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Is Iraq like Vietnam? The myth of the invincible guerillas


"Conventional wisdom" now insists that guerilla fighters always win guerilla wars. The "experts" tell us that in such wars, the weak must always win. "Everybody" "knows" these "truths" since the 1991 publication of Martin Van Creveld's The Transformation of War.

Van Creveld has applied his ideas to the Iraq war. In a recent article, he insists that the US war in Iraq will probably end like the war in Vietnam. Van Creveld's arguments are mostly based on the observations of Israeli General Moshe Dayan about the Vietnam War. Dayan noted that the Americans were well disciplined and well motivated. They were well supplied and had immense resources. Certainly, he was comparing the resources of the Americans not only to the Viet Cong, but also the poor and under-supplied Israeli army of 1966. However, Dayan astutely pointed out that the Americans were failing time after time to use their might effectively. Lack of good intelligence prevented them from using their vast military machine to find Viet Cong concentrations and eliminate them, and to deal with the enemy in battle. Instead of pinpoint strikes, the Americans wasted bombs on empty jungle.

To Dayan's observations, however, Van Creveld attaches his own conclusions, boosting his favorite theme. He concludes:

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....

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...

Of course, the Americans are fighting the Iraq war stupidly. The wholesale destruction of Fallujah is symptomatic. It illustrates the same problems that Dayan found in Vietnam 40 years ago. The Americans concentrated massive firepower against an elusive enemy. At the end of the battle, Fallujah was more or less destroyed. The Americans gave the Iraqis have more reason to hate them as well as their own government. However, Zarqawi and most of the other insurgents escaped unscathed. They will no doubt use the anger stirred up by Fallujah to recruit more insurgents.

However, Van Creveld's "most important" reason has little to do with Dayan's critique and nothing to do with why the American conduct of the war has been disastrous. His conclusion, that the weak always triumph, negates the rest of his article. If it is correct then changes in strategy are hopeless, political maneuvers are beside the point and improved intelligence will not help. Nothing will help the Americans. According to Van Creveld, the Americans and their partners are foredoomed to fail in Iraq, because, like the Trojans of old, they are fighting against the decree of the gods. They are fighting against historical inevitability.

It is not true, however, that the weak always win, or that guerillas always win. The examples that Van Creveld has in mind are perhaps the Viet Cong in Vietnam, the FLN in Algeria, the Jewish Irgun in Palestine and the Mau Mau in Kenya. These were guerilla or terrorist wars against colonialist regimes. British and French colonialism was doomed by economic realities and by policy. In numerous other countries, colonialism ended without a fight. In a few instances, the guerillas were there to get the credit.

The Viet Cong won their legitimacy fighting the French, not the Americans. They won against the French not by guerilla warfare alone, but by defeating the French decisively in a classical set-piece battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. They convinced their people that the Americans were the same sort of intruders. Nobody believes the fiction that the South Vietnamese Viet Cong won the war on their own. The North Vietnamese won the war against the Americans with the help of the regular North Vietnamese army and with the support of the USSR.

The few successes of guerilla warfare are matched by numerous failures, never mentioned by Van Creveld and the admirers of "National Liberation Struggles." Communist and Maoist guerilla insurgencies in Peru, Greece, Malaya, Guatemala, El Salvador and the Philippines failed to bring their parties to power. Kurdish guerilla forces in Iran, Iraq and Turkey have not brought about a state of Kurdistan, and few are championing their cause. Do not hold your breath until the Tamil Tigers to come to power in Sri Lanka, or the Basque separatists have their way in Spain.

The ultimate triumph of the weak but righteous is a favorite theme of human societies. It is embodied in bible stories and Greek myths, and in stories from around the world. It made Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse and Superman famous. However, it has little basis in fact.

