“Victory” and Reality: Never think that War will be Easy

“No one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” – Karl von Clausewitz

I was talking with a friend recently and the subject came to the support of a certain church for the war in Iraq back in 2003.  My friend, who is very thoughtful, spiritual and circumspect made the comment that “they were even against the war” when we discussed the merits of this particular church.  I thought for a second and said “after the past nine years of war was that wrong?” He paused a moment and said “I see your point.” I think that in the early months and years of this war, where we quickly deposed the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq that we made unfounded assumptions about our “successes” with the end result that we have had to fight a much more protracted, bloody and costly series of wars than we had ever imagined. Like so many nations who entered into wars believing that they would have easy victories achieved at a cheap price in blood and treasure we have discovered once again that the serpent of the fog and friction of war coupled with hasty or politically expedient decisions has come to cause us great pain as a nation and after nine years a foreboding sense that we might not win in Afghanistan.

Like most Americans after the attacks of 9-11-2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon I was all in favor of going after those that attacked this country wherever they were to bring those that planned these vile attacks to justice.  Within a month the United States had driven the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan and put the leaders of Al Qaida on the run.  By 2002 the US Government had began making a case against Iraq, one of a trio of nations identified as the “Axis of Evil.”  In 2003 we went to war with Iraq after failing to convince many allies of the necessity of the attack. When the “shock and awe” campaign was launched, Iraq forces defeated, Baghdad captured and Saddam Hussein driven from power there was a heady feeling of success.  Even those opposed to the invasion were amazed at the speed of and apparent ease of the conquest as pictures of cheering Iraqis filled the screen as the statues of Saddam came down.  In May President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to proclaim “mission accomplished.” “We support the troops” ribbons and bumper stickers were the rage, victory has many friends and some churches even ascribed the victory to God.  But as the muse would say to the returning Roman conquerors, “victory is fleeting.”

We thought that we had achieved a “revolution in warfare” in the two campaigns but within months the tide had shifted in Iraq as in a colossal mistake of epic proportions a decision was made either in Washington DC or by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Ambassador Paul Bremer. A decision was made to disband the Iraqi Military, Police and Civil Service offices without having enough troops in place to police Iraq or civilians including NGOs and the UN available to fill the civil service gaps.  This was in direct contravention to years of CENTCOM plans. To make matters worse we had gone in so light that we had not disarmed or demobilized the Iraqi forces, thus we sent the people who could best help us restore Iraq to working order home. We sent them home and as anyone that knows Arab culture can tell you we dishonored them and created enemies out of potential friends while placing corrupt opportunists in power.  It was if we were making things up as we went rather than thinking things through and the result was a disaster.  By the end of 2004 a full-fledged insurgency had broken out an insurgency that would cost thousands of Americans and Iraqis their lives with tens of thousands of others wounded.  It was not until late 2007 and 2008 that the tides turned in Iraq as Iraqi Sunnis realized that Al Qaida backed insurgents were more of a threat to them than the American forces were.

Over the course of the war the thrill of the early days was forgotten as American Soldiers and Marines engaged a resourceful enemy that was willing to fight us in ways that we had neither expected nor planned.  War loses its luster when the thrill of victory is gone.  With the transition of the mission in Iraq and a renewed focus on Afghanistan where the Taliban had come back with a vengeance we are now moving toward being at war for 10 years.  We have fought the war with a military force that is well under 1% of the US population.  The military has fought well. We have not been defeated in open combat despite losing many troops to IEDs and ambushes; though in Afghanistan there have been a couple of near run events where small bases were nearly overrun by Taliban forces. We should remember General Hans Guderian, the creator of the Blitzkrieg and his words about the German campaign in Russia after the Battle of Kursk in 1943: “We have severely underestimated the Russians, the extent of the country and the treachery of the climate. This is the revenge of reality.” General Heinz Guderian

Nine plus years after 9-11 most of the American public as well as the political class of both parties have soured on the wars even while others seek war with Iran and maybe North Korea. I wonder about the wisdom of taking on even more enemies when the military is stretched to the breaking point and the nation is heading into bankruptcy.

But such things are not new from a historic point of view, if only we would look to history. Back in 1940 after their victories in France and the Low Countries the Germans felt as if they were invincible. By 1941 their troops were bailing out the Italians in North Africa and the Balkans while engaging the British in the air above Great Britain and in the seas around it. That did not stop Hitler from attacking the Soviet Union where as in France and the Balkans the German Army enjoyed amazing success until winter arrived and the Soviets counter-attacked.  Thereafter the German Army would not enjoy the same success and millions of German Soldiers; not to mention at least 20 million Soviet citizens and Red Army Soldiers died. Eventually the Wehrmacht was shattered, defeated and Europe devastated.

