The latest estimates from the pentagon place the number of insurgents in Iraq at around 15,000, a tenth of the 150,000 on the American side. Step back and think about that number for a second. If 15,000 is an accurate assessment of the amount of men our military is fighting, then I would not wish to contemplate what would happen were we facing an enemy equal in number to our own forces.
The United States is without a doubt the best equipped military in the world. This is the constant refrain that we have been hearing our entire lives, from when it became apparent in World War II that our war machine was outpacing Germany’s, to today. Yet this great force of death that we can throw at will upon our enemies is showing its limits in stark fashion. We may have the best weapons — weapons that all but remove the necessity of being anywhere near harm’s way when they are used; technology that is science fiction to most of the world’s armies — but our methods of waging war are not exact, perfect, precision-like, or surgical. War is a messy affair that short of a gigantic nuclear blast or a complete surrender, leaves your enemy able to fight another day. Our infantry forces are finding this out on a daily basis in Iraq.
Yesterday, an attack on a mess tent in Mosul resulted in the largest one-day total of American dead thus far in Iraq. The fantasy of a quick war, an easy peace, and a strategic, regional foothold in Iraq has long since dissipated. Days like yesterday only serve to remind us how difficult victory will be in Iraq.
Many people have been loathe to compare Iraq to Vietnam. The two are completely different as far as American aims are concerned, the numbers involved on both sides, and what the larger international picture represents. But the costs of the wars, the struggles in search of success, are all but identical. The insurgents in Iraq have figured out (just as the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong did first against the French, and then against the United States) how to defeat a military that has you hopelessly outgunned: bring them in close. Remove the advantage of distance and overwhelming force. Engage with small arms, when sides are evenly matched. Fight no protracted battles. Pull back after objectives have been obtained. When engaged, don’t become too attached to your positions; let your enemy take them and then reoccupy unopposed as soon as they have left. Blend into the native population — something that is impossible for the invaders. Confuse your enemy about who is friend and who is foe. This removes all sense of security while your enemy is among the native population. Take advantage of your enemy’s unwillingness to engage in total warfare. Wage attacks that have propaganda value, not necessarily for the Iraqi people, but for the Americans and the British in their home countries. Use bloody, public terror tactics to sway public opinion in your enemy’s homeland. The news coverage will be to your advantage. Public support for a war of this nature is directly proportionate to how bloody it seems to those watching on the nightly news, reading the papers, or using the internet.
The insurgent forces in Iraq have succeeded in making the American military seem vulnerable to people here at home. Like the Vietnamese, the insurgents in Iraq could lose every engagement they fight, yet still win the overall conflict by outlasting our country’s willingness to continue the war. We should be familiar with this strategy by now. Not only has it been used against us in the recent past, but we used it effectively against the British oh so long ago.
What should not get lost, and in the end what is most important for the Iraqi people, is the effect the insurgency is having on them. We lost two dozen people yesterday. For the Iraqi, that is a mild day of death, at best. Besides being the victims of the American war juggernaut, the Iraqi people are suffering horrendous casualties at the hands of the insurgents. Whether the insurgents hail from neighboring countries, or are Iraqis trying to assert their political will over the population, they have been merciless towards those who stand in their way. By the time this conflict ends, whether that be when the Americans and British leave, or when the Iraqis have concluded a bloody civil war in the hazy future, the death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands. In Vietnam, the native population also paid a horrible price as the bystanders in a conflict they could not control.
The future of this conflict could also mirror Vietnam. We are currently training Iraqis to take over the security of their beleaguered country. One Pentagon official not long ago termed this process Iraqization, a disturbing parallel to the Vietnamization that was our ticket out of Southeast Asia. The South Vietnamese forces that we trained and equipped to fight the North and the Vietcong took casualties every year after they became seriously engaged in the war that made our total number pale in comparison. We are setting the stage for a gradual takeover of military operations in Iraq by Iraqis, and it should come as no surprise when they begin taking large amounts of casualties.
What remains to be seen is how long the United States is willing to pursue victory before the situation becomes untenable, either due to a lack of will on the part of the American people, or because the American military is unable to fight an effective war due to a lack of basic materiel or manpower.
The conflict is not yet at crisis stage, but it could slip in that direction in the near future without a drastic change in strategy. A greater effort on the part of the Pentagon and the White House to relieve our over-extended troops in Iraq is essential to our success. Our military has seemingly returned to the days when a soldier or Marine could not count his days in the war zone over until the war is either won, they have been wounded to the point of no longer being effective, or they are dead. This return to old methods is not based on effectively engaging our military with victory, but on pure necessity.
Our military is unmatched when it comes to conventional warfare. A force of 150,000 well-trained and equipped American personnel can dispatch with ease most of the conventional armed forces of the world. But to this day, even as we struggle in Iraq, we still have a woeful disregard for unconventional forces. We have no answer for those who have no choice but to win, and who use guerilla tactics. Unless we do find an answer, we will not prevail in Iraq. As much as this seems unacceptable (even those who opposed the start of the war have a distaste for losing), defeat could be out of our hands. Our forces on the ground have no other objective than to root out insurgents and kill them. This amounts to fighting a war with no clear objectives, almost a base instinct method of waging war that is exclusively the tactics of death, without allowing for the possibility of victory. The Pentagon has failed to provide them with an overall strategy for winning, or for securing areas of the country that have been seized from the insurgency. The recent assault on Falluja was akin to destroying the city in order to save it, a strategy that has long been employed by militaries in hostile lands that have no idea what to do about their enemy.
Whatever the outcome of the war in Iraq, the Unites States would do well to finally absorb the lessons it should have after the defeat in Vietnam.
But there is an underlying stream that does not bode well for the American effort in Iraq. As I mentioned earlier, estimates of enemy strength amount to only a tenth of in-country Americans as of the writing of this article. Herein lies the most distinct difference between this war and Vietnam. At no time in Vietnam did American forces outnumber those we were fighting. We fought millions of men in women in Vietnam with a force that numbered at times 400,000 or more. In the end we were defeated, not because we lost, but because we couldn’t win. The 15,000 insurgents in Iraq are waging a war as effective as the millions we fought in Vietnam. This leads me to believe the actual number of insurgents fighting against us in Iraq is a much higher figure. Either the Pentagon knows this, and is unwilling to admit to the true situation on the ground in Iraq, or they are criminally unaware of the situation their soldiers and Marines are facing.
Either way, the military and the American people need to brace themselves for the possibility that this is a much larger conflict as far as the Iraqis see things, and that those fighting against us consider this a war of liberation against an invading aggressor. If that is the case, no peace will be attained until we leave. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.