Vietnam Veteran and Middle East scholar, U.S. Colonel Norvell DeAtkine reflects on the U.S. government’s recent report, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War, the longest and most detailed study of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Iraq conflict thus far.
“We have а professional and moral responsibility to learn the relevant lessons of the recent past.” The foreword of the recently released report, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War (the Iraq Report) sets forth the goal of what would become the U.S. government’s longest and most detailed study of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and the Iraq conflict thus far.
“OIF is а sober reminder that technological advantages and standoff weapons alone cannot render a decision,” writes General Mark A. Milley, 39th Chief of Staff, U.S. Army. “[T]hat the promise of short wars is often elusive; that the ends, ways, and means must be in balance; that our Army must understand the type of war we are engaged with in order to adapt as necessary; that decisions in war occur on the ground in the mud and dirt; and that timeless factors such as human agency, chance, and an enemy’s conviction, all shape а war’s outcome.”
The United States Army War College (USAWC) Iraq Report was presented to the American public as a compendium of lessons learned about the Iraq War, from the successes of Operation Iraqi Freedom, to the messy, bloody aftermath.
The successful destruction of the Hussein regime was a demonstration of the positive aspects of the American way of war. In the conventional phase, a combination of massive firepower with brigades and divisions maneuvering with close air support exhibited overpowering capabilities, albeit, against a less than first rate enemy.
However, the aftermath consequently demonstrated the shortcomings of the American way of war as the conflict disintegrated into a three-sided civil war, fought in mostly urban areas against militias and terrorists. Massive firepower was often counter-productive, bringing to mind Lt. Col. John Paul Vann’s pronouncement on the Vietnam War:
“This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing … The best weapon for killing would be the knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is the airplane. The next worst is the artillery. Barring a knife the best is a rifle … you know who you are killing.”
Vann’s words bring me back to my time in Vietnam with an artillery unit. One of my first memories is that of our Headquarters Battery rolling into a bean field and immediately setting up concertina wire, before digging foxholes all over the area. Within about an hour a bewildered old farmer walked into the area, obviously the owner of the bean field. He was very distressed, gesticulating wildly. An interpreter instructed him to leave.
Was that farmer compensated for his land? Knowing the total corruption of the South Vietnamese government, it is very unlikely that he was. But our focus was not on the people. It was on the enemy.
We did very well, but in the end it was the wrong focus.
As I read the Iraq Report, of the many hard “lessons learned” of Vietnam, I realized almost all of them had been repeated. We had not learned very much from Vietnam; nor do I suspect will we absorb much from this study. There were many commonalities of errors, misjudgments, and malfeasance that turned both missions, begun with well-meaning motives, into quagmires. These commonalities are evident despite the very different terrain, culture, and geopolitical factors of the two countries.
The Iraq Report comprises over 1400 pages (Volumes 1 and 2). It was constructed over a 4 year period and relies on nearly 30,000 pages of declassified documents and thousands of hours of interviews that include President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and “every theater commander for the war, among many others.”
I endeavor here to briefly outline just some of the core issues raised in Volume 2: Surge and Withdrawal, 2007-2011. I’m sure other scholars of warfare will surface many others.
[Read the full Report: The U.S. Army in the Iraq War – Volume 1: Invasion – Insurgency – Civil War, 2003-2006; Volume 2: Surge and Withdrawal, 2007-2011 ]
An Abysmal Ignorance of the Country
From the top political and military leadership, to the lowest private, we knew nothing of Vietnam. A few of the top rung of leadership probably thought they knew enough to see it through. They may have assumed that reading the tragic history of the French effort to re-incorporate Indochina back into their empire after WWII would be sufficient. But given the pervasive, yet inaccurate, unfavourable opinion of French fighting capabilities, we all assumed we would do better. We did not know the culture, society, or the language of the Vietnamese people.
