Friday, December 15, 2006

Lessons we pretend we never learned

Groundhog Day: The U.S. military writes a new counterinsurgency manual, and the reporter covering it pretends that such a thing hasn't happened since Viet Nam:
The distaste for counterinsurgency can be traced, like so many other things in the military, to the residue of Vietnam. After more than a decade of crushing failure, the generals vowed, more or less, never to get mixed up again in a guerrilla war. Hoffman says war colleges across the country literally purged their libraries of books on fighting guerrilla warfare ... Then came 9/11.

I've written about this phenomenon before:
[George Packer:] "the Army’s most recent field manual on the subject is two decades old."

That would be the manual with which they ran the counterinsurgency war in El Salvador. By the mid-1980s, the United States funded 90% of the Salvadoran national budget. U.S. military "advisors" (many more than the 500 legally allowed or acknowledged, and many of whom were in combat) directed that war in detail. That level of involvement lasted for a decade.

The Newsweek writer is even more dishonest or clueless than Packer, who at least acknowledged that there was a counterinsurgency manual in use twenty years ago (though he was no better at drawing any inferences from that fact).

The recurring pretense that nothing like this has ever happened before, where 'this' is torture, or counterinsurgency, or domestic repression, makes me crazy. If a search for 'El Salvador' comes up empty in an article on U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, even just reading it makes me feel as if I'm participating in airbrushing history.

Maybe I should institute a regular feature like the "Letters We Never Finished Reading" fillers in the New Yorker of old. Well, maybe not; a better move would be to maintain the one regular feature already promised. This Monday, garden blogging for sure...

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At 1:32 PM, December 19, 2006, Blogger Thomas Nephew said...

Maybe I should institute a regular feature like the "Letters We Never Finished Reading" fillers in the New Yorker of old. Well, maybe not; a better move would be to maintain the one regular feature already promised. This Monday, garden blogging for sure...

I like both ideas; I'm underinformed about Central America in the 1980s (focused on nuclear weapons back then) and the historical perspective -- counterinsurgency, School of the Americas, Abrams, etc. etc would be worthwhile for me.

At 7:51 PM, February 03, 2010, Anonymous Ovid said...

A few recommended books for those interested in the history of Counterinsurgency

Michael McClintock, Instruments of Statecraft (available online ) (McClintock was a human rights advocate)

Michael McClintock, The American Connection, Volume 1: State Terror and Popular Resistance in El Salvador (1985)

Michael McClintock, The American Connection, Volume 2: State Terror and Popular Resistance in Guatemala (1985)

The Counterinsurgency Era: U.S. Doctrine and Performance, 1950 to the Present (1977) (Note: Readers should remember this book was written by a CIA counterinsurgency expert and praised by William Bundy in the foreword)

Kenneth Conboy and Dale Andrade, Spies and Commandos: How America Lost the Secret War in North Vietnam (2000)(praised by Marilyn Young and John Prados, and also Colonel McMaster)

Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (2009) (examines the time now so long ago when "Indian country" first moved overseas)

And if anyone wants to go farther back:

Peter Cozzens, The Long War for the Northern Plains (2004) (when counterinsurgency, such as it was, was still in Indian country).

There are many others, of course, but McClintock's books and McCoy's are a good beginning.

At 7:54 PM, February 03, 2010, Anonymous Ovid said...

Thomas Nephew:

If you see this, you can't do much better than William LeoGrande's Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992 (2000).

At 8:22 PM, February 03, 2010, Anonymous Ovid said...

Now for the substance:

Packer's ignorance of his subject doesn't begin to end with his unfamiliarity with the history of counterinsurgency, or of US foreign military involvement in general. The most astonishing drivel in the article consists of the following whitewash constantly foisted upon the American public, this time in the form of a characterization of Colonel McMaster's book Dereliction of Duty:

"The book assembled a damning case against senior military leaders for failing to speak their minds when, in the early years of the war, they disagreed with Pentagon policies. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, knowing that Johnson and McNamara wanted uncritical support rather than honest advice, and eager to protect their careers, went along with official lies and a split-the-difference strategy of gradual escalation that none of them thought could work. “Dereliction of Duty” won McMaster wide praise, and its candor inspired an ardent following among post-Vietnam officers."

I have no doubt that crock of horseshit did inspire 'an ardent following among post-Vietnam officers,' who may be as militaristic and crazy as pre-Vietnam officers. It is, however, utter crap. The
Joint Chiefs of Staff who McMasters purportedly believed were derelict in their duties for not telling the truth to JFK and LBJ are the same Joints Chiefs of Staff immortalized by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove, the same ones who inspired Seven Days in May, the same ones who recommended Operation Northwoods (which JFK and McNamara wouldn't authorize), the same ones Daniel Ellsberg has written about recently in connection with their estimates that a nuclear war they considered necessary, or at least advisable on military grounds, would result in 600 million Asian casualties. They are the same Joint Chiefs who LBJ gave the escalation in Vietnam after JFK was assassinated, and the same Joint Chiefs who were at least complicit in JFK's death. They are the same Chiefs who tried repeatedly to precipitate a war with China, if not Russia, and who connived at every opportunity to intrude into the political process, including by every damn crime imaginable, not least among them political assassinations (not just of JFK, but of MLK and RFK too).

The idea that the JCS didn't speak their minds is such utter bullshit that it's surprising McMasters wasn't struck by lightning if he actually wrote it down. What the JCS did was posture and infight in memos to uncercut strategies they didn't like and force LBJ and McNamara towards strategies over which they had more control, and that they could use to push for what they did want--war with China. When the head of the JCS, General LeMay, announced that the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis was the greatest defeat in American history, he had made his views known. Anyone who doesn't believe how politically aggressive the military was can read about Generals Curtis LeMay and Thomas Powers and Lyman Lemnitzer and Admirals Sharp and McCain for themselves. Their craziness shines through despite the passage of time. Or you can Google Operation Northwoods. You can even watch Dr. Strangelove, though try to remember that even though it's hilarious, it's not really a comedy. Hell, it's not really even fiction!

So yes, Nell, I agree. Packer is a menace. The Joint Chiefs "went along" with the strategy employed in the Vietnam War only in the sense that what they really wanted was an even bigger war with China, and the Vietnam war, like the Korean war before it, was just their plan to get that bigger war. It must have really pissed them off that McNamara and LBJ wouldn't go along even after that damn communist sympathizer JFK was out of the way.

And now, the lesson our younger generation of warriors has learned is that their predecessors supposedly weren't agressive enough!

God help us.


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