The Better War

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 3 months ago

There are a lot of Milbloggers, military aficionados, knowledgeable members of the military, and veterans of wars that can and often do weigh in on issues of policy, strategy, tactics, techniques and procedures.  But occasionally a real warrior-scholar steps into the fray, and we are always blessed with insights beyond what we could normally bring to the table.  Gian Gentile is just such a warrior-scholar.  I do not believe that a man has to have waged war in order to be a scholar and great historian on it, but with Gentile, we have the entire package.  He has both studied it and lived it.  He is both a friend and a genuinely good man, and we are richer for having his insights.

Gentile uses the occasion of a new book to give us insights into Vietnam, extending his lessons into Iraq and Afghanistan.  The book is Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley.  Gentile begins his review thusly.

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 2008, former secretary of defense Robert Gates chided the American military establishment, and the army in particular, for its affliction of “Next-War-itis.” Parts of the American military, lamented Gates, were too focused on fighting hypothetical future wars rather than the immediate wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the secretary also might have noted another dangerous affliction suffered by parts of the U.S. Army: “Past-War-itis.” Those afflicted with this disease obsess about a Vietnam defeat they believe should have been averted.

Sorley titles his book Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. This is “Past-War-itis” run amok. Is it possible that a single man actually lost the war and all of Vietnam? The question is pertinent today because many seeking to bring logic to the past ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have embraced the simplistic concept that to win those wars we just need to put the right guy in charge. One such example is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot, an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars … another example is writer Thomas Ricks, one of the purveyors of the better-war thesis for Iraq. Ricks wrote a glowing jacket endorsement for Sorley’s book, and he also noted on his military-affairs blog that it would probably end up as the “definitive” biography of Westmoreland. If one is interested, however, in a fair and balanced historical biography of William C. Westmoreland, Ricks is wildly off the mark.

The better-war thesis argues that there was a tactical panacea in Vietnam—a golden cipher of success—just waiting for the right general who could grasp and apply it. Instead, for the first three years of the war beginning in 1965, the U.S. Army was led by a fumbling general named William Childs Westmoreland, who did not crack the code that would have produced victory for the United States. Luckily, as the better-war thesis continues, once Westmoreland was replaced in the summer of 1968 by a savior general named Creighton Abrams, everything changed for the better, and Abrams’s army actually won the war in the South by 1971. The tragedy, according to this thesis, was that weak American politicians undermined the victory by eventually cutting off material support to South Vietnam after the United States departed in 1972.

Weak American politicians and an unwilling American public did indeed undermine the campaign, but I’ll basically state my agreement with Gian’s thesis on the better general, while I’ll also [later] demur with some of his specific findings on Vietnam and Iraq. We’ll continue with Gian’s observations.

The tale of a better war in Vietnam is seductive. It offers a simple explanation of an army redeemed through tactical innovation brought about by a savior general. But the United States did not lose the Vietnam War because it didn’t have the right general in charge at the start, or because of weak politicians toward the end of the war. Washington lost because it failed at strategy. It failed, in short, to discern that the war was unwinnable at a cost in blood and treasure that the American people would accept. There was never a “better war” in Vietnam.

THIS FAITH in the promise of better tactical wars with savior generals has emerged in full force in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In August 2007, as the violence in Iraq dropped precipitously, Clifford May, former New York Times reporter and current president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, identified Petraeus as the main cause of the reduction in violence. May wrote that this enlightened general replaced a failed general and then equipped his army in Iraq with new methods for conducting counterinsurgency. Later, in October 2009, Sorley penned a New York Times article that praised the counterinsurgency tactics of General Stanley McChrystal, then senior American commander in Afghanistan. May and Sorley saw Iraq and Afghanistan as better wars in the making based on the arrival of savior generals.

[ … ]

But the conditions in Iraq that would lead to the lowering of violence in late 2007 were already in place. They included the spread of the Anbar Awakening and the decision of Shia militias to end attacks against Sunni civilians. Recently published databases such as the Iraq Body Count project’s show quite clearly that the sectarian violence peaked in December 2006 and then started to drop a good two months before Petraeus ever rode onto the scene with his new counterinsurgency manual in hand. Petraeus, the savior general, played only a marginal role in the greater series of events and circumstances that brought down the level of Iraqi violence.

I do indeed think that there was a “better war” in Vietnam – not in the sense that Gian critiques – but we’ll get to that later.  His observations on Iraq contain a number of things I have personally addressed with Gian, but it will be useful and productive to lay it out for closer inspection.

