Watching the tragedy in Iraq unfold over the past few years, strategists of a certain
age cannot help but remember Robert W. Komer’s classic post-mortem of
American mistakes in managing the Vietnam War. Komer, who died in 2001, was
a legendary figure in the defense community—irreverent, hard-charging, acerbic, a
can-do bureaucrat known for relentlessly browbeating others into action.
Colleagues nicknamed him “Blowtorch Bob” because of the heat he generated in
getting things done.
Komer began his career as a CIA analyst, worked in the White House under
McGeorge Bundy, and was posted by Lyndon Johnson as one of the top civilians
in Vietnam during the peak years of American involvement. He took charge of
“the other war”, the unconventional pacification program aimed at winning the
hearts and minds of the Vietnamese peasants. In the face of indifference from the
conventionally-oriented U.S. military he pushed the counterinsurgency dimensions
of the fight for control of the population higher on the strategic agenda, and
bubbled with optimism as a spokesman for the war. Ultimately, however, he
concluded that progress in the counterinsurgency campaign came too late.
Komer’s assessment of what went wrong in Vietnam was originally done as a
RAND Corporation study after he returned from Saigon, and was updated in book
form years later.1 Its barely contained frustration with the bungling and long
delays in organizational adaptation that characterized U.S. strategy in Vietnam
inevitably trigger a feeling of déja vu when we look on what has happened since
the fall of Baghdad.
But of course, an old post-mortem on Vietnam is not a template for Iraq.
Differences between the two wars are greater than the similarities. But important
similarities there are, if only in the way both wars combined mounting costs,
uncertainty about the probability of success, and growing debate about how long
and by what means the American effort should persist. However limited the
lessons drawn, the Vietnam experience remains the specter hovering over debate
on Iraq, and the three main questions in Komer’s retrospective on Vietnam do
- What is the nature of the war we face?
- Are American failures due to faulty policy implementation or to the inherent
impossibility of the mission?
- Is the U.S. interest in efficient action compatible with interest in promoting
democracy and self-help by the host government?
Answers to these three questions determine whether the United States should
gamble that persistence will yield success at an acceptable price, or should cut its
losses and limit the price of inevitable failure. But are good answers available? In a
way that is surprisingly out of character for Komer, a man congenitally decisive
and categorical in his judgments, his own post-mortem reflects enough
contradiction and ambivalence to give pause to anyone looking for a high level of
confidence in any strategic choice we make for Iraq.
What Kind of War?
As an epigraph to Cobra II, their masterful book about the planning and execution
of the initial assault on Iraq, Michael Gordon and General Bernard Trainor chose a
famous passage from Clausewitz:
The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman
and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are
embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something alien to its
nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.2
Confusion and misjudgment about this first principle plagued the strategies for
both Vietnam and Iraq.
In both periods there was much high-flown discussion among civilians about the
complexities of the political situations in the two countries, but strategy in
practice—that is, operations implemented by the U.S. military—was driven by the
model of conventional warfare. In Vietnam, the importance of counterinsurgency
and pacification got lip service, but the U.S. Army and Air Force fought more or
less as they had in Korea, and organized host-country military forces to do the
same. The U.S. military paid no attention to the French experience in Indochina or
the British in Malaya. (Komer recounts that “an American army historian who
visited the French military attachéé in Saigon in 1963 was told that he was the only
American who had done so”—eight years after the U.S. took over from the
French.) Operational emphasis and resources went overwhelmingly to
conventional combat. In 1966 barely one percent of U.S. spending on the war was
allocated to pacification.
In Iraq, no thought whatsoever was given to counterinsurgency until well after the
United States started the war, until the enemy confounded the assumption that
violence in Iraq would end like the first Operation Cobra, General George Patton’s
breakout from Normandy. In fact, less than no thought had been given to the
subject. For decades after the fall of Saigon, the U.S. Army had made a corporate
project of deliberately forgetting what it had learned about counterinsurgency, a
project crowned by the splendid experience of the first war against Iraq in 1991.
