Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq

Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq

Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq

Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq

Synopsis

Learning to Forget analyzes the evolution of US counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine over the last five decades. Beginning with an extensive section on the lessons of Vietnam, it traces the decline of COIN in the 1970s, then the rebirth of low intensity conflict through the Reagan years, in the conflict in Bosnia, and finally in the campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ultimately it closes the loop by explaining how, by confronting the lessons of Vietnam, the US Army found a way out of those most recent wars. In the process it provides an illustration of how military leaders make use of history and demonstrates the difficulties of drawing lessons from the past that can usefully be applied to contemporary circumstances.

The book outlines how the construction of lessons is tied to the construction of historical memory and demonstrates how histories are constructed to serve the needs of the present. In so doing, it creates a new theory of doctrinal development.

Excerpt

On Wednesday, May 23, 1962, Major General Victor Krulak, special assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for counterinsurgency and special operations, addressed the students and staff of the US Army War College. Krulak’s subject was the “Tactics and Techniques of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency,” and he began his lecture by quoting a passage from Alice in Wonderland, recounting that when Alice asked the White Queen what a word meant, the Queen replied: “What does it mean? Why, it means what I mean it to mean.” To Krulak, this illustrated the difficulty of defining counterinsurgency: “Each of us has a mental picture of the term, and each picture is different—either as to foreground, background, subject matter, color, or texture. This is one of our real problems.” If Krulak admitted that the definition of counterinsurgency was complicated, then a similar dilemma soon extended to the lessons of the ongoing war in Vietnam, which proved even more difficult to characterize and harder to simplify into something that could be meaningfully understood as a lesson. This book concerns itself with understanding how the US Army comprehended the lessons of the war in Vietnam and the concept of counterinsurgency that Krulak struggled to define. It is interested in what the US Army meant both Vietnam and counterinsurgency to mean—that is, the combination of ideology, memory, and identity at work in shaping the Army’s constructed understandings of these terms. These various meanings grew out of efforts to process and make sense of the failures in Vietnam.

The lessons of Vietnam have been intensely contested, with disputes over which lessons should be heeded emerging even before the end of American involvement in the war in 1973. Indeed, the struggle over the lessons of Vietnam . . .

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