Why Iraq Will End as Vietnam Did

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As Shakespeare once
wrote, they have their exits and their entries. Between about 1975 and
1990, following the US defeat in Vietnam, military history was
extremely popular among the US Armed Forces. After 1991, largely as a
result of what many people considered the “stellar” performance of
those Forces against Saddam Hussein, it went out of fashion; after all,
if we were able to do that well there was not much point in
studying the mistakes our predecessors made. Now that comparisons
between Vietnam and Iraq have suddenly become very fashionable indeed,
history is rushing right back at us. Here, I wish to address the
differences and the similarities between the two wars by describing
Vietnam as it was experienced by one man, Moshe Dayan.

As of 2004, Dayan is remembered, if he is
remembered at all, mainly as the symbol of Israeli military power on
the one hand and as one of the architects of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace
Agreement on the other. In 1966 he was fifty-one years old. Having
resigned his position as chief of staff in January 1958, he spent the
next two years studying Orientalism and political science at the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem. In 1959 he was elected to Parliament and spent
five years as minister of agriculture; serving first under his old
mentor, David Ben Gurion, and then under Levi Eshkol. In November 1964
he resigned and found himself a member of the opposition.

Long interested in
literature, a superb speaker when he wanted to, in 1965 he published
his first book, Sinai Diary, which proved that he could write
as well as fight. He was, however, developing an attitude of having
seen it all, done it all; a feeling that his twin hobbies, archaeology
and an endless string of mistresses, could only relieve up to a point.
Hence, when the most important Israeli newspaper of the time, Maariv,
proposed that he go to Vietnam as a war correspondent he jumped on the
idea. The articles he wrote were published in Maariv as well as
the British and French press. In 1977, by which time he was serving as
foreign minister under Menahem Begin and engaged in peace-talks with
Egypt, the Hebrew-language articles were collected in book form and
published. In the preface Dayan explains they were too long to be
included in the memoirs he had published a year before; perhaps his
real aim was to warn Israelis of the consequences that might ultimately
follow if they did not get rid of what he called “the blemish of
conquest.” If so, unfortunately he did not succeed.

Dayan knew nothing about
Vietnam, and prepared himself thoroughly. His first visit was to France
where he had many acquaintances from the time of the Israeli-French
alliance of the mid-nineteen fifties; some of these people had served
in, and helped lose, the First Indo-China War. His very first contact
was a retired Air Force General by the name of Loission. In Loission’s
view American public opinion was to blame for not putting its full
support behind the War — to which should be added, in parentheses, that
at the beginning of the War that support had been overwhelming. He
thought the War could easily be won if only American public opinion
agreed to bomb North Vietnam back into the Stone Age. As it was, a
combination of Viet Cong terrorism and propaganda prevented the world,
as well as the South Vietnamese themselves, from seeing how righteous
the American cause was; he even believed that, had free elections been
held, the Vietnamese might have wanted the French back. He ended the
conversation by asking for his ideas to be kept secret. Dayan, who did
not think those ideas constituted “a ray of light to an embarrassed
world,” readily agreed.

His other French
contact, a General Niceault, was more enlightening. For his role in the
1961 attempt to overthrow the Fifth Republic, Niceault had just spent
five years in jail; as so often happens, jail proved an opportunity to
think and to learn. Unlike Loission he had devoted a lot of thought to
the matter and his mind was fresh and agile. To Dayan he explained that
the Americans were using the wrong forces against the wrong targets.
Their intelligence simply was not good enough, and most of their bombs
hit nothing but empty stretches of jungle. He suggested that the
solution to the problem was to use small groups of five to seven men;
their task would be to shadow the Viet Cong and act as guides, calling
in air power or artillery when contact was formed. The American
attempts to prevent the North Vietnamese from infiltrating into South
Vietnam by way of the demilitarized zone were not working either, given
that each time a path was blocked another one could be found to bypass
it. Perhaps the War could be won by sending in a million-man army and
killing all male Vietnamese, but the days in which such things were
possible had gone. He ended by telling Dayan that there was no point in
going to Vietnam, since he would see nothing anyhow. Typically of him,
Dayan answered that, if he would be unable to see the enemy or the war,
at any rate he would see that he could not see; and that, too, would be
enlightening.

