War

The Myth of the Better War

Faulty history lures Americans into foolish interventions

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Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency, by Colonel Gian Gentile, The New Press, 208 pages, $24.95

Army Col. Gian Gentile, a combat veteran and professor of history at West Point, begins his book on a personal note by acknowledging the sacrifices and hardships that his unit, the Eighth Squadron, Tenth Cavalry, encountered while conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq in 2006. Five members of the unit were killed in action. Many more were seriously wounded. They witnessed unconscionable brutality perpetrated against Iraqis by other Iraqis in the course of a horrific civil war. These scenes are so seared into their memory, he writes, "that one's joy for life would never be the same." It is immediately apparent what motivated Gentile to write Wrong Turn.

Gentile's object is equally clear: "to drive a stake through the heart of the notion that counterinsurgency has worked in the past and will therefore work in the future." Specifically, he challenges the widely accepted idea that America's counterinsurgency wars-in Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan-"were made better simply by enlightened generals and improved tactics."

This myth of the better war waged by better men has been used to rally the American people to support foreign interventions and re-interventions into situations that seemed lost. An exaggerated faith in counterinsurgency (COIN) will encourage similar misadventures in the future, he warns.

The "better war" narrative began with the British campaign to crush a communist insurgency in Malaya (now Malaysia) from 1948 to 1960. Conventional wisdom holds that the British effort under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Harold Briggs was teetering on collapse in late 1951. In early 1952, the story continues, Gen. Gerald Templer arrived on the scene, and the situation immediately improved. Contemporary observers concluded that the apparent turnaround was driven by Templer's strategy of protecting the Malayan population and thus draining support away from the insurgents.

That narrative is largely incorrect. "The primary historical record," Gentile writes, "shows that there was no discontinuity" between Briggs and Templer. Both were committed to implementing the Briggs Plan: a massive and often brutal resettlement program that relocated hundreds of thousands of people suspected of sympathizing with the insurgents (chiefly members of the ethnic Chinese minority in Malaya).

In retrospect, ultimate British victory was never much in doubt. The Malayan Communist fighters never numbered more than 7,500. Ethnic Malays were generally supportive of the British counterinsurgency campaign because they opposed a communist takeover of their country. "It was a war," Gentile observes, "that would have been very difficult for the British to lose."

Nevertheless, a slew of scholars seized upon Templer's supposed rescue of victory from near-certain defeat to sell a better-war effort in Vietnam. The narrative of the war there shifted from battlefield victories to pacifying rural populations. Minor successes convinced U.S. Army Gen. Creighton Abrams that "everybody's kind of happy out there in Long An and Hua Nghia [provinces] because there isn't much going on." The general and his staff focused on good news to boost morale, but then started believing their own spin.

That, in turn, helped spin some historians. According to Lewis Sorley in his 1999 book, A Better War, American tactics "changed within fifteen minutes of Abrams taking command." The better war narrative suggested that victory was achievable, if only U.S. political leaders had had the intestinal fortitude to stick with Abrams' approach, modeled as it was on the British experience in Malaya.

But even if the conventional wisdom about the Malay conflict had been true, applying it to Vietnam was fundamentally flawed, because the two conflicts bore almost no resemblance. Vietnam was vastly larger and more complicated than what the British encountered in Malaya. And the British did not win over the local population so much as they resettled them. When the South Vietnamese government attempted similar forcible relocations, the effort backfired, undermining the government's already waning political legitimacy.

That point about legitimacy cannot be overstated. Insurgencies arise because of weak and usually corrupt governments. When the United States or any other foreign power intervenes on behalf of that government, it can only help to the extent that that foreign partner is in a position to eventually command respect-and recover its authority-from a substantial portion of the disgruntled population. Washington could not force the South Vietnamese government to implement crucial reforms in order to win over the Vietnamese people. Contrary to the claims of the "better war" school, the communists had a deep core of support, not least because of the pervasive corruption within all levels of the South Vietnamese government.

The United States' nation-building failures, in short, cannot be reduced to military personnel employing the wrong tactics or weak-kneed American politicians unwilling to pursue victory at all costs. They reflect the deep political dysfunction in places that are nation-states in name only. Not all countries will be as deeply divided as Iraq; not all will be as poor as Afghanistan. But most nation-building missions fail, and the few successes take extraordinary expenditures of time, blood, and money.

Gentile does acknowledge that there were some positive changes under Gens. Abrams in Vietnam, David Petraeus in Iraq, and Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. But he contends that they were more of degree than of kind. "Tactical and organizational improvements do not save wars fought under failed strategy," he writes, in what is arguably the most important passage in the entire work.

The obsession with COIN diverts attention away from motives (why we fight) to means (how we fight). It turns the entire enterprise of warfare on its head, elevating properly conducted military operations as ends in themselves. But wars serve political purposes as well.

As such, and contrary to General Douglas MacArthur's famous statement in 1949 that in war "there is no substitute for victory," Gentile points out that "sometimes, in a war that involves limited policy aims, there may well be alternatives to victory. Moreover, as was the case with MacArthur, it is not ultimately a general's call to decide that in war there is no substitute for victory. That decision rests with political leaders."

