Thursday, November 18


In 1968, on a remote, little known, and otherwise unimportant hilltop outpost in Vietnam, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army gathered. History records it as the siege of Khe Sanh. For what seemed an eternity, the enemy shelled the hilltop fortress: mortar rounds, rockets, and artillery. Many Marines were wounded by shrapnel or blown away completely.

When the enemy melted back into the thick, dark green, triple canopy of the Vietnamese jungle, so did the raison d'etre of Khe Sanh. Its significance existed in direct proportion to the concentration of enemy forces that surrounded it.

Like much of counter-insurgency warfare, it is about attrition for conventional forces: kill as many as you can, or, at least until they relent or are coerced to become politically pliable. The problem for the occupying conventional force, whether it is Vietnam, Iraq, Israel in south Lebanon, France in Algeria, etc. is that insurgents cannot go home. They are already there. And there is a never-ending supply of manpower.

Simply put, the Viet Cong and NVA were willing to lose longer than America was willing to win. Will the same be true in Iraq?

Fallujah has some interesting historical precedents, and one I like to look at is Khe Sanh. The Marines stayed there back in 1968 because that's where the battle was. It was where the enemy was dug in. So, the Marines dug in more. Similarly, Fallujah was where the insurgents were supposed to be. However, we now know that most melted away when the Marines gathered to attack, the civilian population--the alleged non-combatants--were allowed to leave.

It has now been estimated that three-quarters of the Sunni insurgents did, in fact, leave. Now the question becomes, what have the Marines really won by taking Fallujah? Those that stayed there were already committed to dying. Those that chose to leave preferred to return and fight again.

The recent controversy surrounding the killing of the wounded insurgent is a testament to the problem: counter-insurgency, the kind of war Colin Powell refused to fight, is unwinnable when the population turns. Moreover, the mounting frustration from fighting it, and the nature of fighting amateur civilians, also engenders a kind of nihilistic Apocalypse Now attitude and brutishness that removes the moral high ground. The result is a reinforcement of the downward spiral for the occupier, in this case, America in Iraq.

Powell knows that America neither has the military doctrine, the kind of forces needed, the amount--most estimates say at least two more divisions--or the political will, to fight a protracted counter-insurgency.

Rarely is such a war a war of necessity; therein lies the essential problem. It is also why American political will is alloyed, impatient, and questioning.

Ask the Vets of Khe Sanh. When the enemy moved away, so did the hilltop's strategic significance. And in Iraq you are not fighting a city or a place, or even a military front structure as in WW1 or WW2 or Korea. In Iraq you are fighting a mood, an interpretation, a culture, a feeling. Perhaps unconsciously, the very facts regarding the nature of counter-insurgency led to an unintended irony: the code name for the Marine operation in Fallujah was called “Phantom Fury”.

History shows us that tribal geography, while still mass in the scientific sense, is too mercurial to crush with a boot. Lawrence of Arabia said it best: "Fighting guerillas is like eating soup with a knife".