The Sling And The Stone

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.].

Hammes says:

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.

(emphasis added)

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.

31 thoughts on “The Sling And The Stone”

  1. List those countries that cast off colonialism where the lot of the people was improved.
    1. The United States
    2. ?

  2. Yes, this kind of war is long and hard.

    For a short, intense war, you want to run a wartime economy. In half a decade or less your economy may be in a lot of trouble, but by then you may have saved or lost your country in high intensity high tempo action.

    For a long war, you have to baby your economy and your fundamentals. If not, your endurance will give out. The Vietnam War harmed the American economy. When the American legislature said “no more money for the war,” the war was lost. Russia is in big trouble for even more fundamental reasons. (link) An appealing vision for victory cannot be built on the basis of auto-genocidal demographics, where every generation is less numerous and less healthy than the one before it.

    What kind of war are we fighting? First, one for a great ideal – democracy – not for cynical “stability”. This is because George W. Bush has insisted on the right course and done his best to sell it. This is morally right, and it means we can explain the war to ourselves (WMD or no WMD), and only in this way could we offer a cause that was worth free Iraqis lives, worth them fighting and dying for. Our enemies can’t offer a good future to the (Shiite and Kurd) majority, so they are in a losing position that we need not let them get out of. (The more carnage they suffer fighting this hopeless war, the better. I would like the jihadis to die and be maimed in First World War Western Front numbers if possible.)

    Second, we are fighting smart for a long war, concentrating on sparing the economy (“go shopping”) and standing up local forces rather than having a huge increase in expensive American forces. Again this is due to George W. Bush doing the right thing despite every sort of poisonous advice.

    I do not think the “rightness” of the war by itself counts for very much. If rightness won wars, the Mongols, evil incarnate, would never have won a battle.

    Great leaders win wars. Ho Chi Mihn and Vo Nguyen Giap were great political and military leaders. Abu Musal al-Zarqawi is not, and can’t be. (So far, I am still convinced we are fighting what I call a fungus, something with vast reserves of hatred, demographic and oil-based resources and staying power, and not at all bad on tactics but weak on strategic direction.)

    Lyndon Baines Johnson was an unusually bad leader, and General Westmorland was an unlucky leader, in a poor bureaucratic and military position, and not very sneaky. George W. Bush has a very smart and deadly volunteer army, and all the basic political decisions it couldn’t compensate for if he got wrong, he gets right. That makes him a strong war leader, in Lincoln’s class, except for his unfortunate inability to speak well. Tony Blair is also strong (though lacking support in his party), mainly because in every war he has a single agenda: win and go home. (He was the same on former Yugoslavia, it’s his – correct – method, not something about this war.) Lyndon Baines Johnson had no key political-diplomatic-military ally like that.

    The history of war shows again and again that bold, resolute and basically correct leadership (including low-maintenance alliances – a rare asset) backed up by a great army can do the job even if the enemy looks like some kind of invincible monster. There are exceptions, but they are surprisingly rare. Our enemies are terrible monsters, but collectively, a brainless one, relying too much on sheer hate, redundant parallelisation and endless regeneration of assets.

    Hercules is going to beat Hydra.

    We’re going to win this thing. We just are.

  3. Vietnam was both a proxy war…

    I don’t have a problem with much of this analysis, but given both the explicit and the implicit advancement of the “flypaper theory” by Iraq hawks, can anybody really argue Iraq is not a proxy war?

  4. Chris: “… given both the explicit and the implicit advancement of the “flypaper theory” by Iraq hawks, can anybody really argue Iraq is not a proxy war?”

    (shrug) I’m sure someone can, but I won’t bother. My view is that George W. Bush could have won the Vietnam War even though it supposedly was unwinnable (and even though Ho and Giap really were terrors), and Lyndon Baines Johnson (or of course John Forbes Kerry) would unfailingly have lost the present war – horribly – even though eventually in hindsight military historians will say that conditions were so favourable that anyone could have won it.

    Skill kills. Great leaders win, bad ones lose.

  5. The Palestinians and the Iraqi insurgents have two Big Ideas that are plenty motivating: “Jihad” and nationalism. For those people, that is “Positive and Hopeful”.

