Why Iraq Was America's Best-Run War

But that doesn't make it a model.

It is an axiom that generals tend to fight the last war, but the truth is that, as often as not, they would like to forget the last war. Witness Vietnam, in the wake of which it took more than three decades for a new counterinsurgency manual to be written by General David Petraeus and others. Happily, the military waited only five years to commence work on an update of the Petraeus version. As this new effort unfolds, based on the latest experience in Afghanistan, it might prove useful to incorporate the kind of analysis that the late Harry Summers, a soldier and strategist par excellence, employed in his study of the debacle in Vietnam, published a scant seven years after the fall of Saigon. Given the fresh attention being focused on military options in Syria, as outlined in General Martin Dempsey's letter to the Senate on Monday, there is even more reason to remember Harry Summers.

His study, On Strategy, was inspired by the German philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz's ideas about how difficult it is to know what is really happening and to take effective action because of factors like the omnipresent "fog of war" and "friction." As Clausewitz put it: "Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult." Harry Summers accepted this, but persisted, using as reference points for analysis classical notions of the principles of war as elucidated by the Baron Antoine Jomini, a Napoleonic officer, and later codified in U.S. Army field manuals. The principles are, in the order he used them: the objective, the offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. What Summers concluded in his analysis of the Vietnam War was that the U.S. military's performance, viewed in light of these principles, was problematic. Indeed, he found that it was the North Vietnamese who may have employed them more effectively.

What would a Summers-like analysis of the U.S. military's role in three wars of the past decade -- Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya -- conclude? Category by category, on a notional, worst-to-best 1-10 rating scale (intended not as holy writ, but to spark discourse), a review of six of the nine principles -- the ones that he examined most closely -- might go something like this:

The objective. In Afghanistan, the goal of toppling the Taliban was easily achieved, but damaging the al Qaeda network -- much less getting bin Laden -- took a long time. Further, nation-building has proved complicated, to say the least. In Iraq, regime change was effected, but there were no weapons of mass destruction, and whatever ties there were to al Qaeda arose only in the wake of the U.S. invasion. The establishment of democracy resulted in the victory of a political movement more aligned with Tehran than with Washington. In Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi was defeated and killed, but al Qaeda now prospers there and radical Islamists struck a humiliating blow against the United States in Benghazi. Scores: Afghanistan, 6; Iraq, 4; Libya, 5.

The offensive. The intervention in Afghanistan began with a striking, swarming attack on Taliban and al Qaeda forces; then there was much strategic drift for several years, with the resurgent Taliban eventually seizing the initiative. They still hold it as American and NATO forces are leaving. The Iraq War was also begun with an impressive offensive, but insurgents soon began to dictate the course of events, and did so through late 2006. Thereafter, however, U.S. forces found a way to shift the momentum and the situation improved markedly -- before they simply left at the end of 2011. In Libya, Qaddafi's forces clearly held the upper hand until NATO's intervention, after which they were almost completely on the defensive. Scores: Afghanistan, 4; Iraq, 7; Libya, 9.

Mass. Troop levels started out quite low in Afghanistan, but eventually built up substantially, including a "surge" that had little material effect on the insurgency. Now numbers are dwindling, despite a resurgent Taliban. In Iraq, the size of the initial invading force was far greater than that used in Afghanistan, and was augmented by a surge in 2007 that saw improved results in its wake -- though not necessarily caused by increased numbers, as new tactics and concepts of operations were employed. In Libya, the notion of massing can be applied to the use of concentrated air power, and perhaps to the "massing of information" that American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets provided. Scores: Afghanistan, 7; Iraq, 8; Libya, 2.

Economy of force. In some respects, this category is the reverse of mass. In Afghanistan, early operations were very lean -- just 200 sets of "boots on the ground" in the form of 11 Special Forces A-teams. But eventually numbers grew to around 200,000 in the International Security Assistance Force. About 100,000 are still there; after 2014, perhaps just a few thousand will remain. The total cost to date is about $800 billion. In Iraq, numbers started out in the 150,000+ range, and stayed in six-figures for some seven years -- at a cost of over a trillion dollars. In Libya, there may have been a handful of NATO operatives on the ground, and some hundreds of aircraft were employed, at a total cost of a billion dollars or so. Scores: Afghanistan, 5; Iraq, 2; Libya, 10.

