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It is increasingly evident that U.S. Army commanders in Iraq know nothing about guerilla warfare. Over and over, they are ordering actions that are counterproductive. Three recent examples include:
* U.S. forces have sealed off Saddam Hussein’s little home village of Auja, Iraq, ringing the town with barbed wire and forcing locals to show identity cards to enter or exit. One of the rules of guerilla war is that tactical actions can have strategic effects. When images of sealed-off Auja appear in the Islamic press all over the world–and they will–who do we look like? Israel in the West Bank.
* As if sealing off towns were not enough, the British newspaper The Independent carried a story by Patrick Cockburn titled, “U.S. soldiers bulldoze farmer’s crops.” The lead paragraph states,
US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops.
Why not just start flying the Israeli flag? The parallel with what Israel does to the Palestinians is one nobody can miss. That, in turn, hands the guerillas a massive propaganda victory. Ironically, the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces recently denounced these same tactics as ineffective and counterproductive.
* Across Iraq, American troops last week began Operation Iron Hammer, described by The Washington Times as a “new ‘get tough’ strategy of going after insurgents before they strike.” Thus far, Operation Iron Hammer has included calling in F-16s to drop bombs and using heavy artillery on targets in Baghdad itself. If sealing off towns and bulldozing orchards did not do enough to encourage our enemies, Operation Iron Hammer certainly will. Not only does it telegraph desperation, not strength, but it also drives uncommitted Iraqis straight into the arms of the resistance. As Robert Kennedy said in a speech he delivered in 1965, just as the Vietnam War was ramping up, success in guerilla war comes not from escalation but from de-escalation.
The Army didn’t get it then, and it doesn’t get it now (the Marine Corps did get it then, as evidenced by its CAP program in Vietnam, and it seems to get it better now as well). Why is it that the American Army repeatedly proves so inept and so plain ignorant when it comes to guerilla warfare?
Some Army history offers an answer. After the Korean War, the Army said, “We’re never going to do that again.” It refocused itself on preparing to fight a conventional war against the Warsaw Pact in central Europe. Then, that conventional Army got sent to Vietnam, to a war it had not prepared for and did not know how to fight. The old saw, “You fight the way you train,” is a double-edged sword: you will fight the way you have trained whether it is appropriate to the situation or not. Attempting to fight a conventional war in Vietnam, the Army lost.
However, the Vietnam War did leave a usable legacy of experience in guerilla war–experience bought at a terrible price. But in the mid-1970s, the Army once more said, “We’re never going to do that again,” and once more it focused on fighting the Soviets in central Europe, first in “the Active Defense,” then in “AirLand Battle.” All the learning from Vietnam was thrown away, along with most of the people who had developed a genuine understanding of how guerilla war works.
Now, just as in 1965, a U.S. Army trained for conventional war in Europe is fighting a guerilla war. And, just as in 1965, it doesn’t know how. Actions such as sealing off Auja, bulldozing farmers’ orchards and Operation Iron Hammer are worse than crimes; they are blunders. They may result in some small gains at the tactical and physical levels of war, but at tremendous cost at the strategic and moral levels, where guerilla war is decided.
Successful militaries learn in a stair-step process. Unsuccessful militaries find themselves on an endless sine-wave, where lessons are learned, then quickly forgotten as everything goes back to where it was before. Will the U.S. Army ever succeed in breaking out of its sine-wave pattern where guerilla warfare is concerned?
WILLIAM S. LIND’s On War column appears weekly in CounterPunch.