I was wrong about SecDef Gates – here is a more accurate view of him

I apologize to those of you who read yesterday’s post about Secretary of Defense Gates.  I read his recent speeches with my mind closed.  Fortunately Tom Engelhardt sees what the rest of us overlook.  Following his suggestion, consider Gates’ 4 April speech at West Point.

Last year I read Partners in Command, a book by Mark Perry. It is an account of the unique relationship between Eisenhower and General George Marshall … one of the things I found compelling is how they were both influenced by another senior Army officer who is not nearly as well-known and in fact, as a reader of history, I had never heard of.

His name is Fox Conner, a tutor and mentor to both Eisenhower and Marshall. … From Conner, Marshall and Eisenhower learned much about leadership and the conduct of war. Conner had three principles of war for a democracy that he imparted to Eisenhower and Marshall. They were:

  • Never fight unless you have to;
  • Never fight alone;
  • And never fight for long.

All things being equal, these principles are pretty straightforward and strategically sound. We’ve heard variants of them in the decades since, perhaps most recently in the Powell doctrine.

But of course, all things are not equal, particularly when you think about the range and complexity of the threats facing America today, from the wars we are in to the conflicts we are most likely to fight. So tonight I’d like to discuss with you how you should think about applying Fox Conner’s three axioms to the security challenges of the 21st century, the challenges where you will be on the front lines.

Gates then explains that we will no longer follow these principles — and will do the opposite.  This is the build-up to the heart of the speech (bold emphasis added):

A drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq is inevitable over time – the debate you hear in Washington is largely about pacing. But the kind of enemy we face today – violent jihadist networks – will not allow us to remain at peace. What has been called the “Long War” is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies.

Engelhardt brilliantly explains what this means in “The Last War and the Next One“, TomDispatch dated 4 May 2008, “Descending into Madness in Iraq — and Beyond.” 

“There are no exit strategies.” That’s a line to roll around on your tongue for a while. It’s a fancy way of saying that the U.S. military is likely to be in one, two, many Sadr Cities for a long time to come. This is Gates’s ultimate insight as secretary of defense, and his response is to urge the military to plan for more and better of the same. … Every time you hear the phrase “the next war” — and journalists already love it — you should wince. It means endless war, eternal war, and it’s the path to madness.

How did we get to this point, where the Secretary of Defense announces a policy of endless war — without any reaction from the press or Congress?  Does this madness result from a long war, as so well described by Thucydides?  Engelhardt explains…

So, to sum up, let me see if I have this straight: The Bush administration liberated Iraq in order to send U.S. troops against a ragtag militia that has nothing whatsoever to do with Saddam Hussein’s former government (and many of whose members were, in fact, oppressed by it, as were its leaders) in the name of another group of Iraqis, who have long been backed by Iran, and… uh…

Hmmm, let’s try that again… or, like the Bush administration, let’s not and pretend we did.

In the meantime, the U.S. military has tried to partially “seal off” Sadr City and, in the neighborhoods that they have partially occupied with their attendant Iraqi troops, they are building the usual vast, concrete walls, cordoning off the area. This is being done, so American spokespeople say, to keep the Sadrist militia fighters out and to clear the way for government hearts-and-minds “reconstruction” projects that everyone knows are unlikely to happen.

Soon enough, if the previous pattern in Sunni neighborhoods is applied, they and/or their Iraqi cohorts will start going door to door doing weapons searches. As a result, the American and Iraqi prisons now supposedly being substantially emptied — part of a program of “national reconciliation” — of many of the tens of thousands of Sunni prisoners swept up in raids in Sunni neighborhoods, are likely to be refilled with Shiite prisoners swept up in a similar way. Call it grim irony — or call it a meaningless nightmare from which no one can awaken. Just don’t claim it makes much sense.

As in Vietnam, so four decades later, we are observing a full-scale descent into madness and, undoubtedly, into atrocity. At least in 2003, American troops were heading for Baghdad. They thought they had a goal, a city to take. Now, they are heading for nowhere, for the heart of a slum city which they cannot hold in a guerrilla war where the taking of territory and the occupying of neighborhoods is essentially beside the point. They are heading for oblivion, while trying to win hearts and minds by shooting missiles into homes and enclosing people in giant walls which break families and communities apart, while destroying livelihoods.

… Put in a nutshell: If the mission is heading into madness, then double the mission. Bring in yet more of those drones whose missiles are already so popular in Sadr City. This is brilliantly prosaic thinking, based on the assumption that the “global commons” should be ours and that the “next war” will be ours, and the one after that, and so on.

We should not be surprised.  This is the foreign policy of the United States, clearly set forth in many public documents.  And if you missed those, David Kilcullen — one of the west’s leading COIN theorists — explained it to us.  And if you missed both of those, I wrote about this in America takes another step towards the “Long War”.

Fortunately it is an election year.  Elections make us responsible for what our officials do in our name.  Make your views known.

Note:  Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture — Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a GenerationHere are excerpts and reviews.

Please share your comments by posting below, relevant and brief please.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). 

7 thoughts on “I was wrong about SecDef Gates – here is a more accurate view of him”

  1. Perhaps now more than ever, considered thought needs to be given as to how western civilisation will survive let alone prosper in the decades ahead. I have toyed with the idea of running my own afghan campaign in my mind for some time now, but regrettably I am unable to see anything beyond an unending commitment there. I try not to even think about iraq.

