Small Wars Journal


US Air Force Major General Charlie Dunlap says forget the lessons of Iraq in the latest edition of The Armed Forces Journal.

Among defense intelligentsia, there are few mantras more chic than that which claims the US military "forgot the lessons of Vietnam." Had it not done so, received wisdom insists, America's armed forces would not have struggled in Iraq for so long. Powerful adherents to this theory have spawned a follow-on analog, that we must not "forget the lessons of Iraq."

Unfortunately, some of the key lessons these enthusiasts believe should be learned are the wrong ones, and these mistaken ideas are causing America's military to be altered in ways that may prove troubling as the US faces an increasingly complex and dangerous range of security threats.

Indeed, the devotees of the forgot-the-lessons-of-Vietnam philosophy have become so ascendant that they might be said to form the New Establishment of defense strategists. The New Establishment is especially strong in the Army. As a result, much of the service is being reconceptualized into a constabulary force in which nation-building and stability operations all but trump force-on-force war fighting...

What say you?


McConnell (not verified)

Mon, 01/19/2009 - 5:47pm

MG Dunlap is absolutely correct in his three main points. As I read the article, I understand these points to be, the lessons of Iraq should be carefully scrutinized to avoid focusing on issues that are conflict specific and will not apply in future conflicts. Second, the army must not lose the capability to engage in major combat operations (MCO). Third, the manpower intensive form of counter insurgency practiced in Iraq is not the only way to conduct counter insurgency. These points are critical to the armys future success. However, this said, the arguments defining these points needs to be relooked at.
The lessons of Iraq should be carefully scrutinized to avoid focusing on issues that are conflict specific and will not apply in future conflicts. This should be self evident to anyone who has sat through an after action review at a maneuver training center and heard "thats a technique". The army reviews all operations and exercises for lessons learned, Iraq will be no different. The Center for Army Lessons Learned is already publishing lessons and will probably continue until long after these operations end. Historians, solders and think tank types will probably be mulling over what the "proper" lessons of Iraq are for generations. Some lessons to start with might be, wishing away stability and counter insurgency operations do not mean they will not happen. The army can do nation building and must be prepared to do it while still conducting combat operations (the three block war). The State Department is not an expeditionary force and will not follow on the heals of combat forces. Not having a plan for stability is not an effective technique. Like most of us learned the hard way at some point or another, hope is not a method. We must learn the lessons from Iraq. MG Dunlap is correct that careful scrutiny is necessary to ensure we do not learn the wrong ones.
The army must not lose the capability for MCO. The army is our major ground combat force. As FM 3-0 emphasizes, we need to be able to conduct full spectrum operations. This includes MCO as well as stability operations and when necessary, civil support operations. No doctrinal publication I am aware of recommends diminishing the armys MCO capability. No one is talking about turning in the tanks and Bradleys for MRAPs. Instead the army is expanding its capacity to do other things. While we need to be fully prepared to conduct MCO, there is a whole lot going on that is not MCO. The army needs to be prepared to meet these challenges and threats as well. As MG Dunlap points out, besides the two "manpower intensive" counterinsurgencies there are a host of what he calls "small foot print" operations going on across the world. These operations are, by definition, stability or counterinsurgency operations. To not have doctrine and training to prepare soldiers for these ongoing and future operations would be pure negligence. That is the purpose of FMs 3-7 and 3-24, not diminishing the armys capability to conduct MCO. MG Dunlap is correct, the army cannot afford to diminish its capability to do MCO but it also must be prepared to face the host of other threats and contingencies the modern world holds.
The manpower intensive form of counterinsurgency practiced in Iraq is not the only way to conduct counterinsurgency. Iraq represents a particular case of the rapid toppling of regime, disenfranchisement of a formerly privileged portion of the population and disbanding of the armed forces. Along with the inflammation of sectarianism, these conditions set the stage for a three cornered civil war/insurgency. Given the particular set of conditions, the need to stand up a government police force and army while standing down tribal and sectarian militias, combating terrorists and the fact we had a large presence already, manpower intense was probably the only way to conduct this particular operation. However, many counterinsurgency and stability operations have required little more than advisors helping the host nation government and military before, during and after the insurgency. These are what MG Dunlap calls the small footprint operations. They work. These operations require less manpower, resources and public support than manpower intense counterinsurgency. They are still stability and counterinsurgency operations requiring doctrine and trained soldiers. The army must be prepared to conduct these operations as well. This is the capability, I believe, Undersecretary Ryan was referring with the quote in the article. MG Dunlap is also correct in stating the army does not need to recruit masses of social workers, civil engineers, teachers, nurses, etc. They already exist in our force structure. A civilian skills inventory of any unit reveals soldiers have a surprising myriad of skills. This expands exponentially when you add in the guard and reserve. Soldiers are remarkably capable individuals not one dimensional gun slingers. MG Dunlap is correct, manpower intensive counterinsurgency such as we are currently fighting in Iraq is not the only type and the army needs to be prepared to respond across the full spectrum of operations.
Overall, MG Dunlap is correct in his three points. The army must carefully scrutinize all aspects of Operation Iraqi Freedom and distill lessons for every phase of the operations, including planning, MCO, stability and counterinsurgency. The army must maintain its capability to conduct MCO. As FM 3-0 shows, offence, defense, and stability operations are coequals. There are no lesser includeds anymore. There is more than one type of counterinsurgency and the army needs to be prepared for all levels of engagement from team through corp. The army needs to be prepared for the fights the conflicts it is in as well the full spectrum of future operations.

