I’ve been looking for a while for a line of argument into my belief that Iraq isn’t remotely like Vietnam.
As I’ve discussed, I don’t see why my hawkish views on Iraq contradict my dovish ones on Vietnam. Vietnam was both a proxy war and a genuine anticolonialist one, and we missed the boat historically by not taking a stand after World War II in favor of independence (or, as Ho Chi Minh proposed, quasi-independence) for as many states as possible.
Reading Hammes’ “The Sling and the Stone” gave me a nice hook for this.Hammes emphasizes Mao’s theories of warfare, and places the Chinese revolution, the war in Vietnam, the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution, the Intifada(s), and Al-Quaida in their context.
It’s interesting to note that the London Times Book Review today reviews Jung Chang’s biography of Mao, which contradicts several of Hammes’ key assertions about the Chinese revolution (read the review, and I’ll go through those in a separate post).
Mao’s three phases, as set out in Hammes book are:
Phase I: The insurgents concentrate primarily on building political strength. Military action is limited to selected, politically motivated assassinations. Any other military action must have a propaganda purpose to cement the population’s support of the insurgents.
Phase II: The insurgents gain strength and consolidate control of base areas. They begin to actively administer some portions of the contested area. And, because Mao had no outside sponsor supplying weapons [an assertion contradicted by Chang – Ed.], they conducted military operations both to capture arms and to wear down government forces.
Phase III: The insurgents commit regular forces (which have been carefully husbanded up to this point) in a final offensive against the government. This phase can only succeed if the “correlation of forces” has been shifted to the insurgents during the early phases.
Hammes’ key point of course, is the one too often neglected in this age of the technology of war – that war is foremost a political act, and that political action is as important as military action in war that is less than existential…that is where the point is not to simply destroy one’s opponent, wither because we cannot or choose not to.
He suggests that in every case mentioned above, that the winning side focused on the political battle – both within their own society, and within the society of their opponents.
Here’s where it gets interesting as we talk about Iraq.
He makes a strong distinction between the first, more successful Intifada that led to Oslo, and the second, homicidally violent one that has failed the Palestinian people.
In every winning case, the political groundwork done by the winning side was based in a positive vision of the future; of a view toward a hopeful future that could be imagined by Chinese peasants, Palestinian shopkeepers, and Nicaraguan shopkeepers. Mao listed his “Six Principles” as a way of differentiating his forces from those of the Nationalist Chinese armies he was opposing [again note that Chang suggests that Mao was significantly brutal and abusive to peasants – Ed.].
One final point is essential. It is difficult for a despot to effectively use 4GW as a strategic approach. Although many of the tactics and techniques of 4GW can be effective even for a dictator, the fundamental strength of 4GW lies in the idea or message that is the heart of the concept. Each successful 4GW practitioner – Mao, Ho, the Sandinistas, and the first Intifada leadership – had an underlying, appealing, unifying idea. Although in each case, the idea was abandoned upon victory [in the case of Mao, earlier, per Chang’s book – Ed.], it does not change the requirement for an idea to drive 4GW warfare. Arafat has utterly failed to develop such a message. His approach to warfare cannot succeed.
The battle for Iraq will be determined by the relative strength of the ideas of each side.
In the case of Vietnam, there was a strong vision on one side – of an independent Vietnamese state.
In the case of Iraq, the strong vision ought to be on our side – freedom, prosperity, security.
But it has to be sold – even more than lived, as Mao, Ortega, and Ho proved – and we need to work harder to live it and sell it both.
There’s a final point that he makes that I want us to take closely to heart:
Unfortunately, 4GW wars are long. The Chinese Communists fought for twenty-eight years (1921 – 49). The Vietnamese Communists fought for thirty years (1945 – 75). The Sandinistas fought for eighteen years (1961 – 79). The Palestinians have been resisting Israeli occupation for twenty-nine years so far (1975 – 2004). The Chechens have been fighting for more than ten years – this time…Accordingly, when getting involved in a 4GW fight, we should be planning for a decades-long commitment. From an American point of view, this may well be the single most important characteristic of 4GW.
In a 4GW, we can lose the war in a decisive battle – but we’ll never win that way.