    But the Vietnamese Communist advantages over the Iraqi “Insurgents” add up to more than the similarities: Ho Chi Minh vs Zarqawi, China and the USSR as suppliers, 30 years of military experience, majority ethnicity of Vietnamese vs Catholics compared to minority ethnicity of Sunni vs Shiite/Kurd, Jungle to hide in vs desert, no strategic value of Vietnam vs oil, Asian martial traditions vs Arabic, US weapons have advanced more in 40 years than the opponents have — the IED is not new but the surveillance satellite is, Vietnamese had a well thought out ideology and internal unity vs the Baath/al-queda amateurness and internal division… The list is legion.

  6. FredW: I agree those are all very good points.

    But, had George W. Bush heeded “realist” advice to go for “stability” not wild and unrealistic democracy, that is if we had disgraced the name “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and tried to set up a “friendly” and preferably more humane Saddam – what then?

    This war could have been lost. Very easily. Every time the defeatists and realistic geniuses in the peanut gallery fire off a new opinion piece they show how easily this war could have been made un-winnable.

    The advantages are all there, but it’s good judgment, solidarity in alliance and a deadly army that is ramming those advantages home.

  7. As I pointed out in my recent post, In for the long haul, Bush has another even more difficult political task in front of him: he must build a consensus. We’ve had very few wars in our history that lasted longer than a single administration, this one definitely will, and in those that have come to successful conclusion a consensus had been established.

  8. Wallis,

    2. Singapore
    3. Malaysia

    Granted, that is a debatable point, as neither country really ought to qualify as a “free and democratic society”, but in terms of the economic wellbeing of the population, I’d be willing to say that their lot has improved. For at least the short run, their policies seem to have worked reasonably well.

    (I’m not an economist, but I have lived in one of those two countries and am reasonably familiar with the local social and political environment.)

  9. 1) we’ve got nationalsm going for us as well, so if we get the message out the insurgents won’t get to use that.

    2) I’ll add India to the postcolonial success stories, along with Morocco and Tunisia…

  10. Uh, A.L. FDR,Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK were as anti-colonialist as they come.

    Vietnam was an attempt to fight off another colonialism. Communism.

    I have to tell you I was wrong re:’Nam. At the time I was anti-war. I was on the wrong side.

    Hundreds of thousands dead at the hands of the Communists (did I mention the boat people and hundreds of thousands more dead at sea?) opened my eyes.

    We were wrong to abandon our allies. It was shameful. The Vietnamese people in Vietnam are still suffering for our decision.

  11. In fact I will go further. It is just such an abandonment that the Islamicfascists are trying for today.

    They know how to defeat America because we gave them a template to work from.

    What may have been a tactical retreat has turned into a strategic problem. And much to my shame i helped set the current stage.

  12. Add South Korea and Taiwan to the postcolonial success stories. The difficulty is in trying to find a socialist/communist postcolonial success story. Too damned many successful anticolonial revolutions adopted socialist economic policies and political organizations (one-party states). The few emerging success stories are in formerly socialist nations that have liberalized their economies, like Mozambique, Tanzania, Vietnam–and India and China, for that matter. But they have a long way to go to match South Korea, Taiwan, or Malaysia.

  13. The only thing that make Vietnam War and Iraq War different is the Internet. Without the Internet, American today is no different than American of the 60s, proportionally wise in politic and mindset. Your comments are so like the 60s people and you have all available facts provided by history of the last 30 years. Without the internet, American probably loses this war too despite that she is all mighty.

    ethnic Vietnamese against Catholic? independent state? emerging success story of former socialist country? I guess none of you ever read the report of the Japan Office of Development and some others from UN & Eurabia that they have to develope a different standard to measure Vietnam living standard. That standard is based on the amount of food taken by a person per day. Never heard of that?

  14. But then Mozambique, China and India have thrown off socialism only in the last 10-20 years or so. Whereas Taiwan and South Korea rejected that 50 years ago.

  15. M. Simon: It is just such an abandonment that the Islamicfascists are trying for today.

    They have nothing else to hope for. A Maoist strategy of guerrilla warfare as a prelude to conventional warfare is pretty ridiculous for them. Why spend 20 years building an “army” that a US brigade could blow away in 20 hours?