From France he went to
Britain in order to see Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery of Alamein.
Montgomery at that time was in the midst of writing his History
of Warfare
; Dayan, who had met him once before when he was
studying at Camberley Staff College in 1951, noted how “relaxed and
alert” the old man looked. Montgomery’s ideas concerning Vietnam were
very clear-cut. The Americans’ most important problem in running the
War was that they did not have an unambiguous objective. He himself had
tried to get an answer on that subject from no less a person than
former vice president Richard Nixon. In response he had been treated to
a twenty-minute lecture; at the end of which he remained as much in the
dark as he had been at the beginning.

To Montgomery, an
exceptionally systematic commander who always planned his moves very
carefully, that was the essence of the problem. Not having a clear
overall policy, the Americans were permitting the field commanders to
call the shots. They did what they knew best, screaming for more and
more troops, locking up entire populations in what where
euphemistically called “strategic hamlets,” and bombing and shelling
without giving a thought to what, if anything, they were achieving. At
the end of their talk Montgomery told Dayan to tell the Americans, in
his name, that they were “insane.” Again Dayan did not disagree, though
perhaps this time for different reasons.

From Britain he flew to
the United States. Eighteen years had passed since his first visit to
that country. Like many visitors, the dominant impression he received
was that of towering power the like of which history had never seen.
Here was a society racing into the twenty-first century, with the rest
of the world only barely keeping pace.

His first meeting was at
the Pentagon where no fewer than three colonels had been appointed to
brief him. They pretended to be humble and called him “the glorious
General Dayan”; at the same time, as he noted, they appeared ready to
provide him not only with the answers but also with the questions he
was supposed to ask. He left with the feeling that they, and those whom
they represented, did not really have a handle on the War. In
particular, he wondered why, given the four to one superiority that the
Americans and their South Vietnamese Allies enjoyed over the Viet Cong,
General Westmoreland would not give the latter a chance to concentrate
and attack so that he himself could smash them to pieces. The answer he
received, namely that Westmoreland thought doing so was too risky, he
considered unconvincing.

During the next few days
his feeling that the Americans did not really know where they were
going was reinforced. Everywhere he went he was received courteously
enough. Everywhere he went the people he encountered were committed and
extremely hard working. Intensely patriotic, they seemed proud of what
they were doing and would not admit any errors. At one point he asked
whether they had changed their methods since they first went to Vietnam
and was told that they did not have to do so since everything worked
much better than expected. Thereupon he noted that the US Military
never made any mistakes; however, that comment he kept to himself. He
was subjected to a flood of statistics — so and so many enemies killed,
so and so many captured — meant to prove that the situation was well
under control and that large parts of the territory of South Vietnam,
as well as its population, were now safe against terrorist attack. As
he noted, however, even a few elementary questions revealed that things
were far from simple. Later he was to discover how right he had been in
this; in the whole of South Vietnam there was not a single road that
was really safe against the Viet Cong. Nor was there anything to
prevent the enemy from returning even to those places that had been
most thoroughly “cleansed” and “pacified.”

The three most important
figures he met were the deputy head of the National Security Council,
Walt Rostow, General Maxwell Taylor who was then acting as special
adviser to President Johnson, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Rostow, a Harvard-based economist, had published a famous book in which
he explained how the developing world would catch up with the developed
one in four clear, well-defined, stages. Now he told Dayan that the
desire for economic growth would drive the peoples of Asia closer to
the US. Dayan, who had observed how determined Israel Arab’s neighbors
had been to get rid of their Western overlords even at heavy economic
cost, doubted it; had he been alive today, no doubt he would have
expressed the same idea about the situation in Iraq. Rostow also
believed, or pretended to believe, that the forthcoming elections in
South Vietnam would be free and democratic and thus strengthen the
Government in waging the War. Still he was the first American to whom
Dayan spoke who was prepared to admit that the US objective was not
just to help South Vietnam but to set up a permanent military political
presence in South East Asia so as to counterbalance the growing power
of China. To that extent, the conversation with him was the most useful
of those he had had so far.

Taylor, whom he met
next, was the first American to present him with a comprehensive plan
for winning the War. It consisted of four elements, namely a. improving
US Army operations on the ground; b. making full use of the Air Force
to bomb the North; c. strengthening the economy of South Vietnam; and
d. reaching an “honorable” peace with Ho Chi Minh. Asked whether he
thought the US was making progress in those directions, however, he
could not produce convincing indications that this was indeed the case.
As the Americans themselves admitted, in spite of the heavy casualties
being inflicted on the VC — Taylor estimated them at 1,000 a week — the
latter’s operations kept growing more extensive and more dangerous. Nor
could Taylor point to any clear progress as a result of the air
campaign. He did, however, believe that the bombing formed “a heavy
burden” on the North; sooner or later, the enemy would break.

