My Lesson from “The Long War”
I’ve recently noticed a couple of invitations to write about “The Long War”…lessons learned, the future of the military after years of COIN, ideas for improving the military, yadda, yadda, yadda. Small Wars Journal has been kind enough over the years to publish some of my thoughts related to the war.…some folks agreed with them (sort of) and others thought I was whacked. I don’t have much else to add to the ideas I’ve already presented, especially since my “combat” experiences are limited to two tours as an advisor, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq. I still wish I could’ve done more but I did what I could given the time, resources, and understanding (by our leaders) available. I say this in order to share the following.
As I was going through the retirement process a few years ago, I met an older gentlemen who noticed and commented on the CIB license plate I had on my car at the time (yup…I had one of those). I stopped, thought for a second, and realized that he must know what the CIB is and quite possibly had earned one himself. So I asked him…”Where’d you get yours?”; “Vietnam”, he replied. When I asked him what unit he was in, he said “MACV”. While I’m no history expert, I am somewhat familiar with the Army infantry units that fought in Vietnam but I couldn’t really think of any that were assigned (versus attached or OPCON) to MAC-V, though I’m sure many were. Then it dawned on me that he may have been an advisor, so I asked. He replied that he had been an advisor with the Regional Forces/ Popular Forces about 25 miles outside of Saigon from 1970 to 1971. It took a couple of seconds for me to realize my reaction……a smile slowly came to my face, my right hand went up, and I approached him. As he shook my hand, I told him that I, too, had served as a combat advisor in both Afghanistan and Iraq. “Interesting job, isn’t it?” I said. “Yeah…very” he replied, also with a bit of smile.
I forgot his name (which I regret) but went on to tell him about a couple of books I had read about advisors in Vietnam….”The Village” by Bing West and “Once a Warrior-King” by David Donovan and one other that I can’t recall at the moment. I wrote down those titles for him and told him a bit of my experiences, acknowledging that they were nothing like what I suspect he endured. We both agreed that our “higher-ups” didn’t fully understand what we were doing and how best to execute that particular mission. Then I left feeling quite honored to have met someone, from a different war, who experienced something similar to what I experienced. “Very frakin’ cool” I thought.
I guess my point here is that the advising mission, in both wars, was not fully understood or embraced by our “higher-ups”. Our senior leaders either didn’t like it because it wasn’t “kinetic”, conventional combat, or didn’t understand (either by choice or through ignorance) how such a mission should be executed and supported. It’s sad that we seem to have learned little regarding this particular mission from that war or our most recent (ongoing?) one.
The lesson I would take away from his experience and mine is: don’t conduct advisory missions unless we are prepared to (1) fully embed with the local forces (live with them, not on a faraway FOB), (2) share their dangers, (3) be there for a long time (longer than one-year tours), & (4) willing to accept the dangers and subsequent losses that are inherent in such a mission. What we seem to be doing in Iraq (Syria too?) indicates to me that we are still not prepared to do this sort of thing, begging the question: “What’s the point?. According to news reports, the majority of our “advise-and-assist” forces are far behind the local forces who are engaged in combat (the SOF troops are the exceptions, as expected). While there is a chance that our efforts may have a more lasting impact this time given that our footprint is a bit smaller and efforts more focused, I’m concerned that the local forces will, once again, break and run at the first opportunity if they don’t get the support that comes with embedded advisors. Like everyone else, I am waiting and watching. Hopefully, we won’t see Blackhawks rescuing American personnel from the roof of Embassy Baghdad.
Small Wars Journal Editor’s Note to Readership: Please consider sharing your “Long War” lessons learned via the SWJ/MWG Writing Contest. What worked and what did not work, Small Wars tactical and operational lessons encountered through the lens of General Anthony Zinni’s and Dr. David Kilcullen’s considerations and fundamentals.