On 14 November 1965 the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) flew to the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam, initiating the first major battle between the North Vietnamese and American armies. This marked our transition from our role as advisers to direct combatants. After the battle lessons were drawn by both sides that determined the course of the war. With the clarity of hindsight we can see whose analysis proved better.
Forty-two years later we have again committed our Army and Marines to fight in a distant land. Again we have come to an inflection point, at which all sides devise plans for the future. Least we forgot, Ia Drang holds profound lessons for us.
The quotes in this post are all from one of the great works about the Vietnam War: We Were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, by Harold G. Moore (Lt. General, US Army, retired) and Joseph L. Galloway. I strongly recommend reading it. (For more information, see the Wikipedia entry about the battle.)
Ia Drang tested the new concept of air assault. Now we could insert troops into a distant area, supply and extract them by helicopter. During that four day “test” 234 American men died. “That is more Americans than were killed in any regiment, North or South, at he Battle of Gettysburg, and far more than were killed in combat in the entire Persian Gulf War.” Both sides drew optimistic conclusions from the result.
- We believed that our combination of innovative technology and tactics could achieve a victory that eluded France. “In Saigon, the American commander in Vietnam, Gen William C. Westmoreland, and his principal deputy, Gen William DePuy, look at the statistics of the 34-day Ia Drang campaign … and saw a kill ratio of 12 North Vietnamese to one America. What that said … was that they could bleed the enemy to death over the long haul, with a strategy of attrition.”
- “In Hanoi, President Ho Chi Ming and his lieutenants considered the outcome in the Ia Drang and were serenely confident. Their peasant soldiers had withstood the terrible high-tech fire storm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americas to a draw. By their yardstick, a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of a victory. In time, they were certain, the patience and perseverance that had worn down the French colonialists would also wear down the Americans.”
As General Vo Nguyen Giap explained in 1950 to the political commissars of the 316th Division (discussing France, but eventually true of America as well):
“The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: he has to drag out the war in order to win it and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long drawn-out war.”
— From Bernard Fall’s Street without joy: Indochina at war, 1946-54 (1961).
Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, Retired) says that our situation resembles that following Ia Drang. We saw Ia Drang as a tactical success validating our new methods, and so continued — and expanded — the war. Today violence in Iraq has substantially decreased from the early 2007 peak, although still at horrific levels. Interpreting this as proof of our new counter-insurgency doctrines, it has re-enforced the commitment of America’s governing elites to a long-term war in Iraq.
Reduced violence in Iraq gives us an opportunity to declare victory and leave Iraq. This would force the Iraq people to come to terms with themselves and their neighbors, through the usual combination of diplomacy and military readiness. The development of regional governments — unexpected and initially unsupported by the US — suggests that this is already happening. I discuss this in more detail in these articles:
- The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007
- Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007
The decreased violence against US troops in Iraq probably results from a confluence of events.
- We support the Sunni Arabs (against the wishes of the “National” government). Why fight us when we support their militia with training, arms and money?
- We support the Kurds as they build Kurdistan, as provide a shield against Turkey and Iran.
- We support the Shiite Arabs as they consolidate control of both Baghdad, their southern provinces, and what little there is of the “National” government. Although our support of the Sunni Arabs and Kurds prevents — perhaps forever — complete Shiite Arab control of Iraq, the net benefit of our aid is too great to pass up.
We give everybody much of what they want. Defense against their enemies, money & arms, a free hand with ethnic cleansing, freedom to create their own culture (secular or Islamic, as they choose). Furthermore, they need our shield — Iraq’s weakness and fragmentation invites invasion by less obliging foreigners. Best of all (for them), there seems to be little long-term support for the war among the American people — although our ruling elites like it. Perhaps we will eventually just leave, rather than be thrown out. It is a deal difficult for them to refuse.
In return for all this we ask only for bases on their soil. Bases of foreign infidel soldiers, allies of Israel. We ask only that the Iraq people surrender their pride. Perhaps this is the basis for a long-term relationship; history contains stranger things.
What America gains from this is difficult to see. Current trends offer little hope of achieving neither our political objectives for the war nor the Benchmarks for progress. Instead our strategy seems to be to hope for the best (see this New York Times article: “U.S. Scales Back Political Goals for Iraqi Unity”).
However unlikely the benefits, the war’s costs are real.
- Our limited strategic flexibility, as our military is tied down in Iraq.
- Our government’s inability to address other national needs, as senior levels of the Executive and Legislature focus on Iraq.
- Our money — the current expenditures we borrow from Asian and Middle Eastern Central Banks, the future costs add to our $50 trillion in liabilities.
- Our dead and injured soldiers, whose numbers grow every week.
One of the great similarities of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars is that both saw a series of methods and goals adopted during their long years. Our leaders were like children playing dress up in their parents’ closet. We went into Iraq to seize Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, then plant democracy in the Middle East, then to build a strong ally, and now to stabilize Iraq. Similarly our methods have varied. Direct application of US power. Training Iraq national security forces to “stand up.” Bombing plus clear and hold. Now allying with regional militia of all sides. Perhaps we have finally found a working combination of goals and tactics. Or perhaps we pass through just another quiet phase in the war.
We come to the closing quote in We were Soldiers Once. It says that “some of us learned that Clausewitz had it right 150 years earlier when he wrote these words”:
War plans cover every aspect of a war, and weave them all into a single operation that must have a single, ultimate objective in which all particular aims are reconciled. No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose, the latter its operational objective.
Unfortunately the Iraq War shows that this lesson did not stick in America’s collective memory. That is our failing, not theirs. Let us honor the men who fought in Ia Drang so long ago, and consider what we can learn from their sacrifice.
Note: see Chet Richards related post at his new blog, Certain to Win.
For more information
- The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007.
- Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007.
- Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008.
- Slowly the new Iraq becomes visible, 18 July 2008.
- Brief update about events in Iraq, 8 April 2009.