Dayan’s last important
contact, Robert McNamara, had a reputation of being hard to approach.
This turned out to be untrue and Dayan was pleasantly surprised; at a
small dinner party with Margot (McNamara’s wife), Walt Rostow and
several journalists, the Secretary Defense did what he could to answer
all the questions that were directed at him. He admitted that many of
the figures being floated by the Pentagon — particularly those
pertaining to the percentage of the country and population “secured” –
were meaningless at best and bogus at worst. No more than anybody else
could he explain to Dayan how the Americans intended to end the War.
What set him apart was the fact that he was prepared to admit it,
albeit only in a half- hearted way; as we now know, he already had his
own doubts which led to his resignation in the next year. He consoled
himself by saying that the War was not hurting the US economy. In other
words, it could go on and on until one side or the other gave way.

Flying to Vietnam by way
of Honolulu and Tokyo, Dayan summed up his impressions so far. Almost
all of the Americans he had met were pleasant enough. None, however,
could tell him how they were going to win the War. Most could not even
give a convincing reason why the US had to be in Vietnam in the first
place; at least one had said that, had President Johnson been presented
with a way to get out, he would have jumped on it and withdrawn his
troops. What really infuriated them was any attempt to question their
motives. As far as they were concerned their cause was noble and just.
The fact that the Communist States did what they could to support the
Viet Cong and North Vietnam was bad but understandable. They were,
however, puzzled by the attitude of their European allies. Those
Europeans supposedly shared America’s liberal-democratic values. Still
many of them were strongly critical. At a loss to explain the problem,
the Americans attributed it to cowardice, envy, and the resentment that
arose from Europe’s own recent failure in waging “Imperialist” war. He
thought that, in ignoring the Europeans, the Americans were making a
big mistake.

To make things stranger
still, the determination of American decision-makers to ignore world
public opinion was counterbalanced by their extreme sensitivity to the
views of their own electorate. At that moment, he noted, fully seventy
five percent of those polled were in favor of bombing North Vietnam –
just as, in April 2004, a small majority of Americans still believed
that the war in Iraq was worth-while. Still permitting public opinion
to decide on such issues seemed to him a strange way to run a war, and
one he thought was likely to have grave consequences for the future.

He arrived in Vietnam on
25 July. His first stop was Saigon where he spent two days being
“processed.” He was issued with an American uniform, rucksack, water
bottles, and helmet; as he wrote, had it depended on the soldiers in
charge they would also have given him a weapon and hand-grenades. He
used his spare time to meet a Vietnamese professor of nuclear physics
to whom he had been referred by an Israeli friend. The professor told
him — in strict confidence, since saying anything contrary to the
official line was dangerous — that the Viet Cong were much stronger
than the Americans knew or wanted to know. Later during his visit he
also had occasion to meet with the South Vietnamese Deputy Prime
Minister and minister of defense, General Nguyen Van Thieu, as well the
chief of the general staff of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Both
owed their positions to the Americans who had connived in Diem’s
assassination and both, he thought, were highly intelligent men. Both,
interestingly enough, reserved their greatest admiration not for some
American commander but for the North-Vietnamese General Giap. Giap had
been the hero of the struggle against the French. Now, they fondly
hoped, he might force Hanoi to make peace.

On 27 July he joined a
river patrol. The patrol consisted of three fast boats, each one manned
by four “nice kids” and commanded by an officer. They were armed with
heavy machine guns and light automatic cannon; as he noted, it was the
first time since the Civil War when the US Navy had embarked on river
operations. They raced along at 25 knots an hour, using visual
navigation to find their way by day and infrared at night. From time to
time they would stop to search one of the thousands of South Vietnamese
boats carrying provisions from the Delta to Saigon. The searches woke
up old memories. They reminded him of the ones that the British used to
conduct when trying to fight Jewish terrorists in Palestine; offensive,
but largely useless. The US sailors checked papers, took a perfunctory
look at the load of the boats they stopped, and proceeded on their
mission. While he did not think the boats they examined actually
carried weapons, had they wanted to do so it would have been easy
enough. As to thoroughly checking each and every boat, it was clearly
impossible.