Being a tonal language, Vietnamese was well beyond the capabilities of most Americans. We had to totally depend on translators and interpreters who often told us what they wanted us to know. In a deeply divided country of class – rural/urban, Catholic/Buddhist, family-to-family – we were the blind leading the blind. This ignorance was not just among the rank and file, but among the highest military and political leadership.
Some at the top made up for ignorance with an arrogance of over-weaning self-confidence. As Lt. Col. Vann’s biographer, Neil Sheehan wrote in his book The Bright Shining Lie, Vann was trying to avert the “calamity of a big American war by fighting the battle of truth,” with the top American leadership in Saigon, while coping with the arrogance and professional corruption of the American military system of the 1960’s.
In Iraq, it would seem we were better prepared. In reality we were anything but.
There were many Arabic speakers, so language wasn’t the real problem. The stumbling block was, rather, parsing myth from fact about the people and culture. This difficulty could very well be considered more deadly, because it was less readily obvious.
Iraqi culture can be typified by the fact that accents define not only your national origin, but also quite likely your city of origin. The idea of a universal “Arab world” identity, popularised in the heady days of Nasser’s Egypt and deeply cherished by Western academics, is mythology. A Palestinian-Arab Sunni is no more welcome among the Iraqi Shi’a than any other foreigner, and perhaps less so. For example, American officials probably thought that sending a polished diplomat and Sunni Muslim Zalmay Khalilzad as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq would be a stroke of genius in bringing together the warring sectarian leaders. It did not. He would be seen as a promoter of the Sunni Arab viewpoint by most of the Shi’a Arab community.
The Iraq Report reveals that we also did not understand politics or the fragility of the Iraqi state.
“U.S. units’ actions sometimes exacerbated preexisting conflicts among Iraqis, especially in cases in which Coalition forces inadvertently sided with one party against another in a long-standing local struggle … Because U.S. leaders often did not understand the relationship between local politics and national politics, they rarely turned their ability to make or break any local Iraqi faction into advantage over national-level Iraqi factions or leaders.”
In reality, there was an abundance of existing evidence that showed the truth, if we had only paid attention. Perhaps had political and military planners paid closer attention to the writings of Adeed Dawisha, Sylvia Haim, Philip Ireland, Majid Khadduri, Ali Al Wardi, Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark, and especially Elie Kedouri, they would have understood the fragility of Iraqi society. Even if it threatened the pristine minds of those adrift in the ivory towers of academia. As Kedourie wrote in his acerbic observation of the Iraqi history:
“From the very foundation, then, of the Iraqi Kingdom, there was this nagging feeling that it was a make-believe kingdom, built on false pretences and kept going by British design …”.
Indeed, a young assistant professor, a lecturer at the American University in Washington DC, told a class that I was teaching at the time, “Saddam is stronger than the State.” Quite simply it was only Saddam that held Iraq together. As Kenan Makiya made clear in his book, Republic of Fear, the state of Iraq was ruled by keeping the population in constant fear.
Democratization also did not fare well. According to the Report, “Since the early 20th century, the United States has assumed that democratization brings greater stability. However, as the post-September 11, 2001 (9/11), wars have shown, elections are not always stabilizing events. U.S. commanders long believed the emergence of an elected Iraqi Government would have a calming effect, but the elections of 2005 exacerbated ethno-sectarian conflict and contributed to the civil war that followed.”
The Report also details the apparent U.S. intelligence ignorance of the miserable shape of the Iraqi infrastructure and general quality of life. Instead, this ground reality appears to have come as a surprise to the Coalition. This seems unbelievable in light of Iraq’s eight year bloody war with Iran, followed by the 1990-91 U.S.-led operation “Desert Storm”, along with decades of crippling international sanctions.
Many Western visitors, including American contractors, had also been in Iraq prior to the war. It seems self-evident that intelligence agencies would have eagerly sought their observations. One contractor team from a company I worked for at the time told of beggars in the streets and run down neighborhoods. Yet they were never interviewed. It seems incredible that, from open sources alone, intelligence agencies would not have been aware of the crumbling foundations of the Iraqi state. By the time the 2003 US-led coalition arrived in Baghdad, virtually nothing worked.