There are many examples in history in which the weak, whether good or bad, have lost, but nobody cared. Van Creveld, who lectures in Jerusalem, should consider the fate of the Bar-Kochba rebellion against the Romans, ruthlessly suppressed about 135, and the fate of countless other peoples gobbled up by the Roman Empire. Today, nobody seems to care one way or the other about the fate of Tibetans under Chinese oppression. While the world lamented the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, nobody did anything about them at all. The British helped Hitler overrun Czechoslovakia with their blessing. The Fascist dictatorships got their comeuppance eventually, but only after Germany invaded Poland and Japan attacked the United States. Otherwise, the destruction of smaller countries would have been accepted as a regrettable fact of realpolitik.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest fought a cunning and daring guerilla war for the Confederate States of America (CSA). However, the weaker South lost the war. After the war, the "National Liberation Movement" of the CSA, otherwise known as the Ku Klux Klan, did not succeed in freeing the South from the yoke of the Union imperialists, though Forrest led it for a while. Only characters like Margaret Mitchell and ex-US Attorney General Ashcroft may be really sorry about that failure. Whether they are good or bad, indifference to the fate of the weaker, rather than support, seems to be the norm in history.

The "weak" Iraqi insurgents executed CARE worker Margaret Hassan, beheaded several innocent victims, and blew up hundreds of innocents at prayer or going about their business. Only lunatics, hopeless fanatics, and victims of propaganda feel compassion for such "heroes."

Generalities like the myth of guerilla invincibility are similar to the "iron laws of history" propounded by
German philosophers in the 19th century. Iron laws tend to rust in the rain of reality. The success or failure of the US in Iraq is not a foregone conclusion. Van Creveld and guerillas planning wars should remember that the military strategy of the losing side is often based on the last war. Tactics like massed infantry charges, the phalanx or guerilla warfare are useful against specific types of military technology. Weapons like destroyers, Gatling guns, Panzer tanks and Stuka dive-bombers are only good until someone finds a successful means to overcome them. Ultimate weapons and invincible strategies always succumb to the ingenuity and inventiveness of the human mind. Those who believe in the invincibility of any human creation should remember the unsinkable Titanic. Neither the Americans and their allies, nor the Iraqi insurgents, are protected by the gods.

Success in Iraq depends on objective factors specific to this situation. Frankly, the prospects do not look good. To win, the coalition forces must develop some real intelligence and covert operations capability. They need to begin distancing themselves from the actual conduct of the war. They cannot afford many more atrocities like the abuse in Abu Ghraib and the shooting of prisoners in Fallujah. However, bad intelligence and soldiers prone to war crimes are not irrevocable decrees of fate. Van Creveld and his followers are not holy prophets. Myths about the invincibility of the weak and superstitions about magic properties of guerilla warfare have no factual basis, but they could become a self-fulfilling formula for defeat.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 15 comments

RE:Is Iraq like Vietnam? The myth of the invincible guerillas

Yep, we can very readily obscure reality by comparing all sorts of
unrelated and irrelevant examples to Iraq. Good job.

Sometimes guerrilla forces do lose. This happens when they; 1)have
insuficient popular support (as in most or all of those failed
communist revolts, the Basques, etc), or 2)are faced by a power with
overwhelming force and no qualms about killing pretty much everyone
(Guatemala to some extent, the Bar Kochba revolt - where one million
Jews were killed), or 3)lack adequate access to weapons (Tibet).

Now, in Iraq, support for the US presence is at 2%, so popular
support is not a problem for the guerrillas. We have overwhelming
force but in insufficient numbers to secure the country, and we are
not willing to just massacre huge numbers to break their will.
Weapons are as readily available as cigarettes, and frequently the
same vendor can supply both.

There are no examples I am aware of where all three of these
critical factors were in the guerrillas favor and they wound up
losing. Once again, the administration and it's supporters are
claiming that what has never before happened is the only or most
likely future event. This patern can only be labeled delusional, and
that is hardly a desirable feature in a President.

It is not that the guerrillas cant lose. It is that we cant win.
Even if we put down these guerrillas and stay there in great number
for thirty years, once we leave it is all over for our friend in
power. The reality is that we just cant afford to stay there thirty
years anyway. Even ten is a stretch, with all the boomers retiring.
Ten years from now I will bet everything I have that the guerrillas
will be ready and waiting even if we claim to have won. Time and
pretty much everything else is on their side in the grand scheme.