    Perhaps we should consider the possibilities in reorienting our military strategies toward a “tit for tat” basis in dealing with the Global Insurgency. Combine this with raising the immigration drawbridge against people from the islamic world and “the gap” in particular, and pursuing a policy of paying down national debt – although this last suggestion may require methods too revolutionary for most economic pundits to consider at this point in time (eg, only allowing Reserve Banks to create money – not commercial banks and credit card companies).

    Creative thinking along the aforementioned lines may just allow us to scrape past by the skin of our teeth and avoid coming disasters by putting us in a stonger position for the longer term. We can then consider influencing the future for ours and our friends benefit, and not have others with a different view of our position in the world necessarily influence it for the worse. We should not be playing this game to win, we should be playing … to keep playing … and to survive. The best way to defeat your enemies, is to outlast them.

  2. Interesting, but the notion that the Long War represents something new in American history is somewhat specious. Can you guess what the longest sustained military campaign in U.S. History is?

    It’s not Vietnam.

    It was the Long War against the Western Indians from the 1860’s to 1890. and it involved a continuous creation of forts, constant moving of the goalposts, and numerous disasters (of which Custer’s Last Stand is but the most famous). Further, the inter-tribal complexities of bringing the Dakota and Apache and other tribes to heel was on a par with dealing with the disparate motives and interest of Sunni and Shi’ite, Arab and Persian and Kurd.

    Why did the American people not object to the Government’s Indian Policy? There are numerous reasons, but one among them is the relative lightness of the casualties compared to the agreed necessity of the goal. Comparted to Gettysburg, the Little Bighorn was scarcely a blip. We conquered the West with semi-literate light cavalry (one-third of them Irish immigrants) armed with single-shot rifles and repeating revolvers, a force minuscule by Civil War standards and notoriously poorly funded. Yet win we did, due to the judicious application of time and experience, as Custers died off and competent men rose to command of regiments.

    The analogy is certainly not perfect, but Long Wars are not unheard of. They can be sustained, if cost to benefit remains acceptable.
    Fabius Maximus replies: What an odd objection? Who said that it represents something new?
    The Indian Wars were a form of long war, they have little relevance to our situation. Most — 90% — were exterminated by contact with ten millenia of accumulated diseases from Eurasia. We had superiority in both population and technology. Most importantly, this was a straight-forword war to take and own their land. Such wars are among the most profitable projects in history, which is why they are so frequent.

  3. Andrew, interesting argument. But the circumstances are different. The long war against the ‘indians’ was a war of conquest and talking their resources (land, later gold, oil etc). But there was a net gain (not for them of course, they were exterminated).

    But this is different, this is Iraq, who saw off the British in 1920, with twice the number of troops and used chemical weapons.

    To put it simply, taking over a country to grab its wealth, at a huge distance away costs more than whatever you will be able to take out of it. The British Empire lesson.

  4. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies.

    True dat. A campaign waged against a foe so determined must be engaged many times. Just as a war is made of battles, so is a long campaign made of many wars. Iraq will be pacified, sooner than Fabius thinks. But the campaign will go on.

    Combine this with raising the immigration drawbridge against people from the islamic world and “the gap” in particular

    Ah, perpetual Coventry. How modern. And, of course, being banned from higher education in this country, they will have no chance to see how free societies work. How clever to nullify our greatest advantage.

    The long war against the ‘indians’ was a war of conquest and talking their resources (land, later gold, oil etc). But there was a net gain (not for them of course, they were exterminated).

    Which explains all those casinos. And my parents’ tribal neighbors. And the slave-owning, Confederacy-supporting Indians of the old South.

    Not exterminated: assimilated. The ‘conquest’ was a series of purchases, moves, absorption, treaties and, sometimes, outright open war and massacres (on both sides, but we don’t feel guilty for the ones the Indians executed).

  5. R. Ford Mashburn

    Unfortunately, Gates was onto the essential nature of this conflict. This is just one theater, one conflict, in a long war against the jihadists and wahabists. They are not going to be pacified through diplomacy, or bullied through military reprisals. They are determined to keep fighting the West and the USA until they can cause us enough sorrow and pain that we submit.

    This isnt Vietnam, this fight is more analogous to the Boer War. A hostile takeover and “colonization/westernization” of a distant nation. Just as the Boer War was a symptom of the rising tensions between the British Empire and Germany, so this fight is a precursor of the future wars of the West and Islam, which will continue until one or the other is destroyed.

  6. How’s this looking from today’s perspective?

    Looks like Gates was right on. Iraq is all but won and will be our best ally in continuing this long war so long as Obama’s best and brightest don’t screw it up.

  7. It remains to be seen how smart it was for Islam to pick a fight with the West in a desert region. Jungle protected gorilla conflict can clearly be a trap. We have certainly learned fighting protracted ground wars in jungle is a bad idea. The foregone conclusion of our naivete in fighting Islam in the desert is not as clear to me. We could have stupidly taken Bin Laden’s bait and gone chasing after his people in the Philippines but we did not. Soon, we will see how smart we are in prosecuting a new campaign under starry skies in Afghanistan/Pakistan.

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