Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Thoughts as I watch my Army walk away from counterinsurgency once again

Will the Army forget or discard the counterinsurgency lessons learned over the last 15 years? I hope not but, if history is a guide, there is little reason to be optimistic.



By Brig. Gen. John Scales, USAR (Ret.)

Best Defense guest columnist


By Brig. Gen. John Scales, USAR (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

Will the Army forget or discard the counterinsurgency lessons learned over the last 15 years? I hope not but, if history is a guide, there is little reason to be optimistic.

In 1971 I was a young 82nd Airborne infantry lieutenant, Ranger-qualified, trying to get to Vietnam to do as I had been trained. After several attempts and discouragement from higher ups saying the Army was trying to get out of there, I finally succeeded and became an infantry platoon leader for six months. After the unit stood down I was transferred to be an installation security officer in Qui Nhon, where I controlled an indigenous guard force of Montagnards and Nungs. In late 1972, I returned to the U.S. and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, where I served in several positions, including rifle company commander.

The Army was undergoing a tremendous downsizing. In 1975 a reduction-in-force (RIF) took place among young captains, my peers. Although I am unaware of any specific instructions given the board, the outcome left little doubt. Of the 16 or so captains assigned to my brigade and in the zone of consideration, about half had served a tour in Vietnam and half had not. The board results? All but one of those who had served in Vietnam were given their walking papers. Those who had not? All but one were retained. No Vietnam experience needed in this man’s Army — we’ll never do that stuff again!

On to the Armor Advanced Course. No Vietnam experience or counterinsurgency there, but that’s not a big surprise—not their core interest. Then Special Forces qualification, with its emphasis on insurgency and counterinsurgency, where finally experience was treated as having value. But unfortunately, assignment to a group meant learning the planning for the wartime mission: nothing to do with the indigenous personnel but rather a requirement to act as a glorified long-range recon force in Eastern Europe if ever called upon. Command and Staff College: “Active Defense, breakout of encirclement with a heavy brigade, “First Battle,” etc. No hint of counterinsurgency, military operations other than war, or anything other than defeating the Red hordes. Necessary to be sure, but not really complete. War College? Can’t really say as I had a fellowship in a think tank, but emphasis at Carlisle was on strategy, not tactics or even operational art.

The Army was effectively split in its approach. It was training very effectively for the “big one.” But on the ground it was doing Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines), Iraqi Freedom. The first two had little counterinsurgency content (although there was some), but both were conducted “amongst the people,” rather complicating matters for the maneuver units. Desert Storm and the first couple of weeks of Iraqi Freedom? These were the wars we were looking for. Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Afghanistan, and the rest of Iraqi Freedom? Counterinsurgency played a major role everywhere.

Yet the Army was not prepared or educated for this role. At best, counterinsurgency was considered a “lesser included case”. The belief, just as it was before Vietnam, was that good conventional troops can beat guerrillas easily.

In Afghanistan, where I led a special operations rotation in 2002, our tactics were grossly inappropriate and counterproductive. Senior military leaders seemingly did not understand how to get a grip on what was happening. Although I had retired by then, the same lack of understanding seems to have played out in Iraq. It is fashionable in the military to blame everything on the Secretary of Defense, but in truth the advice he was getting was inadequate and often inappropriate. Would it have gone better if he had gotten better advice? Don’t know (he was a little opinionated, wasn’t he?), but it couldn’t have hurt.

The nadir was reached when General Casey, a mechanized infantryman, was appointed commander of the forces in Iraq. As documented in Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents, prior to taking command while in an office call with the Chief of Staff, he admitted to never having read anything about counterinsurgency. To his credit he read the proffered book and instituted counterinsurgency study upon arrival in Baghdad. It wasn’t his fault the Army had never exposed him to studying that type of warfare during his career. But it is a commentary on the Army’s priorities in the years between 1973 and the early 2000s, even though many of the operations conducted had at least some counterinsurgency component.

Now, over the past dozen years or so, the Army has developed a significant cadre of officers with extensive counterinsurgency experience and more competency in that regard than the institution has ever enjoyed. Will this experience and wisdom be lost by the current perception that we’ll never do that again?

Unfortunately, history says yes. The Army as an institution loves the image of the big war: swift maneuver, tanks, heavy artillery, armed helicopters overhead, mounds of logistics support. The nitty-gritty of working with indigenous personnel to common ends, small unit patrols in civilian-infested cities, quick clashes against faceless enemies that fade back into the populace — not so much. Lessons will fade, and those who earned their PhDs in small wars will be passed over and left by the wayside.

Here is the problem with that approach: The ability to win the big one is vital, but so is the ability to win the small wars. We paid a price for forgetting what we learned in Vietnam. I hope succeeding generations do not have to pay again.

BG (retired) John Scales served for over 32 years in all three components of the U.S. Army. Assigned primarily to special operations and infantry units, his last tour of duty was as one of two deputy commanding generals of the Joint Special Operations Command. An inventor with four patents and a PhD in engineering, he is also an avid student of military history and has authored several books, primarily on the American Civil War.

Photo credit: LearningLark/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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