    If they get CNN in Hell (and Hell would not be complete without it), old Mao must be laughing his oversized ass off at the Islamist “revolutionaries”, and even more at the pathetic hopes that Western leftists are attaching to their doomed cause.

  16. Lan Nguyen: “Without the internet, American probably loses this war too despite that she is all mighty.”

    Without the Internet, let’s see: the blogs don’t catch the mainstream media lying to lose us the war, maybe John Forbes Kerry is elected, and if John Forbes Kerry is elected we lose for sure. Or, even after George W. Bush is re-elected, mainstream media lies and defeatism might undermine support for the war, but still the right-wing blogsphere is a partial corrective.

    So, OK, you have a point.

    Lan Nguyen: “I guess none of you ever read the report of the Japan Office of Development and some others from UN & Eurabia that they have to develope a different standard to measure Vietnam living standard. That standard is based on the amount of food taken by a person per day. Never heard of that?”

    You’re right, for me anyway. I know nothing about this. Where is a good place to look up just the essentials, in a credible, clear and concise format?

  17. Granted, that is a debatable point, as neither country really ought to qualify as a “free and democratic society”, but in terms of the economic wellbeing of the population, I’d be willing to say that their lot has improved. For at least the short run, their policies seem to have worked reasonably well.

  18. The war in Vietnam and the War in Iraq is similar only in one aspect: We are the good guy and our enemies are the bad guys. Ho Chi Minh was no less brutal to his people than Al-Zarqawi to Iraqis.

    Putting aside the US reason for getting involve in Vietnam, South Vietnam was still far freer and more democratic than North Vietnam. The Republic of Vietnam was flaw but it has multi-parties system with a viable opposition. The economy of the South was far superior to that of the North.

    The period after the Fall of Saigon until the early 90s was a terrible period for Vietnam. All the progress one see today is result of the economic liberalization in the 90s. But if the Soviet Empire did not collapse, I am not sure any reform would have taken placed.

  19. David Blue,

    1) Without the internet, the right-wing blogsphere is non existence in a broad distribution format.
    2) Without the internet, intellectual level of the mass will not be distributed and rise accordingly but rather locally and concentrated. Whoever controls the information distribution channels win, and I think that the MSM. Think about Tet Offensive of 1968 of yesterday and if it happens today with internet. That definitely will change the course of history. BTW, “I served in Vietnam too” and my wife thanks Walter Cronkite profoundly to give me a chance to be here.
    3) Without internet, you can not even google so you will be fed with garbages disguised as facts while it is a selective evidence trying to represent the true cause.

    Actually, my points about the internet with American politics and mindset go deeper but I think you get the point. But back to the points of Vietnam & Iraq, only American people are the same so you might pretty well starts from that premiss instead looking for a scape goat, or in logic parlance, selective evidences trying to represent the broad spectrum of causal relationships.

  20. Minh Duc,

    The period after the Fall of Saigon until the early 90s was a terrible period for Vietnam. All the progress one see today is result of the economic liberalization in the 90s. But if the Soviet Empire did not collapse, I am not sure any reform would have taken placed.

    And no one notice that the poor actor did tremendous help to increase the food intake of Vietnamese people in Vietnam, by let the Soviet Union races to its economic death.

  21. What similarities are now formulating:

    How about skepticism, if not cynicism, and a high degree of suspicion of, and distrust toward our leaders. Revising the reasons for Americans to be at war in Iraq, as the Bush administration has done, has damaged Amercans willingness to enlist in our armed forces to fight the war on terrorism. And, to compound this damage we are again reminded of those of our leaders in the White House who evaded the draft during Vietnam War but continue to support the fighting in Iraq, which is, like Vietnam, a morally ambiguous war.

    How about America’s lack of willingness to assist and aid our veterans as demonstrated by President Bush’s recent budget shortfall for Veterans health care. American culture is once again ignoring the sacrifice and suffering of it’s veterans, conceding that most are good soldiers fighting a bad war. More Vietnam veterans committed suicide after the Vietnam war than had died in it. Almost a million became part of the army of the homeless. The VA was reluctant to admit the difficulties faced by our veterans by ignoring the harm done to them from dioxen poisening (Agent Orange) and PSTD (posttraumatic stress disorder), the latter afflicting an estimated 700,000. What will history record for our Iraq war veterans?

