WARS ARE UGLY

Former Reagan SecNav James Webb compares this war to Vietnam. The enemy’s tactics are similar:

Other reports corroborate the direction that the war, as well as its aftermath, promises to take: Iraqi militiamen, in civilian clothes, firing weapons and disappearing inside the anonymity of the local populace. So-called civilians riding in buses to move toward contact. Enemy combatants mixing among women and children. Children firing weapons. Families threatened with death if a soldier does not fight. A wounded American soldier commenting, “If they’re dressed as civilians, you don’t know who is the enemy anymore.”

These actions, while reprehensible, are nothing more than classic guerrilla warfare, no different in fact or in moral degree from what our troops faced in difficult areas of Vietnam. In the Fifth Marine Regiment area of operations outside Da Nang, we routinely faced enemy soldiers dressed in civilian clothes and even as women. Their normal routes of ingress and egress were through villages, and we fought daily in populated areas. On one occasion a smiling, waving girl — no more than 7 years old — lured a squad from my platoon into a vicious North Vietnamese crossfire. And if a Vietcong soldier surrendered, it was essential to remove his family members from their village by nightfall, or they might be killed for the sake of discipline.

The moral and tactical confusion that surrounds this type of warfare is enormous. It is also one reason that the Marine Corps took such heavy casualties in Vietnam, losing five times as many killed as in World War I, three times as many as in Korea and more total casualties than in World War II. Guerrilla resistance has already proved deadly in the Iraq war, and far more effective than the set-piece battles that thus far have taken place closer to Baghdad. A majority of American casualties at this point have been the result of guerrilla actions against Marine and Army forces in and around Nasiriya. As this form of warfare has unfolded, the real surprise is why anyone should have been surprised at all. But people have been, among them many who planned the war, many who are fighting it and a large percentage of the general population.

As is the military-political mix:

If American forces are successful in these engagements, the war may be over sooner rather than later. But if these battles stagnate, guerrilla warfare could well become pandemic, not only in Baghdad but also across Iraq. And even considering the strong likelihood of an allied victory, it is hard to imagine an end point without an extremely difficult period of occupation.

In fact, what will be called an occupation may well end up looking like the images we have seen in places like Nasiriya. Do Iraqis hate Saddam Hussein’s regime more deeply than they dislike the Americans who are invading their country? That question will still be with this administration, and the military forces inside Iraq, when the occupation begins, whether the war lasts a few more days or several more months.

Or worse, the early stages of an occupation could see acts of retribution against members of Saddam Hussein’s regime, then quickly turn into yet another round of guerrilla warfare against American forces. This point was made chillingly clear a few days ago by the leader of Iraq’s major Shiite opposition group, who, according to Reuters, promised armed resistance if the United States remains in Iraq after Saddam Hussein is overthrown.

There is one huge difference, though, that Webb doesn’t touch on: For all the talk of this being a “limited war” because we aren’t using all the military tools in the kit (which OTB has joined numerous other commentators in criticizing) and because of the extreme caution in avoiding civilian casualties, this is very much a total war in terms of its political objective. In Vietnam, we were fighting to maintain an artificial border between North and South Vietnam. Here, we are fighting for regime change. That means that, unlike the queasy goals of Vietnam which were primarily about winning hearts and minds and achieving body counts, there is a simple, measurable target this time around.

FILED UNDER: Best of OTB, Iraq War, Military Affairs,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.