Phoenix Rising

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Sy Hersh provides a useful look at evolving tactics on the ground in Iraq, but also advances a bit of a myth. Hersh compares current indications that the U.S. will move to a special op driven war of attrition against Iraqi guerillas to the Vietnam-era Phoenix program. Essentially, Phoenix used U.S. special op forces and CIA-trained South Vietnamese infiltrators to target and eliminate Viet Cong leaders.

Phoenix, Hersh tells us, was a failure and bad idea because "(s)ome of those assassinated had nothing to do with the war against America but were targeted because of private grievances."

But that just tells us that Phoenix wasn't exactly moral, not that it did not work. In fact, Phoenix's relative effectiveness is what has the Pentagon turning in that direction again.

Stanley Karnow also doubted the value of Phoenix until he talked to some of its targets. In his Vietnam: A History, Karnow quotes former Viet Cong leaders as calling Phoenix "very dangerous" and "extremely destructive" to their operations. Another credits Phoenix with wiping out "many of our bases" and forcing a wholesale retreat into Cambodia.

The brutal effectiveness of operations like Phoenix to quell a determined insurgency informs us why it is good idea to avoid policies—like occupation—which might coax a Phoenix forth.

NEXT: Philosophical Slut

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  1. I think the solution to the problem is that the insurgents ought to give up insurgency.

    The idea of a moral war (not just generally but totally) is not very likely.

    I do know how you can get such a thing though. Get the other side to surrender as soon as we fire the first shot.

  2. Did it really quell a determined insurgency, or simply put a significant dent into it, while undermining the American cause?

  3. Training and arming the “enemies of our enemies”? Isn’t that how we got Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein? sigh…

  4. The problem with programs like Phoenix is unless you decisively win, you can never stop. As long as there are insurgents and you’re removing their leaders you’re fine. You’re destroying good leaders along with the bad and their knowledge and skills along with them. But once the attrition stops you’ve got a core group of really tough SOBs that have survived. If they live long enough to pass the skills that allowed them to survive on to a new group of fighters, that group is usually more hardcore and determined than the group you were suppressing originally.

  5. The brutal effectiveness of operations like Phoenix to quell a determined insurgency informs us why it is good idea to avoid policies — like occupation — which might coax a Phoenix forth.

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard a wartime tactic’s effectiveness cited as a reason not to use it to win the war.

    I’m not really sure what Mr. Taylor is advocating here. Is he saying we should never get into a war that will require an occupation of the defeated country? If so, then this is a prescription for never going to war at all (unless we plan to leave the defeated government in place).

    Is he saying that occupations, and therefore wars where we remove the enemy government, are never worth the price?

    Or is he saying that, when we are an occupying power and we face armed resistance, we should not put into place tactics that are proven to be effective against the enemy?

    Training and arming the “enemies of our enemies”? Isn’t that how we got Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein? sigh…

    Of course, that is also how we kept England free from the Nazis, Western Europe free from the Communists, South Korea free from the North Koreans, etc. ad infinitum. Any ally is the “enemy of your enemy,” so this statement seems to be no more than a dismissal of any multilateral war at all.

    I’m not saying that a Phoenix-like program isn’t without its risks or costs, or that wartime alliances are never risk-free. I’m just pointing out that the blanket statements criticized above are simplistic and, really, pretty useless in analyzing the current situation in Iraq.

  6. Training and arming the “enemies of our enemies”? Isn’t that how we got Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein? sigh…

    I was hoping that the quality of debate had improved here in recent weeks. Alas, I was wrong. This is an inane comment, reflective of little more than the continuing influence of Chomsky-like propaganda on what should be an engaging, informative, and interesting debate about the proper foreign and defense policies for a free republic.

    Neither bin Laden nor Hussein were brought into existence, as dangerous enemies, by the actions of the U.S., whatever you think of past American policies to arm the Afghan resistance, give Hussein some useful intelligence to contain the ayatollahs, or ensure the unrestricted flow of oil from Kuwait during the 1980s.