Bring them on.
– President George W. Bush
The Iraq Report also tactfully criticizes the American political and military leadership, as does the official reports on Vietnam (such as the series by the U.S. Army Center of Military History on the Vietnam War). Unofficial, but credible histories of both the Iraq War and the Vietnam War savage the leadership in both conflicts. Thomas Ricks, as an astute observer of the Iraq War American military leadership, termed it “inept” and that a “culture of mediocrity” had taken hold.
Certainly, from my own personal observations and many years of study, it is clear that indecisiveness, constant changes in strategy, and general lack of understanding the enemy obscured effective strategies and put Coalition troops consistently one step behind the enemy. From the beginning leadership was very slow to react and transform from fighting a conventional war to entering into a stability and pacification mode. In the early crucial months, there seemed to be no centralized leadership at all.
While much blame is heaped on Ambassador Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, he inherited a chaotic situation. The total ignorance of the Iraqi environment was even higher at the top, as evidenced by President Bush’s ill-considered remark about the nascent guerilla war – “bring them on.”
The Report highlights what it deems “Overly Optimistic Planning.” “Throughout the war, planners in DoD and in the theater assumed that the security situation in Iraq would improve over time, and that the theater would require fewer U.S. troops in the future.”
As I have been advising for over 20 years, Arab culture is well suited to guerrilla warfare. The same fragmentation that obstructs the coordination needed for conventional warfare, provides the political warrens needed to conceal ever-proliferating terrorist groups. The Iraqi insurgents improvised quickly and showed excellent ability to adapt to changing conditions. As the war dragged on, the primary enemy also changed from the Sunni Saddamists, to Iranian supported Shi’a organizations, and back again to the Sunni so-called Islamic State.
The Iraq Report carries a damning verdict on leadership failures, which were visible to most close observers of the conflict. “Innovative commanders emerged from the war and were empirically successful, but the process of encouraging and institutionalizing innovations was uneven.” The authors go on to write, “it seems possible that the Army in the Iraq War actually tended to penalize successful leaders who challenged their commanders.”
In Vietnam, as David Karnow, David Halberstam, and Neil Sheehan eloquently wrote, our military leadership suffered from the same maladies as we later did in Iraq. In the initial phases of the Vietnam War, the revolutionaries, the Viet Cong, blended in with the generally apathetic or sympathetic peasantry. The all-encompassing requirements of a counterinsurgency strategy were disregarded in favor of massive sweeps through the countryside (search and destroy), usually finding few of the guerillas.
By example, during the war an area covering 31,000 acres halfway between the Cambodian border and Saigon had become a vital staging area for the Viet Cong. Known as the Michelin plantation, it had been established by the French tire manufacturer Michelin in 1925. My unit swept through the old Michelin plantation to clear the enemy. Yet within a day or two, the plantation was back under the control of the Viet Cong.
The required dexterity and rapidity in changing tactics was also glaringly absent when American soldiers and Marines had to retake the provincial capital of Hue in 1968. As is all too often, the American soldier and Marine had to learn the specialized skills of urban combat with on the job training. A lethal and costly education. By the time the U.S. Army had geared up and instituted training for counterinsurgency, the enemy, the North Vietnamese, had shifted to more conventional warfare stratagems.
As in Vietnam, Army leadership in the Iraq War evidenced inadequate agility to adapt to a changing environment and changing face of the enemy. For the most part, our conduct in both wars reinforces Russell Weigley’s masterful study, The American Way of War. In Iraq and Vietnam America’s military leadership fought a war of annihilation, a strategy specifically designed to achieve a “crushing” military victory. This was particularly in Vietnam, but also in a less obvious way in Iraq.
Journalist and historian Max Hastings has also described the revulsion many soldiers felt in Iraq for leadership’s micromanaging of their tactical engagements from above in helicopters. In Vietnam my division commander, at times, moved platoons around from his perch above. There is no way any leader, no matter how capable, can clearly see from above impenetrable swamps and jungles to give coherent orders.
