Iraqi Lessons We Should Have Learned in Vietnam? Nope… Korea!!


The conventional wisdom on our 2004-2007 failures in Iraq is that we did not learn the lessons of Vietnam about counterinsurgency (COIN). The Army, under officers like Colin Powell, reconstructed itself after the humiliation of Vietnam to fight big wars (i.e., against the USSR), not small wars (messy third world ‘brushfires’). The Army would simply not be structured to fight COIN – precisely to create a bureaucratic-structural block on the use of the Army in such situations. By willfully not developing COIN, the military could prevent the POTUS from seriously considering it. Instead such duties would be given to local allies – hence the US support for the Contras and UNITA in the 1980s, and the disastrous ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident of the 90s. The logic was captured in the famous ‘Powell Doctrine’: 1. a clearly defined objective for any war, 2. use of overwhelming force, and 3. a clear exit strategy.

The obvious problem is that this binds (blackmails?) the White House to fight only the kinds of wars that ‘fit’ the Army’s posture. But of course, that inverts reality. The Army does not tell the world, ‘give us the wars we are prepared and prefer to fight.’ Instead, the messy, complicated world throws all kinds of crises at the US, and its military should at least try to plan and prepare for various foreseeable scenarios. The Army can’t command that wars the country fights only be in a certain shape it prefers. What happens if there is a war we need to fight that doesn’t fight the Powell Doctrine? We can’t just ignore that national security imperative can we? Well, we did, and this is why SecDef Rumsfeld was bureaucratically cornered to admit that ‘you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.’ The military was purposefully not structured to fight the COINs that emerged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so things were a mess in Iraq until Petraeus forced COIN through the ‘Powell-ized’ Pentagon bureaucracy. Here is the unlearned lesson of Vietnam. Instead of learning from Vietnam how to do COIN better, we decided to learn not to do it all. That was a huge and costly error.

But then as I was a writing a paper on Korean foreign policy, I stumbled onto this gem, by a US general who served in the Korea War, about the hasty, unplanned, overzealous US involvement in Korea. It is truly disturbing to read just how many errors we made then that the Bush people made again 50 years later. So if you thought Vietnam was the lesson we didn’t learn for the GWoT, add Korea to your list. Just be sure to read the article. Substitute ‘Iraq’ for ‘Korea,’ and its list of problems is astonishingly, depressingly familiar.

Money quotes (practically the whole article is a money quote for the GWoT):

“[The Korean War] begun with an air of excessive expectation based upon estimates which were inspired by wishful optimism.”

“From first to last the failure to budget the expenses of the Korean War, as if keeping them from sight would make the experience less painful, has been symptomatic of a national ailment.”

“In the first summer, we plunged on a sure thing, though the axiom has it that in war nothing is sure. We said we did it because there was no alternative to precipitate action; the future of collective security was at stake, and aggression left unchecked would soon ring the world with fire.”

“But no move toward even partial mobilization accompanied it. The reserves were not called. An ammunition build-up was not programmed, though in some types the stocks were nil. For three months thereafter the Defense Secretary continued to hack at our fighting resources. Relations between State and the Pentagon remained as cold as if they represented opposite sides in a war.”

“The original planners mistakenly calculated that they were dealing with a gook army and an essentially craven people who would collapse as soon as mobile men and modern weapons blew a hot breath their way. But the play didn’t follow the lines as written.”

“Strategy was then at its wishful best; it was wishing out of existence a Red Chinese Army which was already over the border.”

“The war could be properly described as a tactical stalemate. We had the power and they had the push and the people. For two years the situation remained in equipoise mainly because we were motorized and had a tremendous advantage in air and artillery.”

“United States, which was the major power holding the command seat, accepted a drawn war as inevitable simply out of unwillingness to raise a sufficient infantry. An additional four solid divisions—meaning approximately 60,000 men—might have made all the difference.”

“The deliberate political design by which two Administrations treated the Korean War as if it were an insoluble military problem served to achieve one major object. It confused the American public and, confusing it, dulled its memory.”

“The initial [US] forces had been kept too long and pushed too hard; not to have afforded them relief would have been inexcusable. But rotation, as it came in full flower under the seeming promise of a quick truce, was a glorified game of musical chairs… Rotation is also a killer of men rather than a saver. There are never enough experienced men to fill the rugged assignments and let the new hands break in gradually.”

“The new hope which came to bloom…was that by building a still stronger ROK Army we would shortly find an easy exit from our Korean venture. The history of this effort, and in particular the tardiness of the decision, shows conclusively that it was inspired by dreams of liquidating our commitments.”

“Yet the Army of the United States did not so much as send one headquarters battery to Korea to initiate a training establishment for ROK artillerymen.”

“To attempt to make a backward nation catch up with the present, while assisting in the revitalizing of its economy, is quite a reversal of the normal processes of history.”

“Since South Korea is, for the time being, invalided and dependent on us largely for military supply and what is needed to keep life in a now surplus population, we more or less vaguely see that for some years ahead we shall have to fill the vacuum, serving as backer, banker, and supplier. Either that or South Korea, left a hopeless derelict, will be salvaged by Communist neighbors.”

“Korea is a strategically profitless area for the United States, of no use as a defensive base, a springboard to nowhere, a sinkhole for our military power. We don’t belong there.”

Some of these insights I disagree with; some are accurate. But what must strike any reader is how easily they can be transferred to the GwoT. Last week argued that we should give McChrystal a chance in Afghanistan, because presumably US planners can learn from Vietnam, the USSR in Afghanistan, and Iraq how to fight a better COIN. Then I read this article, and it really drew me up short. We seem to make the same mistakes again and again – Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. Maybe Stephen Walt and Christopher Layne are right, and we should stay out of these sorts of wars, because we muck them up so bad. This article really shook my confidence.

2 thoughts on “Iraqi Lessons We Should Have Learned in Vietnam? Nope… Korea!!

  1. Pingback: Korea is not such a bad Model for Iraq… « Asian Security Blog

  2. Pingback: The Iraqis don’t Want Us in Country & We have to Accept that « Asian Security Blog

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