Author is an ILE student and the veiws expresseded are his own, not those of the army.

While I certainly think that we should maintain a significant skill set for use in 3rd Generation Warfare (3GW: Mechanized War of Maneuver), I'm less certain that anybody's going to seriously challenge us at it anytime soon. Nobody's beaten the United States fighting 3GW, but we have lost 4GW (Insurgent Destruction of Political Will) wars.

One logical extreme of the General's thinking would be to activate a brigade of horse cavalry. They're decorative as hell, and once in a while they really come in handy. Certainly they're quieter than M113's.

I suspect that for the foreseeable future, we'd be much better served with personnel in each brigade who could write really compelling poetry in Arabic and Pashtun than investing in another "Gee Whiz" stealth bird. Laugh if you like, be Michael Yon won more hearts and minds with one picture than any Air Force F-16 squadron.

Breaking the will of the enemy to fight is the most conclusive method of achieving victory. We need to establish a convincing belief in the minds of our opponent's citizens that we are not an existential threat but instead are there to make them free. You may have noticed we haven't had to go back to war with Germany or Japan lately. Why does General Dunlap's assertion make me think he regrets that.

Steve Blair

Fri, 01/16/2009 - 11:17am

I'm thinking Dunlap should either stop writing or find another snare drum to beat on. I'm getting quite tired of people who don't understand (or refuse to understand) that ditching COIN lessons is an historical TREND for the army (and by extension a fair amount of the defense establishment) that predates Vietnam by many years. In earlier times the lack of official memory could be offset to a degree by institutional memory in the form of long-service officers and NCOs, but our personnel system has managed to do away with this backbone. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised given the Air Force's Stalinist application of its own history, but it still gets old.

JayH (not verified)

Fri, 01/16/2009 - 11:06am

One of my ongoing frustrations is watching smart people fall prey to their organizational or analytical biases. Too many well-read analysts inadvertently skew their conclusions by parsing facts and assumptions through the lens of their particular formative experiences.

For many of our current leaders, theirs was the lens of Vietnam. Its kind of like listening to your grandparents tales of the Depression era. We become numb to the lessons because of the mothball smell. Whether ones personal formative experiences are dominated by Vietnam, the Cold War, or (gasp) Iraq, we must ensure that the lessons learned are actually applicable in the current context. This will especially necessary as we transition to Afghanistan - a situation more akin to the island-hopping campaigns of WWII than Iraq. Assured mobility and building <i>sustainable</i> local security will win the day.

The current Israeli difficulties in waging a force-based solution to their Hamas problems are (IMHO) based on leaders viewing the current situation through their personal lenses of past force-based responses. Learning from nearby Iraq, they should use a better balance or both kinetic applications and perception management. Periodically swatting at continuous small attacks without addressing the root (people) problems is what I like to call, "<i>Hamasturbation</i>."

So, let us not forget the lessons of Iraq, but take from them the applicable bits and apply them judiciously in-context.

Failing to learn the lessons from past wars is stupid.

In the next battle you don't just apply the lessons from the last battle, you apply all your knowledge and learning.

Asking "Are we making the same mistakes" is very valuable. But you should also ask if you are making the same mistakes as other leaders have done in the past, from the Romans on.

Honestly, I think the "forget what we have learned and go back to blasting everyone with heavy kinetics" is a meat head idea.

Without COIN and working on the ground with the population you don't have the intelligence to know who to blast. Most of our early failures in Iraq was becuase we could not see the wood for the trees. We were blind becuase we were not foresters.

Look at what the traditional approach is NOT winning in the Gaza strip. In at totally one sided war, where Israel has total air superiority, total kinetic superiority, total maneuver control, total battle field awareness, they are fast moving away from what they want. They say they want to end the random rocket fire. They say they want the people of Gaza to take action against the rocketeers. To do that the people of Gaza have got to like Israel more than the rocketeers.

Israel is losing with every step as it advances, because Israel has failed to understand they are in a COIN war.

Yep, we should be meat-heads and just do like Israel. Advance through towns in battlefield formations, with all guns blazing. This will obviously lead to friendly relations and peace.