    If you’d like to blame the Soviets for the actions that led to the al Qaeda and Baathist terror threats, you’d be on firmer ground. Good luck trying that thesis out with much of the leadership of the international “anti-war” movement, who still dream primarily in shades of red.

    As to Jeff’s original point, I agree that the effects of Phoenix differ from the conventional wisdom about failed Vietnam policies. Actually, much of what actually happened in Vietnam differs from the conventional wisdom. But I don’t agree that it creates a decision rule against occupation. It’s still a cost vs. benefits issue for me, assuming the thresholds of advancing freedom and the national interest are first met.

  7. The problem with Phoenix-style programs, in practice, is that they degenerate into death squad tactics on the Central American pattern. The greater general public support for the resistance, the more targeting the leadership translates in practice into controlling or terrorizing the population at large to prevent them from supporting who they want to. And when that happens, the claim that this is a tiny and unrepresentative group of Baathist “bitter enders” starts looking pretty weak.

    I read a news story recently about barbed wire enclosures around Iraqi villages in the Sunni triangle. Can you say “strategic hamlets”?

    This war is already lost, from the perspective of creating a compliant and stable puppet state. The U.S. may prop up and partially “Iraqize” such a state as long as it stays there. But when it finally pulls out, you’ll have either a collapse into three states, all under various anti-American regimes, or a unitary Shiite theocracy with chronic regional separatist problems. There will never be a stable, pro-U.S. regime, without the imperial legions there to keep it in power. So the only alternatives are a humiliating pull-out and subsequent Saigon-style collapse, or hundreds of KIA’s a year for the foreseeable future.

  8. Kevin Carson is seeing the forest and not the trees.
    John Hood, enlighten me of any benefits of an occupation.

  9. Ah, the irony. An operation named after the fabled bird that rises from the ashes. Indeed, it is so.

    PS Heard on a radio talk show that there are Israeli commandos training our folk in this fine art of ‘targeted killing.’

    Great. Wonder if the Israelis will accompany the special ops forces into Iraq? That would be just swell.

  10. Ruthless:

    John Hood, enlighten me of any benefits of an occupation.

    About a half a century of peace and relative prosperity in Europe and East Asia. Next question.

  11. John,
    Are you absolutely positive there was a cause-effect relation?
    Occupations just don’t seem to be working lately like they did in olden days.

  12. Ruth:

    I am as certain as possible, given the constraints of accepting the world as it is and not as one might imagine it to be, that the U.S. occupation of Germany and Japan was instrumental in accomplishing the end I’m pointing to. I tend to agree, by the way, that American troops should have redeployed quite a while ago, particularly from Germany, so obviously there remain strong tendencies for government to err and to indulge special interests and interia.

    Another arguably successful occupation in modern times was the British/Malay defeat of Chi-Com revolutionaries in Malaya. It was a guerilla campaign that the U.S. tried to emulate in Vietnam, despite the clear dissimilarities.

    Still another is the U.S. presence in Korea, though again I tend to agree with those who argue for at least a partial redeployment now.

  13. Looking at the comments today I am reminded that there is no agreement on the goal, even within this community. Without knowing the goal, how can anyone appropriately evaluate the tactics? Or if people hold different goals, the same tactics will be seen in dramatically different lights.

    More broadly, I’m am forced to accept comparisons with Vietnam because we’re arguing politics while there is still a war on. In WWII, the stated goal was unconditional surrender, and that created an environment for occupation and reconstruction. Negotiated peace/ceasefire can also create the necessary stable for rebuilding. In Iraq, there’s no enemy in suffcient control to offer a legitimate capitulation and we haven’t been brutal enough to subjugate the people ourselves.

    Maybe the strategy should be to evacuate, let any group of undesirables form a control structure, and then deal with that structure. We can always go back and blow them to hell if negotiations break down.

  14. when I was a kid i changed the world

    i marched with a peace sign and bent the world to my will

    i stopped a war

    now i am old and worthless

    but i hope to relive my days of glory

  15. . . .there remain strong tendencies for government to err and to indulge special interests and interia.