First, let’s address the so-called Anbar Awakening.  The Awakening – primarily in 2006 and beyond – was significant.  It certainly truncated the Marine Corps campaign for Anbar shorter than what it would have been.  But it was primarily a feature of Ramadi, and it was primarily a feature that obtained as a result of hard Marine Corps combat operations in the Anbar Province convincing the population that the victor would ultimately be the Marine Corps.

In Haditha late in 2006 and early in 2007 pacification is primarily attributed to a former officer in the Saddam Hussein army known simply as Colonel Faruq, with the power and charisma to bring the town to heel, along with sand berms around the city (constructed by the Marines) to prevent transnational insurgents from coming in from Syria and causing problems.

In Al Qaim, the fight against al Qaeda began in 2005 when Abu Ahmed took them on, lost, fled to the desert, and sought (and obtained) help from the U.S. Marines to defeat AQ.  In Fallujah in 2007, al Qaeda fighters were so firmly ensconced in the city that the people, fearing for their lives, were sending their own children out to mark and encircle Marine patrols with balloons (at the direction of the AQ fighters) so that the patrols could be targeted with crew served weapons.

It took the 2/6 Marines using extremely hard and aggressive tactics, coupled with local IPs and block captains, or Mukhtars, recruited from among the population, again using extremely hard and aggressive tactics, to drive AQ from the city.

My point is that invoking the Anbar Awakening has become in many ways symptomatic the campaign.  It’s as if without it, the Marines wouldn’t have been successful, but with it, Anbar was Shangri La.  Neither view is true.  Nor is it true that the Marines weren’t grateful for what awakening that did occur in various parts of Anbar.  The truth is more complex than simple narratives can possible convey.

Similarly, to say that the Shia militias decided to end attacks on the Sunnis misses the point, and in the superlative degree.  Perhaps they did, but this bit of historical myopia is tailor made for constructing false narratives about Baghdad and the Shia South.

In 2003 the 3/2 Marines had Moqtada al Sadr in their custody (this is as conveyed from the Battaion Commander to Andrew Lubin).  They were ordered to release him.  Then as the U.S. Marines (BLT 1/4) and U.S. Army Calvary swept through al-Najaf in 2004, for all practical purposes they obliterated the Sadrist militia.  The year of 2004 could have seen the virtual end of the organized Shi’a militia threat.  The 1/4 Marines had surrounded Moqtada al Sadr (see this John Burns interview, beginning at 17:20 into the discussion).  Sadr and his militia were essentially finished twice, once in 2003 and again in 2004, due to 3/2 and 1/4 Marine Corps combat operations.  Both times they were ordered to stand down.*

We could have chosen to kill Sadr, finish the Shi’a militia, and end the threat of a violent Shi’a uprising against the Sunni population.  We chose unwisely, and the order came down to let Sadr go.  To say that the Shi’a militia later decided to end attacks against the Sunnis is to miss the bigger picture, i.e., there wouldn’t have been any Sadr to command them, and likely no militia to speak of, had we engaged in the “better war” in Iraq when we had the chance.  Instead we had Paul Bremer, the British and horrible leadership.  It was a toxic combination, and it cost precious lives.

Meanwhile to the West, campaign command pulled the Marines back from Al Fajr I, creating the necessity for Al Fajr II, more loss of lives, more time wasted, and more legitimacy lost.  We didn’t fight the better war in Fallujah either.  And when we completed the job, we sent Marines on wasteful MEUs rather than into Fallujah to ensure stability, and thus the 2/6 Marines had to deal with an ensconced al Qaeda in 2007.

But something tells me what while Gian and I may disagree on the details of the campaign in Iraq, he would concur with my general theme.  Gian observes of Vietnam:

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.

The better fight in Vietnam to which I earlier referred has nothing to do with staying for generations or armed nation-building.  These are the policy mistakes we have made in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We tend to see campaigns as failures unless they install governments and re-create populations that never pose another threat to the U.S.  But this isn’t reality, and this is certainly not the way the U.S. Marines think about these issues.

This last point isn’t mere inter-service rivalry.  I cannot count the number of times I have heard Marines express their desire to end campaigns quickly, and then go back and do it again in two, five or ten years if the need arises.

The better war to which I refer was alluded to by Gian when he posed the question, “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?”

If this question isn’t explored, the book is essentially worthless no matter how many endorsements the author obtained.  Consider for a moment how we dealt with the threat from Germany during World War II.

The burning of Hamburg that night was remarkable in that I saw not many fires but one.  Set in the darkness was a turbulent dome of bright red fire, lighted and ignited like the glowing heart of a vast brazier.  I saw no flames, no outlines of buildings, only brighter fires which flared like yellow torches against a background of bright red ash.  Above the city was a misty red haze.  I looked down, fascinated but aghast, satisfied yet horrified.  I had never seen a fire like that before and was never to see its like again.

