Rolling the Dice of War

By Jones, Frank L. | International Journal, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview
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Rolling the Dice of War


Jones, Frank L., International Journal


Military necessity and nation building

"The strategic fact of historical experience is that once the dice of war are rolled, policy achievement is largely hostage to military performance"

Colin Cray

Modern Strategy

"History, of course, never repeats itself precisely," former secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in an op-ed last year examining the lessons of the Vietnam War as applied to the current insurgency in Iraq.' The Pentagon's political and military leadership repudiated such an analogue and so did US Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US-led occupation agency, according to journalist Thomas Ricks. In the summer of 2003, a retired Marine colonel, expert in "small wars," went to Baghdad to advise Bremer on how to counter the growing insurgency. At a meeting between the two men, the colonel innocently suggested to the ambassador that some of the programs implemented in the Vietnam War might be useful. The suggestion set Bremer off, raging that Iraq was not Vietnam. As Ricks observes, "[t]his was one of the early indications that US officials would obstinately refuse to learn from the past as they sought to run Iraq."2

The refusal to learn from history actually began more than two years earlier when senior Defense Department officials ignored or dismissed case studies conducted by the RAND Corporation and the US Army Strategic Studies Institute on US experiences in postconflict occupation as well as the initial post-invasion planning Department of State experts conducted. Further, these officials marginalized former army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, when he provided his military judgement that the force required to occupy Iraq would be more substantial than his civilian superiors were admitting. Instead, using a variation on an operational plan used in Afghanistan, Pentagon leaders put a premium on technology and minimal force levels to attain victory because they confused military aims with political objectives.

Such an indictment should not be imposed solely on the Pentagon's civilians-military leaders bear responsibility as well. In the immediate aftermath of tactical success, US military units failed to suppress the emerging anarchy and became estranged from the Iraqi population by guarding the oil Ministry while sanctioning the looting and destruction of the remaining fragile institutions and infrastructure of Iraq. Perhaps the inaction resulted from the US military's traditional unease with nation building, a role in which military and political aims are both complementary and interdependent. Regardless of the genesis, one of the lessons from Iraq is that a more expansive review of military effectiveness must be taken, not simply in terms of conducting combat operations but in administrating civil affairs. It requires an understanding of how military capability must be reconciled with military necessity. This is not only an imperative of international law but is dictated by common sense as well: some agency must plan for and assume this onerous responsibility in order to advance the nation's political interests. Thus, national policy compels more from the soldier than obedience to orders; it calls for statesmanship.

THE BEGINNING OF NATION BUILDING

If the battle streamers attached to the US army's official flag could give voice, they would tell of not only of the campaigns the organization has fought but also its role in military government, another name for nation building, which occurred after the Mexican War (1847-48), in the Confederate states during and after the American Civil War, in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba after the Spanish-American War, and in the Rhineland after World War I. In every instance, however, American politicians and intelligentsia were wary of the army assuming civil authority, an anxiety arising from the longstanding historical and legal traditions of the United States.

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