On 28 July he went
aboard the largest aircraft carrier then cruising off the Vietnamese
coast, USS Constellation. He was a professional military man
and had often read and heard about such ships; yet what he now saw made
a “breath-taking impression” on him. The vessel constituted five acres
of sovereign American territory that could go anywhere without having
to worry about troublesome allies. Isolated at sea, the crew did not
constitute a security problem and the lack of anything else to do made
them work all the harder at their jobs. The ship was protected “from
the air, the sea, the ground, outer space, and under water”; if Dayan
was being ironic — after all, the enemy consisted of little men wearing
straw hats — he did not say so. The product of this floating factory
was firepower. Every ninety minutes, amidst a numbing outburst of fire
and noise, flights of combat aircraft took off to strike at targets in
Vietnam; but when it came to specifying the precise nature of those
targets his hosts refused to answer his questions. As always, Dayan was
impressed by the Americans’ pride in themselves, their nation, and
their mission. He ended the day by noting that they were “not fighting
against infiltration to South [Vietnam], or against guerrillas, or
against North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, but against the entire
world. Their real aim was to show everybody — including Britain,
France, and the USSR — their power and determination so as to pass this
message: wherever Americans go, they are irresistible.”

The next month — he
stayed until 27 August — was spent visiting various units throughout
South Vietnam. First he went to see the Marines, joining a company that
was patrolling only about a mile south of the Demilitarized Zone in
order to prevent infiltration from the North. The company commander was
a first lieutenant by the name of Charles Krulak. For two nights and
three days they humped up and down amidst the vegetation that covered
the hills. They waded through streams and sometimes almost drowned in
them; at one point Dayan himself lost his foothold and had to be pulled
out. Yet throughout all that time the only target at which they opened
fire was some kind of unidentified animal. Apparently it had been
wounded, and the noise it made kept the entire unit awake for an entire
night. Thirty-five year later General (ret.) Krulak, ex-commandant of
the Marine Corps, told me that, as they set up camp one evening, Dayan
had asked them what they were doing there. He gave it as his opinion
that the American strategy was wrong. They should be “where the people
are,” not vainly trying to chase the Viet Cong in the mountains where
they were not.

A few days later his
wish to see the War “where the people are” was granted. Near Da Nang,
he visited another Marine unit that was engaged in pacification. The
Marines were responsible for security — he noted their excellent
discipline — whereas most of the actual work was done by civilians.
Once again, he found the Americans on the spot committed and immensely
proud of what they were doing to bring a ray of light into a troubled
world. Once again, he left the district clear in his own mind that much
remained to be done; so much so that it was doubtful whether the
Americans were making any progress at all. Nor was he impressed with
the attempts to help the South Vietnamese peasants improve their
standard of living by introducing new agricultural methods, better
livestock, and so on. One is reminded of the figures coming out of Iraq
concerning schools and clinics reopened, doctors’ pay raised, and the
like.

Back in Paris Niceault
had told him the “battle for hearts and minds” would not work, given
that that the Vietnamese had their own cultural traditions — as well as
“immensely beautiful women” — and that “Californization” was the last
thing they wanted. This, moreover, was a field where he had some
experience. With US financial backing, during his term as minister of
agriculture (1959–63) he had sent Israeli experts to carry out agrarian
reforms in various Asian and African countries. Some of those countries
he had visited in person, only to find out how hard it was to make a
long-established culture change its ways. Clearly doing so in the midst
of a war, when every achievement was under constant threat from Viet
Cong terrorists, was much harder still.

Another extremely
interesting visit was the one he paid to 1st Air Cavalry Division.
Organized only a few years previously, it was the most up-to-date
fighting force in the entire world. Not to mention the incredible
economic, industrial, and logistic power that made such a unit possible
in the first place; and, having done so, supported it in battle
thousands of miles away from home. Operating under conditions of
absolute air superiority — as was also to be the case in Iraq, in all
South Vietnam there was not a single enemy aircraft — the division did
exactly as it pleased. It required no more than four hours’ warning to
land an entire battalion at any location within its helicopters’ range.
As it turned out, though, often four hours were four hours too many.
Arriving at the selected spot, the troops would find that the enemy had
gone.

It must have been during
his stay with 1st Cavalry that the following incident took place. As
was his custom Dayan wanted to visit the front, which in the case of
Vietnam meant going on patrol. His hosts reluctantly agreed, but
fearing lest something might happen to the celebrity for whom they were
responsible selected a route that was supposedly free of the Viet Cong.
As often happened, their information proved wrong. They came under fire
and were “pinned down,” as the phrase went. Looking around from where
he was lying, the American captain in charge discovered that Dayan had
disappeared. In the end he located him; the middle-aged visitor from
Israel was sitting comfortably on top of a grassy knoll. With great
effort, the captain crawled to him and asked what he was doing. “What
are you doing?” was the answer he got: “get your — up here, and
see what this battle is all about.”