Roads melted, and some people were seen stuck in the melted asphalt, having put their hands out to try to get out, only to get their hands stuck as well.  Many were seen on fire, eventually melting in their own fat.  Eight square miles of Hamburg were completely burned out that night, killing 45,000 Germans.

If we had not done this, countless more American lives would have been lost, and the war may not have been won by the allies at all.  Destruction of the will and industry to wage war was necessary to end the war, whether this fits into the American clinical view of bloodless war or not.

Compare this with the decision to refuse to take the fight to the North Vietnamese.  Consider for a moment what would have happened if we had bombed the dikes and dams on the Red River Delta.  To be sure, the cost in human tragedy would have been staggering, but this is exactly the point.  We wish to wage war, but only partly.  The Viet Cong insurgency in the South was for all practical purposes defeated (in spite of the succor given to them by the North via the Ho Chi Minh trail), and it was the entrance of the NVA regulars that saved the insurgency.  A hobbled North Vietnam from having bombed the Red River Delta for year wouldn’t have been able to give the kind of assistance that the VC got.  It might have even brought down the regime.

Back to Iraq, if we had taken on the Syrian pre-deployment camps for AQ fighters (80 – 150 fighters per year crossed the border to fight in Iraq), and if we had fought the Iranian Quds forces by targeting them in Iraq and elsewhere (while we also engaged in a program of targeting Quds generals like Suleimani), and if we had allowed the Marines to kill Sadr and finish off his militia, and if we had allowed them to continue the sweep through Anbar like they started it in Fallujah, and if we had sent more Marines into Anbar instead of on wasteful MEUs … what would the campaign have looked like?

Gian continues:

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.

The better-war thesis, with its seductively simple cause-and-effect schema, buries the reality of American strategic failure in Vietnam.

The campaign in Vietnam was unwinnable under the stipulations dictated by the President, Congress and perhaps the Secretary of Defense.  And the campaign was unwinnable if winning was defined as building an American-like democracy (in which Gian is correct, taking multiple decades of toil).  On this Gian and I concur.  The proposed end was wrong, and the means weren’t defined in a manner that matched the proposed end.

Gian goes on to supply data that contradicts Sorley’s theses.  Again, I concur.  Westmoreland didn’t lose the war in Vietnam any more than Creighton Abrams could have won it with alternative tactics.  Tactics, techniques and procedures don’t replace strategy, and they certainly don’t replace policy.

The “better” general in Iraq didn’t win Iraq.  As we have [briefly] discussed, the hard work of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps was done before and during the tenure of all the generals who commanded the campaign.  It was a matter of time, endurance and professionalism by the U.S. military.  To the extent that we attained success in Iraq, it is attributable to the U.S. military.  To the extent that we failed in Iraq, it is attributable to lack of vision or clear policy by the administration(s), e.g., the failure to fight Iraq as a regional war, the support of corrupt Iranian apparatchiks like Nouri al-Maliki, the failure to secure the borders, the engagement of protracted nation-building, etc.

Afghanistan is lost due to the same reasons.  I generally give the U.S. military more credit and attribute more capabilities to them than does Gian.  But one thing the U.S. military cannot pull off is replacement for national policy.  Gian reminds us again that seeking out military heroes to do just this is a distinctly American pastime, but it is mistaken and dangerous, at least for the thinking men among us.

* Thanks to  Wes Morgan and Andrew Lubin for assisting me to get the Marine Corps units and dates correct regarding operations in 2003 and 2004.

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  1. On March 4, 2012 at 8:18 pm, scott s. said:

    the Westmoreland book sounds like the general train of thought that gives us “Lincoln finds a general”, the idea that all it took to win the civil war was to work through a bunch of dud generals until we find one who will order “where Lee goes there you will go also”.

  2. On March 5, 2012 at 9:25 am, TS Alfabet said:

    This really nails it for me, Herschel:

    “The better fight in Vietnam to which I earlier referred has nothing to do with staying for generations or armed nation-building. These are the policy mistakes we have made in Iraq and Afghanistan. We tend to see campaigns as failures unless they install governments and re-create populations that never pose another threat to the U.S. But this isn’t reality, and this is certainly not the way the U.S. Marines think about these issues.”

    If we could take away one and only one lesson from the last 50 years of American military history, I would propose this: that the United State of America will not commit substantial ground forces to any theater of operations unless the American people, through their duly elected representatives in the Executive *and* Legislative branches, have authorized the military to take *whatever* action is necessary to assure complete and total defeat of the enemy.

    Anything less — this one-hand-tied-behind-your-back war making– is worse than useless. It sacrifices the lives of our men and women without the means to achieve victory.

