In the Midst of Wars

June 3, 2011

Colonel Edward Lansdale entered the post-World War II era with a determination and grit that later would make him famous. Although vilified as the “ugly American” by an anti-war generation resenting Cold War commitments, he nevertheless remains a hero in military circles, which honor his sacrifices and his understanding of insurgent psychology. COL Lansdale is a historical monument to the character necessary to  defeat guerrilla movements. His development of psychological operations in the Philippines and Vietnam made history, but his inflexible resolve against Communism demonstrated the clarity and firmness of mind necessary for all leaders who face similar fights into the future.

But even COL Lansdale would have been taxed by the diversity and complexity of revolutions and insurgencies taking place in the Mideast today. In the Midst of Wars, the Colonel’s insightful account of his service, aptly frames the outbreak of “wars of national liberation” (Communist insurgencies) that occurred like a virus, plaguing not just the “third world” but also Europe and nations on the other side of the Atlantic. Even the United States had to fight at home (dare I say counterinsurgency).  The Black Panthers, who embraced Maoist Communism and urban insurgent tactics, violently challenged “the man,” calling for an armed black community to repel the police who entered these communities “as an occupying foreign force.” The not so Ugly American knew that these “popular revolts” of his era were not popular, but orchestrated and agitated by Communist tyrants who had honed their tactics to a science during World War II.  While serving in Vietnam he noted the commonality in the insurgencies he had seen:

 “I had only a smattering of French so I relied heavily on interpreters, sign-language, and a pocket dictionary.  The people were strikingly different from the Filipinos, but the guerrilla methods of the Communists were all too familiar. . . .” (Edward Geary Lansdale, In the Midst of Wars, 373-373).

However, there is no commonality in the unrest now erupting in the Mideast (Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere). United States political and military leaders currently find themselves in the midst of wars without any central tendencies that would allow an easy paradigm of understanding. The conflict and unrest occurring the Middle East at present demonstrates a variety of motives, leadership, political ideology, and organizations. And understanding these differences will be the key to understanding the very nature of these conflicts, the implication for US security, and whether intervention is an option.

Nevertheless, United States foreign and security policy leaders should not jettison the Cold War lessons learned from COL Lansdale’s era but find flexible ways to apply them to current conflict scenarios.

Here are some lessons learned from Lansdale’s era that are relevant for today.

1. Avoid the rush to  intervention and only act when it is in America’s interests. Often global opinion has no regard for America’s national security needs, or economic interests. Many people (including leaders) the world over think the United States is omnipotent and self sufficient and thus without any legitimate interests. These international pressures force America into the role as giver and never taker. Therefore the responsibility of advocating for America’s legitimate interests falls directly on Washington. That responsibility must be clearly understood and undertaken in international affairs. America’s role as humanitarian and leader of the free world must be balanced against its role as protector and advocate of the American people.  If US policymakers are not cognizant of this fact, they can easily be led into every major conflict that occurs across the Mideast or elsewhere, or into too many conflicts, and thus exhaust our strength and weakening our power for when it may be needed most.

2. Manage the  conflictive global pressures regarding intervention and non intervention.
Intervention is never an easy or light path to take. Global opinion chides the United States for imperialism when it intervenes, and chides again when the United States does not intervene, calling the world’s only superpower “cold” and “irresponsible.” This was the case during the Rwanda genocide of 1994. US policymakers must carefully examine when we should intervene. And once we commit to that difficult task, expect and brave the hardships until the mission is complete.

3. Remember the first rule of warfare: Wars tend to escalate. Carl von Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military theorist, aptly summed the chief dynamics of war:

“War is an  act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force.  Each side, therefore, compels its opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action  is started which must lead, in theory, to extremes…To introduce the theory of moderation into the theory of war itself would always lead to logical absurdity.” (Clausewitz, On War, 76.)

The temptation to intervene militarily in areas  that appear to be no match for American or NATO forces (i.e., Libya) could be problematic. Even if a Western victory is all but assured, an escalation of conflict is likewise certain. Unless the United States is ready, willing, and able to face the escalation, it should not intervene. The cost of a precipitous  withdrawal need not be amplified here. But the lessons of early withdrawal from Vietnam and Lebanon should be remembered.

4. Remember that home front support is essential for victory and must be cultivated actively. The laissez faire approach to home front support is a sure road to defeat. A major lesson learned from the Vietnam War was that the American people were not aptly informed, instructed, and reached with the news and information regarding that conflict. While North Vietnam  and its Communist supporters sought to exploit every opportunity possible to  dominate media information, the United States leadership did little. For example, Washington should have brought Ngo Dinh Diem and other Vietnamese leaders to the United States to state their cause to the American people. The failed opportunity left and information gap that the radical Left, as well as the Communist forces, aptly exploited. The erosion of public support for the  Vietnam War was related directly to the misinformation and disinformation generated through the Left. We cannot afford another mistake of this nature.

5. Remember the financial costs of warfare and be ready to address them.  The high costs of wars have bankrupted empires and nations, and serve as pivotal lessons for the United States. Acting from false guilt and a fear of appearing imperialistic, the US has undertaken the costly task of nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet refuses to take compensation from these countries. In the future, Washington will not have the luxury of such a course of action.  Either countries that need American intervention will have to give of their natural resources as payment (i.e., oil and minerals) or will have to face their problems on the cheap, without American intervention.

6. Support our allies and keep our global commitments.
American policy leaders should not allow our soft power incentives to become more beneficial than those given to our allies. Another lesson from COL Lansdale’s era is to remember to support America’s allies and to keep one’s commitments. The foreign policy aim of using soft power (i.e., economic investment, trade incentives, foreign aid, and market access) to sway belligerent and alienated nations to soften or embrace the West has limits. Too often economic incentives harden rather than soften a belligerent’s resolve and lead the United States into the trap of giving more attention, support, and aid to its enemies than its friends. Case in point: the best way to gain billions of dollars in American aid is to foment conflict while appealing to US intervention. We, as Americans, should not make belligerency a profitable undertaking.

Had General Lansdale (he was later promoted to the rank of Major General) lived to see our day, no doubt he would have seen the increased complexity of modern insurgencies. His understanding of the nature of insurgencies would have to change in order to keep abreast of the flexible tactics and complex background of each conflict.  Yet the principles he and other Cold Warriors embraced would remain relevant and useful for the present.

The United States and  West won the Cold War and defeated global insurgencies because of many strengths.  The principles of warfare were among the most important strengths and remain timeless in their application.

Martin Scott Catino, Ph.D. presently serves as a senior military adviser in Afghanistan.

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