The way he saw it, the
problem was intelligence. “According to Norton’s (commanding officer,
1st Air Cavalry) information, there was a Viet Cong division in this
highland area. It was not concentrated in a single base but split into
several battalions, each about 350 men strong. It was Norton’s plan to
land a battalion… in the Vietcong divisional area and then, in
accordance with the developments of the battle, to rush in additional
‘reaction troops’ to reinforce, seal off, and carry out flank attacks.
All this was fine, except for one small item missing in the plan: the
exact location of the Viet Cong battalions was not known. Air photos
and air reconnaissance had failed to pick out their encampments,
entrenched, bunkered and camouflaged with the jungle vegetation. The US
intelligence sources were largely technical — air photos and decoded
radio intercepts, for Viet Cong units from battalion strength and up
used transmitters. Only scanty information could be gleaned from POWs.
Many of the latter spat in the Americans’ face and swore to die rather
than talk.”

Contrary to what had
been written about the enormous logistical requirements of the US
troops — from iced beer to go-go girls — he was impressed by the
Spartan nature of the arrangements. The Americans were prepared to
improvise at a moment’s notice; throw a flack jacket into the
helicopter, hop in, and off you go hunting VC. The entire Division was
“a huge force, fast and efficient. It used its weapons — including
artillery support and tactical and strategic air support — very
effectively indeed”; in Dayan’s view, it was as superior to other
forces as the German tanks had been to their enemies at the beginning
of World War II. “[Its] battle procedures operated like an assembly
belt. First came the shelling of the landing zones by ground artillery.
Then came aerial bombardment. And the landings themselves were covered
by ‘gunships,’ the accompanying, close-support, heli-borne, units
firing their rockets and machine guns almost at our feet.” It was an
amazing operation, “but where was the war? It was like watching
military maneuvers — with only one side.” “Where were the Viet Cong?
And where was the battle? The Viet Cong were there, a few hundred yards
away. And the battle came half an hour later when the company which had
landed 300 yards to our south ran into an ambush after it had started
moving off.” Within minutes the company was shot to pieces, suffering
25 dead and some 50 wounded including its commander. Calling in their
firepower, 1st Cavalry gave pursuit. Meeting resistance they would
radio for the B-52s bombers; to what effect, was not clear.

To recount each and
every detail of Dayan’s visit would be tedious. Everywhere he was met
with the greatest courtesy and was given a fairly free hand to see and
ask what he wanted. As he noted, American officers were committed, very
hard working, and as frank as circumstances permitted; many of them
enjoyed the War which, at this time, was still in its “forward” phase.
General Westmoreland he found pleasant and informal. It was true he
seemed to lack the “astute expression” that Dayan had discerned with
some other senior generals. Still there could be no question of
American officers being incompetent oafs who delighted in setting
alight Vietnamese huts and were fragged by their own men; that image
only rose after the War and as a direct result of it.

One of their problems
was the need to get their names mentioned by the media so as to advance
their careers. This, Dayan thought, did not turn them into better
persons or, what was more important, better commanders. He admired the
American rank and file, particularly the Marines and the Green Berets.
They were physically fit, very well trained, and, this being 1966,
still did their job willingly. They were, to use his own Hebrew phrase,
“golden guys”; the fact that they were being rotated in an out of the
country too fast to learn its ways and become really effective in doing
their work was scarcely their fault. He was even more impressed by the
tremendous military-industrial muscle that enabled 1,700 helicopters to
be deployed in a single theater of war. It also enabled a single
operation by a single South Korean infantry company to be supported by
no fewer than 21,000 artillery rounds. As he noted, this was more than
had been expended by all Israeli forces in the wars of 1948 and 1956
combined.

Still, nothing could
make up for the lack of accurate and timely tactical intelligence.
Partly its absence was due to cultural obstacles; wherever he went,
translators were very much in demand and, of course, said exactly what
they pleased. Partly it was due to the physical conditions of the
country, and partly to the nature of the War itself. In Dayan’s own
words, the information available to the Americans was limited to: “1.
What they could photograph; 2. What they could intercept (SIGINT); and
3. What they could glean from low-ranking prisoners.” As a result, most
of the time they were using sledgehammers to knock holes in empty air.
So far they had not succeeded in inflicting unacceptable losses on the
enemy who kept reinforcing. Even if they did succeed, militarily, it
was hard to see how the South Vietnamese would be able to set up a
viable government in the shadow of the gigantic machine that
“protected” them; whether that machine would ever be withdrawn was
anybody’s guess.