    Uh, didn’t mean to coin a new word here, though perhaps “interia” refers to the government’s tendency to serve internal, bureaucratic interests at the expense of the public interest.

    Meant “inertia.”

  16. I’m still agreeing with Kevin Carson that this war is already lost, and my question is, “What do ‘we’ do now.”?

    Wishful Thinking, do you have a second stanza? Nevermind.

  17. Ah… the joy of occupation:

    WASHINGTON (AP) Plans to deploy the first battalion of Iraq’s new army are in doubt because a third of the soldiers trained by the U.S.-led occupation authority have quit, defense officials said Wednesday.

  18. I’m still agreeing with Kevin Carson that this war is already lost

    Wow. We crushed the army and threw out the regime of our enemy, and can go anywhere and do anything with our military in Iraq, yet we have lost the war.

    If we lost, who won?

    We haven’t yet won the peace, to be sure, although we are in a much better position to prevail than our enemies on that front, but to claim that we have suffered a military defeat is ludicrous.

  19. Hmm, as for benefits of an occupation, well, all things are relative in politics. I would count the lack of new mass graves, rape rooms, and general Baathist brutality and kleptomania as a benefit, myself.

  20. R.C.

    Do you recommend we invade to illiminate future mass graves, etc? If not, why not? If so, I must have missed your advocating for it.

    In other words, I am sick of people using the humanitarian argument as justification for the invasion, when that WAS NOT the original justification for the war.

    Regards,

    Steve

    :-/

  21. Oops… my snarky comment about invading all the other brutal dictatorships was a bit truncated: Should have read:

    Do you recommend we invade (insert shitty country) to illiminate future mass graves, etc? If not, why not? If so, I must have missed your advocating for it.

  22. “Do you recommend we invade (insert shitty country) to illiminate future mass graves, etc? If not, why not? If so, I must have missed your advocating for it.”

    If it serves national security interests as well and is like Iraq in that it can be won easily. Are we going into North Korea? No. But another Grenada or Iraq-style conflict to get rid of some two-bit thug? Why not.

  23. Anything for the PNAC-run Empire and Halliburn, eh Brian? Sorry but libertarianism is about non-agression, and that includes supposed dictators.

  24. Anything for the PNAC-run Empire and Halliburn, eh Brian? Sorry but libertarianism is about non-agression, and that agression includes supposed dictators.

  25. Did I miss it somewhere on the signup sheet that libertarianism is about non-aggression?

    And what “supposed” dictators are we referring to? Tojo? Adolph? Benito? Saddam? “Supposed” is just not the word that comes to mind when I think of them.

  26. Does China count as a Totalitarian dictatorship?

  27. Tom,

    Actually, there is a sign-up sheet (at least if you’re a capital “L” Libertarian):

    “Members of the Party shall be those persons who have certified in writing that they oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals.”

    see http://www.lneilsmith.com/libpty.html

  28. If it serves national security interests as well and is like Iraq in that it can be won easily.
    Posted by Brian Carnell

    Won easily?
    Do you want to correct yourself as have so many others in this thread?

  29. Jeebus. Another relatively fact free debate. Nice.

    Here’s the facts on Phoenix.

    It was a three tiered program geared towards “pacification” – a broad term that encompassed a wide variety of measures aimed at getting and keeping the South Vietnamese peasantry and local leadership on our side.

    The top tier was humanitarian relief and aid, to win hearts. The next tier was psyops, propaganda, intel, even God forbid truthful approaches to politics, to change minds. The third tier was assassination aimed at Viet Cong recruiters (no princes, conducting much recruiting by threat of force), corrupt local officials who blew any chance at effective pro-U.S. government, and so forth.

    So no, it wasn’t a program about assassination, though assassination was a salient and important feature of the program, without which it cannot be fairly evaluated. Evaluating Phoenix as an assasination program is like evaluating the new F-150 based on the quality of the brakes. The brakes are important and can spoil the thing, but there are other important parts on the truck.

