Why We Can’t Win Against Guerrillas

Two interesting reports explain in detail why America simply cannot win wars against guerrilla terrorism. A Washington Post report details the conflict between Special Forces and regular Army units in Iraq. The Special Forces officers and sergeants speak some Arabic, know the culture, have patience over endless cups of tea, look at the long view, and succeeded in getting a major tribe with 300,000 members to take up arms and work with American forces. The regular Army colonel wants to “win” the battles, do body counts, and primarily protect the lives of his men. He is impatient with slow and incompetent tribal ways, and is losing the war. His soldiers are isolated and afraid, hate being in Iraq, brutally arrest the tribesmen, despise the locals, kill and destroy indiscriminately, and create more enemies for America. The report is well worth reading in detail to understand how hopeless the war is.

Of course an additional factor is the criminal incompetence of the initial occupation strategies, such as dismissing all government officials, police, and military from their jobs, and then bringing incompetents and “kids” (even Heritage Foundation interns) to staff the occupation. But this simply reflects the larger issue – that the American system is incapable of intelligent postwar planning. Look how we fought the Second World War to give half of Europe (and Manchuria) to communists, thereby making them into a greater threat than Hitler. Now, we’re losing our allies and making ourselves into the enemy of most of the Muslim world, nearly a quarter of the human race.

America simply does not have the will, resources, patience, care, or ability to “run” an empire or even an effective counterinsurgency. War for Americans is like a football game: one “wins” and then goes home. For many Americans, war means watching Oliver North on Fox TV and then cursing the foreigners for not doing what we tell them. Few care that America has now become so hated in the world. When real wars start, it means TV “news” repeatedly showing planes taking off aircraft carriers, missiles firing into space, and tanks charging through the desert dust. Rarely (for example, recently with Lebanon) do Americans ever see the destruction and misery caused by war. Indeed, it is very hard to find any Pentagon sources on Google that explain what our bombs actually do when they hit.

The second report is a Cato Institute study, “The American Way of War: Cultural Barriers to Successful Counterinsurgency [.pdf],” by Jeffrey Record of the Air War College. The paper criticizes our view of military victory as an end in itself. It also argues, “Simply put, the U.S. is not very good at defeating enemies who do not fight like we do, enemies who avoid our strengths while exploiting our weaknesses.”

The professor recounts several characteristics of the “American way of war” as described by the respected British strategist Colin S. Gray, such as:

  • We are apolitical, with a long history of “waging war for the goal of victory, paying scant regard to the consequences of the course of its operations for the character of the peace that will follow.”
  • We are ahistorical, with little interest in the lessons of history, because we consider ourselves so unique and good.
  • We are optimistic, thinking that everything will work out well after we “win.”
  • We are culturally ignorant, with little interest or respect for other cultures.
  • We are dependent on technology for intelligence, lacking human resources. Our propaganda about Saddam being a new Hitler obscured how he really ruled, through the tribal leaders. If we had known that (or cared), then the early occupation might have been more sensitive to such issues of control. Instead, the Pentagon neoconservatives brought in Israeli “advisers” to show us their methods of occupation.
  • We are “firepower focused.” I refer readers to the truly excellent and original thinking of William S. Lind, who explains that America still follows the Second Generation ideology of massive firepower and is woefully inept at Fourth Generation warfare against guerrillas (Third Generation warfare involves the mass maneuvers associated with the era of Gen. Patton).
  • We are impatient, wanting quick “victory” (like we see in the movies about the Second World War). Indeed, nearly all military training is still about war with nation-states. Pentagon spending is mainly designed for a war with China or Russia.
  • We are “profoundly regular. According to Gray, “U.S. armed forces have not been friendly either to irregular warfare or to those in its ranks who were would-be practitioners and advocates of what was regarded as the sideshow of insurgency.”
  • We are sensitive to casualties. In order to maintain support for war on the home front, we are overly destructive on the war front. To minimize our own casualties, we use excessive firepower that destroys what we are trying to save, as well as killing many foreign civilians.
  • I would add another major point: Our vast military budget is bloated with corporate welfare. The hyper-expensive F-22 is a good example, being built with subcontractors in 42 states to spread the jobs and money. Most spending is a giant money pot to help members of Congress win reelection.

    Other major points from Professor Record:

  • Counterinsurgency is “inherently manpower intensive and rel[ies] heavily on special skills – for example, human intelligence, civil affairs, police, public health, foreign language, foreign force training, psychological warfare – that are secondary, even marginal, to the prosecution of conventional warfare.”
  • Pentagon procurement is still almost wholly weighted to big-ticket items irrelevant to the War on Terror; the Pentagon prefers to do what it does well. Record explains how counterinsurgency “demands the utmost restraint and discrimination in the application of force. In counterinsurgency warfare, firepower is the instrument of last rather than first resort.”
  • Small-war expert Thomas X. Hammes has noted that war against unconventional enemies “is the only kind of war America has ever lost. … As the only Goliath in the world, we should be worried that the world’s Davids have found a sling and stone that work.” It is, needless to say, ironic that America won its independence from Britain using unconventional warfare.
  • Record goes on to say that “great power intervention in small wars is almost always a matter of choice. … Most such wars do not engage core U.S. security interests other than placing the limits of American military power on embarrassing display.” Furthermore, “Neither the Pentagon nor the U.S. government as a whole is properly organized or sufficiently motivated to meet the challenges of political reconstruction in foreign lands. … Notwithstanding the exceptional cases of post-World War II Germany and Japan, the United States has demonstrated – in Vietnam,
    Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and Afghanistan – that it lacks the will and skills required to effect the enduring rehabilitation of failed states.”

    A good example is the shortage of Arabic-speaking interpreters. At a major conference I covered, several speakers explained that there was only one level of security clearance and that persons with even grandparents in the affected nations were rejected. It was suggested that the CIA and military adopt several levels of security clearance so that the sons and daughters of Arab immigrants in America with linguistic skills could be hired. The idea has not yet, to my knowledge, been adopted. And our military has a desperate need for Arabic speakers. The government is simply too cumbersome to change past policies.

    Record concludes that “abstention from small wars of choice would mandate a realistic foreign policy that placed the protection of concrete interests ahead of crusades to promote the overseas expansion of abstract American political values.”

    Another tremendous problem is that in Third World nations without the rule of law, everything is based upon trust and personal relations. We constantly read of successful American officers being transferred or rotated out of their jobs, leaving the local Iraqis with whom they dealt out in the cold. Could America staff and train a permanent overseas body of men and women to learn local cultures and languages and then stay for years in the same location, as England and Rome once did? Given American culture, it is impossible. And even if we had them, they would still be at the mercy of partisan or ethnic interests in Washington. Democracies are simply unable to effectively rule empires, and are defeated or destroyed when they try (e.g., Athens).

    Two years ago, James Pinkerton wrote an amusing analysis in The American Conservative titled “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Imperialists.” Like Record’s analysis, Pinkerton’s piece confirms that America is incapable of organizing itself to successfully impose our will by force upon small foreign nations, much less the world.

    Author: Jon Basil Utley

    Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative. He was a foreign correspondent in South America for the Journal of Commerce and Knight Ridder newspapers and former associate editor of The Times of the Americas. He is a writer and adviser for Antiwar.com and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.