Sunday, January 14, 2007

Petraeus and the Legacy of Viet Nam

"David Petraeus is a high-energy individual who likes to lead from the front, in any field he is going into." General Hugh Shelton, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

The Washington Post of Sunday, 14 January has a good piece on General David Petraeus that draws on excerpts from the Generals 327-page dissertation at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, Where he earned a PhD in International Relations in 1987. The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era offers a glimpse into the man who will be charged with attempting to salvage American credibility in the Middle East.

The General started his thesis from the premise that "Vietnam cost the military dearly. It left America's military leaders confounded, dismayed, and discouraged. Even worse, it devastated the armed forces, robbing them of dignity, money, and qualified people for a decade."

The General was part of the initial invasion of Iraq, and after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he was in charge of Mosul. He was successful there because he has the capability to be flexible. In Mosul, the U.S. Army took over the payroll for local government officials. Petraeus was smart enough to realize that if money flowed in, but no new goods were available for purchase, inflation would spiral, and contribute to unrest. Petraeus was flexible enough to avert the economic problems by listening to the Iraqi's and reopening the border with Syria. (When we hear talk of sealing off borders, we should always think about the unconsidered and unintended consequences of those seemingly-simple actions.)

Petraeus on war and public opinion
Since time is crucial, furthermore, sufficient force must be used at the outset to ensure that the conflict can be resolved before the American people withdraw their support for it. Nothing succeeds with the American public like success, the military realize; the sooner the mission is accomplished, the better.
Channeling Patton? Seriously. Short military involvements are desirable if necessity dictates military action, but no martial involvement is always preferred because war represents the failure of diplomacy. Americans are not fickle, as this seems to imply. Americans are, however, intelligent enough to see the differences between justified conflict (Afghanistan) and folly (Iraq).

On fighting insurgencies
Others, who believe that the U.S. could develop suitable American forces for counterinsurgency operations, have doubts about the existing capabilities of U.S. units in this area. As one U.S. officer put it, "I submit that the U.S. Army does not have the mind-set for combat operations where the key terrain is the mind, not the high ground. We do not take the time to understand the nature of the society in which we are fighting, the government we are supporting, or the enemy we are fighting."
In other words, forgo the hubris and try a little cross-cultural understanding. I can endorse that notion.

On civilian officials
The military also took from Vietnam (and the concomitant activities in the Pentagon) a heightened awareness that civilian officials are responsive to influences other than the objective conditions on the battlefield. A consequence has been an increase in the traditional military distrust of civilian political leaders. While the military still accept emphatically the constitutional provision for civilian control of the armed forces, there remain from the Vietnam era nagging doubts about the abilities and motivations of politicians and those they appoint to key positions. Vietnam was a painful reminder for the military that they, not the transient occupants of high office, generally bear the heaviest burden during armed conflict. (emphasis mine)
On dealing with the President
"Don't commit American troops, Mr. President," they hold, "unless:

1) You really have to (in which case, presumably, vital U.S. interests are at stake);

2) You have established clear-cut, attainable military objectives for American military forces (that is, more than just some fuzzy political goals).

3) You provide the military commander sufficient forces and the freedom necessary to accomplish his mission swiftly. (Remember, Mr. President, this may necessitate the mobilization of the reserve components -- perhaps even a declaration of war.)

4) You can ensure sufficient public support to permit carrying the commitment through to its conclusion."

For the military, in short, the debate over how and when to commit American troops abroad has become a debate over how to avoid, at all costs, another Vietnam.
Good luck, General. you are off to salvage a mission for a president who blatantly violated every tenet of your very own thesis on avoiding another Viet Nam.

I don't think I'd touch that billet with a ten foot pole.