The Myth of Containing Wars and Ignoring External Actors
In both conflicts, America’s political leadership did not fully appreciate the importance of external actors’ support for enemy forces. Nor was there ever established a consistent and strong policy of retribution for external actors supporting the enemy. According to the Report, “From an early state in the war, Syria and Iran played a highly destabilizing role in Iraq.”
Syria facilitated thousands of foreign fighters flowing through Syria into Iraq to attack Shi’a communities and Coalition troops. The Islamic regime in Iran trained and supplied sophisticated weapons to Shi’a militias to attack Sunnis and Coalition troops. Yet no action was ever taken against either Iran or Syria. The overall objective of both Iran and Syria was to undermine the Coalition control in Iraq, and foment continued sectarian conflict to weaken the country as a future threat to them. The Report concluded that “the U.S. inability to find an effective response to Syrian and Iranian proxies made accomplishing our political and military objectives almost impossible.”
In addition, none of the neighboring countries assisted the Coalition in defeating the insurgents. The Gulf Arabs were slow to stop funding of Sunni insurgent groups. The Turkish government, ostensibly an American ally, was unhelpful. Jordan, with its restive Palestinian population, offered only cautious assistance. In all the Arab countries, the Sunni populations were generally hostile to the Coalition war against the Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq.
This lesson from Vietnam was also unlearned.
Laos and Cambodia were sanctuaries for Communist forces, either sympathetically or because they were too weak to do anything about it. Our infrequent incursions into Cambodia were ineffective and we had no real policy dealing with this situation. At the time our responses were comic operas.
In one operation in which my unit was involved, we were told to use short fuse time on our artillery rounds, meaning that the munitions would explode above ground and before impact, to avoid craters that could be traced to U.S. supplies. Of course, shell fragments from airbursts could be traced just as easily.
China and the Soviet Union supplied the North Vietnamese with the weapons and advisors they needed. The support they provided was immense and kept North Vietnam in the war. Meanwhile, the American air force was prohibited from bombing the Russian ships unloading supplies in Haiphong harbor. The foreign communists also provided worldwide propaganda support for the communist forces in Vietnam and eventually were able to help influence the American public as the elite and media turned against the war.
In the Report, the authors argue that in the future America’s political and military leadership must come up with policies and strategy to deal with this type of environment. That will be difficult given the lack of political will demonstrated in both Iraq and Vietnam to risk “widening the war.”
The Failure of the Advisory Element
“The Years-long effort to create a self-reliant and effective Iraqi Security Force failed for a variety of reasons, highlighting the extreme difficulty and complexity inherent in building another nation’s institutions.”
This is the Report’s conclusion about the training and advisory effort in Iraq. The preparatory training given advisors and trainers was brief, usually poorly done, with the trainers being dumped into a very alien environment with little or no standards of competence to work towards. As always, culture was the dominant obstacle.
The massive corruption, sectarianism, tribal and clan loyalties, as well as the seeming indifference of the Iraqis to national pride, often frustrated Western advisors. While many aspects of Iraqi culture spoiled their efforts, none proved more disruptive than the pervasive corruption in the Iraqi military. As one U.S. Marine advisor, Wesley Gray wrote in his book Embedded, “corruption was a way of life.”
According to the Report, “The insistence of senior military leaders, nearly consistently across the span of the Iraq War, that Iraqi forces would be able to stand on their own after ‘just’ another year or two was counterproductive. If the United States is to undertake such projects in the future, senior military officers should caution their political leaders from the onset that their path will be long, slow, and frustrating.”
In Vietnam similar problems existed.
In the excellent U.S. Army monograph Advise and Support: The Final Years, 1965-1973, the author asserted that “preparation for advisory duty was minimal” while advisors had to overcome “acute cultural shock” from being dropped into a completely alien environment. Most advisors never really established any rapport or effective channels of communication with their counterparts. Certainly the short six-week course given at Ft. Bragg (Military Assistance and Training Advisory, MATA) was of little value. It was at best a superficial look at the mission of the advisor, with a few hours of language training thrown in.