The surge narrative was employed to rally the American people to the cause of open-ended, armed nation building. That effort failed; the vast majority of Americans still consider the war to have been a colossal blunder. The public's appetite for the war in Iraq waned when they realized that the costs far outweighed the benefits, and their attitudes didn't improve after Petraeus' MacArthur-esque arrival in Baghdad. A June 2008 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans considered the war in Iraq to have been a mistake, up from 53 percent in December 2006.

This skepticism was warranted. Even if the addition of tens of thousands more U.S. troops in early 2007 coincided with a decline in violence among Iraqis, that does not mean it caused the decline. Gentile points to evidence suggesting the trends were improving well before the first surge troops arrived in Iraq. That was not the lesson drawn by American elites, however, who believed that it had been so effective that it should be emulated in Afghanistan. Now the public has turned decisively against that war, too.

In general, the American people, quite wisely, are not willing to stay for "as long as it takes," nor to spend as much as it takes, to convert failed states into healthy ones.

Perhaps most importantly, neither are many members of the military. For those men and women on "the sharp end," Gentile explains, the reality of COIN warfare is becoming clearer by the day. In the end, they will have to convince civilians that better war-fighting tactics don't transform dubious interventions into worthy conflicts.

In the closing pages, Gentile notes that "a story of failure and redemption" appeals to Americans, especially to the troops who want desperately to believe that their sacrifices were worthwhile. Likewise, members of the military are attracted to COIN because it links U.S. actions with "the ostensible moral objective of protecting innocent civilians and making their lives better."

"I lost five men from my cavalry squadron in west Baghdad in 2006-I understand this moral need," Gentile concludes. "But I also understand the need for truth, and in the end, to me, the truth…is more important for the American military and the American people than the maintenance of the myth."

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29 responses to “The Myth of the Better War

  1. ” Insurgencies arise because of weak and usually corrupt governments. When the United States or any other foreign power intervenes on behalf of that government, it can only help to the extent that that foreign partner is in a position to eventually command respect-and recover its authority-from a substantial portion of the disgruntled population.”

    That’s really the crux of it, isn’t it? There’s usually a reason the government needs outside help in order to stay in power. Sometimes there’s support for the insurgency from a rival power, but a true insurgency still needs support from the people to succeed. Supporting the government against a popular movement can tamp down a popular movement for a while but the most likely outcome is just a deferral of its success – and the revolution’s hostility to you increases during the time you support its rival.

    1. To boil it down more.

      You truly cannot use force to make people do what they don’t want to do. The people will eventually prevail.

      1. Violence can provide a final solution, but it’s not desirable in most cultures. (I chose the phrase deliberately, but there are other historical parallels.)

      2. We’re certainly at a tipping point in the US where government’s power is derived less from the consent of the governed and more from brute force.

        1. I believe you are correct.

      3. One of the saddest parts of this is that the colonials taught the Brits this lesson in 1776. Everything the Brits did was out of ignorance of what the colonials wanted and only made the problem worse. If Washington’s traditional army and the French had not been involved, the Brits still could not have won the war. At best they would have led a miserable occupation until the people at home got tired of losing soldiers and spending money for no gain.

        And we didn’t remember the lesson in the banana republic wars or Vietnam or the Gulf.

        I really despise the self-appointed elites. Scum, the lot.

        1. The biggest lesson from history is that every situation is different. Unfortunately people acting out the situation rarely understand which parts of their situations are different.

  2. “Tactical and organizational improvements do not save wars fought under failed strategy,” he writes, in what is arguably the most important passage in the entire work.

    The obsession with COIN diverts attention away from motives (why we fight) to means (how we fight). It turns the entire enterprise of warfare on its head, elevating properly conducted military operations as ends in themselves. But wars serve political purposes as well.

    These notions aren’t new to anyone who’s studied military history. This is Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and is taught in every professional officers course there is.

    The problem is, the civilian leadership HASN’T studied them and continues to make the same mistakes over and over again for all the same political reasons.

    War needs to be an ABSOLUTE last resort and if you don’t have the will to fight a total war, you probably don’t need to be there.

    1. If you have the capability to fight a short war, then there’s little point in engaging in willfare about a long one.

      If you’re not willing to slaughter people properly. Stay home.

      Bonus: Nuclear ICBMs

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    Russian security forces initially detained the two activists who had climbed onto the oil rig. Later, they commandeered the Arctic Sunrise and towed it to the Russian port of Murmansk. There, Russian prosecutors pressed charges against all 30 of the detainees.

    1. In Russia, charges press YOU!

      1. In Soviet Russia, oil drills YOU!

        1. In Soviet Russia, activists detain YOU!

      2. Pressed as in Giles Corey/Jack Shaftoe “pressed”, right?

  4. The problem is that South Vietnam was invaded and occupied by a conventional army. At some level you could say that since the South Vietnamese were unable to create a government and military strong enough to withstand invasion by the Soviet armed North, the US counter insurgency failed. But that seems a bit odd. It would seem to be that if the counter insurgency had failed it would have resulted in the the regime being overthrown from within because of the insurgency.

