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

By David Fitzgerald | Go to book overview

6
COUNTERINSURGENCY AND “VIETNAM”
IN IRAQ, 2003–2006

THE OCCUPATION OF IRAQ starkly illustrated the absence of knowledge about how to conduct counterinsurgency operations within the Army. One of the most revealing periods was the immediate aftermath of the invasion, when the US Army found itself effectively without a plan.1 The growing insurgency highlighted the inadequacies of preinvasion planning, shattering assumptions about the Army’s capabilities and doctrine. In this vacuum, commanders and commentators alike turned to the past to make sense of the present, employing analogies from postwar Germany to Vietnam to Lebanon to explain the situation. The differences among various units’ performances illustrate the dearth of counterinsurgency doctrine or training within the Army and how that absence led commanders to adopt disparate lessons from their own experiences. The question then is: How did the US Army comprehend the war in terms of past experience? Specifically, how did narratives of Vietnam affect how the Army understood Iraq? Additionally, how did the prolonged absence of counterinsurgency from the Army’s collective memory (and certainly its doctrine and curriculum) affect its ability to deal with the insurgency in Iraq?

These are crucial questions, but this chapter is not only concerned with the absence of collective memory—of both Vietnam and counterinsurgency—as it also examines attempts to fill that void, both by reaching back for old lessons and by constructing new ones. The reemergence of counterinsurgency in 2004 through 2006 is inextricably tied to the rise of an alternative set of lessons from Vietnam than the ones that the Army brought with it to Iraq. These old and new lessons from Vietnam shaped the occupation, from the early ten-

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