The New York Times Reports
Vacuum cleaners in the land of sand
An American helicopter crashed north of Baghdad this morning, apparently after being shot down by insurgents.
It was the third crash of an American helicopter this month. In a statement, the American military said that it had no information about the fate of the two crew members aboard, and that the cause of the crash was being investigated.
But officials at the Iraqi Interior Ministry said that witnesses reported seeing the helicopter being fired on before the crash.
One of my long term topics has been to compare the American occupation of Iraq with the Russian experience in Afghanistan.
A crucial reason for the failure of the Soviet Military in Afghaninstan was losing control over the road network and its security. This meant that if there was a need to rapidly move troops, specialists or command personnel, it had to be done by helicopter. This created two important vulnerabilities.
The first is the direct threat of attacking the helicopters, and the attrition of personnel that it creates. Chopper pilots are hard to replace, helicopters are expensive, and carrying high value personnel makes it difficult to protect battlefield command and control assets - read "brass". Losing conscripts is the nature of the business of running an army - they die in training missions, they die of disease, suicide, accidents and a host of other causes. Losing valuable and hard to replace individuals - whether offensively capable strike troops, specialists or command personnel - increases the drain on the military's manpower several fold. The harder to find individuals with the basic aptitude, the worse this problem is. The more equipment is used, the more it is degraded. And a military helicopter in Iraq is a vacuum cleaner in a land of sand.
The more indirect problem is that it gives anti-occupation forces - the US military is adopting the term "rejectionist" - a tangible means of creating the first vulnerability. Cut off roads, make trouble, and in comes a target rich environment. That is, it gives them a strategy which it is easy to scale across the entire zone under occupation, and to which relatively untrained individuals can be brought to effectiveness.
This may sound abstract, but one of the most important lessons of war over the course of centuries is to move down the chain of skill and training a given military activity. Guns beat bows, not because early guns were better than the bows of their time - in fact the reverse, bows were faster, more deadly and more accurate to much longer ranges - but because one could churn out musketeers in as many weeks as it took years to train a good bowyer, and out of much lower quality material. Henry V had the whole of the English population to choose only 5000 bowyers for the campaign that culminated at Agincourt. In 1600 armies would be 10 times this size.
Thus by creating a target that is simple to exploit without exposing the attacker to great levels of hazard or even US counter-strike, the way a mortar barrage does - the dependence on helicopters creates a way to "industrialize" the counter-occupation.
The failure of heart
The United States military, by doctrine, equipment and training, is the greatest battlefield superiority force ever created. It is as dominant over its near rivals in this period as any dominant military power has ever been at the point of engagement. It is capable of "a particularly sudden and violent kind" of military operation that makes a stand up battle against it a losing proposition. No force has defeated the US military in a direct engagement in a generation.
However, engagement superiority is not all of warfare, and it is, more particularly, not all of the use of the military. The irony is that while the United States has a military which is able to deny any other power the ability to mount a credible conventional threat - in no small part because the US military is designed to defeat - not the armed forces of the USSR, but the armed forces we feared the USSR to have - as defenders in a surprise attack through Europe.
This has left other functions of military effectiveness at reduced capacities. As 9/11 demonstrated, it left basic defense of the US mainland at a level so low that even non-state actors could take advantage of it. As the occuaption of Iraq has demonstrated, it has left American occupation capacity at an all time low point. Consider that the United States expanded by a series of occupation oriented wars against native nations, and won the occupation phase of the Phillipines conflict, World War II, and Korea. The United States has lost few occupations historically. We did not, for example, lose the occupation phase of Vietnam - Tet was a disaster for the communist rebellion - we lost the defensive phase of the conflict.
Iraq then is going to be almost unique in that it will be an occupation that the US has failed to achieve more than a minimal level of objectives. This has happened twice. The inability to secure an occupation phase in the first Iraq-American War, is in no small measure the reason for the second one to be fought. Though historians may well decide that this has been one long conflict with a truce and lower intensity conflict - and they probably should.
The failure of US occupation is, to some extent a failure of training and doctrine, if viewed from the perspective of analyzing the US military. However, neither the military, nor the successive congresses which budgeted for the military, saw the purpose of the Department of Defense as being a tool to occupy foreign nations in order to convert them to an American protectorate. It might do so as a means to a larger end - as we Americanized Japan, Taiwan, Korea - but it has not been the function of the military for almost two generations to do this.
Thus the failure of the United States should be seen as a failure not of the military, but of the civilian leadership which instructed that military to invade and occupy Iraq, and the leadership cadre of the military, which has overtly supported that mission. To put it more bluntly, the officer corps of the US military, by supporting a particular series of political outcomes, has brought about a failure of military outcome.
