Failing to learn from the mistakes of Vietnam

Governments should learn from thier mistakes but as day after bloody day passes in Iraq it becomes more and more obvious that we didn’t learn our lessons from the debacle in Vietnam.

Writes Thomas E. Ricks in Sunday’s Washington Post:

There is some evidence that Saddam Hussein’s government knew it couldn’t win a conventional war, and some captured documents indicate that it may have intended some sort of rear-guard campaign of subversion against occupation. The stockpiling of weapons, distribution of arms caches, the revolutionary roots of the Baathist Party, and the movement of money and people to Syria either before or during the war all indicate some planning for an insurgency.

But there is also strong evidence, based on a review of thousands of military documents and hundreds of interviews with military personnel, that the U.S. approach to pacifying Iraq in the months after the collapse of Hussein helped spur the insurgency and made it bigger and stronger than it might have been.

The very setup of the U.S. presence in Iraq undercut the mission. The chain of command was hazy, with no one individual in charge of the overall American effort in Iraq, a structure that led to frequent clashes between military and civilian officials.

Complicating the U.S. effort was the difficulty top officials had in recognizing what was going on in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at first was dismissive of the looting that followed the U.S. arrival and then for months refused to recognize that an insurgency was breaking out there. A reporter pressed him one day that summer: Aren’t you facing a guerrilla war?

"I guess the reason I don’t use the phrase ‘guerrilla war’ is because there isn’t one," Rumsfeld responded.

A few weeks later, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid succeeded Gen. Tommy R. Franks as the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East. He used his first news conference as commander to clear up the strategic confusion about what was happening in Iraq. Opponents of the U.S. presence were conducting "a classical guerrilla-style campaign," he said. "It’s a war, however you describe it."

"When you’re facing a counterinsurgency war, if you get the strategy right, you can get the tactics wrong, and eventually you’ll get the tactics right," said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a veteran of Special Forces in the Vietnam War. "If you get the strategy wrong and the tactics right at the start, you can refine the tactics forever, but you still lose the war. That’s basically what we did in Vietnam."

For the first 20 months or more of the American occupation in Iraq, it was what the U.S. military would do there as well.