Maneuver. The opening phase in Afghanistan was remarkable, striking at the Taliban and al Qaeda swiftly, in many places simultaneously, like a swarm. Later on, though, more centralized, predictable actions became -- and have largely remained -- the rule. Now the focus on "village stability" means more hunkering down than maneuvering. In Iraq, the initial "thunder run" to Baghdad was a powerful display of modern mobile warfare. The ensuing battles of Fallujah were less about maneuver and far more about firepower. But in 2007, a very skillful swarming attack was mounted against al Qaeda in Anbar Province and elsewhere. In Libya, there was very little that could be described, on either side, in terms of skillful maneuver. Scores: Afghanistan, 5; Iraq, 7; Libya, 1.

Unity of command. The coalition forces engaged in Afghanistan operated under perhaps the most Byzantine control system in the annals of modern warfare. Theater commanders only "commanded" small portions of total forces in country, with Marine and Army troops often going their own ways -- and special operations forces generally on their own, too. Allied forces marched to their own drummers much of the time as well. In Iraq, there was far more central control, perhaps a function of the fact that, beyond the United States and Britain, there were few allies with staying power. In Libya, it was almost impossible even to think in terms of unified leadership of the rebels -- a persistent problem there -- but NATO command and control was reasonably smooth. Scores: Afghanistan, 2; Iraq, 8; Libya, 6.

How to interpret this analysis? Well, a numerical average of the scores would reflect the following: Afghanistan, 4.8; Iraq, 6; Libya, 5.5. This suggests to me that the results achieved in the conduct of the war in Iraq -- despite the debatable context of the conflict -- may prove of great future value to soldiers and strategists. But this sort of analysis can also be usefully deconstructed, beginning with questions about whether all these principles are of equal weight. For example, if "mass" means less in the future, and "economy of force" grows more important, then clearly Libya is the case to study. As to Afghanistan, one can only leave this analysis with a sense of irony that a campaign begun so well now teeters on the brink of a losing endgame. But even here lies a deep lesson -- albeit about a principle poorly followed -- regarding unity of command.

All in all, this approach to strategic assessment can help distill much of the educational value from our most recent conflicts, and may suggest a way of thinking about the Syrian civil war. For example, any U.S. intervention would probably focus more on economy of force than the application of sheer mass. This worked out well in Libya, at least in terms of taking down Qaddafi with just air power and some arming of the rebels, and would likely succeed against the Assad regime. But the strategic principle of the objective, which Harry Summers considered of crucial importance, suggests something murkier, especially given that an al Qaeda affiliate might be empowered in Syria by U.S. action -- just as jihadists prospered in Libya after Qaddafi's fall. An additional concern would be that, in response to American intervention, Iran, Hezbollah, and even Russia might step up their support, escalating the violence both inside and outside of Syria.

As the intervention debate unfolds -- with some in Congress urging action and the Pentagon calling for caution -- Harry Summers would no doubt remind senior decision-makers about the primacy of the objective. Once this was clarified, he would surely insist that the other key principles be addressed as well -- before we decide to enshroud ourselves in a fresh fog of war.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Wilson/DVIDS

National Security

History of the World, Part Z

What the undead can teach us about the fall of Rome -- and cyberwar.

Current interest in zombies -- from The Walking Dead to World War Z -- should be seen as less driven by end-of-times imagery and more by the fact that zombies speak so well, even if subliminally, to the spirit of the times. World events are ever more driven by mass movements, in which the weakness of individual members somehow morphs into amazing collective strength. Just like zombies. The Arab Spring certainly fits this mold, but social uprisings of this sort have been around at least since the waning years of the Cold War. Indeed, the old Soviet Politburo must have looked on in utter consternation at Poland's Solidarity movement and other popular insurrections among satellite states, confounded by the inability of traditional levers of power to tamp them down. And when the masses finally made their way to Moscow, they prevailed there too, as hard to stop as a zombie swarm.

