a vestige of civilized order without too much regard to the niceties of  formal state legitimacy. Too many states will be ceding autonomy to subnational and transnational entities on their territory in the next few decades and we will have to abide by that reality if regions of the world become Somalia writ large. What to do? A number of recommendations come to mind:

  • Get our own economic house in order with greater degrees of transparency and adherence to rule of law in our financial sector. Legitimacy and stability, like charity, begins at home.
  • Adopt policies that strengthen the principle of national sovereignty and enhance legitimacy rather than weaken or erode it. This does not mean respecting hollow shells of fake states that are centers of disorder, but respecting legitimate ones that effectively govern their territory
  • Foreign policies that reject oligarchical economic arrangements in favor of encouraging liberalization of authoritarian-autarkic state economies prior to enacting political reforms ( democracy works better the first time on a full stomach).
  • Create a grand strategy board to advise senior policy makers and improve the currently abysmal level of strategic calculation and assessment prior to the US assuming open-ended commitments to intervention
  • Accept that the Laws of War require a realistic updating to deal with the international equivalent of outlaws, an updating that contradicts and rejects the 1970’s era diplomatic effort to privilege irregular combatants over conventional forces.
  • Fighting foreign insurgencies is something best done by primarily by locals, if willing, with our aid and advice. If those with the most to lose are not willing to stand, fight and die then they deserve to lose and the US should either eschew getting involved at all or resolve to secure whatever vital interest that exists there by brute force and make certain that reality is clearly communicated to the world (i.e. Carter Doctrine).  Truly vital interests are rare.

Gentile: COIN is Dead, Long Live Strategy!

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011


Will COIN go Gentile into that good night?

Colonel Gian Gentile at WPR argues that the US Army must put away tactical things of counterinsurgency and assume the responsibilities of strategy:

COIN is Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics

There is perhaps no better measure of the failure of American strategy over the past decade than the fact that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, tactical objectives have been used to define victory. In particular, both wars have been characterized by an all-encompassing obsession with the methods and tactics of counterinsurgency. To be sure, the tactics of counterinsurgency require political and cultural acumen to build host-nation governments and economies. But understanding the political aspects of counterinsurgency tactics is fundamentally different from understanding core American political objectives and then defining a cost-effective strategy to achieve them. If it is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past decade, American strategic thinking must regain the ability to link cost-effective operational campaigns to core policy objectives, while taking into consideration American political and popular will….

Dr. Gentile is spot on here, but with a caveat that a serving officer cannot readily state: the political class and civilian leadership
of the USG are failing to provide the American military with the appropriate grand strategic and policy guidance
with which to build the strategic bridge between policy and operational art. This is not a small problem.

The military cannot – and more importantly should not  under our constitutional system – be the sole arbiters or enunciators of American strategy. The proper role of the senior military leadership are as junior partners working hand in glove with policy makers and elected officials to fit the use of military force or coercive threat of force with our other levers of national power to advance American interests at acceptable costs to the American people. If the military’s civilian superiors cannot or do not take the lead here in crafting strategy, the US military is unable to step into that inherently political vacuum and it would be an usurpation for them to try. Operational art is as far as they can go on their own authority while remaining on safe constitutional ground.

Rather than seeing the past 10 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as a potent reminder of war’s complexity and, more importantly, of the limits to what it can accomplish, the American military has embraced the idea that better tactics can overcome serious shortcomings in strategy and policy. The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said thousands of years ago that “strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory,” but “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Though still relevant, Sun Tzu’s brilliant formulation of the relationship between tactics and strategy is nowhere to be found in current American strategic thinking.

I fear the real stumbling block is that a coherent and effective national strategy is viewed suspiciously in some quarters as a constraint on the tactical political freedom of action of policy makers and politicians to react in their own self-interest to transient domestic political pressures. This view is correct – adopting a strategy, while an iterative process – involves opportunity costs, foreclosing some choices in order to pursue others. Having a realistic strategy to acheive specific ends with reasonable methods and affordable costs is generally incompatible with “keeping all options open”.

Even on purely domestic issues, which politicians have greater familiarity and expertise than foreign and military affairs, the debacle with the borrowing limit and the “supercommittee” demonstrate we have a political class in Washington that is virtually allergic to making choices or assessing costs clearly and honestly. They see even less well in matters of war and peace.

