by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Aug 2005
The US has been involved in many conflicts of many sizes -- from small actions such as the Indian Wars of the American West, to huge actions such as the World Wars.
In many cases Americans have been aware of the magnitude of the war they were getting involved in from its beginning. Americans knew the World Wars were going to be long and hard-fought months before the US became involved. Sometimes there have been pleasant surprises -- the first Gulf War was surprisingly short and sweet.
But three of America's wars -- the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War -- have been surprising the other direction: they were all supposed to be short and relatively low cost, but they turned long, high cost and difficult.
What do surprisingly long wars have in common, what makes them different from "average" wars?
Wars start when two communities, lead by their politicians, think it's time to have a fight. Both sides have to agree to fight. If only one side agrees to fight, the other side loses bloodlessly. Examples of times when only one side chose to fight are when Germany took over Austria and Czechoslovakia before World War II.
There is an important war starting characteristic which is often forgotten: No politician in his right mind invites his community to start a long war. So one way of telling who really started a war (something that is often disputed after the fact.) is to compare the pre-war statements of the leading politicians on both sides about the upcoming war. Whoever was promising a short war ("I can have the troops home for Christmas." is an infamous war-starting pledge.) is the one who started it. If politicians on both sides were promising a short war, then both sides started it.
The German experience after World War I and leading up to the Russian invasion of World War II. All the battles from miliatrizing the Rhineland up to and including invading Russia were planned as short wars, and all except invading Russia were executed as short wars as well. The Germans developed the term Blitzkrieg -- lightning war -- for internal consumption. The Nazis were explaining to the German people that they had figured a way to make war short and relatively painless, and this is why it was OK to go to war. Before Hitler, the average German was just as war-shy as any other European because all Europeans had experienced the long war that World War One was. But seeing "blitzkrieg" in action in Poland, Norway, France, Yugoslavia and Greece allowed the average German to become more war-tolerant.
(There is an interesting parallel in history here. America following Vietnam was also war-shy. The most symbolic example of this was Carter's feeble response to the Iranian radicals taking the US Embassy hostage in 1978 in the middle of the Iranian Revolution. Just as Hitler reversed Germany's war-shyness with a series of short, contained and very successful military engagements starting with remilitarizing the Rhineland and leading to the Fall of France, so Reagan reversed America's war-shyness with a series of short, contained and very successful military engagements starting with Grenada and leading to the First Gulf War. The parallel continuues in that in both cases the leaders of then lead their nations into a long, difficult "quagmire" war -- a war with surprise enemies and protected resources.)
The average war is short. It lasts from days to a month or two. In those days or months one side takes enough of a "hit" that they sue for peace, and the other side looks at the cost versus benefit of continuing the fight, sees the peace as the most profitable alternative, and takes the peace offer. (The side that takes the hit may offer unconditional surrender.)
A long war happens because one or both sides get a "surprise" enemy. The surprise enemy upsets the plans for the short war.
Lets look at some specific examples from American history: the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the 2nd Gulf War:
The Korean War started as North Korea versus South Korea. The war started in August, and at first it was going to be short and sweet for the North Koreans because the Americans had indicated Korea was not part of their vital defense line (Japan and The Philippines were), and they Americans had not equipped the South Koreans to take on a surprisingly well-equipped North Korean army. Then, surprise!, the US decided to get involved and did so under the auspices of the UN. The war was then going to be short and sweet because either the North Koreans would succeed in driving the UN forces into the sea before they could get organized, or the US/UN would stop that from happening and launch a massive counterstroke. Making it even shorter and sweeter was the huge success of Mac Arthur's Incheon Landing in September. After that landing the North Korean army was cut off from supplies and dissolved. The UN forces marched north and Mc Arthur was able to make that famous pledge, "We'll have the boys home by Christmas." Then, surprise!, the war turned the other way when the Red Chinese Army came to rescue the North Koreans in November. The Chinese managed to pull their own version of "Incheon" and sneak two full armies into Korea without the UN noticing. The Chinese "surprise" drove the front line back to south of Seoul, and the Chinese had aspirations of driving the South Koreans and US/UN into the sea. That didn't happen because the US sent more troops in, and the Chinese advance was stopped south of Seoul in December.
After the Chinese intervention was halted, the war evolved into a bloody, slowly-winding-down stalemate. It turned into a bloody, slowly winding down stalemate because both sides had large protected resources (discussed in the next section). In the end both sides claimed victory. (The Americans said, "We stopped Korean-Chinese aggression and saved South Korea." the Chinese said, "We stopped US/UN aggression and saved China." The South Koreans said, "Thank you." and the North Koreans said, "The Revolution lives on!")