Carmi Turchick

Posted by Carmi Turchick @ 11/30/2004 07:16 AM CST

You are right. The best example of this fact is the fight against a comunist guerrilla in Burma by the British just after II WW. The formula is very easy to explain. You must not kill (or brutalize) anybody who is not involved in guerrilla and you must show that you are stronger in the long run. The real problem for the Americans in Irak is their inability to take a city without demolishing it because their worship for firepower. I think this is the comment of the people you named : with guerrilla, firepower is not the only issue and can be a problem if it becomes the only tactic parameter you take care of. Apart from that in the long run if they allow a true democracy, then the governement will nationalize oil drills and we will go back to station one.

Posted by Aleph @ 11/30/2004 05:03 PM CST

Dear Aleph,
The assumption that nationalization of oil will put "us" right back where we started is questionable. The US opposed Saddam not because he nationalized oil (he didn't quite do that - contracts for exploration were awarded to European companies, but the US companies lost their rights), but because he invaded Kuwait and because he stood as a symbol of defiance to the US.

The Iraq war was not about Iraqi oil in the narrow sense. The Gulf is important to the USA in part because of oil in the Gulf (not just Iraq) but also because of issues of "posture" and credibility.

If the US fails in Iraq, all the dependent regimes of the Gulf will start looking for other ways to shore up their shaky rule and the Middle East - not just oil but allegiances - will be lost to the US. Saudi Arabia might fall to the followers of OBL for example.

Clearly that cannot be allowed to happen.

The problem(s) of the US in Iraq are not limited to firepower. They include lack of understanding and knowledge needed to make strategic policy decisions at the highest levels (nobody who knows anything about the ME would set "true democracy" as a realistic "do or die" goal), lack of understanding of local culture, lack of intelligence and trying to substitute firepower for intelligence. That doesn't exhaust the list.

Just saying "guerillas always win because guerillas always win" is not an analysis, though it seems to pass for one among many, including Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Thomas Ricks, who has just discovered the myth of Lawrence of Arabia, and believes it. (See "Lessons of Arabia" Washington Post, Nov 26 page 39).

Ami Isseroff

Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 12/01/2004 01:21 PM CST

I agree with the general outline offered by Carmi, with the three basic conditions that seem to favor either a guerilla win or loss. And in the spirit of Ami's claim that there are no magical properties to guerilla warfare, I'd say that everything lies on a spectrum of likelihood. There is no "can't win" or "sure win".

Given that the three conditions outlined by Carmi do seem to have an overwhelming impact historically, a true US "win" in Iraq at this time does seem terribly difficult. I would add, too, that the examples offered by Ami of historical guerrila wars identify one more important distinction: The Viet Cong, FLN and Irgun, all fought a foreign invader (to some extent the Irgun could be argued to have been one as well, but not in comparison to the British). On the other hand, insurgencies in Peru, Greece, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Phillipines, Spain, etc. were (or are) all fighting an already existing domestic national ruling establishment. Of course some of these were supported to varying extent by outside forces, but they were not installed by them as part of an invasion (again, foreign support, military aid, etc. result in a spectrum, but all of these fall pretty clearly on opposite sides of the spectrum).

In Iraq, the insurgents are fighting foreign armies and a puppet regime installed by foreign invaders, a situation much more similar to Vietnam, Algeria, and pre-state Israel than to Peru, Greece, or Guatemala. At the same time, the insurgents have significant popular support, access to weapons, and an enemy that has insufficient forces and refrains from all-out massacre.

Posted by Eran @ 12/01/2004 10:12 PM CST

better them than us

Posted by bomb the s.o.b.'s @ 12/02/2004 03:15 PM CST

As a vet of vietnam and iraq, i do not see that iraq is any thing like vietnam. In vietnam, the us was NOT an invading force. We were there as we were asked to be there by the south's government to help rid the country of the communists. We are how ever an invading force in iraq. We are supported by over 80% of the iraqis. Go there and ask for your self. Iraqis do not want the u.s. to leave until they have had elections, the insurgents have been taken out and the iraqi forces are capable of securing the country. As for the way the insurgents are fighting by killing civialians, the they kill, the more they lose to thier effert. In order for them to win, they need the support of the iraqis and you can not get that if you kill them.

