The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen

Summary: Although many of our geopolitical experts continue to lie, our defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan slowly become visible to America. This is the failure of the COIN (as in FM 3-24), Petraeus’ baby. The wars were a tragedy, but relying on COIN was folly. Both were avoidable if we had learned from history. And from historians, like Martin van Creveld. This week’s series of posts recalls what we should have known. It’s not too late to learn, and to stop the mad small wars we’re waging around the world.

Eleazar vs an armored vehicle


The first suicide bomber in the first failed counterinsurgency, from the First Book of the Maccabees, 1.6.43

“Now Eleazar saw that one of the {elephants} was equipped with royal armor. It was taller than all the others, and he supposed that the king was on it. So he gave his life to save his people and to win for himself an everlasting name. He courageously ran into the midst of the phalanx to reach it … He got under the elephant, stabbed it from beneath, and killed it; but it fell to the ground upon him and he died.”

Today we have a guest post: “On Counterinsurgency: How to triumph in the age of asymmetric warfare“. It’s an excerpt from a speech by Martin van Creveld given at the Henry Jackson Society on 26 February 2008. Posted with the authors’ generous permission.


Defining Counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency and insurgency is the future of war, as nuclear weapons are slowly but surely making large-scale conventional warfare between powerful countries obsolete. These days any country that can wage large-scale conventional warfare is able to build nuclear weapons, and no first world modern state wants to risk the total devastation of nuclear war. For more than half a century wars have been waged either between or against countries which do not have and/or cannot build nuclear weapons. Once the nuclear weapons appear the game comes to an end. In fact, that is the best argument in favor of nuclear proliferation: nuclear states tend not to engage in combat with each other!

Unfortunately, the decline of large-scale conventional combat did not signal the end of war but rather a shift to other forms of conflict commonly referred to as low-intensity conflict, sub-conventional conflict, guerilla warfare, terrorism, or insurgencies. And over the last 62 years, the most powerful, important, modern, and sophisticated military armed forces on earth have had an abysmal record in coping with insurgency. Failure, upon failure, upon failure in more than a hundred cases typifies the entire record of counterinsurgency. {For details see the links at the end}


Dead End

It is very difficult to find more than a handful of successes and I do not want to go with the least, but I was thinking of my own country. After all, we, the Israelis, fought a counterinsurgency competing against the British back in 1944-1948.

Some people here are still angry about that, but we won and you lost and then you went on to lose Malaysia, Kenya and Cyprus, having failed to learn the lesson. The same applies to every modern country and modern armed force, including Israel, of course, if you look at Lebanon and Gaza. Again, the record has been abysmal.

So when people ask about how we should study counterinsurgency, the first step should be to gather 95% of all the literature on the subject, put it aboard the Titanic and sink it. In fact, there is so much of it that if you put it aboard the Titanic the iceberg becomes unnecessary!

The logical answer for why the materials on counterinsurgency are so inferior is that most of them were written by people who failed to achieve victory. Ninety-five percent of the literature is written by the losers, who in trying to justify their own actions, put the blame for their failure on others. Therefore there is little reason to expect the literature to be any good. Indeed, the best thing to do with it is to put it away.

This speech discusses themes Martin van Creveld developed at length in The Transformation of War (1991) and the Culture of War (2008).

———————  End excerpt  ———————

December 2006, the beginning of our wars’ end

About the author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of 4GW theory (aka non-trinitarian warfare) is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war — technology, logistics, air power and maneuver warfare, the training of officers, the role of women in combat, military history (several books), nuclear proliferation, and strategy (several books). He has written about the future of war – The Transformation of War (which I consider the best work to date about modern war) and The Changing Face of War. And his magnum opus: The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century.

