The Army’s Road to Iraq

As the war in Iraq drags on and a favorable outcome seems unlikely, Americans will ask how we got into this land war in Asia. Fingers are already pointed to the neo-conservatives, oil executives, and naive strategists, most of whom have broad ideology and narrow interests, but narrower historical knowledge and no military experience. Yet clearly our generals, who began their careers amid another insurgency, also supported the present war, or at least acquiesced to it, and so are unlikely to emerge blameless. How did our military, which after Vietnam regarded politicians with suspicion and another guerrilla war with dismay, find itself waist-deep in Mesopotamia?

The military emerged from Vietnam defeated, demoralized, and plagued by disciplinary troubles and civilian scorn. Officers who remained in the military dedicated themselves to rebuilding their institution and restoring its prestige. Against contemporary expectation, they were highly successful. The men who had led companies and battalions into the A Shau and the Iron Triangle developed new outlooks, one of which began in conversations then coalesced into a doctrine–one endorsed by a secretary of defense and a chairman of the joint chiefs. We would only go to war if the nation’s security were endangered and if Congress and the public committed themselves to the war.

Dwelling somewhere between conversation and doctrine, but closer to the latter, was opposition to fighting another insurgency. The military was organized and trained to fight conventional wars, using large land and air formations, arrayed against a similarly structured enemy–the Soviet Union in all likelihood. Battles would be fought in the open areas of Central Europe, not the jungles of Southeast Asia, and certainly not the dusty towns of the Middle East. The generals resisted fully developing counter-insurgency capabilities, consigning them instead to special forces units, which for all their cachet in the public are deemed peripheral in the Pentagon.

The election of 1980 was critical to the restoration. Reagan ended a period of malaise, heaped praise and money on the military, and directed national attention on defeating the Soviet Union. As the military grew, evangelical Christians, never underrepresented in it, entered in even larger numbers. They saw America as God’s country, the military a redoubt of morality, and the world an arena where good and evil vied unambiguously. And they were perhaps more disposed to march as to war than their peers who had not long before. For this generation the lesson of Vietnam was to see things through the next time.

The two decades following Reagan’s election saw a series of military successes, beginning with small operations in Grenada and Panama and culminating in the swift destruction of Saddam Hussein’s army in the First Gulf War. Victory came from professionalism, technology, and brave young soldiers–none of which was lacking in America. The WW2 culture of might, morality, and mission had been restored. The public reveled once more in the prestige of military power, as it had following Japan’s surrender and as the North had after Lee handed his sword to Grant.

Amid the celebration came little notice that these victories, though demonstrating great organizational skill and individual courage, had been won against less than formidable opponents, not the Wehrmacht; and had been fought in more or less conventional ways, not as guerrilla wars. Nor had the endurance of the military or the patience of the public been tested. Combined, the three operations had lasted a shorter period–two weeks or so–than had a minor island campaign in the Pacific or the siege of a remote firebase along the Cambodian border. Combined they had cost only a fraction of the lives lost at Tarawa, roughly those at Dak To. Wars seemed to be splendid and little and most importantly, fought on our terms–that is, conventionally.

As retirements played out and promotions were handed out, the officer corps became increasingly influenced by those who had entered service after Vietnam. This led to paradoxes and problems. The officer corps was suspicious of civilian leaders, particularly those who had avoided Vietnam, but duty-bound to obey them. They were enmeshed in world affairs, increasingly so in the Persian Gulf, but their understanding of world affairs, especially in that nettlesome region, was not deep. Furthermore, group-think, religious assumptions, and nationalistic outlooks shaped their assessments of the world, which might have been more profitably informed by realism, a school of thought that does not confer infallibility, only a little more caution.