Posted by Sonny @ 12/03/2004 12:07 AM CST

Dear Ami : The USA (and UK and France in their time) have toppled many democratic governements because they were trying to take more close control of their resources. You know as everybody that oil is here the question because Castro is also defying USA but sugar is not oil. I do not have place here to express all the nuances of my thought in 250 characters and I understand your objection against hyper-simplification. But I also want to warn you against hyper-complication. When Saddam Hussein were killing his people nobody cares but when he started offering contracts in bad conditions to petrol companies and the French and the German accepted what the Americans do not, is when he run in real troubles. Of course the fact that USA brass discovers suddenly what everybody knew (i.e. that Saudi Arabia was a very dangerous friend since was the origin and support of yihadist wahabism) made the question much more urgent. What I wanted to point is that in my humble opinion, if a democracy is established in Irak and the oil drills are re-nacionalized (or whatever), CIA may receive a message from Houston via White House to "do something" as they received in Mossadeg case in Iran and then regional stability will be again endangered. One of the problems of exporting democracy to poor countries is that they will use it to put a guy who take care of them instead of taking care of the western companies as the corrupt dictators who are the favorite stapple for CIA do. If its going to be a change in this it will be welcomed but before its fully noticeable we must expect more of the same. And just for the sake of mutual understanding : I do not wish the USA being defeated (or swamped in a bloody stalemate). What I wish is that USA uses his power to set the foundations of a better world and this requires a much, much, much clever management of the Iraq question and the rest of the current world agenda issues, as you are also demanding with the very existence of this website.

Posted by Aleph @ 12/03/2004 10:07 PM CST

If all of the above is true, it begs the question as to why then is the religious Right in America pushing this war. Christian America is very frightened about Islamic (Elders of Islam) Plans for World Domination and the murder of "infidels". The ritual beheading of innocents in Iraq makes this fear very real. The "Pearl Harbor" like attack that killed 3000 Americans, provided all the excuse needed for the total destruction of two Islamic countries (and soon a third) and the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Moslems. Now Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other faster that than the Americans can. America will never "catch" bin Laden as long as they can make this continue.

Posted by John McPherson @ 12/05/2004 04:08 AM CST

This posting page needs work, If you try to post your message and have to hit your browser back button you lose everythig that was typed in.

Posted by Jim Alderman @ 12/05/2004 06:21 PM CST

u wish

Posted by ananomus @ 12/09/2004 11:53 PM CST

Well, what I see is that the American's are not being honest with themselves. They are not self critical of their situation and do not look upon themselves as anything other than "Holy" The Enemy has much more morale ground in that regard.

Considering the possibility for real international war comes as many other countries are not supporting the brutal "Roman-esque" subjugation and torture of civilians, culminated with the obvious fact that Bin-Laden is a known CIA asset as far back as the mid seventies, the US has absolutely no moral foothold except what it makes up.

History is repleat with examples of their leaders wageing terror against their own people to get them to give up their rights so they will have more money and power, this is the goal of the "powers behind the throne" such as the Corporations. It is obvious Al Queda was involved with the CIA and FBI in Oklahoma City, Trade Center Bombing 1 and Trade Center bombing 2. It also seems that we trained and finacned the terrorists and the Bin-Ladens are getting rich from US government kickbacks.

It seems that the victims here are the US population as they enter into a new police state. The new Empire is pretty much born, and good luck. Iraq is a diversion to secure resources, nothing more. They can do that while the war is going on. We foot the bill, by authorizing 85 billion to the war effort, the Corporations get richer, and t he oil flows freely as the people give up more rights.

Don't worry though, the "democratic" countries in the world will likely liberate the US from itself as it's corrupt corporations are fought and destroyed outside of the self-contained fortress the US built about itself. Iraq qill be a footnote in the history of how well a populous can be manipulated by its own government in hte interests of short-term profit and long term power.