The Vietnam War was going to be short and sweet because the US forces were going to chase out the local guerrillas (the Viet Cong) and it would be over. Then, surprise!, the war turned long and ugly when the North Vietnamese Army, supported by lots of war material from China and Russia, came south to rescue the Viet Cong. Like Korea, the war evolved into a long, bloody stalemate. Unlike Korea, the stalemate ended with astonishing speed when the US Congress decided to pull the plug on the billions of dollars a year the US was sending to South Vietnam to support their army. Just weeks after that was announced, the South Vietnamese Army became The Incredible Vanishing Army and disappeared completely within a couple months. It was one of the largest and fastest routs in history.
The Iraq War was going to be short and sweet because the US planned on facing only Saddam's field army. That army collapsed on schedule as the US forces rolled north from Kuwait. Then, surprise!, war turned long and ugly when the Iraq internal security structure (various police forces) vaporized along with the field army, and various insurgent groups sprang up to fill the security vacuum. That was a surprise, and the surprise got worse when a year or so later these local insurgents started getting serious aid from everyone in the Middle East area who had an ax to grind with the US. Iraq turned into the perfect place to tweak the US's nose.
Looking at the Korean and Vietnam precedents, what is in store next for Iraq is a years-long conflict of bloody stalemate.
In the Korean War, China hurt some, America hurt some, but Korea was devastated by the Korean War. Under Japanese rulership, from 1900 to 1945, Korea had been transforming from almost completely agrarian to modestly industrial. It was a moderately prosperous place. The war changed that. In the aftermath of the Korean War, in the late fifties, Korean per capita income leveled out at comparable to Ghana's in Africa. It was flattened. It has truly been a miracle that only fifty years later Korea is now a world-class manufacturing powerhouse surpassing Italy in GNP and per capita income.
In Vietnam America's blood and pride were injured, North Vietnam's blood was spilled, but South Vietnam was ripped apart. North Vietnam won, but it had no resources comparable to America's to rebuild South Vietnam after the victory. To this day, thirty years later, the unified Vietnam is a poor nation.
The Korean and Vietnam experience would indicate that Iraq is going to take this one "on the chin." No matter who wins, the Iraqis will suffer the most, and it will take them decades to recover. On the negative side, Iraq, like Vietnam and unlike Korea, has no industrial tradition to aspire to, or to remember and rebuild. On the positive side, it has oil. When the fighting finally winds down, it should have lots of cash to rebuild, even if it has a very fuzzy vision of what it will be rebuilding. I predict lots of scandals involving misspent money in Iraq's future, and not much progress towards raising the average Iraqi's quality of life. I predict it will bottom out with a per capita income comparable to Pakistan; I will not predict what "post miracle" Iraq is going to look like because there are no examples of Shining Middle East Nations which Iraq can aspire to be like.
A surprise enemy is not enough to make a long war. There must also be protected military resources that neither side can effectively turn off. America is the world's largest protected resource. Historically, if you fight America, expect to fight a long war against a well-financed enemy. So, in American wars, America is one of the protected resources.
In Korea and Vietnam, America's enemies were fighting with a large part of their military resource protected from American firepower. In Korea the Chinese could stage their military resources in Northeast China (formerly known as Manchuria) and then sneak those resources across the border when American airpower and firepower were nullified by darkness or bad weather. In Vietnam the NVA could stage in North Vietnam and sneak men and material into South Vietnam by sea or by the Ho Chi Min trail. These protected resources on both sides of the conflict were the major reason the war could be conducted in a bloody and intense fashion for a long time.
Because the Iraq War has turned into a long one, this means that The Insurgents include a surprise enemy and have a protected resource. Where that protected resource is located remains a mystery to me. The media is diligent about reporting deaths, suicide bombings and occasional military operations, but they have said little about where the anti-American soldiers or material are coming from. Since I don't know where the protected resource is, it means the media has has never accurately reported who the Americans are fighting, or where their resources are coming from. This is a serious shortcoming in reporting. This may also reflect poor understanding on the part of top Bush officials. If Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney are routinely reporting that, "The Insurgency is on it's last legs." (which they did through most of 2005), and yet it keeps fighting strongly, then they don't understand where The Insurgency's protected resource is, either. This leads me to guess that the answer is an unpleasant one for the media and the Bush Administration. If the Bush Administration doesn't know who its enemy is, and where that enemy's protected resource is, that is yet another administration bungle in this war.
