Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq

By Fabius Maximus

December 29, 2005

The mainstream media remains focused on assigning blame for the war, with occasional reports on current events and discussions of exit strategies.

Let’s attempt to see the bigger picture.

Defeat seems the appropriate description for the American expedition to Iraq. Consider the cost!

Hundreds of billions of dollars spent, all in effect borrowed from Asia.

Thousands of Coalition soldiers dead, tens of thousands wounded. And, of course, uncounted thousands of Iraq civilian killed and wounded.

For what?

To establish some form of Kurdish state? The Turkish Government, among our stronger allies, will not thank us for this.

To establish Islamic State(s) in the Arab regions of Iraq? Probably difficult to sell this to the American people as “victory.” Certainly an odd aspect of our “War on Terror.”

To establish a Shiite State in southern Iraq? Good news for Iran, a charter member of the “Axis of Evil.” Bad news for Iraq’s southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, most of whose oil fields lie in Shiite tribal areas.

Perhaps we can redeem ourselves by learning lessons of sufficient value.

Lessons learned #1: Avoid Third World colonial wars.

Circulating on the Net are letters from soldiers in Iraq. Many are quite sad. Here's an especially noteworthy example:

(2 soldiers) “died surrounded by food, school supplies, toys and candy that they had brought in to brighten the lives of the impoverished children ..."

This sounds similar to a story from the French Algerian war. Two Algerian pre-teen boys killed a French boy (a settler's child), whom they had grown up with as a playmate. When asked why, they replied "Because he was our friend." (From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest)

Avoiding third-world wars was said at the time to be the #1 lesson from the Korean War (as in “no more Asian land wars”). And a lesson from the Viet Nam War. And now, perhaps, a lesson from the Iraq War.

Our elites worship Multiculturalism and Diversity. Let’s encourage them to practice what they preach, and recognize that the inner lives of other peoples remain largely mysterious to us. Efforts to help them become like us can have unpleasant consequences for both sides. Let’s not interfere unless asked by either the people affected or a large majority of the world’s nations.

Lessons learned #2: The necessity for courage and integrity in our officers

The German General staff was as perfect a system as we can ever devise, but it could not compensate for the moral flaws of the officers who comprised it.

By 1943 Hitler’s insanity was obvious. Germany’s senior officers should have drawn straws, with the loser to walk up and shoot Hitler. After which would follow his trial and execution for murder and treason. A bad end for him, but the salvation of the Wehrmacht and Germany.

Instead, the small minority that had the will to act undertook assassination attempts suitable only for comic opera. All, of course, were unsuccessful.

The Wehrmacht and Germany were almost destroyed by the cowardliness of the Army’s leaders, the inexcusable flaw in an officer.

Scharnhorst and von Moltke the Elder would have despaired to see their descendents’ failure.

I hope our officers prove of higher quality when our time of testing comes. Considering the physical power wielded by the US military, the rest of the world should also pray for this.

The run-up to the Iraq war gave hints of what we can expect – for good and for ill.

On a small scale, we should applaud LtGen Paul Van Riper (U.S. Marine Corps-Ret.), who refused to continue with an obviously rigged war game in preparation for the Iraq War.


More importantly, if the rumors are correct, General Eric Shinseki -- then Army Chief of Staff -- boldly spoke the truth to Rumsfeld about the number of troops required for the Iraq Expedition. This effectively ended Shinseki’s career.

If this story is true, we can speculate about its implications.

  • Shinseki’s sacrifice was, unfortunately, in vain. His peers failed to support him, so Rumsfeld ignored his recommendations.

  • An act of conscience by the Army Chief of Staff should not become a career opportunity for a fellow officer.

  • Our senior generals should understand the importance of collective action. Together they might have, on a matter of military strategy, successfully confronted their political leaders.

  • Bravery is important when privates are under gunfire, and equally so when generals are under political fire.

Lessons learned #3: What is the real threat to the US? How should we respond?

Who are we fighting? What are their resources and goals? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Is it “Islamo-fascism”? Or more broadly, fundamentalist Islamic thought?

Is Al Qaeda a powerful stateless global conspiracy, like SPECTRE in Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories? Or COBRA in the GI Joe comics? A real world comparison would be useful here; unfortunately, there is none.

Or is Al Qaeda like the 19th Century anarchists, a small number of terrorists with delusions of grandeur?

Despite the millions of words burned in confident guessing, it’s clear that nobody on our side knows the answer to these questions.

Without reliable intelligence, any strategy we choose seems likely to prove ineffective if not disastrous.

Perhaps the first debate should be about the best strategy to use: defense or offense?

We appear to be following Athens's disastrous course in the latter half of the Peloponnesian War.

Pericles' defensive plan might have worked. Certainly Clausewitz would have approved of it. Instead Athens chose the bold path, an offensive strategy – the Syracuse Expedition. (There were even madder alternatives discussed, such as Hyperbolus’ proposed attack on Carthage.)

A defensive strategy seems most appropriate, considering our vague and foggy understanding of this war. It will conserve resources and better avoid mistakes until we get a workable vision of the battlefield.

Lessons learned #4: How might we adjust to defeat in Iraq?

One high probability result of defeat in Iraq: great reluctance to send US expeditionary forces to foreign lands. Like the long hiatus following the fall of South Vietnam.

This is an inevitable result of the internal contradictions of the “Bush Doctrine.” For a detailed analysis see

“Why the Bush Doctrine Cannot be Sustained” by Robert Jervis.
Political Science Quarterly, Fall 2005

A turn toward isolationism may be on the whole a good thing, but there will be occasions where intervention looks appropriate – hopefully, with many allies at our side, or at least with wide international support.

For example, early intervention to stop the next set of ethnic slaughter, like that in Rwanda.

There is another solution: build a “Legion,” drawing on the best of French Foreign Legion and 19th century UK army, a force designed expressly for combat in foreign lands.

  • Use our excellent equipment, logistics, and officer corps.

  • Recruit from defeated ethnic armies, losers in drug wars, urban street armies, and prisoners. Accept not only US citizens but also those wanting to become citizens. This will provide a sufficiently large pool from which to draw fighters.

  • Hard training, "break the man to build the soldier." This is essential if we are to recruit from groups we now – for good reason -- exclude and/or reject.

  • Offer citizenship after 10 years of service, and pensions after 20 years. This would be more effective if we close the border to illegals, showing that we value US citizenship.

The Special Forces could be the tip of the spear for our legions.

We would have daring legions for whom only their mothers will weep when they die, the ideal tools for cold-blooded Machiavellian strategists like Thomas Barnett. They could be forbidden for use at home and exempt from the legalistic restrictions binding the current US military.

Another advantage: we’ll have a force enrolled expressly to fight. That would be an improvement, for recruiting is a form of deceit in our present scheme. Very much so for the Army. Extremely so for the Guard and Reserve. Not at all for the Marines.

For many young men and women it is Russian Roulette, albeit with good odds that they will earn the money for an education without facing actual combat. Not all win.

Jessica Lynch hoped to become a teacher. Her compatriot, Shoshana Johnson, joined the Army to be a cook. Prisoner of war for 22 days, she still suffers from her injuries (beaten and shot in both ankles).

Consider how their employment contracts would have read if the Army were a private firm. Bold lettered warnings about the danger of death, dismemberment, or other permanent disability. Perhaps some pictures to make the dangers clear.

How nice for the Army that the ludicrously expensive cost of higher education in America pressures desperate young people to take risks that they do not understand – or do understand and desperately wish to avoid.

What a pitiful basis on which to build the military forces of the world’s richest nation.

In this proposed configuration the Reserves and Guard become a purely national defense force – sent abroad only in case of declared war, not for foreign adventures dreamed up by geo-political wizards at the Versailles-on-the-Potomac.

Lessons Learned #5: There is a flaw in our current force structure.

Any consideration of alternative force structures must highlight the absurdity of today’s military regime. The DNI site has numerous articles on this topic, so only a brief and partial review is needed here.

  • Our reserve forces are unsuited for engagements of even a few years. If “shock and awe” does not work, we lose – as they cannot support any but the shortest wars.

  • We use billion dollar submarines as cruise missile launch platforms, as no potential enemy fields any comparable “blue water” navy.

  • We build $400 million fighter aircraft with nothing to do but bomb dense urban neighborhoods whose entire value is less than that of the ordinance dropped. Reports from Iraq suggest that these “precision” strikes often kill more women and children than insurgents.

The Iraq War might highlight another flaw in our force structure: the coming unpleasant surprise of its massive after-action costs.

“A Political Debate On Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: As Claims Rise, VA Takes Stock”
Washington Post, Dec 27 2005

What will be the total veterans and disability costs of the Iraq War over the next 50 years?

Nobody knows.

An excerpt from “Militia: the dominant defensive force in 21st Century 4GW?” (Link below).

Nor does the personnel cost end with the war due to the “long tail” of pension and disability costs. Our troops have earned every nickel, but the total costs might be far larger than anticipated.

This is the first long war fought by this generation of Americans. Litigious, aggressive in obtaining every possible entitlement, aware of the grey areas in definition of mental and physical disabilities. Our new force structure includes large numbers of women and middle-aged men, who might prove “poster children” for the large bills to come.

As awareness of this illness increases assuming no cut in benefits or restriction on eligibility our current force structure might prove financially unworkable.

Lessons learned #6: There is a structural flaw in our government.

Korea. Vietnam. Iraq.

Are we getting better at these expeditions? No.

Have we learned anything? Apparently not.

Let’s focus on the comparison of the Vietnam and Iraq expeditions. While most of the circumstances differ radically, we have committed similar process mistakes.

Based on the Pentagon Papers supplemented by extensive interviews and research, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest is one of the definitive descriptions of how and why we fought in Vietnam. (The Fawcett Crest paperback is 850 pages.)

Try this experiment: open it at random and read 20 pages. You’ll probably find at least one description that screams “Iraq” to you.

Here is a sample, pages 49-50.

Those years would show, in the American system, how when a question of the use of force arose in government, the advocates of force were always better organized, seemed more numerous and seemed to have both logic and fear on their side, and that in fending them off in his own government, a President would need all the help he possibly could get, not the least of which should be a powerful Secretary of State.

Our failure to learn and improve must mean something. Perhaps there is a structural flaw in the US government.

One candidate: the State Department, which apparently has never recovered from the damage inflicted by Congress during the “who blamed China” follies and the “witch hunts” for Communists in the 1950s.

Seeing today’s State Department, it’s difficult to recall that it was long considered the senior department of the Executive Branch. This is seen in the Secretary of State’s status as #4 in the succession to the Presidency.

On a more practical note, State is the natural counter-weight to the Department of Defense.

In a parochial society such as ours the State Department staff should be those best able to understand the outside world in any fullness, in a multidimensional fashion. It has experts with a depth of foreign experience unmatched by other Government agencies – unlike the academics in the CIA or the military professionals in the DoD.

If we adopt the prescriptions of Thomas Barnett and his fellows to go forth and do good amidst the dark places of the world, the State Department becomes the center wheel of the geo-political machinery. Deep knowledge of foreign cultures and their leaders becomes paramount for success.

We’ll need people like Robert Clive and Sir Richard Burton, and State is where they’re most likely to find a home in our bureaucracy.

But not, of course, in today’s State Department. Nor anywhere in the US Government apparatus, which often rejects people with great initiative and expertise as surely as your body rejects foreign bacilli.

Addendum: What we have to look forward to in 2006.

We might not have yet entered the endgame for the Iraq Expedition. The range of hopes and fears remains too wide. With luck, our nightmares will prove as unlikely as our dreams.

On one hand we have President Bush’s National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. Almost delusional in its specificity, it clearly defines “victory.”

  • Short term, Iraq is making steady progress in fighting terrorists, meeting political milestones, building democratic institutions, and standing up security (sic) forces.

  • Medium term, Iraq is in the lead defeating terrorists and providing its own security, with a fully constitutional government in place, and on its way to achieving its economic potential.

  • Longer term, Iraq is peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism.


On the other hand we have Martin van Creveld’s "Costly Withdrawal Is the Price To Be Paid for a Foolish War":

… A withdrawal probably will require several months and incur a sizable number of casualties. As the pullout proceeds, Iraq almost certainly will sink into an all-out civil war from which it will take the country a long time to emerge – if, indeed, it can do so at all. All this is inevitable …


The cost of the equipment we’ll abandon or destroy would be calamitous for Israel, but is pocket change for a nation that builds $400 million fighters.

Perhaps our withdrawal columns will be attacked. But perhaps our withdrawal takes place amidst celebrating crowds, the first holiday of the New Iraq. Joy at our humiliation and expulsion might be all that the peoples of Iraq now have in common.

This is what William Lind calls “the golden bridge” scenario. See the below link to "Two False Options" for more on this.

As for the certainty of civil war in Iraq … these people have lived together for millennia. They know the consequences of civil war as well as any on this blood-soaked earth.

This is the historic point at which history might be made.

Not our invasion of Iraq, a land that has seen many invasions. Nor the elections; the Middle East has seen many elections which change nothing.

Iraq’s many peoples have a brief window in which to peacefully strike a deal. Perhaps the result will not appear to the world as a great nation, but only a sound foundation for their future – one build on negotiations, not spilled blood.

We can only hope. As Lawrence of Arabia said, “Nothing is written.”

(Thanks to Peggy Noonan for suggesting this ending line in her column of December 29, 2005. Her articles can be found at http://www.opinionjournal.com).  

Links to additional information on this topic:

"Strategic Defense Initiative," by William S. Lind

"On War #144: The Fine Art of Withdrawal," by William S. Lind

"On War #145: Two False Options," by William S. Lind

The DNI review of Thomas P.M. Barnett's Blueprint for Action

Other articles by Fabius Maximus

Forecasts for the American Expedition to Iraq

Women Warriors

The Rioting in France and the Decline of the State

The Plame Affair and the Decline of The State

Militia: the dominant defensive force in 21st Century 4GW?

Return to DNI