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Learn and Forget

Throughout its history, the United States of America has been blessed with strength.  Hence, practically all of its wars have been victorious.  Strength has also dictated that America’s major conflicts have been conventional.  Irregular warfare is a sign of weakness.  Thus, the American fought as a guerrilla only exceptionally: in particular during the colonial campaigns against the French and the Indians, the War for Independence, and the internecine clash between the South and North.  At other times, especially during the Second World War, American irregular (special, asymetric) operations were nearly completely subordinated to conventional warfare. 

However, many minor conflicts periodically required the United States to develop and deploy its counterinsurgency skills.  Unlike America’s conventional wars, which have been historically short and victorious, irregular struggles tended to be protracted and inconclusive.  Sometimes brief and swift conventional clashes morphed into festering and grueling duels, for instance the insurgency in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War.  The worst case scenario in US history is Vietnam. 

On the other hand, the most felicitous outcome occurred in the Philippines against the Communist-led Hukbalahap in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Yet, “Americans have never felt comfortable in unconventional [warfare] situations.  Success has always been the result of improvisation, failure the result of ignorance of the true nature of the enemy plus war-weariness all around.  Those successes that did occur, in turn, were seldom passed on and they were not incorporated into official policy.  They were simply forgotten, either conveniently or deliberately – or both [emphasis in the original]” (p. 259). 

All this begs the inevitable question: Where does Iraq fit in?  In his trenchant synthesis Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History, John Tierney succeeds in making sense of our predicament in Iraq by mercilessly dissecting the past.  Tierney argues that although history does not repeat itself, analogous situations do arise.  “Since strategic culture is generic, these choices tend to repeat themselves” (p. xi). 

The United States eerily slouches through a sadly predictable pattern of engagement.  As Tierney has put it succinctly: “The military flounders, the public questions, dissent rises, and ‘exit’ strategies form and eventually bury what might have been honorable but misdirected intentions” (p. 252).  First, at the conventional stage we are seemingly triumphant. The military is euphoric, the public at home satisfied, expecting the troops back home anytime. Meanwhile, the mop-up operations drag on as an unexpected insurgency flares up and festers. The US attempts to contain it with conventional infantry tactics, which invariably fail. The public at home becomes first indifferent, and then weary.  Anti-war groups whip themselves into a frenzy, often coupling their opposition to the military intervention abroad with anti-establishment social issues at home.  On the other hand, on the ground, the insurgents appeal to nationalism and apply terror against their own countrymen to secure and maintain their support.  The guerrillas aim at prolonging the war for as long as possible and make it as bloody as possible for they bank on America’s domestic opposition to foreign military adventures.  When, at home, the United States loses the resolve to fight, it inevitably collapses on the battlefield before it can successfully woo the occupied population into abandoning the insurgency.  

Tierney shows, however, that defeat is not inevitable. The key to success is to understand the enemy’s culture. One must quickly realize that, on the one hand, the population craves law and order and, on the other, the insurgents do not enjoy universal backing among their own people. Usually the insurgents, from Mexico through Nicaragua to Iraq, kill more of their own people than of the Americans.  A sophisticated occupier should be able to exploit such tensions within the enemy ranks.  

According to Tierney, the United States has two choices: “either occupy the country in a total sense or undermine guerrilla support with an efficient and progressive government.  If you are unwilling to do the first or if the second is impossible, the chances of success are remote” (p. 260). To prevail, one must switch early from conventional to irregular tactics. Counterinsurgency measures should involve special operations on a small scale, where police methods and political solutions should be deployed. The Americans should find native collaborators and slowly devolve power onto them. The United States should train local auxiliaries. Small American special forces should assist native irregular counter-guerrilla squads.  Coupled with aggressive counterinsurgency campaigns, generous amnesty should further deplete the ranks of the insurgents. Collaborationist officials should be protected and supported.  A broad program of reforms should be enacted to woo the population. Reforms should include public works and land reform.  

This is all so simple and obvious that it boggles the mind that it has taken so long for the United States to apply in Iraq. Tierney explains that this failure stems from the lack of institutional memory among the American foreign policy and military establishment.  Many of the so-called foreign policy experts simply disdain history.  Thus, we are forever doomed to reinvent the wheel.  The problem is irredeemably structural: “much of American political culture is strategically ‘ahistorical’, a problem that allows very little perspective from which either to make policy or to judge it properly, leaving much of our reaction frozen in a conceptual time warp” (p. 5). Thus, on the policy side, the United States is particularly ill-equipped to deal with occupation and counterinsurgency.  

As far as the American military, the brass truly disdains irregular warfare and special operations.  After all, US military planners argue, it was through conventional means that nearly all the wars of America have been won, including the Cold War.  Special operations and guerrilla warfare are ultimately of no strategic significance.  What matters ultimately is whether the United States can win giant conventional wars like the First or the Second World War.  Admittedly, some irregular conflicts are irritating and embarrassing, but they usually do not dictate the strategic outcome impacting America’s hegemonic status in the world.  From this point of view, even the fiasco in Vietnam and elsewhere do not matter that much. 

On the contrary, objects Tierney, they do matter.  American defeat in Vietnam and lack of triumph in various wars by proxy throughout the world encouraged the enemies of freedom and dispirited its friends.  One can argue that the Cold War would have ended sooner had the United States showed its resolve to master the “war of the flea” and consistently won against the Communists.  The psychological aspect of the American victory in “small wars” is of a paramount importance.  It emboldens the freedom fighter and discourages the terrorist, whether a Communist or an Islamist.  It is in this context that Iraq matters most. 

John Tierney has given us a useful synthesis of insurgency and counter-insurgency in American culture. Let’s hope the powers that be learn and remember. 

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
3 January 2008 

John J. Tierney, Jr., Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006).