In between the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring came the so-called "color revolutions" of the past decade: Georgia (rose), Ukraine (orange), Kyrgyzstan (pink/tulip), and Iran (green). Each of these featured unarmed masses mobilizing to stand against authoritarianism or electoral fraud. All succeeded, save for the protesters in Iran. This last case shows that a zombie offensive can be successfully defended against. Certainly this was George Romero's point of view in his first foray into the genre in 1968, when the zombies were beaten back at the climax of Night of the Living Dead. But his sequels conveyed a growing sense of zombie resilience, even triumph. And Max Brooks's fine novel, World War Z -- the film is too Hollywood, the zombies too fast for my taste -- reflects the outcome of the struggle as a very near-run thing.

Beyond serving as a metaphor for mass social movements in the physical world, the zombie trope also applies to the virtual world -- not to herald a new form of people power, but to signal the onset of an age of cyberspace-based enslavement and an innovative form of disruptive attack. Today, countless millions, in the United States and around the world, unwittingly serve as the zombie foot soldiers of hackers' robot networks (or "botnets"). "Recruitment" is largely accomplished by cracking passwords and gaining control over individuals' computers -- though some major corporations have, from time to time, been targeted as well.

A master hacker of my acquaintance once told me how he focused on making zombies of children, as so many kids had powerful computers and next to no security. He also followed the hours of the school day across the country, harvesting banks and banks of computers that connected to the Internet -- very insecurely -- from the moment they were turned on. He routinely deployed over a million zombies.

To what purpose? Many master hackers -- freelancers and even those working for some nations -- combine their zombies' processing capabilities to create "hot-wired" super computers. This helps them to break codes that protect vital financial data and corporate intellectual property. Others use their zombie armies to mount swarming attacks that ping particular sites so overwhelmingly, from so many directions simultaneously, that they are unable to continue functioning. These are also known as distributed denial of service attacks, a common tool of "hacktivists."

Perhaps the clearest display of the power of zombie hordes used for disruptive purposes of this sort was in Estonia in 2007, when one of the world's most wired countries -- 97 percent of Estonians bank electronically, for example -- suffered costly, sustained attacks. Russian hackers were the suspected culprits, as the swarm arose after a statue of a Red Army soldier of the Great Patriotic War era was removed from a prominent place in Tallinn. But proof of the origins of the attacks was hard to come by. Zombies, for all their other strengths, also frustrate computer forensics.

But wait. Explaining today's social movements in the physical world and providing insight into the tactics of cyberattacks are not the only things zombies are good for. They may also help us develop a deeper understanding of many recurrent patterns of history. Essayist and social commentator Andrei Codrescu even used the term "zombification" once in this context, noting that, twice during the 20th century (during the world wars), "suicidal mobs of followers gave up every thought in their heads for the sake of slogans that led to mass graves." My only question about this is, "Just twice?"

It seems to me that the notion of being overcome by zombies -- opponents pound-for-pound weaker than oneself, but collectively unstoppable -- fits many times and places. Surely the waning days of the Roman Empire must have had the feel of being swarmed by zombies. The numberless barbarians who flooded the frontiers and sacked Rome and other centers of culture surely fit the zombie mold -- at least that of the faster-moving kind featured in the Brad Pitt film.

For those who want to stick with a slower-moving zombie metaphor, think of how Native Americans must have felt at their inability to stop the slow, inexorable progress of settlers across America. Whether early on in the great wildernesses east of the Mississippi River, or later across the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and on to the Pacific, all the valor and skill of American Indians proved of little moment against the creeping tide of "civilization." Truly a zombie apocalypse.

So the next time you're watching or reading a zombie story, think about the many ways the walking dead speak to our time -- and times before. As models of mass social movements, of ways of cyberwarfare, and even as the basis for allegorical historical analysis, nothing says it more clearly than a zombie.