    The broader question is what is the alternative? And no I don’t mean just never go. That is always an alternative and an equal alternative to conventional war. Whether we should go or not is a different question than should we ever fight a counter insurgency. If your position is that we can never win an insurgency, then I guess any government that is attacked by an insurgency is destined to fall?

    1. Tactics is killing insurgents. Strategy is killing the supply chain for the insurgents. ‘Conventional’ war tackles both. ‘Losing in advance’ forgets about one or the other.

    2. The solution is probably some form of appeasement. If you can make enough of the insurgent recruits happy with the situation then you win, because the people won’t tolerate further uprising against the government. There will be a hard core of zealots you can’t convert because they have the unlimited objective, but you can kill them or jail them.

      Appeasement is a dirty word these days because of Chamberlain and Hitler but it is appropriate in some circumstances.

  5. Fail systems will fail. The best strategy would be to let Vietnam fall, adopt Communism, — leads to failure and then they move to a better system. It worked with the Soviet Union. Sure, it takes time but better than 58,000 dead left in a rotting jungle.

    1. How is that working out in mainland China? 77 Million and counting. Or the mini version in North Korea?

      Now the solution is probably not going to war with them. Maybe Ayn Rand was on to something about not propping them up, or even trading with them either.

    2. Fail systems will fail. The best strategy would be to let Vietnam fall, adopt Communism, — leads to failure and then they move to a better system. It worked with the Soviet Union. Sure, it takes time but better than 58,000 dead left in a rotting jungle.

      Sure, and it only took 70 years and 60 million dead people… and in the end, was replaced by a pseudo-fascist kleptocracy.

      1. Yes, but if my sons are among the 58,000 Americans, the view is very different from some unknown Chinese peasant. Not meaning that as a statement about worth of life, but America should not be the world’s policeman. Creating a state in South Vietnam and then spending over a decade of our national FOCUS on trying to make a non-state work, was just stupid.

  6. Sometimes man, you jsut have to roll with it.

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  7. But even if the conventional wisdom about the Malay conflict had been true, applying it to Vietnam was fundamentally flawed, because the two conflicts bore almost no resemblance. Vietnam was vastly larger and more complicated than what the British encountered in Malaya. And the British did not win over the local population so much as they resettled them. When the South Vietnamese government attempted similar forcible relocations, the effort backfired, undermining the government’s already waning political legitimacy.

    The flaw in the comparison is that Vietnam was only partially an insurgency. The bulk of the communist forces were North Vietnamese Army regulars infiltrated south via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In Sorley’s A Better War he cites the proportion of NVA to Viet Cong (South Vietnamese communists) as 3 to 1 after the VC was virtually annihilated during the 1968 Tet Offensive. (I think even those figures may overstate the VC contingent).

    Regardless, North Vietnam was an active combatant fighting a conventional war. U.S. political leaders were too scared of the USSR and China, to decisively win the war as they should have, by crushing North Vietnam.

    1. That assumes that “decisively winning” was worth taking the risk of entering a war with China.

      1. The USSR and China were certainly not afraid of the possibility of entering a war with the US, or they concluded the US would not go that far.

        It turned out that China and USSR were more at odds with each other than is generally known. Vietnam became a hard and fast Soviet ally, and China did not seem to take that very well as we saw in the 1978 Vietnam vs. China war over Cambodian genocide and other issues.

        The American decision to leave the rail lines in the north free, as well as letting Soviet ships line up for 100 miles to deliver supplies to NV ports is witness to how “serious” the US leadership was toward conducting that war.

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  9. Just a point to note that is often overlooked (or not grasped) in talking about the Vietnam War: It was a CIVIL war. Both sides were Vietnamese – south and north.

    So yes, “South Vietnam” was under attack from “outside” by it’s northern neighbor, but they weren’t foreigners, and they saw it as a war of national liberation – a continuation of their war against the French.

    1. Respectfully, you are mistaken. First, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) was multicultural?not just Vietnamese, but ~10% Montagnard, Hoa, Khmer, etc. Some of the staunchest anti-communists were minorities, brutalized by the NVA/VC (c.f. Dak Son, where 252 Montagnard civilians were murdered by flamethrower).

      Second, a civil war does not mean both sides share ethnicity, but a war by factions fighting for control within the same nation. Italian, German, Arab, and South American states fought amongst each other for centuries; these were not civil wars. The DRV and RVN were both sovereign nations.

      Third, it was an aggressive war of communist conquest by the DRV against another sovereign state, the RVN. Note that Diem hoped Vietnam would reunite as a non-communist state. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh were not simple nationalists, but committed communists. Ho and Giap purged the resistance of nationalists (incl. Trotskyists) before they had defeated the Japanese, much less the French (“[I]n the final days of World War II, the communists, under Vo Nguyen Giap, destroyed all non-communist nationalist leaders they could run to earth. In the Viet Minh controlled areas during the war, ‘enemies of the Resistance’ were systematically eliminated.”). The VC was nothing more than a proxy of the DRV government.

  10. better men has been used to rally the American people to

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