For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

For More Information

f you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see these posts about the history of counterinsurgency:

  1. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard. She examines the present and past analysis of counter-insurgency. This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  4. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
  5. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloodly failure., 7 August 2012

15 thoughts on “The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen”

  1. This is an understatement.

    A wealth of rhetoric surrounding Iraq in particular strongly suggests that a prime motive for that adventure was to prove that had Vietnam been “done right,” then the United States would have won. If only Rambo had been unleashed, the politicians not interfered, the hippie protestors been still, the troops not spat upon, etc.. So in Iraq, Rambo raged, the politicians deferred to the generals, the protestors were still, and the troops worshiped.

    Much of the conduct of the post-2001 America has been a working out of its frustrations over the 1960’s.

    And the rest of the world remains unconvinced that this is its problem.

    1. Duncan raises an important point. The institutional failure of the US military to learn from Vietnam — in fact, it’s adamant refusal to learn — was a major cause of our defeats in Iraq and Af-Pak.

    2. Out of curiosity: what exactly did the US military learn from the Korean war and did it take the lessons into account in Vietnam?

      After all, about a decade after the stalemate in Korea, the US faced yet another Far-Eastern Asian opponent, also supported by the USSR (and somewhat less by China), who fielded well-organized units, led by battle-hardened generals, who did not shy away from large-scale operations, and who, ominously, had already defeated the elite French units that had actually fought in Korea (most famously in a series of battles till after Dien Bien Phu). It would seem that the similarities would make lessons learned in Korea very applicable indeed.

      If the US military did not learn — or alternatively, did not apply lessons learned — then, it would mean that the problem is far older than the last 40 years.

      1. I don’t see much similarity between the conventional war in Korea — two coalitions of nation-states, two armies facing one another, clear fronts, a mini-WWII — and Vietnam (until the last stages).

        In 1954 Army Chief of Staff Ridgeway sent a survey team to Vietnam. Their conclusions stressed the very different conditions of Korea and Vietnam in the both the geographic and human terrain. That report played an important role in President Eisenhower’s decision to avoid a major military commitment (although he continued low-level involvement, plus supporting rhetoric).

        All that was ignored during the 1960-1968 escalation. Not just failure to learn, but failure to continue good processes.

    3. That is interesting. The US military studied the Korean war and decided that Vietnam was too different for the lessons to apply — but ultimately did not stand by its decision.

      This then leads to the following question:

      “The institutional failure of the US military to learn from Vietnam […] was a major cause of our defeats in Iraq and Af-Pak.”

      Vietnam was a country covered with jungles and with a very long coast to the open sea. Iraq was a desert country devoid of forests, with the tiniest coastline on a (basically) closed water body. In Vietnam, the US faced a strong opponent united in nationalistic fervor, supported by another superpower. In Iraq, a multitude of local groups with sectarian interests, with no direct support from any country. In Vietnam, US soldiers were considerably safer in cities and towns than in the countryside (the real battlefield). In Iraq, it was exactly the reverse.

      What exact lessons from Vietnam could really apply to Iraq then — apart from “never wage a land war in Asia”? Perhaps only at an abstract level (never get involved with a 4G insurgency in a foreign country)?

      Notice that there were at least two cases where the US was militarily involved against sectarian groups in urban environments, which applied the same tactics as those that would be followed in Iraq (car bombs and ambushes), and which left the US military battered: Somalia and Lebanon. Those were probably the significant cases from which it should have learned direct lessons for Iraq.

      1. The lesson is that foreign armies have little ability to fight domestic insurgencies. Confidence in counter-insurgency theory was a major driver of both Vietnam and Iraq, although in neither case (despite) did we “do” CI in a meaningful sense.

        A constant in our wars since Korea is the US military’s trinity of tactics — massive firepower on civilians, search and destroy sweeps, and popular front armies. For variety, we give call them by different names in each war. Many posts on the FM website discuss this, such as:

        Examples of massive firepower on civilians:

  2. I always appreciate anything by Van Crevald because I always learn something. He’s been right for years on his analysis of small wars even if I disagree with his predictions/conclusions.

