The important thing is to be good at learning
“I should have to urge everyone to acquire and study works such as this one, since there is no more ready corrective for mankind than the understanding of the past.”
Polybius, in writing his Histories, set out to assess the Roman military achievement of the second century BCE so as to provide a guide for future leaders. In this essay we will look at the writings of classical military strategists to see if they can inform our understanding of current military situation in Iraq. We will first look at the various stages of the war in Iraq: the rational for war and the intelligence that supported it, the air, land and sea operations of the initial invasion, the insurgency that followed as well as a brief look at the controversial use of private contractors in Iraq. Then we will evaluate the coalition performance based on the writings of the classic military strategists for each stage of the conflict and then summarize with an evaluation of the overall performance during the conflict.
Some theorists would argue, perhaps correctly, that we should not have gone to war in the first place. Sun Tzu tells us that “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Many at the time believed the sanctions and inspections were working to accomplish the goals of disarmament without destroying stability in the region. In retrospect this was almost certainly the case. This was probably our first failure.
The initial invasion was by all standards a quick military success. But every situation is unique and must be looked at for the elements that make it so. The promised stability and jubilation did not follow our quick military victory. Corbett points out that “to assume that one method of conducting war will suit all kinds of war is to fall a victim to abstract theory.” We assumed that a military victory was all that was need and we entered that conflict with little post-war planning. Corbett continues, “the first desideratum of a war plan is that the means adopted must conflict as little as possible with the political conditions from which the war springs.” Mao is even more specific. “As for the factor of place, since each country or nation, especially a large country or nation, has it’s own characteristics, the laws of war for each country or nation also have their own characteristics, and here, too, those applying to one cannot be mechanically transferred to the other.” It is clear at this point that we failed to understand the characteristics of the nation we occupied.
“Failures of collection, uncritical analytical assumptions and inadequate management reviews were the result of years of well-intentioned attempts to do the best job with the resources provided. Decisions were made and the potential risks weighed, but the outcome on important issues proved unacceptably bad.”
Richard Kerr, “Intelligence and Analysis on Iraq”
These failures at the beginning of the conflict produced predictably bad results: an ongoing insurgency, political chaos that at times borders on civil war, continuing and even increased troop presence in Iraq with still more casualties, an ever expanding drain on the treasury and increasing hatred and mistrust throughout the world and especially the Middle East leading to increased incidents of terrorism.
The Revolutionary movement in China during the Civil war, like our war in Iraq, made grave mistakes and experienced significant set backs. To maintain a misguided strategy—in current parlance to “stay the course”—is to continue making the same mistakes. Mao described this dangerous narrow focus of thought and action. “There are some people who, contented with a single skill or a peep-hole view, never make any progress, they may play some role in the revolution at a given place and time, but not play a significant role. All the laws for directing war develop as history develops and as war develops; nothing is changeless.” Mao was able to understand his circumstance, revise his strategy and adopt policies that took advantage of situation that presented itself. Mao was able to master a desperate situation and turn it around to victory. He offers us perhaps the most important and succinct lesson of any of the great strategists, and one that we continue to ignore at our peril.
“The important thing is to be good at learning.”
Mao Tse-tung, The Art of War