By 2003 the civilian team in the Pentagon saw Iraq as a place to demonstrate the
promise of the “Revolution in Military Affairs”, the efficient use of precision high
technology to fight wars quickly, cleanly and decisively.
In Komer’s account, it took far too long to overcome bureaucratic constipation and
get the pacification program in Vietnam onto the fast track: “A predominantly
counterinsurgency-oriented strategy would have had its best chance for success
prior to 1964-1965. . . . The Viet Cong might never have achieved the momentum
that they did.” (Today we hear echoes of this when critics refer wistfully to the lost
window of opportunity to launch an effective occupation when Baghdad fell.) Yet
Komer lacks conviction about the extent to which the delay in emphasizing
pacification caused the war to be lost. Although he focuses on the wasted time, he
goes on to note the success of counterinsurgency late in the war, as the proportion
of secured territory and population in South Vietnam went up dramatically by the
early 1970s. In that later period one could drive up and down the roads of South
Vietnam in an open jeep in far more safety than an American today can drive
anywhere in Iraq outside the Green Zone.
Komer never says it, and the war’s final result makes it hard to believe, but the
United States and the Saigon government more or less won the counterinsurgency
part of the struggle in Vietnam. In the last several years of the war the southern
Viet Cong crumbled and all of the action that mattered came in the conventional
dimension against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA): the Easter 1972 North
Vietnamese invasion across the DMZ, complete with hundreds of tanks, and then
the final advance of the NVA through the country in 1975. Despite his fixation on
the professional military’s conventional myopia as the key problem in delaying
proper emphasis on the counterinsurgency effort, Komer had to admit that,
ironically, “The war ended as the American military had thought it would begin.”
What kind of war is Iraq? Unlike Vietnam, where the conventional war and the
other war ran concurrently, in Iraq the conventional war ended with the fall of
Baghdad more than three years ago. Organized violence keeps the country
unstable, but has remained at the level of sniping, kidnap executions and terrorist
bomb attacks. There is no analogue to the Viet Cong main force infantry units or
the NVA—at least not yet. Iran could fulfill that fraternal role for the Shi’a if the
situation evolves into an even greater disaster than we have yet seen.
But what kind of unconventional war do we have in Iraq? In Vietnam, as in most
wars, the conflict was bipolar in structure and ideological in content—a struggle
between Communist and anticommunist Vietnamese to determine who would rule
southern Vietnam. In Iraq, the conflict has become tripolar, and is about identity
rather than ideology. Lines of division are less definite, as Shi’a, Sunnis and Kurds
maneuver for position. If two of the groups ally against the third, or if the largest
group splits, the character of the struggle will change. Compared to Vietnam,
therefore, the military challenge in Iraq is smaller but the political challenge is
This pattern of political cleavage has made the U.S. intervention increasingly
awkward. U.S. policy so far aims to keep the three local constituencies from
separating irrevocably, while simultaneously keeping any one from winning
control of the new regime. In early 2006 the United States seemed to be edging
away from the role of hegemonic power in Iraq focused against the Sunni
resistance, and toward the role of an offshore balancer holding the Shi’a back from
an all-out assault against the Sunnis. Trying to orchestrate a balance of power
among the main social groups in Iraq is a far more delicate and ambitious task than
supporting a single ally, as in Vietnam. As Stephen Biddle has argued, doing it
credibly would require retarding the deployment of Iraqi security forces and
relying more, not less, on the United States to do heavy lifting in military
counterinsurgency.3 But American politics now makes that sort of about-face from
the policy of devolving responsibility to the locals impossible to imagine.
