Our Thirty Years’ War

Sunday, August 2, 2020, marks thirty years since the United States became embroiled in what seems endless wars, at great cost, in Southwest and Central Asia.  That was the day that Iraq invaded Kuwait.  

It seems that an ambiguous comment made to Saddam Hussein by Ambassador April Glaspie had led him to believe the United States would take a hands-off approach if he used force in disputes with Kuwait over border and oil-export issues. Ambiguous policy positions can be misinterpreted with disastrous consequences; Thucydides informs us that they have been at least since the Peloponnesian War.  Likewise such a statement by Secretary of State Dean Acheson in January, 1950, was probably a factor in the decision by North Korea to invade South Korea that June.

So Saddam invaded and Prime Minister Thatcher understood that strong action was imperative. She conveyed to President George H.W. Bush her concern that he might “go wobbly.”  As she recollected their conversation of August 26: 

He was clearly very uneasy about the line he was taking. He began by making a forty minute statement which yet again justified what the Iraqis had done. I said that I was amazed at his account of what was in fact a blatant act of aggression. Iraq was a country which had used chemical weapons not just in war but against its own people. Saddam Hussein was… an international brigand…..

The United States had already begun Operation Desert Shield on August 7, to protect Saudi Arabia, believed to be Iraq’s next victim.  The prime minister was concerned that President Bush would back down from what should be the next step: not merely to hold the line, but to throw back the aggressor.

The United States military had already begun to examine that next step.  On the morning of August 3, I was on a team that had just completed a major seminar war game in which Iraq was a potential enemy. The Pentagon wanted to know our lessons learned from that exercise.  Our answer went beyond that and pointed out that the situation had a strong resemblance to that in North Africa in 1942.  The British responded with a carefully prepared offensive that threw back the German Afrika Korps in the battle of El Alamein. This was a prolonged air offensive that struck at front-line positions, lines of communications, supply and storage facilities, followed by a three-week ground offensive by armor and infantry: the main effort being a left hook, with a right jab along the coast.  What worked for Montgomery should work against Saddam Hussein who was, by everyone’s estimation, no Rommel.

It was only fifteen years after the disastrous conclusion to our long war in Southeast Asia.  Given the opposition to Vietnam, there were good reasons to believe that the American people would “go wobbly.”  But they didn’t.

Several things had happened in those fifteen years after Vietnam: President Ronald Reagan had restored national morale, rebuilt the military, and had been instrumental -- to say the least -- in ending the Cold War after fifty years.

The American military also restored its morale and self-confidence; it had learned about how to engage in conventional combat operations effectively and, with precision munitions, to reduce noncombatant casualties to almost zero.  Civilians are unaware of how the Maneuver Warfare and Air-Land Battle combat doctrines of the 1980s proved their worth in the two successful ground wars against Iraq.  In those wars, and in Afghanistan, U.S. and allied fatalities have been around 8,500.  

The history of this Thirty Years’ War shows that:

  1. What has been won by the troops has largely been lost by politicians;
  2. Those in authority above combat commanders don’t seem to have a clue about using force.

For example, the coalition war against Iraq in 1991 was halted abruptly.  It appeared that the Bush Administration was alarmed by videos of the total destruction of Iraqi mechanized columns retreating from Kuwait along the "highway of death": bad press could result.

Months later, Bob Simon of CBS traveled to Baghdad, where he had been a civilian PW after the Iraqis captured him.  The locals berated him: "Why didn't you liberate us?"

A dozen years later came the Second Iraq War.  In the post-9/11 environment, we feared a second strike and believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD); he may no longer have had them but he wanted everybody to believe that he did.  To the United States, he was a danger.

Operation Iraqi Freedom was a classic blitzkrieg, in a league with the German invasion of France in 1940, the Red Army’s Operation Bagration in 1944, and the Six-Day War of 1967.

The military won the war and deposed Saddam, but the Bush Administration threw the victory away. It appointed a Wall Street lawyer, Paul Bremer, to run postwar Iraq. No MacArthur in Japan was he. He declared the Iraqi Army to be illegal.  Rather than ordering Iraqi troops report to barracks or some convenient rendezvous point, there to be outprocessed, receive some pocket money from Saddam's treasury, and told to have a good day, Bremer virtually invited the Iraqi troops to take their AK-47s and go underground.  We know the result.

Then there's Afghanistan.  The ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering when U.S. troops entered Afghanistan to support the Northern Alliance.  Troops on horseback picked out targets for B-52s, and those targets would cease to exist.  The mistake that the U.S. made was to believe that it should, and could, do more than supporting the Northern Alliance; to “rebuild” Afghanistan.  The folly of the politicians in Washington was mirrored by some equally-disastrous decisions by some senior commanders in the field to implement D.C.’s mandate.  The Outpost (2020), the film based on Jake Tapper’s book on this misbegotten 2009 battle, is to the Afghan War what Black Hawk Down (2001) was to the disastrous operation by Rangers and Delta Force in Somalia in 1993. 

