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The Marine Corps In vietnam : Lessons for the war on Terrorism

( ) ( Department of General military subjec


 

20-04-09, 08:40 AM

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The Marine Corps In vietnam : Lessons for the war on Terrorism



 

By: Ernest Evans
After the U.S left Vietnam the U.S military was determined to never again fight an unconventional war*. ‬Specifically*, ‬virtually all military planning was now focused on conventional war contingencies*: ‬The NATO Central Front and Korea from 1973-1989*; ‬and after 1990* ‬Korea and the Persian Gulf*. ‬The tragic events of September 11*, ‬2001* ‬forced the U.S to recognize something that experts on terrorism had recognized for several years*: ‬namely*, ‬that a cluster of radical Islamic groups*, ‬including* (‬but not limited to*) ‬Osama Bin Ladens Al Qaeda*, ‬regarded themselves at war with the United States*. ‬Like it or not*, ‬the U.S military was again involved in an unconventional war against a revolutionary movement*. ‬The central argument of this article is that the Vietnam War offers important insights both how as to fight such an unconventional war and how as not to fight it*.‬
With respect to the question of how not to fight an unconventional war*, ‬the key reason for the U.S defeat in Vietnam was the fact that both its military and political establishments believed that the enemys* ‬center of gravity* ‬was its military forces*. ‬The thinking was that through heavy use of U.S firepower we could subject the North Vietnamese to unacceptable levels of attrition*. ‬Inevitable*, ‬this strategy of attrition led to statistical* ‬body counts* ‬as indicators of progress in the war*.‬
In retrospect*, ‬the* ‬body count mentality* ‬was at best irrelevant and at worst counter-productive*. ‬It was irrelevant because the North Vietnamese were sufficiently determined to win that they were able and willing to replace combat losses*. ‬It was counter-productive because efforts to increase body counts led all-too-often to indiscriminate uses of firepower that served only to alienate the local population*.‬
Perhaps the single most alarming development in the U.S War on Terrorism is that the* ‬body count mentality* ‬appears to be resurfacing in three related ways*:‬
a*. ‬Faced with growing public weariness with the seemingly interminable war in Iraq*, ‬the militarys press releases have started again highlighting numbers of enemy casualties in U.S military operations there(1*).‬
b*. ‬In press releases and speeches on the War on Terrorism*, ‬official U.S spokesperson regularly refer to the large number of Al Qaeda operatives killed or captured in the years since 9/11*.‬
c*. ‬The Iraq War is often justified by what can be called the* ‬honey pot* ‬theory*; ‬that is*, ‬if you put U.S troops in Iraq terrorists will flock there to fight these troops*, ‬like files to a pot of honyand then the U.S will be able to use its capable military to crush these terrorists*. (‬As a sidelight*, ‬it should be noted that this was the strategy of the French at Dien Bien Phu*; ‬put a concentration of French troops in a Viet Minh-controlled area and the Viet Minh will be lured into a* ‬set-piece* ‬battle*. ‬The Viet Minh did exactly that and captured Dien Bien Phu*; ‬hopefully*; ‬the U.S will not experience such an outcome in Iraq*.‬
All of these various manifestations of the* ‬body count* ‬mentality rely on the same erroneous assumption*: ‬that there are a set number of Islamic radicals that can be destroyed in a* ‬war of attrition*. ‬The whole history of counter-insurgency in the past 100* ‬years refutes such an assumption*: ‬As long as a revolutionary organization has a sufficiently deep and broad basis of popular support*, ‬killed or captured combatants can be replaced*. ‬Put simply*, ‬if killing insurgents would in and of itself defeat a popular revolutionary* ‬movement the Israelis would still be in the Gaza Strip*, ‬the Russians would still be in Afghanistan*, ‬and the French would still be in Algeria*.‬
Marine Corps experiences in Vietnam are important to recall because these experiences highlight what does work in an unconventional war*. ‬In his forward to the book Our War was different*: ‬Marine Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam*, ‬retired Marine Lieutenant General Victor H*. ‬Krulak made these comments about the reasons for the U.S defeat in Vietnam*: ‬There is some analogy to be found between the French defeat and the tragic American outcome in Vietnam*. ‬Our leadership*, ‬from Washington down*, ‬for the most part accorded too little importance to the war among the people and was too willing to address the Vietnam conflict as if it were being fought on the West German plain*.‬
But this shortcoming was not universal*. ‬Almost from the moment of their arrival in Vietnam in 1965*, ‬the U.S Marines emphasized the critical importance* ‬of gaining the confidence and support of the people in the 14,000* ‬Vietnamese villages*. ‬By their behavior*, ‬the Marines sought to persuade the villages in the northern part of South Vietnam that*, ‬while they might look like French*, ‬they were actually mindful of their problems and could be depended on to help solve them(2*).‬
Put differently*, ‬what Marine Corps initiatives in Vietnam such as the Combined Action-Platoons reflect is recognition of the fact that in an unconventional war the rebels* ‬Center of Gravity* ‬is their support among the population that they claim to be fighting for*. ‬Again*, ‬the history of recent insurrections overwhelmingly confirms this recognition by the Marines in Vietnam*: ‬In the 20th century*, ‬insurgencies have only been defeated when they lacked popular support* (‬such as the Baader/Meinhoff gang in West Germany or the Red Army of Japan*) ‬or where the government took steps to address the grievances of the population* (‬as in the British victory in the 194801960* ‬Malayan Emergency*). ‬In those cases where the demands of the population were not addressed either the rebels took power* (‬Cuba in 1959* ‬and Nicaragua in 1979*) ‬or the insurrection continued* (‬as in the ongoing struggles in the Basque region of Spain and the province of Kashmir*).‬
