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June 26, 2006

Van Creveld, Vietnam, and Iraq

(Continued from preceding post.) The Transformation of War is a fertile and wide-ranging source of ideas, though perhaps not all of them are thoroughly verified. The central theme, though, is the extreme, widely unappreciated danger of "low-intensity warfare" to conventional armies, and indeed, in those countries fighting insurgencies on their home territory, to the very nation-states whose power these armies uphold. If conventional forces cannot physically protect their own nationals, the states themselves will be discredited, and citizens will transfer their loyalty to whatever alternative form of organization can protect them.

A strong army fighting a weak insurgency, van Creveld says, must have iron self-control (p. 177). It is imperative to avoid indiscriminate violence, collective punishments, and the use of heavy weapons, even in the face of provocations designed to elicit such responses. This is the only way not to alienate the population, incur the condemnation of international onlookers, and suffer a collapse of discipline as a result of violating the army's own code of conduct. The British have consistently exercised such restraint in Northern Ireland, according to van Creveld (who is an Israeli historian). My impression is that even though The Transformation of War is said to be required reading for American officers, the American forces have failed to recognize the need for this level of restraint (which they might well regard as effeminate) in Iraq. In any case, van Creveld suggests, even self-restraint will probably only delay, not prevent, the moral collapse of the occupying force. Furthermore, an army that has grown accustomed to fighting in this restrained fashion may well prove useless when it is faced with an enemy with equal firepower to its own. Van Creveld cites the poor Argentinian performance in the Falklands as a consequence of this kind of military ruination (p. 178).

Van Creveld, who is by no means a party-line liberal, has attracted considerable attention in the blogosphere. Some more recent online articles of his are of more direct relevance to the case of Iraq. In November 2004, in an article entitled Why Iraq Will End as Vietnam Did, van Creveld went into some detail about Israeli general/journalist Moshe Dayan's observations of America-in-Vietnam. In 1966, the Americans, besides being burdened with the inherent problems of a "strong" occupying force, lacked a clear sense of their objectives. They also lacked (partly because of a shortage of translators) adequate intelligence about precise enemy locations, with the result that their overwhelming firepower tended to be wasted on empty jungle. Field-Marshal Montgomery of Alamein said to Dayan, on the record, that the American policy was "insane". Dayan found that at the top American levels, only Robert McNamara (who was to resign the next year) had a clear picture of the strategic position. Yet at this time, the American forces in Vietnam believed in the rightness of their cause and formed a cohesive, technologically advanced fighting machine; the collapse of morale came only later, once reality had sunk in.

Van Creveld suggests that in Iraq, the Americans are again suffering from deficient intelligence, leading them to strike nonexistent targets or (worse) noncombatants. Like the Vietnamese, the Iraqis do not wish to be Americanized. And once more, there is the problem of being the "overdog":

. . . he who fights against the weak—and the rag-tag Iraqi militias are very weak indeed—and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins also loses. To kill an opponent who is much weaker than yourself is unnecessary and therefore cruel; to let that opponent kill you is unnecessary and therefore foolish. As Vietnam and countless other cases prove, no armed force however rich, however powerful, however advanced, and however well motivated is immune to this dilemma. The end result is always disintegration and defeat; if U.S troops in Iraq have not yet started fragging their officers, the suicide rate among them is already exceptionally high. That is why the present adventure will almost certainly end as the previous one did. Namely, with the last US troops fleeing the country while hanging on to their helicopters' skids.

In another article late last year, van Creveld called Iraq "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. sent his legions into Germany and lost them" (which at least put President Bush in "august" company). He stated that the only choice now open to the Americans was to withdraw and let Iraq descend into civil war—while leaving behind some forces, apparently to guard the oilfields, though he seemed a bit vague on this point.

A June 5 report in the "nonpartisan" Capitol Hill Blue seems to bear out van Creveld's predictions, claiming that field commanders are privately reporting that American forces are being "pushed beyond the breaking point" and that the war "is lost", though such reports are being subjected to heavy censorship. The new Iraqi Prime Minister is accusing American forces of crushing Iraqi civilians with their vehicles and killing them on mere suspicion.

Update (07/17): The top uniformed officer in the U.S. Army has declined to state that America is winning the war in Iraq.


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