Suppose we try to balance without demobilizing the groups. If we support the
Sunnis against the Shi’a to create stalemate, we oppose the majority in the country
and raise the risk of a clash with Iran. If we support the Shi’a to keep Iran at bay,
we become complicit in repression of a large minority. If the Kurds side with the
Shi’a or the Sunnis, should the United States side with the other to create a violent
balance, or should it let nature take its course? If we refuse to take sides altogether
and try to keep the lids on all three groups—the policy so far—we cling to a
mission that becomes less and less feasible as the locals mobilize while the U.S.
military presence declines. Even if we were fortunate enough to have another
Blowtorch Bob shaping policy in Baghdad, these considerations move the policy
problem beyond efficient management to basic political and military choices that
are fraught with vast potential for miscalculation.
Incompetent Implementation or Impossible Mission?
Komer’s main theme was that bureaucratic pig-headedness and inadequate
leadership spoiled the chance for good ideas and appropriate programs to succeed
in Vietnam. Rhetoric about the importance of “the other war” was not followed up
with action. There was a “yawning gap” between “policy and its execution in the
field.” Parochial services defined tasks to suit their own repertoires rather than
adjusting repertoires to perform needed tasks. Failure did not spawn new thinking;
“if obstacles are encountered, the natural tendency is to do more of the same—to
pour on more coal—rather than to rethink the problem.” Most of all, the client
government in Saigon was incompetent and unresponsive to American advice and
pressure to reform.
Yet much as he harps on it, Komer hesitates to rest a verdict on this theme. In
telling asides he quotes Barbara Tuchman approvingly on how General Joseph
Stilwell’s World War II mission in China “failed in its ultimate purpose because
the goal was unachievable”, and then says of Vietnam, “it is difficult to evaluate
how much our failure to move the GVN [Saigon government] was owing to the
intractable nature of the problem and how much to the way we went about it.”
Near the end of the book he repeats the same line. This question is not incidental.
Efficiency in application of means is irrelevant if the objective cannot ultimately
be reached at acceptable cost. Nowhere in his laments about failures of execution
does Komer claim that if the United States had implemented everything just right,
South Vietnam would not ultimately have succumbed.
Komer’s aside is the main question for Iraq. Is the mess there due to bungling in
planning and execution of the occupation, which might have worked in wiser
hands? Can U.S. objectives now be achieved if we learn from our mistakes,
continue the effort, and do things as well as they can be done by a foreign force? If
so, the issue comes down to calculating the probable marginal cost of persisting
long and hard enough to get the job done; then it is up to Americans to decide if
they want to pay that cost.
If success could assuredly be achieved within a couple years, most would endorse
persistence even at a cost as high as we have been paying. Since we broke Iraq, we
are morally obligated to fix it, and if we do not, the result could turn out worse for
material U.S. interests than was Saddam’s dictatorship. But if fixing Iraq at
acceptable cost is beyond us, both material and moral interests mandate capping
the ultimate costs of failure. As Clausewitz says of war termination, “Once the
expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be
renounced.” What if we simply cannot control the violent politics of the country,
no matter how adeptly we go about it?
Much of Komer’s commentary on bureaucratic obtuseness strikes a chord for those
who watched the horrific aftermath of the impressive march to Baghdad. Success
that would have made Patton proud immediately gave way to anarchy, loss of
control over vast stockpiles of weaponry that could fuel resistance, and alienation
of the population as the conquerors stood by while looters and criminals
dismantled the country. The debacle revealed the total failure of U.S. readiness for
That failure was due to the naive arrogance of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership,
arrogance that rested on best-case case planning, smug dismissal of warnings by
professional soldiers, misjudgment of the political situation that would be created
by destruction of a totalitarian regime, and cavalier suppression of assistance from
the State Department. The occupation floundered for months, stumbling from one
mistake to the next, and violence has continued for years at a steady or escalating
pace. None but fanatics can still maintain that the results to date have justified the
decision to start the war.
Eventually, however, as in Vietnam, pacification operations in Iraq have improved.
American forces adapted and came to recognize the nature of the war. The Army
and Marine Corps of the past twenty years are competent learning organizations.
