In the latest Policy Review
, Frederick W. Kagan writes
It is becoming increasingly an article of faith that the insurgency in Vietnam is similar enough to the insurgency in Iraq that we can draw useful lessons from the one to apply to the other. This is not the case. The only thing the insurgencies in Iraq and Vietnam have in common is that in both cases American forces have fought revolutionaries. To make comparisons or draw lessons beyond that basic point misunderstands not only the particular historical cases, but also the value of studying history to draw lessons for the present.
He outlines the significant differences of the nature of each set of "revolutionaries" and finds the Iraqi version coming up very short in comparison. In short, the Iraq insurgency has been relegated to roadside bombings and suicide bombs: hardly a guerrilla movement as Kagan understands it.
The focus on Vietnam and the general confusion between insurgency (any sort of political or military struggle against an established government) and guerrilla warfare (the use of particular kinds of military forces in unconventional warfare) is even leading us down the wrong road militarily. Strategies like the “oil spot” approach recently proposed, in which coalition forces would concentrate on pacifying a limited number of areas and then spreading their control outward, might or might not have been appropriate for Vietnam, but they are inappropriate for Iraq. Whatever the effect of such a strategy in Vietnam, in Iraq it would be a step backward, since most of the country already is pacified, and abandoning parts of, say, the Sunni Triangle to concentrate on other parts would only provide the insurgents guaranteed safe havens they do not now have.
The fact is that, militarily, the situation in Iraq is at a level below that of guerrilla war. The enemy is engaged in a widespread terrorist campaign much more similar to the Intifadah or the ira’s or eta’s attacks, if more concentrated and destructive. The coalition has already drawn some lessons from those struggles, in fact, as recent anti-terrorist operations in Iraq have focused on finding and killing or capturing the bomb makers rather than the bomb placers — a lesson centcom drew from the British experience in Northern Ireland. It may be that the more careful scrutiny of those conflicts will be more fruitful than the continuing study of Vietnam or other guerrilla wars.
One can argue over Kagan's specific points, but a larger lesson can be derived from Kagan's acute analysis.
Any single historical example, however, will suffer from sharp limits in its power to explain, still less prescribe solutions for, the current conflict. All insurgencies are distinct from one another. . . . Historical examples are most likely to be useful in understanding [Iraq] when considered in depth, comparatively with one another, and with the clear knowledge of their differences from the current troubles. History does not, in the end, provide “lessons” to be learned. At its best, it provides guidelines to help think concretely and creatively about current and likely future problems. We’ve gotten what we are going to get out of the Vietnam example, or any other single example, already. It is time to move on.
The real reason that the Vietnam example remains so prominently in many people’s minds, of course, is that the U.S. lost that war. By comparing Iraq to Vietnam, many people are expressing the fear that because America lost one and because of certain superficial similarities, the U.S. is on the road to losing the other. This “lesson” of history is the least valid of all. America may fail in Iraq, but, if so, it will not be because of any similarity to Vietnam. It is much more likely, moreover, that if the Bush administration pursues a sound strategy in this struggle, the U.S. — and the Iraqi people — will win.
Similarly, "revolutions" are not necessarily directly comparable: the underlying causes and outcomes of the American and French Revolutions comes to mind. In short, the comparison between Iraq and Vietnam is laced with a heavy dose of consequentalism.
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