This basic contradiction - that the military politically supported expansion of the military, while failing to plan for the inevitable conflicts which those providing that expansion wanted to fight - has the same source as the failure of Iraq specifically. That is, a failure to tie military eventuality with political eventuality.
This failure then is a failure not in military doctrine and training - that is, the US troops do well what they are trained to do, better than any military has ever done it in history - and they have the equipment to accomplish it. But they were trained for the wrong mission. The reason they were trained for the wrong mission is that the officer corps of the US military was blind to the consequences of their own actions and their own ideology.
This is not an unusual occurance historically. The history of warfare is replete with examples of elites which held contradictory military and political ideologies. Perhaps the first famous example is the Persian Empire, which had an ideology of expansion, coupled with a political doctrine of decentralization. This created a military which was composed of large numbers of under armored and under trained foot soldiers - which were easily dispatched in large numbers by the heavily armored and highly trained Greeks. The irony is that this lesson was lost on Periclean Athens, and on Alexandrian Macedonia - which made similar mistakes in mismatching political ideology with military reality. One could continue with an expansive list.
However the present problem is one which is serious, because it is the second successive example of it in American history of the post-war period. The first, of course, is the Vietnam War, where an ideology of liberalism - which meant increasing rights, standards of living, equality and civilian expansion of the economy - met with a political doctrine of an optional preventative war of attrition which relied upon using less educated and economically disadvantaged soldiers to fight it. The very people the Great Society was supposed to raise up, were being shovelled into Vietnam.
Our current failure is larger, it is more expensive, has existed for a longer period of time, and runs farther to the core of our military budget process, training decisions, procurement process and political results. The military did not overtly support LBJ the way it supported GWB.
Lessons for the near and far future
It has been difficult to write about Iraq, because the facts on the ground were that we had reached a bloody stalemete. Neither side was losing soldiers beyond its ability to replace them, but neither side was making signficant headway in its political goals. Iraq pretended to have a Democracy, and but the insurgency could not make the pretense degenerate into the kind of bloody farce which puts power into play.
The theory that there is a mismatch between political and military ideology suggests that the military will exacerbate the problems by supporting face saving, and engaging in smear attacks of visible opponents. This very process will make it impossible to place the military personnel in Iraq in a posture and positioning which will limit the damage. The more that the officer corps must prove they are winning, the more targets they create for the rebellion.
The more important farther afield lesson is that there must be a change in the methods by which the officer corps is recruited, trained and advanced. One of the most important steps in this reform would be to end the resistence to recruitment on college campuses. The current failure comes precisely because of the ideological nature of military recruitment. If the metropolitan economy desires to have input into military direction, and some measure of interplay with the military planning process, then it must, as a logical consequence, encourage more of its members to enter the military on the officer track, with the intent of shaping a officer corps which lacks a contradictory military and political stance.
In short, there is a mirror contradiction - as the officer corps refuses to plan for the wars that it politically supports, so too do those who are opposed to the kinds of warfare which we train for unwilling to politically engage to direct the military towards ends that they find more palatable. By behaving as consumers - by refusing to "buy" the military product, by "withdrawing consent" rather than altering it, the metropolitan and intellectual social system has contributed to an alienation which is now having tremendous political costs.
The irony is that military personnel have a far easier road in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party. The key leadership of the Republican Party avoided military service by and large. This irony has been seen by the "swift boating" of various Democratic candidates or office holders. The Democratic Party has a far less contradictory view of the military - the US military is a deterent, its battlefield superiority is a threat which is not supposed to be exercised, and can therefore act against many nations at once. Once committed, those nations which were threatened before, are no longer under threat.
Recent events indicate that the expected acceleration of attacks against US rotary wing aircraft has begun, and will be a feature during the winter period where US soldiers can operate in a more heavily armored mode.
This is the culmination of a failure of the US military to control the road system, with the resulting dependency on rotary aircraft.
This failure is rooted in a mismatch in the military officer corps support for aggressively militaristic domestic politics as a way of expanding military funding, and planning for a defensive stance for the US military focused on short, sharp and brief incursions to act as a military purgative to a political problem.
This failure is compounded by the isolation of the officer corps from a stream of manpower which, having different political and military preferences, would not fall prey to the same errors.
This isolation derrives from the non-participation of the metropolitan economy in the officer corps, and needs to be corrected long term by the reintegration of academic and military circles of leadership. I am aware that this is a controversial assertion, with "anti-ROTC" being a core social tennet of left political activism, in hopes of denying the military the manpower needed to fight wars. This theory - similar to the "starve the beast" theory of tax cutting on the right - has shown to be incorrect, instead, demand will find means of borrowing against infrastructure to satisfy itself, with the result that the same expenditure happens, only with interest and other costs attached.
Instead, it is necessary to reintegrate the mainstream of American economic life with the military, in order to rebalance both the expenditures on the military, and the demands made upon it by the civilian leadership.