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American Pie: War Games

…Now, in Iraq, young men in sneakers and jeans, armed with nothing more than handguns and the occasional rocket launcher, have shown that they are capable of besting the finest troops the US military can field…

John Merchant, in a powerfully argued polemic against current Western military tactics which refuse to acknowledge that conventional armies cannot successfully emulate insurgent militias, calls for different strategies to deal with 21st Century situations.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on. Billions of dollars are being spent every year on conflicts that will have no end until either the US is bankrupt or the insurgents are spent.

In the case of Iraq it was plain from the outset that a military solution would not be successful. If examples were needed, Israel, Lebanon and Palestine could offer plenty. The only way that military might can be effective in quelling such intertwined secular and sectarian strife is if it is used to enforce an occupation.

From what I read, it appears that military colleges around the world are always fighting the last war in their classes on strategy and planning. History demonstrates the fallacy of this practice, and the military theorists know it, but they are unable to change course for some reason. Since it is reasonable to assume that at least some of the instructors were fighting in each “last war,” how come this doesn’t translate into the most basic form of learning by doing?

World War II was the last conflict in which the victors overwhelmed the enemy by sheer force of arms, materiel and manpower. It was a coalition of national military machines opposing two such others. Successive wars and skirmishes, with the possible exception of Korea, have pretty much been characterized by a conventional military machine pitted against guerrilla factions, or at best against cobbled-together, untrained militias. As examples, the division of the former Yugoslavia, and the conflicts in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few.

What is plain from such examples is the effectiveness of guerilla tactics when opposing highly trained and well equipped armies. The Afghani warlords were able to bring the mighty Red Army to its knees, and the rag-tag Somali gangs humbled the proud American Marines. Now, in Iraq, young men in sneakers and jeans, armed with nothing more than handguns and the occasional rocket launcher, have shown that they are capable of besting the finest troops the US military can field.

I see pictures and TV newsreels of US Marines weighed down with night vision equipment, global positioning receivers, body armor, radios, weapons and ammunition, barely able to move as they rumble after their fleet-footed opponents. The uniformly dressed US military stand out, despite their camouflage, whereas their opponents are able to melt into the crowd in an instant. The US troops are encumbered by technologically complex equipment, whereas the insurgents get by with a cell phone or two.

In the Vietnam War, the US military wielded weaponry and munitions against the Vietcong on an apocalyptic scale. I well remember an ironic cartoon of the time showing a tank battalion pouring shells, machine gun and rocket fire into a small bamboo thicket. A tank commander, standing in the turret of one tank is remarking to a buddy, “Just think what a victory this would have been if there were actually any ‘Cong in there!”

In Cambodia, the US dropped 540,000 tons of bombs in “carpet” bombing raids, killing anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 people. While this was devastating in terms of loss of life, as a strategic measure in a war it was a failure. From a purely budgetary point of view, it works out at more than one ton of munitions per fatality at best, and there is a very strong possibility that only a few of those killed were combatants. Compare this with a 100 lb, Iraq-variety roadside bomb that can kill or disable 5 or more soldiers and destroy an armored vehicle.

In Afghanistan, the US launched 500 lb, rock piercing, laser-guided bombs on Taliban cave redoubts in the Tora Bora Mountains. Troops sent in to carry out mopping-up operations found little evidence that any Taliban had been killed or injured, or that any strategic materials had been destroyed by the bombs. Meanwhile, every hour the bombers were in the air cost thousands of dollars in fuel and support systems.

Whilst it is obvious that conventional armies cannot successfully emulate insurgent militias, the initial US campaign in Afghanistan demonstrated the effectiveness of Special Forces recruiting and working with warlords, chieftains and their followers. Once this tactic was handed over to conventional troops and strategies, progress in the war stalled and many achievements were reversed.

In Iraq, probably the most serious mistake, in hindsight, was the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and police forces. This error carried a twofold penalty. On one hand the US lost a force that had the knowledge and ability to fight the kind of conflict that followed the invasion. At the same time, the stood-down Iraqi soldiers were literally thrown on the streets, with no alternative for survival but to band together into guerilla groups who offered their mercenary services wherever it was most advantageous.

For lessons on the effectiveness of guerilla forces against conventional armies, the US military establishment doesn’t have to look further than America’s own history. The patriots of the colony prevailed handily against King George III’s English Army and its German mercenaries in the War of Independence. Later, in the Civil War, Confederate raiders, including those led by William C. Quantrill, and Mosby's raiders led by John S. Mosby, effectively prosecuted guerilla warfare against the “thin red line” strategy of the Union forces.

As Abe Lincoln said, and many others have paraphrased, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.” Sadly, it is apparent that human society is not able to find a way to settle differences except by going to war, so the military had better find a way to be forward looking in their strategies so that we are able to fight wars that are more decisive, and that will be less costly in human lives and resources.

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