Though dragged kicking and screaming, they have relearned most of what they had
tried so hard to forget about the business of winning hearts and minds. Special
operations forces play a prominent and honored role in strategy—unlike the 1960s,
when they were marginalized—and regular forces have been turned toward gentler
combat tactics and civic action. In his area of responsibility in 2004 Major General
Peter Chiarelli pushed back against the conventional mindset of his Army
colleagues and forced his subordinates to give as much attention to improving
“SWEAT”—Sewers, Water, Electricity, and Trash services—as to kicking in
doors and killing insurgent fighters. With another star on his shoulder Chiarelli is
now the top commander in Iraq, pressing the need for tactical restraint, economic
development assistance and political sensitivity.
If priority on sensible counterinsurgency and pacification programs is the key
factor, American strategy has turned the corner. But will it work? The fact that
there is no conventional opponent comparable to the North Vietnamese Army is
reason for optimism, but the gap between the scale of the challenge and the
resources applied to it is reason for pessimism. Can improved quality of operations
compensate for the low quantity of operators? Growing conflict among Iraqi
groups may simply outpace the control capacity of the thin American force.
The United States never committed enough manpower to come close to
accomplishing needed tasks because of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s
fixation on demonstrating that war could be waged and wrapped up frugally. His
assumption that an effective occupation could be brief and lean was discredited
long ago. From the beginning, egregiously low force-to-space ratios left most of
the country untouched and thus uncontrolled by an American presence. Iraq is two-
and-a-half times the size of South Vietnam and has almost half again as many
people as South Vietnam at the peak of U.S. involvement (1968). Yet it has only
one-tenth the density per square mile of military forces—American, allied, and
Iraqi—as in South Vietnam in 1968. Gordon and Trainor remind us that even in
Baghdad, a city of nearly seven million people, the initial U.S. occupation force
had no more than ten thousand soldiers available to patrol (only about 1,200 of
them dismounted infantry), and that an occupation force for Iraq with the same
ratio of troops to local population as in Bosnia would have been 450,000. Although
Rumsfeld always disingenuously claimed that his commanders never asked for
more troops, commanders at all levels made clear at various times that they lacked
the numbers to get many important jobs done. When Ambassador Jerry Bremer
asked the top general in Iraq what he would do if he could get two more divisions,
Ricardo Sanchez answered, “I’d control Baghdad.”4
Plenty of mismanagement there was, in both Vietnam and Iraq. But if the
requirements of even a chance at success were higher than the United States was
willing to pay, the mistakes go beyond management to more general policy
leadership. The figures who most combined managerial and leadership failure are
the secretaries of defense who dominated planning and implementation in both
Robert McNamara lost faith in the prospects of victory well before his colleagues
in the Johnson Administration. As early as the fall of 1965 he decided there was
little hope of coercing North Vietnam by bombing. A year later he held back from
endorsing an increase of U.S. ground forces beyond 470,000 because, as he wrote
in a memorandum for the President that Komer quotes, “the data suggest that we
have no prospects of attriting the enemy force at a rate equal to or greater than his
capability to infiltrate and recruit, and this will be true at either the 470,000 U.S.
personnel level or 570,000.”
In other words, the United States could not win with the number of troops it was
willing to commit. McNamara’s failure was in not acting on the logical
implication—insisting that U.S. involvement should end, and resigning if it did
not. Instead, he agonized for another year but continued to collaborate in feeding
men into the meat-grinder, until he was eased out of his job by LBJ. Nearly thirty
years later he wrote, “Looking back, I deeply regret that I did not force a probing
debate about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort
on a foundation of political quicksand.”5
There is an uncanny resemblance between Rumsfeld’s reign in the Pentagon and
McNamara’s. Both were activist managers who challenged established programs
and organizational interests, alienated the professional military, tried to impose
new modes of operation on hidebound bureaucracies, and presided over a descent
into a disastrous, inconclusive war. Rumsfeld’s failure as a war manager took a
different course from McNamara’s, but seems to have wound up at more or less
the same point. His relentless optimism bleeding over into hubris were
instrumental in the drive to war. He is more of a “blowtorch” than Komer ever
was—for example, relentlessly pressing military leaders to adjust their estimated
troop requirements downwards—but without Komer’s willingness to admit error.