There are two key policy recommendations for the War on Terrorism that follow from the fact that in unconventional wars the enemys* ‬Center of Gravity* ‬is the degree of popular support*. ‬First*, ‬the U.S has to recognize the painful fact that much of the Islamic world is hostile to the U.S because of certain U.S political policies*. ‬Now*, ‬of course*, ‬in formulating its foreign policy the U.S has to take into account considerations other than relieving tension with the Islamic world*. ‬However*, ‬any major successes in the War on Terrorism can only come if the U.S gets substantial help from the nations of the Islamic world*; ‬to put it terms of the famous analogy of Mao Zedung*: ‬As long as the Al Qaeda* ‬fish* ‬have a* ‬sea* ‬of popular support in the Islamic world*, ‬any successes in the War on Terrorism will be as transitory as the French victory in the 1957* ‬Battle of Algiers*. ‬So*, ‬while there is no* ‬magic bullet* ‬to end hostility towards the U.S in the Islamic world*, ‬adopting all four of the following policy initiatives would be most helpful in this regard*:‬
a*. ‬The U.S must make achieving peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians a high priority*. ‬As Dr*. ‬Stephen Van Evera of MIT has shown in a recent article*, ‬the role of the U.S in the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the single greatest grievance held against the U.S by Islamic public opinion(3*). ‬Now*, ‬of course*, ‬achieving such a peace is not an easy undertaking*; ‬but there can be no doubt that a peace that guarantees the Israelis* ‬security while recognizing the Palestinians*; ‬right to self-determination would go a long way toward reducing anti-Americanism in the Islamic world*.‬
b*. ‬The U.S must understand that much of the Islamic world feels that U.S oil companies are not giving them a fair price for their oil*. ‬U.S consumers faced with soaring fuel prices in the past year or so may find such an idea preposterous*; ‬but it is widely held in the Islamic nations that export oil to the U.S*.‬
The U.S has recently taken a number of steps to reinvigorate its program of* ‬public diplomacy*; ‬part of this public diplomacy should be helping the publics of oil-exporting nations understand the hard economic facts that set the international price of crude oil*.‬
c*. ‬In large part because of its critical dependence on imported oil from the Islamic world the U.S has all-too-often been willing to totally ignore human rights issues in favor of stability concerns*. ‬U.S relations with Iran since the 1979* ‬overthrow of the Shah illustrate the high price that such a one0sided policy can entail*. ‬The Islamic world is not going to democratize itself overnight so the U.S will have to deal with authoritarian Islamic governments for the indefinite future*; ‬but he lesson of uncritical U.S support for the Shah is that being too close to todays dictator may mean you have no relationship with tomorrows new regime*.‬
d*. ‬Finally*, ‬the U.S must recognize that there are some real problems with stationing large numbers of U.S troops on the territory of Islamic countries*; ‬particularly in the Arabian Peninsula* (‬which*, ‬according to Islamic law*, ‬is supposed to be for Muslims only*). ‬Of course*, ‬the U.S has real security concerns in the Islamic world that necessitate having military forces deployed there*; ‬but it may be time to consider returning to the policy of* ‬offshore deployment* ‬that*, ‬for the most part*, ‬we followed prior to operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm*. ‬With respect to the specific case of the ongoing war in Iraq*, ‬the U.S should make a clear public declaration that it has no intention of a permanent*, ‬military presence there*; ‬such a declaration would to a long way toward reducing the widespread suspicion in the Islamic world that the real U.S objective in Iraq is to control that countrys oil*.‬
The second policy recommendation for the War on Terrorism is that military operations must be conducted in as discriminating a fashion as possible so as to not cause a popular backlesh*; ‬that is*, ‬the U.S must not repeat the overuse of firepower that alienated so much of the population in South Vietnam*. ‬Yes*, ‬war is hell*; ‬but*, ‬as Dante illustrated in The Inferno*, ‬there are seven circles of Hell*; ‬and the U.S would be well-advised not to allow its military to be publicly perceived as always operating in the lowest circle of Hell*.‬
In conclusion*, ‬in the final paragraph of his introduction to the 1994* ‬book Our War Was Different General Krulack made the following comments*: ‬Beyond its contribution to the history of a war many would like to forget*, ‬Hemingways chronicle has real value for the future*. ‬American forces may well be involved in other relatively undeveloped areas*. ‬This book can serve as a series of guideposts*, ‬with its credible examples of right and wrong in the critical task of winning the support of the people*. ‬Without their support*, ‬as Vietnam taught us*, ‬victory is out of reach(4*).‬
As General Krulak says*, ‬the Marine Corps* ‬experiences provide real lessons for future unconventional wars like the current war on terrorism*; ‬the U.S would do well to head these hard-won lessons
References*:‬
1*. ‬Bradley Graham*, ‬Enemy Body Counts Revived*, ‬Washington Post*, ‬October 24*, ‬2005*.‬
2*. ‬Al Hemingway*, ‬Our War Was Different*: ‬Marine Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam* (‬Annapolis*, ‬Maryland*: ‬Naval Institute Press*, ‬1994*, ‬ix*.‬
3*. ‬Stephen Van Evera*, ‬Vital Interest*: ‬Winning the War on Terror Requires a Mideast Peace Settlement*, ‬The American Conservative*, ‬March 14*, ‬2005*, ‬7-10*.‬
4*. ‬Hemingway*, ‬Our War Was Different*, ‬xi*.‬

 

 


 

   


(Tags)
corps, lessons, marine, terrorism, vietnam

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