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The military takes us back to the future. To Vietnam, again and again.

14 March 2013

Summary: Now that our most recent wars are ending, we have an opportunity to learn. Will we? Making clear insights more difficult, our war machines has already started preparing us for new wars: threat inflation plus cheap/easy solutions. After 9-11 we bought such stories about Iraq and Afghanistan, with no questioning or skepticism. Will we do so again? Today we look at the “cheap/easy solution” part of the formula. Stand by for excitement.

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Wanted: Ph.D.s Who Can Win a Bar Fight. How to reform the Pentagon for ‘light footprint’ interventions.“, Fernando M. Lujan (Major, Special Forces), Foreign Policy, 8 March 2013 — Opening:

By Eric A. Hendrix.

 

Looming budget cuts, ground forces worn down by years of repeated deployments, and a range of ever evolving security challenges from Mali to Libya and Yemen are quickly making “light footprint” military interventions a central part of American strategy.

Instead of “nation building” with large, traditional military formations, civilian policymakers are increasingly opting for a discrete combination of air power, special operators, intelligence agents, indigenous armed groups, and contractors, often leveraging relationships with allies and enabling partner militaries to take more active roles.

Despite the relative appeal of these less costly forms of military intervention, the light footprint is no panacea. Like any policy option, the strategy has risks, costs and benefits that make it ideally suited for certain security challenges and disastrous for others.

… The most critical resource requirement in smaller interventions is human capital: talented, adaptable professionals who are not only fluent in language, culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships, but also willing to deploy for long periods and operate with little guidance.

This is a brief of Major Lujan’s report for the Center for a New American Security (a powerful lobbying groups for foreign wars): “Light Footprints: The Future of American Military Intervention“. It’s a wonderful example of America’s failure to learn, especially so after our COIN fiasco (another failure to learn from the post-WWII experiences of the US and other nations fighting insurgencies as foreigners).

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Lujan’s proposal also echos the enthusiasm for “unconventional warfare” of the early Vietnam War era. Then, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, the traditional military forces took over from the unconventional war advocates.

As usual, this is easily illustrated by looking at descriptions of that era — and seeing the similarities to our time.  From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (substitute drones for rocket packs):

All of this helped send the Kennedy Administration into dizzying heights of antiguerrilla activity and discussion … the Kennedy people were looking ahead, ready for a new and more subtle kind of conflict. The other side, {Walt} Rostow’s scavengers of revolution, would soon be met by the new American breed, a romantic group indeed, the US Army Special Forces. They were all uncommon men, extraordinary physical specimens and intellectual Ph.D.s swinging from trees, speaking Russian and Chinese, eating snake meat and other fauna at night, springing counterambushes on unwary Asian ambushers who had read Mao and Giap, but not {Roger} Hilsman and Rostow.

It was all going to be very exciting, and even better, great gains would be made at little cost.

In October 1961 the entire White House press corps was transported to Fort Bragg to watch a special demonstration put on by Kennedy’s favored Special Forces … nd it turned into real whiz-bang day. There were ambushes, counterambushes and demonstrations in snake-meat eating, all topped off by a Buck Rogers show: a soldier with a rocket on his back who flew over water to land on the other side.

It was quite a  show, and it was only as they were leaving Fort Bragg that Francis Lara, the Agence France-Presse correspondent who had covered the Indochina war, sidled over to his friend Tom Wicker of the New York Times.  “All of this looks very impressive, doesn’t it?” he said. Wicker allowed as how it did. “Funny,” Lara said, “none of it worked for us when we tried it in 1951.”

But the dream lives on.  Unconventional warfare. COIN. Now “light footprint” warfare. Why do we fall for each new story? Because we want the war. Each new war. WWII gave us a taste for righteous war, as if it were an addictive drug giving us foreign adventures and distracting ourselves from the mundane challenges of 21st century life. And of course these wars benefit powerful special interests, such as the military and the defense industry.

Vietnam was a humiliating defeat, generating severe social stresses and straining the economy. We still carry the debts that paid for much of it; we’re still paying the disability and retirement benefits to those who fought it.

Our current wars have proved equally vain, and their long-term effects have yet to be seen.

More important for our future will be the lessons we learn. Will we fall for the next story to get us into the next war: easy, cheap, righteous, making a better world! Well-funded lobbying groups like CNAS will produce glossy reports making it sound so good.  The news media will apply a glossy finish and broadcast it from sea to sea.

Will we learn? Or will we continue to spread America’s resources — both money and blood — across the world in vain wars? Our future might depend on the answer.

For More Information

Posts showing similarities between Vietnam and our wars:

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