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January 3, 2007
Rewriting the Rules of War: an exchange
An excellent piece. I was cheering you on as I read it. But... (you didn't think I'd write if I agreed, do you?)
1. Ultimately, while you are appropriately sarcastic about the shallowness of much of the thinking of the Kennedy people, they WERE dealing with a "new problem." Once the Soviet Union became credibly armed with nukes and delivery systems, the question arose, is it a credible threat to threaten nuclear war over every issue? To take only one example from the time - is it a credible threat, is it a SENSIBLE threat, to threaten nuclear war over Berlin? Yes, Berlin is important, but is it reasonable to lay the US of A on the line - nuclear war in LA, Chicago and New York - over Berlin which, if truth be told, we can live without? Would YOU have started a nuclear war with Russia if they had moved into Berlin? I wouldn't!
And, more generally, is it a sensible policy to have nuclear war as our ONLY response? Alas, I have to agree - reluctantly - with the Kennedyites, the answer is "no." As I am sure you must know, JFK himself, saw Vietnam intitally as a test of Special Forces warfare. He was going to get "The Ugly American" right - you could call the advisor strategy the The UnUgly American. Whether that could have worked, it didn't. It isn't clear if LBJ understood the objectives of the JFK approach, but whether he did or not, he abrogated it in 1965.
You are a military man and I am not, so I probably should not cross swords with you on this point. But, I think the big mistake in Vietnam war strategy was that LBJ at least, when he decided to escalate, did not get the military leaders in one room and say - "gentlemen, I will not permit North Vietnam to be bombed back to the Stone Age. You may disagree, but it is my decision to make and my view is that we cannot risk that causing a nuclear war with China or Russia. It is not worth it to the U.S. to start a nuclear war over Vietnam. You may believe that bombing the North to defeat would not risk such an occurrence, but I do, and it is my decision to make. Now, GIVEN that I have made that decision, can we win this war? If so, tell me how. If not, tell me now."
You are doubtless aware that the most important book of the JFK administration was Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August" The lesson JFK took away from that book and the lesson Tuchman meant to put in it was that at the beginning of WWI, military plans outran political purposes so that the Great Powers were drawn into war by virtue of the momentum of their military plans when no commensurate political stakes were involved. And they destroyed European civilization, at least as it had been understood up to that time.
JFK was determined not to let that happen in a nuclear context. Can you say he was wrong? I can't! Col., you can't rail against Fate. Ike was able to get away with bringing out the Bomb with the North Koreans because we still had something of a monopoly on it, or at least overwhelming superiority. That was not the case by 1960. Indeed, that was the whole point of Stalin's (and his successors' ) crash program on the Bomb - the foresaw the problem they would have confronting the U.S. without it. So they got it.
Essentially, JFK in Vietnam was looking for a way to fight a war IN LIGHT OF the Bomb. I am not sure that any of his advisors saw the problem that way - thus their egging on LBJ to escalate, which they did without much thought.
2. Fast forward to Iraq. I thought you were going to make the point that in Iraq, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and because of a new correlation of forces, we were not really under the shadow of the Bomb, and had a free hand, or at least as free a hand as Ike had in Korea. My own view is that it is a quirk of history that the national security team in Bush II was made up of people, however experienced and competent, who had not been SCORCHED by Vietnam. Don Rumsfeld, a very strong guy in my view, simply had the bad luck to be old enough that his public career jumped over Vietnam - he was a Congressman before it and was in the Nixon Adminisration after it. I have not STUDIED his career, and he may have been more affected by Vietnam than I am suggesting, but I think I have this one right. So they plunged into Iraq with none of the institutional memory of all the books, retrospectives, experiences of people like you, that are part of the warp and woof of America.
I may be underestimating Rumsfeld in this regard becuause I DO think that ONE of his concerns was to not have too heavy a footprint in Iraq by building up our forces too much - not to crush the local culture with an American military presence with bargirls, black market, etc.
To me, you did not "complete the mission" in your piece. Yes, it is a cri de coeur, but you left out the last section - as Lenin would have put it, "What is to be done?" If we are there to support democracy, that means Shia rule and having al-Sadr on that team, crazy as he may be, is not really out of line - he is a major Shia player. If we are NOT going to support the Shia, then we are NOT in favor of democracy.
The people who have caused the violence over the last three years have been the Sunnis in three incarnations - Baathists, who may have been executing on the REAL war plan with, for instance, the looting; al-Qaeda, which, as you know, is a Sunni organization; and the Sunni community who wants to stay on top. None of these is going to retire quietly, given Arab / Muslim culture. That we did not think this problem through beforehand seems pretty clear to me. Perhaps we DID think it through and came up with the wrong answer - that the Sunni would join a multiculti Iraqi polity reasonably peacefully. Well, our bluff has been called on THAT theory.