As would be repeated in Iraq, advisory duty was not a sought after position as it usually did not enhance the career of the officer. In both Iraq and Vietnam, advisors and trainers tried ineffectively to model their training on American military methods and values. It did not take. Western efforts to train Arab armies, without intensive and prolonged sustainment periods, have never been ultimately successful. In general, the fatalistic worldview of both the Iraqis and Vietnamese was difficult for outsider advisors to deal with.
The understandable malaise of poor working and living standards which the Iraqis shared with their Vietnamese predecessors was compounded by the Arab’s unique cultural factors. In other words, getting Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurds not to fight one another was one challenge. Getting them to die for each other was another matter entirely.
As one advisor to the Vietnamese succinctly captured the problem, “We and the Vietnamese lived in different worlds.” A U.S. Marine Officer expressed the same sentiment about the Iraqis in an article entitled, “Marines are from Mars, Iraqis are from Venus.” If the young soldiers and Marines received any cultural briefings it was often the “Do’s and Don’t’s” variety which, thanks to misinformation, is sometimes worse than nothing.
Technology as a Panacea for Winning Wars Cheaply
In his book, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, James William Gibson provided an impassioned dissection of American political and military leadership and their fixation on the latest in technology as a substitute for almost every other aspect of war. According to Gibson, military leadership in Vietnam focused on a mechanistic method of warfare employing the latest in weaponry and transportation to convey troops from point to point in usually non-productive “search and destroy” missions. From my observations, perpetual and peripatetic motion often substituted for well thought out operational plans.
As the authors of the Iraq Report state, ”The Iraq war demonstrated that technological advancements can only go so far in reduction of our military end strength and our forces on the ground.” The Report rightly observes that instability, low intensity, or whatever term one favors, pacification operations requires a larger number of troops. “In future wars, the United States must guard against its historical American predilection to assume technology or qualitative warfighting superiority can be a substitute for troop numbers.”
The Report also highlights what it calls “the Short-war Assumption.” “U.S. leaders and planners operated under the constant assumption that the war would be short. At no point in the war, even during the surge, did U.S. leaders believe the campaign was more than 18 or 24 months from the point when U.S. troops could be withdrawn and responsibility for security handed over to the Iraqis.”
The new phrase “Shock and Awe” had saturated the news and television networks in both the first Iraq War (Desert Storm) on through Operation Iraqi Freedom. Yet, notions of a lightning quick technological victory cannot be a long term substitute for troops working hands-on with the indigenous people.
This follows in that you cannot defeat guerillas with forays into guerilla infested urban areas, to then retire to base camps as darkness falls. Continual contact with people is a critical requirement. Generally, our focus on the elusive enemy precluded that. For instance in my one year with a unit in Vietnam the only local I can recall contact with was the local barber. Oblivious to the people, we concentrated on an enemy which was often indistinguishable from the peasants in the field.
Lack of Continuity
In both Vietnam and Iraq, the practice of a one year tour of duty for most soldiers was singled out as a major detriment to our efforts to effectively counter the insurgencies we were forced to deal with. As Shelby Stanton in The Rise and Fall of the American Army wrote, “The American Army was fighting well below its potential as a result of several factors, one of which was the one – year combat tour policy. This led to constant unit discontinuity and lack of combat proficiency.”
As per the Report, “The turbulent unit transitions that took place at least once a year also hampered relationships between coalition units and local Iraqis. U.S. units came and went so frequently that productive relationships were forgotten.”
In some cases, this was made worse by the policy of rotating some commanders out after only six months to give others a chance to command. This would on occasion make deployed fighting men feel as if their leaders were treating the war as nothing but a training exercise.
Again the same problem surfaced in the Report, as the authors advocated keeping commanders in country for multiple years or even until the end of the conflict. The Report recalls that in the Civil War and WWII, soldiers and officers remained in their units until the conflict ended. In my view, it seemed that career advancement in the army’s personnel system rewarded officers for political, as opposed to combat, acumen.
