Thursday, March 24, 2005

Van Creveld, Moshe Dayan, Vietnam, and Iraq

The mighty Martin van Creveld has a sizeable essay in the Boston Review on Iraq by way of Moshe Dayan's stint as a war correspondent in South Vietnam. (I personally didn't know he'd been one, so there you go.) Dayan prepared meticulously for his assignment - being a world-famous hero tends to get you good contacts, and he travelled to Saigon the wrong way round, via France, the UK and the US, in order to call on old friends.

He kicked off in France, visiting a couple of generals he knew (one of whom had just got out of jail for his part in the OAS putsch attempt). One of them, an air force officer, predictably thought the answer was to bomb 'em to their senses. The other (the ex-rebel) argued that the Americans' problem was one of intelligence and reconnaissance - his answer, involving small parties (five to seven men) probing the jungle edge, bears a close similarity to SAS concepts and indeed to their operations in Malaya and Borneo. He warned that otherwise much of the US force deployed would go to waste, blasting jungle futilely as the Viet Cong laughed (quietly...).

From there, our man kicked on to Britain to see another pal. Field Marshal Montgomery, in fact. Now, his strategic judgement was usually excellent - it was just applying it to himself that he found difficult. Monty's critique of the US strategy in Vietnam, as told to Dayan, can hardly be bettered. Firstly, the Americans had no clear objective. Following Clausewitz's logic, not having a clear top-level aim means you cannot have a coherent plan to achieve it, all the way down the levels of analysis to the soldier in the mud. Secondly, in this vacuum of purpose, the field commanders would naturally attempt to control their environment - that is, they would seek battle as they saw fit and demand all the resources they wanted. Without a defining strategy, the war machine would run faster and faster, throwing out more and more conflicting projects and doing more and more damage. Alternatively, if the commanders were refused more resources it would chug on ineffectually.

Monty himself was nothing if not prone to both flaws, of course. Few generals have ever had such an addiction to firepower, or such a conviction that their front was the vital theatre of war. Sometimes Monty was right on these (El Alamein, Normandy in general). Sometimes he was wrong (Operation Charnwood at Caen in particular, Arnhem). He does not seem to have recognised that these flaws applied to him too, but he was still damn right. Another Monty feature was linguistic extremism, and this too was present: he wanted Dayan to tell US leaders, in his name (that his name would carry extra conviction was also characteristic), that they were insane.

Dayan's further experiences were also telling; he went on to meet the Best and the Brightest, hearing Walt Rostow, Maxwell Taylor (yet another second war hero) and Robert S. McNamara. Only Taylor offered anything that could be described as a plan, but could not say how close it was to being fulfilled. He then proceeded to Vietnam, and the war. There he went on to get himself shot at by crashing around the underbrush with the Marines in a company led by the Fleet Marine Force Pacific chief "Brute" Krulak's son and leaping off helicopters with the Air Cav - but still no-one could tell him why.

His conclusion was that the Americans were "not fighting against infiltration to South [Vietnam], or against guerrillas, or against North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, but against the entire world. Their real aim was to show everybody—including Britain, France, and the USSR—their power and determination so as to pass this message: wherever Americans go, they are irresistible." An interesting judgement, surely, and one I'm not sure I agree with.

Now, what exactly is the strategic aim in Iraq? We all know the platitudes: democracy in the Middle East and such. But that isn't a strategic goal in Iraq. That would be one that said what kind of government Iraq will have, what our relations with it will be, and how the war there will terminate. At the moment, the scheme appears to be to build up Iraqi forces, hope the government gains authority, and perhaps one day begin withdrawing troops. But that is not an aim. That is a method, and its illogic becomes clear under close scrutiny. So, Iraqi government forces (and/or loyalist paramilitaries) will gradually relieve US and allied forces of responsibility. But that suggests the war will remain, to be fought by another army. Leaving a war in progress in a highly unstable, perhaps indeed a failed state, in the heart of the Middle East - is this a strategic aim?

And further, is the strategic aim to establish a democratic Iraq and then to leave, or to establish a pro-Western democratic Iraq and stay - and what if the two last adjectives conflict? If the second option is chosen, unless the war is somehow ended, remaining US troops in their "enduring bases" will remain both targets, and actors in the war. That is to say, the aim will remain unachieved.

This week has been one of carnage in Iraq (again). It has been characterised by large (by local standards) infantry engagements, for example the major convoy ambush south of Baghdad and the reported "80 guerrillas killed" action outside Samarra. This has been presented as success, but it also means that the enemy are moving about in large groups. This is not good. Two arguments can be made; either they are easier to catch that way, or they are more formidable that way. Time will tell. Concerning the reports of 80+ guerrillas killed when a "training camp" was raided near Samarra, AFP reports that the figure may be as low as 11; by the radical means of sending a reporter to the scene of the action, AFP was able to ask questions of members of a group of around 40 guerrillas, who claimed the casualties were the victims of air attack.

Official reports attributed the success to the Iraqi "Ministry of the Interior Commandos" (that Soviet phrase again), but even the official line seems confused - initial reports spoke of several guerrillas being killed when a "camp" was discovered by "US forces" and a major fight elsewhere involving the MOICs. This then morphed into one single action with a camp and the MOICs - or are they meant to be in two places at once?

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