  22. Arafat wasn’t an insurgent leader until after Oslo. He was from the begining a Soviet Stooge, and hte Palestinians were his victims in a proxy war against Israel.

  23. All you folks who are calling this place and that “Post-Colonial Success Stories” are missing Walter E. Wallis’s point in #2. Take India, for example: sure it’s doing better recently (and more, much more power to it, don’t get me wrong) but is it doing better than it would be if it were still under British administration? (Or consider the relation question Are they doing better than if the British had never been there?) Those seem to me to be very different questions, and I think his implication of American exceptionalism is hard to deny.

  24. Everyone here fails to remember that the USA and SEATO strategically won the Vietnam War when Nixon made peace with China in 1972. Nixon then did the right thing by bombing the heck out of Hanoi’s infrastructure until we got a tactial peace agreement there as well.

    That Ford allowed the N. Vietnamese to break the peace treaty later…was not seen as a strategic mistake at the time by enough people (it created a template for Al Qaeda). At the time, enough people were satisfied that China was no longer expansionist…and that had been the main strategic goal of that war.

    In this war, the strategic goal of having the Shiites as the most powerful force in the Middle East…is well on its way to becoming a reality. Once this occurs, America can almost step back and not fight anymore…Al Qaeda will have no choice but to consider the Shiites as their number one enemy. It gets complicated because the Iranian government is in bed with Al Qaeda. We are basically working to create a necessary break between the state that is supporting our enemy terror group and the terror group itself.

    So the two wars are comparable in that both involve strategic objectives that are NOT discussed but which are met all the same. My biggest question is…why does our government feel that naming objectives in wars is a bad thing? Why can’t we finally admit that stopping China was the successful outcome of the Vietnam War? I think the main reason is simply because we, even on the Internet, are still the unthinking masses to a corporate elite that doesn’t want us to be smart enough to know the truth…even when the truth is sweetness and light and Mom and apple pie.

    To tell us that we really won the Vietnam War might set a precedent…that they have to tell us everything about anything.

  25. David Blue – leaders that win wars become heros after the fact. Churchill was an atrociously bad general, but is considered a hero because he won WW2.

    In both Vietnam and Iraq – America attempts to win a war against foriegn invaders without destroying the foreigners capacity to invade. In Vietnam they did this to avoid confrontation with the USSR, that may have led to complete annihilation of Earth. In Iraq the reason seems to be that America is afraid of upsetting the Saudis, as this may lead to the price of oil spiking.

    America lost the war in Vietnam, GW Bush is making the same mistake again because he thinks Americans are unwilling to stomach the price of victory if that price is $4 /gallon.

  26. —America lost the war in Vietnam, GW Bush is making the same mistake again because he thinks Americans are unwilling to stomach the price of victory if that price is $4 /gallon.

    But I just finished explaining how America (and SEATO) did NOT lose the war in Vietnam (except in terms of the reputation we let the liberal media give us by not acknowledging the strategic win). Besides the China agreement, the Soviet Union went into deep debt achieving their eventual tactical “win” over Saigon…leaving them unable to continue capturing much more of southeast Asia.

    Maybe we’ve been forced to never crow about having “won” in Vietnam because the Chinese need to always “save face.”

    But I AGREE that there is something fishy about the way we have let Syria and Iran get a free pass while our troops APPEAR to have been having a hard time in Iraq.

    However…look at the report today that 50,000 insurgents have been killed or captured only in the past 6 months!

    If that is even remotely true, then the Flypaper Strategy is clearly working. We have always WANTED Iraq to appear to be a quagmire in that case. Imagine having killed 200,000 anti-American arab men in the past 2 years. That is a strategic goal in and of itself. Why topple Syria’s regime if they are feeding us busloads of canon fodder and possibly warning us when the buses are coming?

    Maybe the 600,000 dead North Vietnamese was also a strategic goal in the other war. The N. Vietnamese Army that took Saigon was in no position to advance on Thailand. The whole Vietnam War took China’s mind off Taiwan at a time when they seemed ready to try to take it.

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