Why is it that hard-learned military lessons seem harder to relearn the second time around?
The United States knows how to be military advisers—or at least we should. We’ve had plenty of practice at it. From the occupation of the Philippines in the late 19th century through the Korean War of the early 1950s, U.S. military advisers played a significant role in helping other armies learn how to fight for themselves. During our involvement in Vietnam, we had tens of thousands of troops working as advisers to South Vietnamese units. But by the time we got to Iraq and Afghanistan some years later, it seemed we had to learn how to do that all over again.
The way we committed military force into Iraq didn’t work quite the same way as it did in Vietnam. Military advisers led the way in Vietnam, starting in 1955 with the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG), Vietnam. By 1960, American advisers were accompanying South Vietnamese army units into combat at the regimental level. The following year, the United States committed 3,200 advisers to Vietnam, who now operated as far down as the battalion level. In 1962, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), replaced MAAG, and by 1964 there were 23,000 American advisers in country. After the United States started committing ground combat units in March 1965, direct American large-unit operations came to dominate the war effort. The emphasis started to shift back to the advisory effort after General Creighton Abrams assumed command of MACV in 1968, and “Vietnamization” became the official U.S. policy.
Afghanistan and Iraq have worked in almost the opposite order so far. The United States went into Iraq in early 2003 with large, overwhelming ground forces. As incredible as it seems, there apparently was no plan to establish internal security in the country once the major combat operations were over—or if there was, no one seemed to know much about it. But as early as the fall of 2003, many senior military leaders in Washington and Iraq were advocating the immediate implementation of an advisory effort—based on our Vietnam experiences. Those recommendations went largely ignored, and initially the job of training and rebuilding the Iraqi army was farmed out to a number of private security contractors. The result was a train wreck. In 2005, General George Casey finally announced a plan for American military advisers to train and rebuild the Iraqi army.
Once we decided to execute a robust advisory effort, we had to relearn another lesson we had once learned in Vietnam. We did not have nearly the required numbers of qualified troops to do the job. Operating as military advisers is supposed to be a core mission of Special Forces, but as in Vietnam, there were not enough of these troops to go around, and Special Forces units were always in high demand for other missions that required their specially honed skills. Thus, as in Vietnam, we have had to take soldiers from conventional units and put them through an intensive crash course on how to be an effective adviser while operating in a totally alien culture.
Today some 5,000 advisers a year, from all four services, are trained at Fort Riley in Kansas. Some experts estimate that in coming years we will need as many as 20,000 combat advisers to cover both Afghanistan and Iraq. So far, all the indicators point to the advisory effort having a positive—but predictably slow—effect in Iraq. This isn’t easy, and there is no magic bullet to produce the instant results we Americans seem to be so fond of. But if someone had thought about this and had applied the Vietnam model to the front-end planning, the U.S. military operations of the last five years might have played out much differently.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.