As to what he was told
of the war’s objectives, such as defending democracy and helping the
South Vietnamese people, he considered it “childish” propaganda; if
many of the Americans he met believed in them, clearly nobody else did.
Over a year before the Tet Offensive proved that something was
very, very wrong, he left Vietnam with the definite impression that
things were not going at all well. In his own words, “the Americans are
winning everything — except the war.” Perhaps this was one reason why,
instead of flying home by way of the United States as both Taylor and
McNamara had asked him to do, he chose the other route. When he wanted
to he could be very tactful and rubbing salt into the Americans’ wounds
was the last thing he wanted. The trip did, however, provide a welcome
opportunity to keep his military knowledge up to date.

Some people claim that
the US won the War in Vietnam, to which I can only say that I strongly
disagree. Others argue that Vietnam differed from Iraq, saying that it
was essentially a conventional war that was lost because the American
civilian leadership failed to provide its Armed Forces with proper
strategic direction. It is of course true that there are considerable
differences between the two. Still, recalling Dayan’s observations, I
think there are three main reasons why the similarities are more
important.

First, according to
Dayan, the most important operational problem the US Forces were facing
was intelligence, in other words the inability to distinguish the enemy
from either the physical surroundings or the civilian population. Had
intelligence been available then their enormous superiority in every
kind of military hardware would have enabled them to win the War easily
enough. In its absence, most of the blows they delivered — including no
fewer than six million tons of bombs dropped — hit empty air. All they
did was make the enemy disperse and merge into the civilian population,
thus making it even harder to find him. Worst of all, lack of accurate
intelligence meant that the Americans kept hitting noncombatants by
mistake. They thus drove huge segments of the population straight into
the arms of the Viet Cong; nothing is more conducive to hatred than the
sight of relatives and friends being killed.

Second, as Dayan saw
clearly enough, the campaign for hearts and minds did not work. Many of
the figures being published about the progress it was making turned out
to be bogus, designed to set the minds of the folks at home at rest. In
other cases any progress laboriously made over a period of months was
undone in a matter of minutes as the Viet Cong attacked, destroying
property and killing “collaborators.” Above all, the idea that the
Vietnamese people wanted to become Americanized was an illusion. All
the vast majority really wanted was to be left alone and get on with
their lives.

The third and most
important reason why I think Vietnam is relevant to the situation in
Iraq is because the Americans found themselves in the unfortunate
position where they were beating down on the weak. To quote Dayan: “any
comparison between the two armies… was astonishing. On the one hand
there was the American Army, complete with helicopters, an air force,
armor, electronic communications, artillery, and mind-boggling riches;
to say nothing of ammunition, fuel, spare parts, and equipment of all
kinds. On the other there were the [North Vietnamese troops] who had
been walking on foot for four months, carrying some artillery rounds on
their backs and using a tin spoon to eat a little ground rice from a
tin plate.”

That, of course, was
precisely the problem. In private life, an adult who keeps beating down
on a five year old — even such a one as originally attacked him with a
knife — will be perceived as committing a crime; therefore he will lose
the support of bystanders and end up by being arrested, tried and
convicted. In international life, an armed force that keeps beating
down on a weaker opponent will be seen as committing a series of
crimes; therefore it will end up by losing the support of its allies,
its own people, and its own troops. Depending on the quality of the
forces — whether they are draftees or professionals, the effectiveness
of the propaganda machine, the nature of the political process, and so
on — things may happen quickly or take a long time to mature. However,
the outcome is always the same. He (or she) who does not understand
this does not understand anything about war; or, indeed, human nature.

In other words, he who
fights against the weak — and the rag-tag Iraqi militias are very weak
indeed — and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins also
loses. To kill an opponent who is much weaker than yourself is
unnecessary and therefore cruel; to let that opponent kill you is
unnecessary and therefore foolish. As Vietnam and countless other cases
prove, no armed force however rich, however powerful, however,
advanced, and however well motivated is immune to this dilemma. The end
result is always disintegration and defeat; if U.S troops in Iraq have
not yet started fragging their officers, the suicide rate among them is
already exceptionally high. That is why the present adventure will
almost certainly end as the previous one did. Namely, with the last US
troops fleeing the country while hanging on to their helicopters’ skids.

Martin Van Creveld is professor of history at the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem. He has written a number of books that have
influenced modern military theory, including Fighting
Power
, Command
in War
, and most significantly, The
Transformation of War
. He is also the author of The
Rise and Decline of the State
.

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