….Future threats for U.S. ground forces promise to be quite lethal, ranging from state-on-state warfare to hybrid warfare to low-end guerilla warfare. Constabulary forces based on light infantry and optimized for wars like Iraq and Afghanistan will be highly vulnerable and open to catastrophic destruction in this lethal, future environment. Instead, future land battlefields demand a ground force built around the pillars of firepower, protection and mobility. Moreover, this future ground force needs to be able to move and fight in dispersed, distributed operations in an age where the accessibility of weapons of mass destruction makes a ground force that concentrates vulnerable to annihilation. Much will have to change in order to transform the Army and Marines to ground formations of this type, but that transformation is critical, and it will not be accomplished if military thinkers remain obsessed with counterinsurgency tactics.

To build American ground formations for an unpredictable future, counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan offer very few strategic guideposts. To argue otherwise is to commit the U.S. Army and Marines to strategic irrelevance in the years and decades ahead.

I would guarantee that the US will be plagued with irregular warfare for as long as we have to co-exist with the rest of the world. What is probable, in my view, is that we are quite likely to face several different kinds of serious security threats at the same time  – say, a terror-insurgency spilling over from Mexico coinciding with a possible conventional war with a regional power while also defending against a run on the dollar if China tries to “Suez” the US during a third country crisis. The luxury of different threats in convenient sequence is unlikely to happen and American military capabilities must be broad and adaptive.

Hat tip SWJ Blog


The Post-COIN Era is Here

Is COIN Dead?

Debating a Failure of Generalship and Leadership

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

A fascinating online discussion between US Army intellectuals Colonel Gian Gentile, Colonel Paul Yingling and journalist and Iraq War veteran Carl Prine:

Paul Yingling  A Failure in Generalship  –AFJ

….Having spent a decade preparing to fight the wrong war, America’s generals then miscalculated both the means and ways necessary to succeed in Iraq. The most fundamental military miscalculation in Iraq has been the failure to commit sufficient forces to provide security to Iraq’s population. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimated in its 1998 war plan that 380,000 troops would be necessary for an invasion of Iraq. Using operations in Bosnia and Kosovo as a model for predicting troop requirements, one Army study estimated a need for 470,000 troops. Alone among America’s generals, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki publicly stated that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. Prior to the war, President Bush promised to give field commanders everything necessary for victory. Privately, many senior general officers both active and retired expressed serious misgivings about the insufficiency of forces for Iraq. These leaders would later express their concerns in tell-all books such as “Fiasco” and “Cobra II.” However, when the U.S. went to war in Iraq with less than half the strength required to win, these leaders did not make their objections public.

Gian Gentile A Few Questions for Colonel Paul Yingling on Failures in GeneralshipSmall Wars Journal

….Perhaps you see it differently, but the failure that I see in American generalship in both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (with precedence in Vietnam) is the idea that tactical and operational excellence through a certain brand of counterinsurgency (or any other form of tactical innovation) can rescue wars that ultimately are failures of strategy, or as Schlesinger more harshly puts it “national stupidity.”

In light of how you respond to these questions might you consider writing “A Failure of Generalship, Version 2” for Afghanistan?

If not, might you spell out the differences between what you saw as the failure of American generalship in Iraq from 2003-2006 with the past two years plus in Afghanistan.  In other words, how has American generalship been a failure in Iraq and not in Afghanistan?

Paul Yingling The Gentile-Yingling Dialogue: ISAF Exit Strategy – Neither International nor an Exit nor a Strategy – Small Wars Journal

….Those of us charged with strategic thinking ought to heed this example.  Imagine a failed Pakistan that results in a terrorist organization acquiring one or more nuclear weapons.  What would our response be in the aftermath of such a crisis?  What intelligence capabilities do we need to locate compromised nuclear materials?  What civil security and law enforcement measures might disrupt or minimize the impacts of such a threat?  What counter-proliferation capabilities are required to seize and render safe compromised nuclear weapons or materials?  Imagine further the capabilities required to avoid such a crisis.  What diplomatic measures might change the Pakistani strategic calculus that lends support to extremism?  What broader engagement with Pakistani civil society might render this troubled country less amenable to radical ideology?  Now imagine still further back to the institutional arrangements that generate national security capabilities.  Do we have the right priorities?  Are we buying the right equipment?  Are we selecting the right leaders?  Are we making the best use of increasingly scarce tax payer dollars?

Too often, what passes for strategic thought in the United States is actually a struggle among self-interested elites seeking political, commercial or bureaucratic advantage.  Such behavior is the privilege of a country that is both rich and safe.  However, a pattern of such behavior is self-correcting: no country that behaves this way will stay rich or safe for long.

