As recognition of the defeat in Iraq spreads, so also does the process of sweeping up the debris. Both civilian observers and a few voices inside the military have begun the "lessons learned" business, trying to figure out what led to our defeat so that we do not repeat the same mistakes. That is the homage we owe to this war’s dead and wounded. To the degree we do learn important lessons, they will not have suffered in vain, even though we lost the war.
Most of the analyses to date are of the "if only" variety. "If only" we had not sent the Iraqi army home, or overdone "de-Ba’athification," or installed an American satrap, or, or, or, we would have won. The best study I have thus far seen does not agree. "Revisions in Need of Revising: What Went Wrong in the Iraq War [.pdf]," by David C. Hendrickson and Robert W. Tucker, puts it plainly:
"Though the critics have made a number of telling points against the conduct of the war and the occupation, the basic problems faced by the United States flowed from the enterprise itself, and not primarily from mistakes in execution along the way. The most serious problems facing Iraq and its American occupiers ‘endemic violence, a shattered state, a nonfunctioning economy, and a decimated society’ were virtually inevitable consequences that flowed from the breakage of the Iraqi state."
It is of interest, and a hopeful sign, that this blunt assessment was published by the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.
One target the study hits squarely is the American assumption, still regnant in the Pentagon, that superior technology guarantees our Second Generation forces victory over technologically primitive Fourth Generation enemies. Hendrickson and Tucker write,
"It is now clear that the insurgency enjoys advantages on its own terrain that are just as formidable as the precision-guided weaponry deployed with devastating effect by the United States. Because U.S. forces can destroy everything they can see, they had no difficulty in marching into Baghdad and forcing the resistance underground. Once underground, however, the resistance acquired a set of advantages that have proved just as effective as America’s formidable firepower. Iraq’s military forces had no answer to smart bombs, but the United States has no answer at least no good answer to car bombs."
Recognition that war is not dominated by technology but by human factors is an important counter to what will inevitably be claims by the U.S. military that it performed brilliantly; it was the politicians who lost the war (the Vietnam War claim repeated). As the authors note, this reflects an overly narrow definition of war:
"Other lessons are that the military services must digest again that ‘war is an instrument of policy.’ The profound neglect given to reestablishing order in the military’s prewar planning and the facile assumption that operations critical to the overall success of the campaign were ‘somebody else’s business’ reflect a shallow view of warfare. Military planners should consider the evidence that occupation duties were carried out in a fashion with the imperatives of ‘force protection’ overriding concern for Iraqi civilian casualties that risked sacrificing the broader strategic mission of U.S. forces."
Nor could the Iraq war have been won if we had sent more troops. More troops would not have helped us deal with the problems of bad intelligence, lack of cultural awareness, and the insistence on using tactics that alienated the population. As the authors state, "The assumption that the United States would have won the hearts and minds of the population had it maintained occupying forces of 300,000 instead of 140,000 must seem dubious in the extreme."
The most important point in this excellent study is precisely the one that Washington will be most reluctant to learn: "Rather than ‘do it better next time,’ a better lesson is ‘don’t do it at all.’" What we require is a "national security strategy [I would say grand strategy] in which there is no imperative to fight the kind of war that the United States has fought in Iraq."
For most of America’s history, we followed that kind of grand strategy, namely a defensive grand strategy. If the fallout from the defeat in Iraq includes our return to a defensive grand strategy, then we will indeed be able to say that we have learned this war’s most important lesson.