    Good, bad, or indifferent, counterinsurgency programs like Phoenix need to be evaluated in context, which is factually intensive rather than fact-free.

  30. Ruthless,

    If the war is lost may I suggest the thing to do is to convert to Islam. And if you are of the female persuasion learn to accept your beating gracefully.

  31. Ruthless,

    Occupations are working just as well as they ever did. Check out the newspaper reports on post war Germany 6 months into the occupation. It looked like a disaster then too.

    In 1950 there were still refugees from the war who had not yet been resettled.

    Hind sight is always 20/20 with rose colored glasses and a collapsed time line.

    You ever read real history? Or just the Cliff Notes version?

  32. M. Simon, I haven’t even read the Cliff Notes version of history, but I’m old, so that oughta count for something.
    If, as you admit, there were still major problems in the aftermath of WWII as late as 1950, how can we be so sure occupation was a cure-all?
    It’s like the embargo on Cuba. Boy it’s sure made life miserable for Fidel. Same went for the embargo on Saddam. Sure showed him the error of his ways, eh?
    Or after a forest fire. Does the US Forestry Service cause a forest to regenerate or might nature have something to do with it?

  33. Stephan Fetchet,
    The very next time we want you to step and fetch a fact, we’ll call you.

  34. Yeah, Stephen, that’s what I said. How do you evaluate the F-150 when you’re not sure if you need a truck, a road grader, or a two-door convertible?

    The “facts” don’t matter until one decides which opinion they’ll be used to support/justify.

  35. “another Grenada or Iraq-style conflict”

    Comparing the 1983 invasion of Grenada with Iraq is like comparing swatting a moth with trying to kill an eagle with your bare hands.

  36. My dear departed friend Jerry Pettit was in Operation Phoenix. He talked about sneaking into a village, slitting the throat of a VC leader in his sleep and then sneaking back out. When the people in the vill woke up the next morning you can bet the operation was effective.

  37. My dear departed friend Jerry Pettit was in Operation Phoenix. He talked about sneaking into a village, slitting the throat of a VC leader in his sleep and then sneaking back out. When the people in the vill woke up the next morning you can bet the operation was pretty effective.

  38. Steve, the question on the table wasn’t “should we have invaded.” The question was, “have we lost already” and “are there any benefits to the occupation.” You really need to get over having lost the argument over whether we should have invaded or not.

    In other words, I am sick of people using the humanitarian argument as justification for the invasion, when that WAS NOT the original justification for the war.

    Well, it was one of the original justifications, but I am not going to feed your obsession with water under the bridge.

    If the war policy gets blamed for unintended bad consequences (and it does), I see no reason not to give it credit for the “unintended” good consequences.

    When asking “was the war justified”, you would have to be out of your mind not to evaluate all the actual, real results of the war, including the humanitarian ones. We certainly did not go to war with Germany in WWII to save the Jews, but I regard closing the death camps as a major benefit of that war nonetheless, and one that cannot be left out of any calculation about whether the war was “justified”.

    I’ll make you a deal – if you never bring up any current events that don’t support one of your original reasons for opposing the war, I won’t bring up any current events that don’t support one of my original reasons for supporting the war.

  39. Ruth:

    It’s like the embargo on Cuba. Boy it’s sure made life miserable for Fidel. Same went for the embargo on Saddam. Sure showed him the error of his ways, eh?

    Actually, these examples make the case against middling, likely ineffective governmental policies such as lengthy trade embargoes. Either identify a real threat to our peace and freedom and take appropriate action to eliminate it, or move on. The embargo on Iraq was the alternative to invasion, not of a similar kind, and I think it was the more costly and less humane alternative.

  40. Wake up. Phoenix is being implemented in Iraq right now – and it’s high time. Soon we’ll be able to get most of our conventional forces out – they’re little more than targets now anyway. We’ll keep backup forces at Iraqi airports, mind you.
    The focus on “immoral” assassinations – the third tier of pacification – is typical of naysayers like those wringing their hands above. Keep wringing – we have work to do in Iraq to protect America. And we will do it.

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