    Americans by nature want to win decisively and quickly. We are not interested in long, drawn out counter-insurgencies. Above all else, when American forces are directly involved, insurgencies (and their safe havens or sponsors) must be crushed. Pakistan safe areas should never have been tolerated. Syrian sponsorship of insurgents should have been severely punished. Iranian involvement on behalf of Shia militias should have faced increasing consequences. Saudi Arabian sponsorship of Al Qaeda in Iraq merited direct attack on those rat lines inside Saudi Arabia if necessary. We do not respect the borders of any country that materially supports those who kill U.S. forces. Period.

    If American political leaders are not willing to face this necessity, then the forces should not be committed.

  3. On March 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm, Warbucks said:

    The “Better War” is the war when fought is fought in the heart of each warrior for just cause, on a deep and personal level to protect that which is so important, that death in service to the cause is accepted as the price we tender to preserve. The Best War, is the war not fought and no loss is suffered.

    Few leaders are able to rally us to such heights .

    A fearless look into the face of war making on the other hand would ask us to follow the spirit of the Constitution first and foremost for very good reason, buy-in by the nation as a whole, into “that which is so important, that death in service to the cause is accepted as the price we tender to preserve.”

    Without such buy-in, we defer to our Generals, the leadership and inspirations lacking in our elected officials.

    The “buy-in” lessons today have been so well learned by the military that factions seem to have developed within the military itself, that given any political goal, groups within the military can figure a way to mount its success in the interests of the state.

    The perceptual problem is the interests of the state do not align with the interest of the free people. This bifurcation of military factionalism seems real and does not serve the interests of democracy, but rather serves the repressive interest of the state and leads to the perceived suppression of the liberties of the people the state is supposed to be responsive in serving.

    We seem to have entered now, that social condition where so much evidence readily exists that suppressive interests of the state have merged too closely with the factional interest of the military in truly preventing the needed “buy-in” by the people in the spirit of a forthright, simple declaration of war completed in the spirit of the Constitution.

    Who today believes there does not exist a Better War plan for Iran in the making as we speak? Who today believes there does not exist factions within our military, one of which believes itself prepared now to initiate pro-war political cause which literally defines what is the interests of the state? That faction is the definition of New World Order. The liberties of the people are suppressed and ignored. The Constitution is subjected to martial law. The media is threatened and controlled by state revocation of media license, lock out of media access, and worse. Our Generals are deferred to convince a wise populace, that our cherished highest liberties and rights are at risk of loss. Those who disagree are declared “potential enemies of the state” under NDAA law, passed by a congress fed financially and controlled by major donors, who’s names are legally kept secret.

    Those systemic problems real or imagined are my enemies. The Better War scenario can always be calibrated from any given starting point. Let’s hope we can reign in where that starting point of war is to commence and reacquire the spirit of our Constitution.

  4. On March 5, 2012 at 2:01 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Rich, it can be all of those things you discuss (e.g., fought in the heart of each warrior for just cause … etc., etc.), and still be lost because of bad policy and strategy, which no amount of TTP can overcome.

  5. On March 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm, Federale said:

    The real blame for the loss in Vietnam lays with LBJ and RMN. LBJ could have won from the begining and did not want to. RMN inherited a war that was still winnable but wrote off Vietnam because of its cost. He had no intent of winning.

    Westmoreland served under LBJ’s restrictions and no general could have won a war where the enemy had sanctuary in Cambodia, Laos, and for the most part in NVN.

    Failure was pre-ordained. And in the end Abrams was not able to pull a victory out of a hat, regardless of the later success of his COIN strategy. For the war was fought and lost in Cambodia, Laos, and NVN, not in any part of SVN.

    In the end Diem was correct, it was not guerrillas in the Delta that was the threat, but the NVA on the borders and infiltrating from sactuary, slowly biting off chuncks of SVN with no pushback.

  6. On March 6, 2012 at 6:32 pm, TS Alfabet said:

    Reading Winston Churchill’s Vol. II, “Their Finest Hour,” of his history of WWII, it is utterly remarkable that Roosevelt felt absolutely constrained by public opinion and by the Constitution from giving much of any aid to Britain or France in 1940 when the French were desperate for assistance. Even after the fall of France, Roosevelt expressed very clear sympathies with Churchill but refused any, significant aid or direct involvement until much later in the war.

    Contrast that with the current era of Presidential power, where Obama feels perfectly free to order air strikes against Libya without even consulting Congress in advance or taking account of public opinion.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Col. Gian Gentile,Featured,Iraq,Vietnam and was published March 4th, 2012 by Herschel Smith.

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