The one-year tour policy was particularly devastating to advisory and training effectiveness. The absolute necessity of beginning to understand your Iraqi or Vietnamese counterparts, in order to become even marginally effective, is impossible with short tours, and hence the poor results of our training efforts in both Iraq and Vietnam.
As part of the “mechanization” of the American way of war, the strategies and tactics in both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars were perverted by the use of metrics to evaluate effectiveness. Our fascination with numbers led us not only to the wrong conclusions, but also to macabre practices such as the “body count” as an indicator of success. Not satisfied with unit commanders evaluations, political and military leaders demanded “proof,” e.g., number of enemy dead counted, weapons captured, etc. This of course, eventually led to massive and pervasive false reporting in that performance reports became conditioned on these metrics.
In turn, this led our political and military leadership to insist that all was going well, often burying assessments from advisors that contradicted their rosy evaluations.
In one instance I recall, after our artillery strike on an enemy force which was readying an ambush, an infantry unit was sent in to do nothing more than count bodies. It was many things that led the soldiers, mostly draftees, to ridicule and distrust their leadership.
In the Iraq Report, the authors tactfully suggest that “the Army should reconsider reassessing trends that emphasize the use of metrics at the expense of difficult to measure professional judgment.” It added, “in some ways, Army leaders have become enamored with the ‘fetishization’ of statistics and metrics.”
I would have been less tactful.
I remember walking into a large building in Camp Victory, a major base of US forces in Iraq, and being struck by the large number of junior officers sitting behind laptops feeding data into their devices. Around the top of the wall were a number of screens with a multitude of colors and diagrams which I was told were channeling information to the command group on the situation in the various districts. I remember thinking to myself that certainly there were better and more useful roles for these young officers than processing data.
There were many other issues that surfaced in the Report which were obvious in Vietnam as well, but the issues of unity of command and dysfunctional command structures, and the ever-present controversy surrounding counterinsurgency doctrine, continues to this day. The authors of the Report call arguments against training for counterinsurgency “specious.” I am not so sure. The intellectual warrior, the late Colonel Harry Summers maintained, “any good soldier could handle guerillas.” So did the noted historian who served in Vietnam and carried out a number of force multiplying operations as a Special Forces officer, Shelby Stanton, who referred to the “mythology” of counterinsurgency.
Overall, the Report in many ways is far superior to most after-action reports, which tend to be dry, lifeless criticisms of communication incompatibilities, command structure, and logistics issues. Rarely are there analyses of morale or leadership issues. These issues, unfortunately, are left to journalists who do not often get Pulitzer prizes for good news stories.
Which brings me to a critical point.
Many things did go right in both Iraq and Vietnam, and there never has been a question in my mind that the vast majority of the soldiers and officers did the best they could with the cards they were dealt. Certainly from what I observed, in both Vietnam and Iraq, the vast majority of the soldiers and officers carried out their missions professionally. My contention has always been that they deserved more imaginative leaders with more genuine empathy for soldiers.
But perhaps a statement by General Walt Boomer sums it up best for many of us who care about history and the lessons we never seem to learn:
“What was it all about? It bothers me that we didn’t learn a lot (about Vietnam). If we had we would never have invaded Iraq.”
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Colonel (Ret.) Norvell DeAtkine, Lima Charlie News
[Additional edits by John Sjoholm, Anthony A. LoPresti and Diego Lynch]
[Main image: Photo by Anja Niedringhaus / AP]
U.S. Army Colonel (Ret.) Norvell DeAtkine spent nearly nine years of his 30-year military career in the Middle East as a military attache, student or political military officer. After retirement he taught for 18 years as the Middle East seminar director at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Following his retirement from the JFK Center, Colonel DeAtkine held positions with the Defense Intelligence Agency, Iraqi Intelligence Cell and Marine Corps Cultural and Language Center. He has written a number of articles for various periodicals on primarily Middle Eastern military topics.
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