Carl Prine A Colonel of Truth – Line of Departure

….Gentile and I agreed nevertheless that Yingling failed to seal the deal by naming names, something that would’ve allowed readers the chance to test empirically whether the LTC’s overall thesis had merit.  Here’s Yingling’s nutgraf, words scribbled during the worst days in Iraq when Gentile commanded a cavalry squadron in Baghdad and I was stuck in Anbar as a lowly infantry SPC:

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America’s generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

….Perhaps because it was so brief, Yingling’s essay lacked subtlety.  It’s not true that America’s generals in Vietnam saw the conflict merely in terms of conventional warfare, although some surely did.  He spun a dubious bit of scholarship on Malaya by John Nagl into a larger argument about Cold War generals choosing to orient American arms toward highly kinetic campaigns – as if the threat of Soviet arms in Europe had nothing to do with that.  And he peppered his analysis with bromides that remain unproven, perhaps my favorite being the chestnut that “?opulation security is the most important measure of effectiveness in counterinsurgency.”

That read better in 2007 than it does today. But Yingling’s larger point held true:  America’s generals failed to adapt our shrinking forces to how policymakers might direct their use, even if there was a re-emphasis on operations other than conventional war both in practice (Kurdistan, Bangladesh, Haiti, Somalia, Kovoso, Bosnia, Timor, Cambodia) and theory.

This is an important discussion because the failure of generalship is merely part of a larger paradigm of leadership by abdication and moral evasion that is corroding the fabric of American society to a degree not seen since the 1970’s. Or perhaps since the 1870’s. Colonel John Boyd once chided his brother officers for being willing to take a bullet for their country but not willing to risk their careers for their country. How much worse then is an elite civilian political class that grabs the largesse of government contracts with great gusto but is chronically unable to do the hard work of providing strategic leadership when in office?

Truman’s famous desk sign that indicated the buck stopped at his desk. To update the sign to fit the spirit of the times would require replacing it with a dead fish rotting from the head.

Mackinlay’s Insurgent Archipelago & Other Books

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

The Insurgent Archipelago by John Mackinlay

At the strong recommendation of Colonel Gian Gentile, I ordered The Insurgent Archipelago: From Mao to Bin Laden by Dr. John Mackinlay of King’s College, London and a hardcover copy just arrived this afternoon. Judging from the table of contents and the sources in Mackinlay’s endnotes, The Insurgent Archipelago will present a tightly written argument on the nature of COIN. For a well regarded  and informative review, see David Betz of Kings of War blog, brief excerpt below:

Review: The Insurgent Archipelago

….The book is sweeping, as the subtitle ‘From Mao to Bin Laden’ suggests; yet it is also admirably succinct at 292 pages including notes and index.[2] In design it is exceedingly clear, consisting of three parts-‘Maoism’, ‘Post-Maoism’, and ‘Responding to Post-Maoism’, which reflect the basic components of his argument. Insurgency’s classical form is the brainchild of the carnivorously ambitious strategic and political genius Mao Zedong who gave meaning to the now familiar bumper sticker that insurgency is ’80 per cent political and 20 per cent military’. Mao’s innovation was to figure out what to fill that 80 per cent with: industrial scale political subversion by which he was able to harness the latent power of an aggrieved population to the wagon of political change, to whit the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War which ended with the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949

….The problem is that what we now face in the form of ‘global insurgency’ is not Maoism but Post-Maoism-a form of insurgency which differs significantly from that which preceded it.[6] We have, in essence, been searching for the right tool to defeat today’s most virulent insurgency in the wrong conceptual tool box. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable truth to be laid out in this book; another worrying one is that the security interests of Western Europe differ markedly from those of the United States-because the threat in the former emerges from their own undigested Muslim minorities which are alienated further by their involvement in expeditionary campaigns which, arguably at least, serve the needs of the latter well enough

Oddly, this will be the second book by a former British Gurkha officer that I’ve read in the last six months; the first being The Call of Nepal: My Life In the Himalayan Homeland of Britain’s Gurkha Soldiers by Colonel J.P. Cross, which I played a minor role in getting reissued here by Nimble Books, along with Lexington Green. After just thumbing through a few pages, Dr. Mackinlay already strikes me as a far less mystically inclined military author than does the esteemed but eccentric Colonel Cross.

I am way behind in my book reviews. Fortunately, Charles Cameron is stepping up with a new series of posts this week, which will give me some time to write reviews at least for Inside Cyber Warfare: Mapping the Cyber Underworld and Senator’s Son: An Iraq War Novel and then read Mackinlay. Ah, this designated guest blogger business is proving to be most convenient! 🙂

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