    Two things (challenge and critique) to hopefully build on the existing argument,

    1. Challenge. When we’re looking at American intervention abroad in the Post-Cold War era, I would challenge everyone not to believe that it’s been simply trying to refight Vietnam. That’s a part of it, but we’ve been in the business of small wars since before we signed the Declaration of Independence. This period is just another chapter. I find Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism helpful in understanding our nature.

    2. Critique. I haven’t accepted the theory that because of nuclear warfare, we will no longer have big wars. I might be wrong, but that’s where I’m at. In some of our discussions on the future, I worry that this type of thinking is analogous to the thinkers in the late 19th century hoping that there would be no more Antietam s only to find themselves soon in the Marne.

    1. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan-Pak are not “small wars” by any reasonable standards. The Vietnam and Af-Pak wars started long before US involvement; both had more than 2 players. Vietnam ran after we left, as Af-Pak probably will.

    2. FM,

      My critique of Van Creveld’s recommendations have diminished over time. I do think that we need a smaller military, but my fear is that it becomes a constabulary force b/c we decry the end of major ground wars. That would be a mistake.

      As I reread through this post, you (and Van Creveld) speak to the fact that we knew Iraq and A’stan could not end well, but we did not listen to the experts. I completely agree with you. My curiosity lately has been- why don’t we listen? This answer is frightening.

      Today, we feel a need to “fix” the Syria and Iran problems. Last year, it was Yemen and Libya. Next year, it’ll probably be Mexico.


      I have a friend who just came back from working with the EU on the Greece problem. He’s a numbers guy, and his job was to figure out what the real numbers were. As he presented his findings, the leaders/decision makers in the room could not accept the truth of how dire the situation was.

      I find the same thing in our foreign policy. We must be brutally honest, but at times, it feels like we are constitutionally incapable of being honest with ourselves.

      I think we need a 12 step program.


      1. Mike,

        I’d greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts on this. Perhaps a guest post?

        I’ve addressed this in many posts over the past 5 years, which I believe is in some way our core problem, as our society having a broken OODA loop.

        It’s a form of dysfunctionality. And well described by people who know all about personal dysfunctionality:

        America’s Grand Strategy, insanity at work

    3. Some define “Small Wars” as “wars of choice”. Wars you could easily avoid. They are wars against those who do not pose an existential threat.

      In contrast to wars which are forced upon you, which you fight or risk losing your nation and life. Directly or in the long run.

      Using this definition Iraq and Afghanistan were wars of choice. Especially the occupation parts.

      But all this is relative and very difficult to see in advance. The key isn’t that Saddam and the Afghan government at the time posed a direct existential threat to “hyperpower” USA. The key is that they didn’t submit.

      “It is not about food, it is about keeping those ants in line.”

      1. Saif,

        Agreed! That is a common definition. And it makes sense, I guess. But so many (most?) large wars are wars of choice for at least one side, and become existential only after the guns begin firing.

        Many civil wars, from the English Civil War (an avoidable breakdown of the political machinery, IMO) to our Civil War (a horrific error of judgement by the South).

        Many large wars. WWI, easily. WWII, by the Axis Powers.

        And many small wars are both unavoidable and existential for the smaller party. Finland and Poland in WWII, for example.

  3. In ancient times, the most effective counterinsurgency strategy was to kill everyone in the population who had the potential to put up a fight.
    Then there was also the strategy of enslavement and/or forced immigration, sending large portions of the conquered population back to live and work in the cities of the conqueror. This had the double benefit of preventing insurgency in occupied lands, plus cheap labor to boost the domestic economy.
    Not that we should do any of that today, though, just interesting to see the historical perspective.

    1. Todd,

      That’s an important point, and the success of 4GW since WWII reflects the new world we’re in.

      For an interesting perspective on these things I recommend reading “The Last Article” by Harry Turtledove (1988). How would Gandhi have fared against the NAZI’s instead of the Brits?

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