These seemingly unending wars result from impossible goals set by leaders far from the scene.  The Cold War, in contrast, featured wars for limited objectives and with limited means (in theory at least).  They also contrast with World War II, in which the objectives were limited to regime change in the aggressor states but with unlimited means.

A result of our approach to war in 1941-45 is seen in a photo taken exactly ten years after V-J Day, when  Japanese Foreign Minister Shigemitsu met with MacArthur in New York. Both were smiling, like old friends they had become after V-J Day, when it had been Shigemitsu who had signed the surrender document on the deck of the USS Missouri.  By 1955 Japan had become a reliable ally, as had West Germany, where the chancellor was Konrad Adenauer, the pre-Nazi mayor of Cologne, and former Wehrmacht officers held responsible positions in NATO.

Such were results of regime change being the goal in World War II. The war was not “nation building,” as some seem to believe.  The German and Japanese nations, with complete social and economic structures, already existed; there was no need for them to be “built” by armies of occupation and/or social science experts.

In 1945, in Germany and Japan regime change was followed by restoration of the regimes that had been in power before the dictatorships. The same process had begun in Italy after the Fascists were overthrown in 1943.

If regime change had been the objective in Iraq, had we not been Wilsonian progressives attempting to make that part of the world “safe for democracy” by engaging in nation building, and had we not been ignorant of history, perhaps there would be more images like that of Shigemitsu and MacArthur, conqueror and conquered-become-ally-and-friend. 

But by attempting too much, indeed attempting the impossible, we are still spending blood and treasure in West and Central Asia, thirty years after the invasion of Kuwait and almost nineteen after 9/11. 

Thucydides again enlightens us about hubris: on the one hand, the Athenians embarked upon the disastrous Sicilian expedition after people of Egesta had asked the Assembly for aid; Alcibiades reminded the people that they had “a constant readiness to support all, whether barbarians or Hellenes, that invite assistance.”  And, they had nothing to fear: “The cities in Sicily are peopled by motley rabbles… without any feeling of patriotism.”  Those “motley rabbles” annihilated the Athenian force.

Athenians ignored the wisdom of Pericles who, years before, had reminded the Assembly that “the judgment of mankind… is jealous of the arrogance that aspires higher than its due.”  The land war in Sicily demonstrated that truth.  Their true element, however, was sea power: “your naval resources are such that your vessels may go where they please, without the King [of Persia] or any other nation on earth being able to stop them.”

If the chairman of China is to be as powerless against American ships as the King of Persia was to those of Athens some 2,450 years ago, the United States would be well advised to cease doing the impossible in Southwest Asia and Central Asia in order that we may do the possible in the Western Pacific.

Sunday, August 2, 2020, marks thirty years since the United States became embroiled in what seems endless wars, at great cost, in Southwest and Central Asia.  That was the day that Iraq invaded Kuwait.  

It seems that an ambiguous comment made to Saddam Hussein by Ambassador April Glaspie had led him to believe the United States would take a hands-off approach if he used force in disputes with Kuwait over border and oil-export issues. Ambiguous policy positions can be misinterpreted with disastrous consequences; Thucydides informs us that they have been at least since the Peloponnesian War.  Likewise such a statement by Secretary of State Dean Acheson in January, 1950, was probably a factor in the decision by North Korea to invade South Korea that June.

So Saddam invaded and Prime Minister Thatcher understood that strong action was imperative. She conveyed to President George H.W. Bush her concern that he might “go wobbly.”  As she recollected their conversation of August 26: 

He was clearly very uneasy about the line he was taking. He began by making a forty minute statement which yet again justified what the Iraqis had done. I said that I was amazed at his account of what was in fact a blatant act of aggression. Iraq was a country which had used chemical weapons not just in war but against its own people. Saddam Hussein was… an international brigand…..

The United States had already begun Operation Desert Shield on August 7, to protect Saudi Arabia, believed to be Iraq’s next victim.  The prime minister was concerned that President Bush would back down from what should be the next step: not merely to hold the line, but to throw back the aggressor.

The United States military had already begun to examine that next step.  On the morning of August 3, I was on a team that had just completed a major seminar war game in which Iraq was a potential enemy. The Pentagon wanted to know our lessons learned from that exercise.  Our answer went beyond that and pointed out that the situation had a strong resemblance to that in North Africa in 1942.  The British responded with a carefully prepared offensive that threw back the German Afrika Korps in the battle of El Alamein. This was a prolonged air offensive that struck at front-line positions, lines of communications, supply and storage facilities, followed by a three-week ground offensive by armor and infantry: the main effort being a left hook, with a right jab along the coast.  What worked for Montgomery should work against Saddam Hussein who was, by everyone’s estimation, no Rommel.

It was only fifteen years after the disastrous conclusion to our long war in Southeast Asia.  Given the opposition to Vietnam, there were good reasons to believe that the American people would “go wobbly.”  But they didn’t.

Several things had happened in those fifteen years after Vietnam: President Ronald Reagan had restored national morale, rebuilt the military, and had been instrumental -- to say the least -- in ending the Cold War after fifty years.

