In theory, generals apply the lessons learned from the last war to fight the next one. The problem is that the next war may not resemble the previous one. In practice, our generals learned how to fight World War II better than World War I, and the Korean War as well as World War II, but not how to fight wars in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
WWI, WWII, and the Korean War were fought in countries with strong, long-established traditions of national governments. Battles involved conventional forces, arms, and tactics, with relatively clear lines demarking battle areas and fronts, and differentiating civilians and combatants. The same cannot be said of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with colonial, dictatorial, or decentralized governments weak economically and militarily as well as politically, with no fronts and with every person a possible belligerent and every place a potential battlefield.
Important geopolitical factors distinguish the first three and the last three wars. In the first three, US forces invaded countries to free their people from earlier invaders; in the last three, US forces invaded countries to defeat some of their people by taking sides in internal divisions or conflicts. US forces could tell the difference between French and German, Chinese and Japanese, but not between Vietnamese supporting Ngo Dinh Diem and Vietnamese supporting Ho Chi Minh.
US civilian and military officials should have learned at least these few lessons:
First, as the Constitution provides, Congress has the power to declare war; if it does, it should do so only after due deliberation. Encompassing the diversity of the people’s representatives, it possesses a broader and richer perspective on national interests than any president does. The capacity of Presidents—I have in mind Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush—to manipulate Congress into approving hostilities constitutes a serious threat to those interests. Moreover, the provision for civilian control of the military wisely recognizes that warfare involves more than military strength and thus should not be trusted entirely to generals and admirals. But it also implies that Congress must assess the other-than-military aspects of war before declaring it.
Second, Congress should consider that the best way to “win a war” is not to fight it, but to prevent it. If the US is willing to spend billions or trillions to fight a war, it should be willing to spend that much to assist countries in ways which, in benefitting themselves and their people, benefit us by making war less likely, if not avoidable. Given the stakes involved and an all-volunteer military, Congress should make its declaration of war a statement of personal as well as national commitment by legislating the drafting of their children or grandchildren into the combat arms.
Third, if the US chooses—unwisely, I think—to commit forces to long-term, asymmetric warfare, it must respond to the realities of such an “away” war for a long time. One, the US must realize that, although it has sophisticated technologies and overwhelming logistics, its opponents have or will develop means to avoid or degrade its strengths and exploit its weaknesses. Two, the US must train its troops to hold and secure defined areas, not rely on occasional raids and sweeps. Three, it must train its troops to live amidst and befriend the people whom they protect (and, to further these objectives, require multi-year tours and staggered replacements). Four, it must train its troops to overcome their lack of knowledge and respect for the country’s people and their language and culture.
In such an involvement, the US must ensure that the host country wants to “win” at least as much as the US does and that its objectives are congruent with those of the host country’s government. It cannot succeed in a war in which its ally has little desire or different objectives. The US must also ensure that the host government represents, and has the respect of, its people. It cannot succeed if it is assisting an incompetent or corrupt government. South Vietnamese knew, and Afghanis know, their leaders to be both—knowledge demoralizing them and sapping their support of their government.
Fourth, combat for limited objectives may make sense, but unless those limits are clear and confirmed at the start, “mission creep” is likely to extend and prolong the conflict to the detriment of US interests. Attacking Al Qaeda in Afghanistan made sense. But after Osama bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora, attacking the Taliban made none. The US has been fighting it for a dozen years and, in all probability, failing to prevent it from returning to provincial or national power.
Because military leaders failed to learn the lessons of previous wars, the US left Vietnam in defeat, left Iraq in disarray, and will leave Afghanistan in dismay. Far worse, the US has divided the country at home, destroyed communities abroad, and wounded or killed thousands on both sides in vain.