Posted by Neil Thompson @ 12/19/2004 02:25 AM CST

iraq is becoming a great spectacle. and just in time for the end of football season.

Posted by mullah jim @ 12/21/2004 10:45 PM CST

The history of guerilla wars including the Vietnam experience are edifying. The distinction here is the strategic interests of a world power are called into question. Losing by any measure is unaceptable. The force of will in this case does reign supreme. The limitations imposed by a moral approach to wining means that there will be times when all possibilities are called into question. President Bush is not delusional, rather, comitted. Terrorist insurgents do not have popular support outside of a narrow locality. Access to weapons can be denied in time during which period a rising force will become completely overwhelming. These are all political issues, not military. Time will not deplete the US resolve, but temper it as the flames of warfare burn. All comparisions aside, this is unlike anything previously seen because it is not about nation vieing with nation, but a clash of ideologies. There need not be a higher moral position, but the US has the luxury of standing on it because reality is difficult to sidestep and the terrorists are banking on a miracle to be conjured from a hope that has no basis. Their passion will die along with them for it appears they have no means to grasp meaning beyond the limits of their own culture. All people live with these same risks of idealistic fanaticism. Although it does not have to be fatal, it may become tragicallly so as dogma crosses civil judgement.

Posted by Ancient Wisdom @ 12/22/2004 01:31 PM CST

About 1989 or so, I being about 36 years old then, had concluded that mankind as-a-whole had evolved beyond warfare. Huh...guess I was wrong. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and now look at this mess.

And you know? God walks with me every hour of every day. I've been a Jew, a Bahai, a Catholic, and all the instructions say the same thing: "Thou shall not kill". So what the heck is so hard to understand about that? Just say no...no more killing. It's generally messy, for starters, and it tends to ruin people's days/lives.

Use the jets for sky-writing to the beheaders and bombers. The message should say: "KNOCK IT OFF...AND WE'LL GO HOME". Make a deal! It happens in the world of biz-ness every day. The Thai's had the right idea, drop origami lotus flowers. Let's get our troops home, because there ain't gonna be any winner and losers here.

We are all paying and paying emotionally, Sunni's, Shi'ites, Jews, Christians. Do n't they see that we are all the same being and that it is all the same God we invoke for all this slaughter.

Posted by David Stein @ 12/30/2004 04:16 PM CST

First of all, we did not lose in Vietnam. Nobody forced us to leave...we chose to do so. The objective proved to be accomplished. Stop communism in SE Asia. In fact, freedom is breaking out all over Asia these days. Just Ask my friends in China. So much for the guerilla victory.

Yes, Iraq is presently a mess and will continue to be for some time...probably even for quite some time after we leave...there are no Betty Crocker instant recipes in the real world of shaping the hearts and minds of men and women.

Only Iraqis can choose their future. I am glad we have given them a choice they didn't have under Mr. Sadaam. People who taste freedom would rather die than live under a man like him.

The real issue is whether Iraq will choose freedom or bondage. Freedom requires the risk of giving up one's life and in fact just that at times. Bondage requires passivity..."don't rock the boat and we can all stay alive in Sadaam's concentration camp after all maybe those UN negotiations will bare fruit someday...BTW somebody sure made a bundle on their food for oil program"

For the Iraqi's to choose freedom...they must choose freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and a free market, etc...and not just on paper like our Soviet brothers had in the former USSR.

I am not sure if Iraqi's have the courage or the mindset to choose freedom...only time will tell. If they choose a constitution that subscribes to a state controlled religion that treats woman as inferior to men and makes it illegal for a Christian of Jew to worship as they please...then they have chosen bondage.

The amazing thing is they will at least "now" have the FREEDOM to make that choice. If it were up to their children...you can bet they would chose freedom.

Over the long haul freedom always win, and I believe the present situation will bring it about sooner than later.

Posted by Cris Wyly @ 01/11/2005 05:09 PM CST

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