I am not saying that this will happen to the US, but it can.  We need to learn from history and look at how good people were enticed by the aphrodisiac of the “victory disease” that accompanied supposedly easy victories.  If one looks at Germany many officers, soldiers and civilians drank the aphrodisiac of victory and had their faith in Germany, their leaders and their cause destroyed as the war turned against them and they experienced defeat even while many times getting the best of their enemies on the battlefield.  Honorable men that had served their country well were either cashiered by the Nazi government and many killed by that instrument of evil because they voiced opposition to the regime.  Initially many had been lured into the trap of easy victory.

Back in 2001 and into 2003 I was like many of those men who served in the German military.  I was excited about the apparent easy victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq.   But like some German officers of that day who realized as the campaign in Russia was going badly into the fall of 1941 by late 2003 I began to sense that something was going terrible wrong in Iraq.  I think it was the moment that I heard that we had disbanded the Iraqi Army, Security forces and Civil Service as I started my course of study with the Marine Command and Staff College program held at the Joint Forces Staff College.  The experience of serving with thoughtful Marines in my unit and my fellow students; Marine, Navy, Coast Guard and Allied officers at the school helped me see the danger that was developing in our campaigns.  By the time I arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2007 the tide was beginning to turn but I saw the devastation of the country, ministered to wounded Marines and Soldiers and seen the affect of the war on Iraqis.  My duties with our advisors and their Iraqi counterparts were enlightening as I travelled about Al Anbar Province.

In the end I think that the Iraqis despite everything will do okay. I believe that most are tired of war and will not succumb again to sectarian violence on a large scale. I do not think that they have an easy road ahead but I believe the words of Brigadier General Ali as I left him for the final time: “You come back to Iraq in five years, as tourist, it will be better then.” I am not so optimistic about Afghanistan or Pakistan and I do not think we have yet seen the worst in those countries, but at least despite all of our mistakes Iraq most likely will do well.

The experience of war coupled with my study of history and military theory at the Command and Staff College as well as in my studies from my Master’s degree in Military History changed my perspective. I still serve faithfully and hope and pray for a conclusion to the wars that leaves us in better shape and brings peace to the lands that we have shed the blood of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and other Federal intelligence, diplomatic and police agencies and treasure in.  I pray for my friends serving in harm’s way and those preparing to deploy and I pray for the safety of my Iraqi military friends and their families.

I am not a defeatist should someone level that charge at me.  I agree with Ralph Peters who made this comment: “We will not be beaten. But we may be shamed and embarrassed on a needlessly long road to victory.” However, I wonder if this country has the will to win and to make the sacrifices to do so and not just shovel them off on those that serve and have served throughout this war, a war which appears to have no end and which may expand to other countries.

Like the Germans we are engaged in a multi-front and multi-theater war but we have been trying to do so upon the backs of less than one percent of the population. This allows the rest of the country to live under the illusion of peace and prosperity with the bitter losses and memories of 9-11 fade into a yearly remembrance called “Patriot Day” by politicians of all stripes who often mouth empty words to eulogize the victims and thank the troops and then move on to their next fundraiser.  By doing this we have worn out the force without the full support of the nation which is absolutely necessary for the successful prosecution of a war, especially a long drawn out war such as we have now.  Unfortunately most Americans have little patience and while we mythologize a lot about World War Two one has to remember that there was a strong lobby that desired to end the war in 1944 even if victory had not been achieved.

We have a military now composed of many battle hardened and deployment weary soldiers who live in a world that the bulk of the nation does not understand nor really wants to understand.  We have seen the cost of the war multiply to the point that it has drained the ability of the military to prepare for other wars and modernize itself.  What happens if God forbid we are forced into a war with Iran or North Korea?  With what will we fight those wars?

When the Allies were cracking the German front in Normandy and the Red Army was decimating Army Group Center in the East, Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt was asked what needed to be done by a General at Hitler’s military headquarters. The old Prussian warhorse simply said “make peace you idiot.” He was fired shortly thereafter. We certainly have not reached that point but should anything else break out while we are still engaged in Afghanistan and maintain a large number of troops in Iraq that could change.

One always needs to be careful when getting into “easy” and “quick” wars as more often than not they are neither easy nor quick.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security

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