Americans count on firepower to win the day. In all wars America fights, American firepower rules the day. America's unsuccessful enemies have succumbed to that firepower. America's successful enemies have found ways around that firepower strength so that America did not rule the day and the night. The Chinese and North Vietnamese both used weather, darkness and shovels to nullify the American firepower advantage. The Iraqis are using cover of civilians and the hopelessly weak police forces to nullify American firepower.
As I mentioned earlier, no politician, no national leader, makes points by saying to his people, "This war I'm about to get you involved in is going to be a long one." (Note: If you look at Bush's pronouncements, he always did say this. In the post 9-11 days he was constantly saying, "This war will be a long one." But he was very careful never to define "long" or "war", so most people took it to mean that the fighting part of the war would last many days, or at most, many months, and the "war" he was referring to was the War on Terrorism, and that would be a chronic state, like the War on Drugs has been.) So every war is fought in a way that, if it goes according to plan, will force the enemy to sue for peace within six months. This is true of both World Wars. If you look at the way the military campaigns of the World Wars were conducted, 90% were going to produce a peace in six months. The reason these wars went on for four years was because none of the plans went as planned -- the enemy always proved more resilient than expected. Hitler's Russian campaign is a good example. The first move into Russia was supposed to have Stalin (or his replacement because of his disgrace at the huge defeat they would suffer) suing for peace by Christmas. The Russian counteroffensive was supposed to break the overly-proud German army, now shivering in Russian Winter cold, and produce a second Retreat from Moscow that would rival Napoleon's defeat, and Germany would sue for peace before the cherry blossoms bloomed. Hitler's Summer Offensive of the next year was supposed to gore Russia economically and produce a sue for peace by Christmas again (this was the offensive that ended with Stalingrad.), and so on...
Long wars only look long in retrospect. At the time they are being fought, they look like a series of short wars, none of which go as planned.
These are the major comparisons I see between the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq Wars. What do these tell us about the future of the Iraq War?
The US could win, or could lose. It will win if it's willing to send billions of dollars for decades to support an Iraq government (Korean example). It will lose if it loses heart and pulls the plug early (Vietnam example). Americans have watched the progress of all three of these wars closely. Americans supported Korea over the long haul for two reasons: a) it was a Cold War issue. b) American thinking was still dominated by the WWII experience, so making the sacrifice was in the national habit. America did not support Vietnam because: a) after a decade of fighting it no longer looked vital to American interests. b) the South Vietnamese government looked increasing ineffectual and corrupt.
Will Americans support Iraq with billions of dollars a year for one or two decades?
It will if:
Americans will pull the plug if:
The war will also end more quickly, and in America's favor, if Americans can correctly identify the enemy, and the enemy's protected resource. Panic Thinking caused by the 9-11 Disaster in 2001 has clouded the Bush Administration's thinking about America's enemies in many ways, and one of those ways has been the proper identification of the enemy in Iraq. The enemy the Bush Administration wants to fight, and the enemy actually on the ground in Iraq, are not the same entities.
There is one other war that needs to be compared to the Iraqi War: the Spanish Civil War of 1936. This war is like the Iraq War because of the International Brigades. As the Spanish Civil War evolved, much of the intelligencia of Europe and America sided with the Republicans against the Nationalists. Many of these people felt so strongly about this conflict that they went to Spain and organized into several foreign brigades that fought side-by-side with the Spanish Republicans. The Republicans lost, and these intellectuals returned home, bitterly disappointed. The intellectuals' experience in Spain influenced arts, literature and politics for five decades thereafter. A couple of the most obvious examples being Earnest Hemmingway's books "The Sun Also Rises" and "For whom the Bell Tolls"
The Iraqi War is attracting the same kind of interest among Islamic intellectuals. The Middle East has growing prosperity, and this growing prosperity is creating a fresh, new, expanding middle class, and that middle class is going through the same kind of growing pains that Europe's middle class went through at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (roughly the 1800's through the 1840's -- the era of supporting the Greek Revolt from the Ottoman Empire and the beginnings of the Anarchist and Socialist movements.) What this means is that the Iraqi War is going to be a pivotal part of the Islamic experience and Middle East Islamic culture for decades, no matter who wins or loses. Given that this is a brand new middle class, what will come from this new culture force will be something new, unseen before in Islam, and unseen before in all the world.
Since the war has evolved into this situation, American policy makers should now be as sensitive to this aspect of the Iraqi War as they are to purely local Iraqi matters. This war is no longer just about Iraq. This war is shaping up as something that is going to be as influential to Islamic world thinking as the Civil War has been to American thinking. It could easily become referred to in Islamic intellectual circles as The Second Crusade.
My goodness, what a situation this has turned into!