Rumsfeld bears most of the responsibility for the botched aftermath of the
conventional phase of the war, since he reserved all authority for occupation to the
Defense Department and deliberately turned away help from experts elsewhere in
government. He continued for years to deny the mistake, to deny the depth of Iraqi
opposition to the U.S. presence, and to insist that the insurgency is not an
insurgency. A better man might have accepted the military’s original cautious
plans for a large occupation force and the help of State Department officials with
expertise and ideas on reconstituting the country. U.S. strategy might have had
some chance to open the window of opportunity when Baghdad fell had we carried
over “shock and awe” into the occupation, deterring the burst of looting,
criminality and disrespect for American power that in fact occurred.
But would a bigger occupation force, quicker reconstruction, maintenance of the
Iraqi army and other better managed activities have prevented the outbreak of
resistance indefinitely? Would it have prevented the widening communal
cleavages that have produced low-grade civil war and may yet burst into full-scale
conflagration? In short, was the crucial mistake bad management, or taking on the
task at all?
It is too late to rectify the mistaken frugality and inattention of the early
occupation plans. From now on, U.S. domestic politics will push the size of the
American force in Iraq down, not up. Of course, the hope is that mobilization,
training and deployment of Iraqi security forces will fill the void. As with
“Vietnamization”, this will get Americans off the hook. If “Iraqization” occurs as
quickly as U.S. leaders hope, however, U.S. control over political developments in
the country will decline still further. By its very nature the devolution of authority
to the new Iraqi government and security forces works against American control.
Democratize or Dominate?
When failure to find weapons of mass destruction discredited the main reason
given for attacking Iraq, the Bush Administration shifted focus to another
rationale: replacing dictatorship with democracy. The candidate for president who
had campaigned against Bill Clinton’s ventures in nation-building decided as
President that the biggest nation-building project since Vietnam was a vital
mission. Will progress in Iraq’s democratization get the United States off the
hook? Will Iraqi democracy compensate for the diminution of U.S. control?
Probably not. If a liberation is genuine, it makes the locals independent.
Democracy creates a process, but guarantees no particular result. There has never
been any reason to expect that self-determination for Iraqis would yield behavior,
alignment or objectives compatible with American aims. Iraqi democracy, were it
to arise and root itself, would enable Iraqis to do what they want to do, not what
In Vietnam, recognizing the sovereignty of the host government clashed with
efficient pursuit of American strategy. One of Komer’s biggest complaints was
that the incompetence of the South Vietnamese government and military hobbled
the war effort and eroded the degree of American control that would have made
programs work better. He regretted particularly that Washington never established
unity of command, subordinating South Vietnamese forces and organizations to
American leadership, to provide coordinated action and effective direction of all
effort. He cited the integration of British and local forces in the Malayan
Emergency as a model. But in Malaya, the British were still sovereign as the
colonial government. In Vietnam, the American intervention was supposed to be
aiding an independent local government.
Komer’s frustration with South Vietnamese waywardness reflects his focus on
efficient management. Like many other theorists of counterinsurgency, he often
cites with approval the ideas of Sir Robert Thompson, a British general, veteran of
the campaign in Malaya and an advisor in Vietnam. Thompson had proposed a
Joint Operations Center for South Vietnam, on the Malayan model, and the idea
had been rejected. Similar proposals were always shot down. Komer complains
that “whenever combined command was considered, the chief argument was
essentially political—that it would smack of colonialism.”
