Lessons from Vietnam

Editorial pieces appearing within the last month in two of the nation’s leading newspapers show the disparity in military thinking about how the current war in Iraq should be fought.  Written by two former U.S. battalion commanders who served there, one notes how his unit’s approach was to forge a working relationship with the locals from the outset.  Shedding helmets and flak jackets, seeking out and working with local leaders of any ilk, and striving to maintain a low profile within the towns and communities they were assigned to, the first author noted the low rate of incidents between the locals and the Americans.

In contrast, a piece authored by another recently returned battalion commander noted his view that heavy-handed tactics were a necessary part of winning the peace.  Relationships with locals barely worked, and aggressive tactics, even in the absence of a known or suspected enemy, let the Iraqis know exactly who was in charge.

"It’s unfortunate that today’s leaders don’t have the benefit of what their military predecessors learned in Vietnam – the old adage that ‘what goes around, comes around.’   

To understand their approaches to the problem may be to understand where their battalions were in Iraq.   After the Iraqi army crumbled, the first author’s battalion took responsibility for an area to the south of Baghdad.  A Shiite region, there were significant concerns before and during the fighting that the Shiites would be a problem, in large part because the United States had abandoned them in 1991 after asking them to rise up against Saddam. 

Moreover, there were significant concerns about an Iranian influence and the possibility it too could lead to major problems.  In fact, the Shiite regions fell to relative calm, and there has been more support for the Coalition and efforts of the Americans than there has been opposition to it. 

In contrast, the other battalion commander was working in the Sunni Triangle, the region filled with Saddam loyalists and regime holdouts.  From the outset, enemy attacks were frequently met with scathing fire, often in all directions.  Fire discipline, which is a basic tenet of ground combat operations, did not appear to be present.  The result was needless casualties, sometimes even among Iraqis openly working to assist us. 

These accounts of U. S. forces responding to an attack with massive firepower underlies some of the hate, fear, and disdain many locals may have for U.S. forces in their area.  The latest edition of "Newsweek" points out that many of those we are now fighting are doing so not because of loyalty to Saddam, his former regime, a religious cause, or a foreign entity.  Instead, it’s about restoring lost honor by retaliating for harm done to them.  To them the killing, wounding, or maiming of innocent bystanders or relatives is cause for retaliation of some kind.  The ready access to weapons and ammunition makes such acts easy to carry out.

It’s unfortunate that today’s leaders don’t have the benefit of what their military predecessors learned in Vietnam — the old adage that ‘what goes around, comes around.’  Treating all locals from the outset as if they were the enemy usually ensured that they would be, even if they hadn’t started out that way.  Working with them from the outset, regardless of the risks, often ensured a shorter path to success — not necessarily easier, but certainly shorter.

The question then is where the balance is.  Hopefully senior military leadership is asking itself this very question, gaining insight from those who have served in Iraq and working to make certain that the new forces on the way have the advantage of lessons learned: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As all of FOX’s military analysts have frequently said on air, at the end of each day, every unit commander in Iraq from squad leader up the chain to division commander, has to ask himself whether his unit’s actions that day resulted in more friends among the Iraqis or more enemies.  If the answer is the latter, the result is surely a longer conflict and many more American casualties.

A retired Marine Corps officer, Bill Cowan spent three and a half years on combat assignments in Vietnam. In the 1980s, he was specially selected to serve as one of the first members and as the only Marine in the Pentagon's most classified counterterrorist unit, the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), a unit that to date remains under the tightest security. While there, Cowan served as a senior military operations officer and field operative on covert missions to the Middle East, Europe and Latin America. He is a co-founder of the WVC3 Group, a company providing homeland security services, support and technologies to government and commercial clients.