The officer corps was well schooled in the techniques of war, but for all their years of service and rows of decorations, most had little combat experience. Not since World War One had we gone to war with a less experienced officer corps. Just prior to the present war, the senior staff of a brigade might, collectively, have less combat experience than did a single veteran of World War Two or Vietnam. Dispensed of the notions of virility and nobility that have insinuated themselves into the word over the millennia, and for all its numbing brutality, combat imparts an ability to see and accept hard facts, a suspicion of official cant, an appreciation of the tragic, and a deeper sense of duty to young soldiers.

Most post-Vietnam officers had only a nodding familiarity with guerrilla war theory drawn from periodic lectures and conversations with the old guard. Having sworn to avoid such a war and hopeful that political leaders had as well, their understanding of insurgency was akin to what modern engineers might have regarding ancient bridge construction–something of interest that added breadth to their knowledge, but they never expected to have to use it. The expectation of war as quick and easy and conventional was understandably though regrettably established in the public. Even more regrettably, among many post-Vietnam officers, many of whom were now full colonels and brigadiers, that expectation had not been attenuated by unfolding events or hard experience.

The events of September 11th 2001 have been likened, repeatedly, to Pearl Harbor. America had been treacherously attacked and the nation determined to mete out rough justice somewhere. Angry and eager for vengeance, Americans in and out of the military infused political leaders with uncritical faith, new to office and devoid of military experience though most were. Myths and confidences harkening back to World War Two shaped the views and utterances of all. The military confidently locked and loaded.

Operations in Afghanistan conformed to the splendid little war template, strengthening the illusion of the administration’s strategic vision. A small number of troops and a large number of airstrikes swiftly overwhelmed al Qaeda and Taliban forces and drove them out of urban areas. In a pleasant reversal of haunting memories, which might have shaped later scenarios, rag-tag irregular troops brandishing AK-47s were on our side. Faith in the administration had been justified. A few months later, when it signaled the next campaign, most of the military uncritically accepted the optimistic scenario of cheering crowds, a quick transition to democracy, and a triumphant return home. Older generals almost assuredly knew better, but duty to civilian leaders, the numbers of eager post-Vietnam officers, and consensus in the public and Congress led them to confine their concerns to a few demurrals. And we are now four years into the war.

Our generals might have asked questions of the administration, which conveyed skepticism but not disloyalty, before crossing the Iraqi frontier. Will an Arab people accept an American army on their soil, regardless of its intentions? Are the Iraqis capable of mounting an effective guerrilla war? Will the invasion revitalize al Qaeda? Will long-standing allies, whose help even we may one day need, distance themselves from us? Men who had studied Clausewitz might have voiced doubt that Iraq fit in the war on terror and that public support would endure. Those who had read Sun Tzu might ask how much we really knew about our enemy. Those who had studied history at prestigious universities at public expense might have known the region as the graveyard of British, Ottoman, Mongol, Abassid, Persian, and Assyrian ambitions.

Questions and arguments are not outside the norms of American civil-military relations. Roosevelt and MacArthur argued over budgets and strategy; Truman famously delineated a rather high limit to such arguments. Forthright military professionals, active duty and retired, are especially needed in a republic in which the public is susceptible to exhortations by inept strategists, and Congress by adept lobbyists. Generals may voice frank views on proposed military operations to the National Security Council or directly to the president. They may speak forthrightly and skeptically to Congressional committees. They may apprise journalists of institutional concerns. Should circumstance and conscience dictate, they may resign–perhaps in numbers–an action often prescribed in the writings of officers who rebuilt the military after Vietnam.

Instead, our senior generals’ lack of resolve figured highly in getting us into our third land war in Asia. They are now the silent management team of an institution they painstakingly restored, which dilettantish directors with little practical experience are now running. American soldiers fight relentlessly, bravely, but fruitlessly in a thousand winding alleys across dozens of increasingly hostile towns. Our security is weakening, our enemies strengthening. Generals are citizen-soldiers, not impassive observers of a remote democracy and its foreign policy. They have been rewarded with resources and honors and entrusted with the lives of our young men and women. They owe the nation more than demurrals.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at:



Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of  The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at (Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing)