What Lessons Will the U.S. Military Learn From Iraq’s Collapse?

What Lessons Will the U.S. Military Learn From Iraq’s Collapse?

As extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria march on Baghdad and much of the Iraqi army runs away, there has been a torrent of writing from national security experts, journalists and pundits. This made it easy to miss an important story by Greg Jaffe and Kevin Mauer about American military veterans struggling to understand why the government and military that they worked so hard to create in Iraq has failed so miserably. This is more than simply soul searching: As Jaffe and Mauer noted, the outcome of this debate could have far reaching implications for the future U.S. military.

The United States has been down this road before when the military debated the "lessons" of America's failure in Vietnam. The initial tendency then was to blame the constraints placed on military operations by both the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Responsibility for defeat lay with politicians, not the military. As the debate evolved, though, a few younger officers began to hold senior military leaders equally culpable. In a widely heralded 1988 book, U.S. Army Maj. Andrew Krepinevich, who today leads an influential Washington think tank, argued that the Army's obsession with large-scale conventional operations and disdain for pacification was a large part of the problem. A decade later, H.R. McMaster, then an Army major and now a general slated to take over the Army's deep futures program, excoriated the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to make political leaders understand what the armed forces could and could not do in counterinsurgency.

Krepinevich and McMaster were able to buck the standard wisdom and assign blame to the military itself because they were young officers writing in an academic setting after Vietnam-era leaders had retired. True critical thinking took some time after the events to emerge and arose from thinkers who had not been directly involved in crucial decisions. But because today's information environment is different, the current debate about the "lessons" of Iraq is likely to evolve much more rapidly than the one on Vietnam.

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