Well, that argument was exactly right. The underpinning of the U.S. position in
Vietnam was that Americans had not simply replaced the French colonialists in
manipulating a puppet government, as the Communists charged. If the South
Vietnamese government was to have even a remote chance of competing with the
Communists for Vietnamese national loyalties, this pretense was an absolute
necessity. Komer’s main criticism was that the U.S. effort in Vietnam was
overmilitarized, yet he seems to have had a tin ear for the importance of political
symbols and decorum. The Thompson model of counterinsurgency that he admired
so much, in fact, was a completely administrative and politically sterile conception
of the task, when a core issue in Vietnam was which side could claim the mantle of
In Iraq the United States could best prevent abuses of minorities, atrocities carried
out by the state security organs of the new Iraqi government, corruption and other
bad behavior if it had direct command authority over the new Iraqi police, army
and militia units—what Komer wanted in Vietnam. But this would make a
mockery of the principle that the new government is truly sovereign, that the U.S.-
sponsored elections represented genuine democracy, and that the American
intervention is temporary. It might restrain the emerging civil war, but it would re-
focus insurgent fury against American forces and bring the occupation back to
Administrative efficiency and democracy do not easily go together in Iraq any
more than they did in South Vietnam. Indeed, there is every reason to expect that a
genuinely functioning democracy in Iraq will dissolve any unity of purpose
between the American liberators and the locals. Iraqi constituencies are not
children waiting to be schooled to political maturity. They have their own agendas
and priorities, and they have no more reason to bow to American sensibilities
about minority rights, interethnic civility and humane behavior than Republicans
have to bow to the priorities of Democrats on Capitol Hill. If Komer was right to
fasten on South Vietnamese government waywardness as a prime cause of
American failure, the implications for Iraq are not heartening.
Too many enthusiasts for persistence in Iraq forget one simple point: Just because
failure is unthinkable does not mean that success is possible. By the same token,
we cannot know whether success is possible unless we keep trying—at the risk of
simply throwing good money after bad, vibrant lives after lost ones. This is the
dilemma today after three years in Iraq, and it was the same dilemma during the
twenty-year attempt to keep South Vietnam non-Communist. The allure of
identifying bad management of the American nation-building project as the main
problem, as Komer did at most points in his retrospective, is that it implies we can
succeed if we pull our socks up, crack some heads and apply a blowtorch to
administrative impediments. But if the obstacles to success are more deeply rooted,
as Komer wondered at other points in his post-mortem, then all the best managers
in the world will not do the trick. Indeed, the deep-rooted obstacles must have been
the greater problem in Vietnam, because Blowtorch Bob himself overcame much
of the managerial mess and succeeded in whipping the pacification program into
shape. But his effort still did not produce the politically motivated and mobilized
South Vietnam necessary in the end to contest the Communists.
Komer was an optimist while he labored in Saigon, despite all the operational
pathologies he catalogued, because defeat was not in the American vocabulary. In
Washington, policymakers were usually pessimistic about the odds of success in
Vietnam, yet they too consistently persevered because the stakes appeared so high
that the alternative of accepting defeat was unthinkable. Knowing what we know
now, that persistence was disastrous. Defeat we got, but at a price in blood,
treasure and political standing astronomically higher than if we had pulled the plug
in the early years.
It is dangerous to focus too much on the limited analogies that should be drawn
between two wars that are different in most respects (especially dangerous for
critics like me who opposed the decision for war in Iraq in the first place, and may
have subconscious incentives to see their pessimism confirmed). But it is equally
dangerous to ignore what instructive similarities there are. The Vietnam experience
cannot prove that gambling on persistence in Iraq is a bad bet. It does suggest,
however, that in making a case the burden of proof should lie with those who
counsel throwing more blood and treasure into the pot.
1 Komer, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: Institutional Constraints on U.S.-GVN
Performance in Vietnam, R-967-ARPA (RAND Corporation, August 1972) and
Bureaucracy at War: U.S. Performance in the Vietnam Conflict (Westview Press,
1986). References in this article are to the book.
2 Gordon and Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (Pantheon, 2006).
3 Biddle, “Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon”, Foreign Affairs (March/April 2006).
4 L. Paul Bremer III, My Year in Iraq (Simon & Schuster, 2006), p. 356.
5 Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Vintage, 1995), p. 261.