So, what do we do now? WHO is the enemy and HOW do we deal with him? As you perhaps know from a piece that I wrote for AT, I don't think it is CERTAIN that we are doing all that badly in Iraq. We have forced the bad guys to fight us there rather than here, a win all by itself. It seems that parts of the country are pulling themselves together. Our best hope is that Iraqi security forces can be the important augmentation to the force - it is presumably this point that is most in doubt and that has been further compromised by the higher level of violence in Baghdad. Are you in favor of the Keane Plan? Does he know of what he speaks? Should we surge? I am not convinced myself since I perceive our problem as one of not having a strategy rather than being unable to execute on the strategy through lack of fource. But this point is outside my circle of competence. Isn't it possible that Rumsfeld wanted to hold down our troop level in order to hold down our casualties? Escalation did not work, or work well, in Vietnam. Will it work in Iraq?
Dear Mr. Richards
Thank you for your comments. I shall answer the points you raised with additional rationale and facts of which you may not have been aware.
With respect to starting a nuclear war over Berlin and putting U.S. cities on the line - if, at any time from Stalin's blockade of Berlin in 1948 to Khrushchev's putting up the Berlin Wall in 1961 to President Reagan's "tear down this wall" challenge to Gorbachev in 1987, the Soviets had launched a military attack on Berlin or anywhere else in Western Europe, we would have been in a full scale nuclear war within a week. We never had the conventional military power in Europe to fight the Red Army without "going nuclear" very quickly. In other words, there never was a "Flexible Response" option in Europe. John Kennedy knew it, Khrushchev knew it, everyone familiar with the opposing orders of battle in Europe knew it. That is the simple fact and the basic reason why neither Stalin nor Khrushchev never carried out their blustery threats about Berlin. They knew that Moscow would have been a smoking, radioactive hole, if they had.
Your "Ugly American advisor strategy" could have never worked because the U.S. advisors were being overwhelmed by the men and war materiel the North Vietnamese continued to pour into the south, which is the reason why Lyndon Johnson was forced to abandon the Special Forces advisory strategy in 1965 and increasingly deploy U.S. conventional forces - advising alone just wasn't working. It had nothing to do with Johnson understanding or not understanding the strategy. So long as the North Vietnamese had the unobstructed capability to resupply the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese Army at their own pace, they controlled the tempo and momentum of the war. When Johnson made the decision not to bomb the North Vietnamese back to the "Stone Age" and destroy their resupply capability, he yielded control of the war and eventual victory to the communists. Johnson put the North's Hanoi-Haiphong industrial-transportation complex "off-limits" to U.S. air strikes during his tenure, thereby insuring that Americans would continually die in the south from bullets he refused to destroy at their source of origin, when they were most vulnerable sitting on the Haiphong docks. Can you imagine Roosevelt refusing to bomb Nazi supply dumps in Berlin, and instead choosing to have American GI's dodge the Nazi bullets one at a time on the beaches of Normandy? That is an apt analogy for understanding Johnson's decision to restrain U.S. bombing of North Vietnamese strategic targets. War ain't beanbag.
The above discussion brings me to your belief that bombing North Vietnam into defeat would have caused a nuclear war with the Soviets and Chinese Communists (Chicoms). I respectfully disagree with your analysis for several factual reasons. First, in spite of the "1960 missile gap" claim that Kennedy knew was false, but nevertheless propagated to get elected, we totally outgunned combined Soviet and Chicom strategic forces in nuclear weapons until 1967 (when Soviet SS-9's were beginning to be deployed in sufficient numbers to start to threaten the U.S. Minuteman system). But most importantly, the U.S. had superiority in reliable, invulnerable Triad (land/sea/air) nuclear delivery capabilities that the Soviets and Chicoms could not hope to match, even after 1967. Consequently, the Soviets and Chicoms could not have afforded to challenge us with nuclear weapons because of our victory in Vietnam for the same reason they never forced our hand in Berlin - they knew they'd be radioactive toast.
Second, while we may not have had strategic national interests in the outcome of Vietnam, neither did the Soviet Union or Communist China. The reason? Geography. To make this case I turn to my deceased colleague, Colonel Harry Summers, and his excellent book, On Strategy, wherein Colonel Summers points out that Mao intervened in Korea because he could not tolerate U.S. forces sitting on his northeast border at the Yalu River. What was Mao's strategic reasoning? It simply was that the terrain between the Yalu and the Chicom national capital, Beijing, was open "tank country," and U.S. mechanized forces posed a strategic threat from that potential invasion "jumping off" location. On the other hand, the terrain north of the Communist China-North Vietnamese border was hundreds of miles of mountains and jungle. No army could possibly threaten Communist China strategically from North Vietnam. Obviously, the Soviets were so geographically removed that they had no strategic irons in the Vietnamese fire. Neither communist giant had any strategic interest in Vietnam that would have required them to engage in a nuclear war where they were sure to come out second best, but this was Johnson's overriding fear.
