The Myth Of The Invincible Insurgency

Donald Stoker, writing in Foreign Affairs argues that the idea that insurgencies are somehow militarily strong is completely wrong, turning the conventional wisdom on his head.

Indeed, he’s right. The North Vietnamese didn’t “win” in Vietnam until well after the US pulled out. Conventional history paints the Tet Offensive as some great strategic victory for the Viet Cong when the reality is that it was an abject military failure. Out of the 84,000 North Vietnamese forces engaged during the Offensive, 50,000 of them were killed. In every real sense, Tet was a military debacle, one of the worst of the century. It was only when North Vietnamese General Giap realized that the American media was giving it the opposite spin that he decided to press on — and still, it took years for the North Vietnamese to recover from that disastrous campaign.

Yet the media and even many military planners continue to learn the wrong lessons from Vietnam. Stoker explains:

When South Vietnam finally fell in 1975, it did so not to the Vietcong, but to regular units of the invading North Vietnamese Army. The Vietcong insurgency contributed greatly to the erosion of the American public’s will to fight, but so did the way that President Lyndon Johnson and the American military waged the war. It was North Vietnam’s will and American failure, not skillful use of an insurgency, that were the keys to Hanoi’s victory.

Stoker then draws the obvious parallel to Iraq:

That’s why the real question in Iraq is not whether the insurgency can be defeated—it can be. The real question is whether the United States might have already missed its chance to snuff it out. The United States has failed to provide internal security for the Iraqi populace. The result is a climate of fear and insecurity in areas of the country overrun by insurgents, particularly in Baghdad. This undermines confidence in the elected Iraqi government and makes it difficult for it to assert its authority over insurgent-dominated areas. Clearing out the insurgents and reestablishing security will take time and a lot of manpower. Sectarian violence adds a bloody wrinkle. The United States and the Iraqi government have to deal with Sunni and Shia insurgencies, as well as the added complication of al Qaeda guerrillas.

But the strategy of “surging” troops could offer a rare chance for success—if the Pentagon and the White House learn from their past mistakes. Previously, the U.S. military cleared areas such as Baghdad’s notorious Haifa Street, but then failed to follow up with security. So the insurgents simply returned to create havoc. As for the White House, it has so far failed to convince the Iraqi government to remove elements that undermine its authority, such as the Mahdi Army. Bush’s recent speech on Iraq included admissions of these failures, providing some hope that they might not be repeated.

There’s a reason why the pundits keep arguing that the insurgency in Iraq cannot be militarily defeated — because it plays into the idea that the “Other” is superior to Western civilization. The way in which terrorists like Che Guavara have been turned into cultural fetishes by the left is a symptom of that pathology. The reality is that insurgencies rarely win in any military sense — the US handily defeated the Moro movement in the Philippines in the early 20th Century, Greek Communists failed to control Greece, the Shining Path never took over Peru, etc. Insurgency tactics aren’t militarily successful unless they’re designed to target support for the war at home.

The insurgency isn’t winning, it’s that the American people are failing our troops. We’re too self-absorbed to commit to victory, a victory which our military can achieve. Some have criticized the President for not demanding more sacrifices of the American people — and there’s some substance to that critique. However, it’s not the President who is failing, but our political culture. In World War II, an academic who said that the Nazis should win would be thrown out of town on a rail. Newspapers that ran a constant stream of anti-American pieces would see their circulations drop to nothing. (Then again, perhaps that is happening.) In World War II, there was no question that the Nazis and the Japanese were the enemy, we were unafraid of calling them so, and we made no compunction about killing as many of them as it would take to win the war. Our survival was on the line, and we accepted that total war was our only recourse.

That isn’t true today. Partially it’s because the situation is more difficult — we’re fighting a stateless ideology in a much more interconnected world. At the same time, a statement like “Islamist terrorism is the enemy and the US should take every action necessary to defeat it” is hardly politically correct. No, instead it’s “al-Qaeda is evil, but…” and then a long litany of why in some way we deserve what we got. If in World War II there had been an active community of people who believed that the government planned Pearl Harbor to justify their political power, the Third Reich would be alive and well and California would be part of the Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Insurgencies are militarily weak unless we make them strong. What this nation must confront is that the enemy’s greatest weapon is not the IED or the AK-47 — it’s us. Our actions, and our inability to defend our own values and culture are slowly but surely killing us. Our military is acting with incalculable bravery — and yet their sacrifices are treated by contempt by a culture that is laced with self-obsession and wracked with self-doubt. The insurgency may be weak, but if their resolve is greater, they can win here what they cannot win on the battlefield.

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