The American military also restored its morale and self-confidence; it had learned about how to engage in conventional combat operations effectively and, with precision munitions, to reduce noncombatant casualties to almost zero.  Civilians are unaware of how the Maneuver Warfare and Air-Land Battle combat doctrines of the 1980s proved their worth in the two successful ground wars against Iraq.  In those wars, and in Afghanistan, U.S. and allied fatalities have been around 8,500.  

The history of this Thirty Years’ War shows that:

  1. What has been won by the troops has largely been lost by politicians;
  2. Those in authority above combat commanders don’t seem to have a clue about using force.

For example, the coalition war against Iraq in 1991 was halted abruptly.  It appeared that the Bush Administration was alarmed by videos of the total destruction of Iraqi mechanized columns retreating from Kuwait along the "highway of death": bad press could result.

Months later, Bob Simon of CBS traveled to Baghdad, where he had been a civilian PW after the Iraqis captured him.  The locals berated him: "Why didn't you liberate us?"

A dozen years later came the Second Iraq War.  In the post-9/11 environment, we feared a second strike and believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD); he may no longer have had them but he wanted everybody to believe that he did.  To the United States, he was a danger.

Operation Iraqi Freedom was a classic blitzkrieg, in a league with the German invasion of France in 1940, the Red Army’s Operation Bagration in 1944, and the Six-Day War of 1967.

The military won the war and deposed Saddam, but the Bush Administration threw the victory away. It appointed a Wall Street lawyer, Paul Bremer, to run postwar Iraq. No MacArthur in Japan was he. He declared the Iraqi Army to be illegal.  Rather than ordering Iraqi troops report to barracks or some convenient rendezvous point, there to be outprocessed, receive some pocket money from Saddam's treasury, and told to have a good day, Bremer virtually invited the Iraqi troops to take their AK-47s and go underground.  We know the result.

Then there's Afghanistan.  The ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering when U.S. troops entered Afghanistan to support the Northern Alliance.  Troops on horseback picked out targets for B-52s, and those targets would cease to exist.  The mistake that the U.S. made was to believe that it should, and could, do more than supporting the Northern Alliance; to “rebuild” Afghanistan.  The folly of the politicians in Washington was mirrored by some equally-disastrous decisions by some senior commanders in the field to implement D.C.’s mandate.  The Outpost (2020), the film based on Jake Tapper’s book on this misbegotten 2009 battle, is to the Afghan War what Black Hawk Down (2001) was to the disastrous operation by Rangers and Delta Force in Somalia in 1993. 

These seemingly unending wars result from impossible goals set by leaders far from the scene.  The Cold War, in contrast, featured wars for limited objectives and with limited means (in theory at least).  They also contrast with World War II, in which the objectives were limited to regime change in the aggressor states but with unlimited means.

A result of our approach to war in 1941-45 is seen in a photo taken exactly ten years after V-J Day, when  Japanese Foreign Minister Shigemitsu met with MacArthur in New York. Both were smiling, like old friends they had become after V-J Day, when it had been Shigemitsu who had signed the surrender document on the deck of the USS Missouri.  By 1955 Japan had become a reliable ally, as had West Germany, where the chancellor was Konrad Adenauer, the pre-Nazi mayor of Cologne, and former Wehrmacht officers held responsible positions in NATO.

Such were results of regime change being the goal in World War II. The war was not “nation building,” as some seem to believe.  The German and Japanese nations, with complete social and economic structures, already existed; there was no need for them to be “built” by armies of occupation and/or social science experts.

In 1945, in Germany and Japan regime change was followed by restoration of the regimes that had been in power before the dictatorships. The same process had begun in Italy after the Fascists were overthrown in 1943.

If regime change had been the objective in Iraq, had we not been Wilsonian progressives attempting to make that part of the world “safe for democracy” by engaging in nation building, and had we not been ignorant of history, perhaps there would be more images like that of Shigemitsu and MacArthur, conqueror and conquered-become-ally-and-friend. 

But by attempting too much, indeed attempting the impossible, we are still spending blood and treasure in West and Central Asia, thirty years after the invasion of Kuwait and almost nineteen after 9/11. 

Thucydides again enlightens us about hubris: on the one hand, the Athenians embarked upon the disastrous Sicilian expedition after people of Egesta had asked the Assembly for aid; Alcibiades reminded the people that they had “a constant readiness to support all, whether barbarians or Hellenes, that invite assistance.”  And, they had nothing to fear: “The cities in Sicily are peopled by motley rabbles… without any feeling of patriotism.”  Those “motley rabbles” annihilated the Athenian force.

Athenians ignored the wisdom of Pericles who, years before, had reminded the Assembly that “the judgment of mankind… is jealous of the arrogance that aspires higher than its due.”  The land war in Sicily demonstrated that truth.  Their true element, however, was sea power: “your naval resources are such that your vessels may go where they please, without the King [of Persia] or any other nation on earth being able to stop them.”

If the chairman of China is to be as powerless against American ships as the King of Persia was to those of Athens some 2,450 years ago, the United States would be well advised to cease doing the impossible in Southwest Asia and Central Asia in order that we may do the possible in the Western Pacific.