I agree with you that Kennedy was looking for a way to militarily defend U.S. interests under the shadow of nuclear war, but engaging in limited war under conditions that foreclosed the possibility of victory made no sense. You don't have to be Field Marshall Rommel to figure out that, if a nation does not undertake war with the intent of ending it quickly, the war is going to be extended, the causalities are going to mount as the war drags on, and the civilian populace is become discontented with the war leadership. The American people expected their politicians to apply the requisite force to limit U.S. combat causalities, while ending the conflict on our terms. Johnson sent the necessary combat power to Vietnam to end the war as the American people expected, but the rules of engagement (ROE) he imposed on U.S. forces precluded them from accomplishing it. That is how the American political elite betrayed the American people. When Johnson ordered the escalation in the Vietnam War that you referred to, it was not escalation to win, it was escalation to keep the North Vietnamese from winning. There's a big difference.
As to the false dilemma you posed that the U.S. could only reply to communist aggression with nuclear weapons or the Flexible Response doctrine, that was first and foremost conceived not to provoke the Soviets, there was a huge difference between using nuclear weapons and fighting a conventional war like Vietnam with the object of winning, instead of how it was fought. In my opinion, Johnson used Kennedy's "Flexible Response" as cover for his moral and political cowardice not to fight to win, while at the same time not quitting the war and withdrawing. Johnson stands as our worst wartime president. The Flexible Response doctrine did not have to mean that we could not destroy our enemy. The problem with the Flexible Response doctrine was that it became a mental straightjacket that dictated a war result of an antebellum status quo.
Your reference to the role of Barbara Tuchman's book, The Guns of August, in regard to the Flexible Response doctrine appears to me as a non sequitur. Kennedy reportedly made use of Tuchman's "railroad schedule lesson" during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was going to end in nuclear war, or it wasn't, in order to preclude accidental nuclear war. Conventional war flexible response was not on the table as an option. One can make the broader case that Kennedy wanted more flexible options like naval quarantine, but fighting with conventional forces, the essence of the Flexible Response doctrine, was not one of them he considered very long.
Moving now to your comments about Iraq, you are correct that in the post-Cold War era the "new correlation of forces" makes the U.S. the unquestioned dominate nuclear power. At present the only nuclear threat we must guard against is a sneak attack of involving one, or a limited number of radiological devices/bombs. However, just because we are the unchallenged nuclear power, we would not have to use nuclear weapons to suppress the jihad-sponsoring nation states of Iran and Syria.
Regarding the manner in which Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush have fought the Iraq campaign, it has been the typical Republican attempt to "do defense on the cheap." Bush came to office pledging to the U.S. military that "help was on the way." With the exception of President Reagan, Republicans have always talked a better defense appropriation game than they've played. Bush declared global war, but did not expand the military?! In my opinion, Bush has betrayed the military by not enlarging the force to cope with the enormous worldwide mission he has given it, by not sending enough force to Iraq to deal with an insurgency, and by not trashing the Vietnam-era limited war ROE and destroying the logistical resupply sources for the war in Iran and Syria. You pose Lenin's classic question: "What is to be done?" The answer is simple (but politically next to impossible to do): Do whatever is necessary to stop the resupply of war materiel coming into Iraq from Iran and Syria (Saudi Arabia and Lebanon must also be dealt with, but their contributions are less significant). Just as in the Vietnam War, hostilities will continue as long as the enemy has the capability to wage war. To stop the conflict in Iraq we must destroy the enemy's source of resupply. Irrespective of any troop "surges" or the Kagan-Keane Plan, the Sunni and Shi'ite jihadists will continue to fight until they have no more capability.
At the political level in Iraq, because Bush has decided to follow the Yellow Brick Road to worldwide democracy starting in Baghdad, he is hamstrung and cannot change the ROE because his Iraqi "allies" in the "democracratically elected government" won't allow him. There should have been, and should be now, an Iraqi military-run government established to govern Iraq under martial law until we had achieved our war aims: real victory spelled the enemies total destruction. This includes as I have mentioned, the termination of the re-supply from the north and south. Once accomplished, the US could decide what best form of secular government would govern in Iraq. It would have the option to partition the country if that would have served our national security interests and the Iraqis by creating a better balance of power and regional stability. This latter point I take no position on only to say that until the war concludes, building a civilian governing body in a former totalitarian regime with absolutely no tradition of the balancing of power is simply contrary to logic, fact, and good sense. Further, to do so in a region infected with an Islamic law and an internecine sectarian war between Sunni and Shi'a is further evidence of a bad plan made impossible.
Colonel T. Snodgrass