The great debate about how the U.S. should respond to the Islamic State threat in the Middle East revolves around President Obama’s vow to shun combat in Iraq but, rather, send support troops for training, intelligence and air support.
The latest deployment – the division headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”) from Fort Riley, Kansas – is ostensibly to coordinate the growing number of U.S. troops in Iraq, now almost 2,000 personnel, inspiring some critics to warn against “mission creep.”
On the other side of the “boots on the ground” debate are Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff. Both commanders have said they could see circumstances where they would ask Obama to deploy ground forces.
This rare public tension between civilian and military leaders ignores an important lesson from Vietnam: There is an effective way to put boots on the ground without sending in the massive ground forces that proved ineffective in South East Asia, where large unit warfare, armored units and the mantra of “body counts” ultimately failed to achieve American objectives.
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The Vietnam experience taught us that small units living with the local population, adapting to their environment and helping meet the basics of security, food, water and shelter are more effective in defeating insurgencies than are tanks and battalions. It’s a “hearts and minds” strategy versus B-52 carpet bombing.
The Army had its Special Forces (“Green Berets”) deployed in the northern section of South Vietnam during that war with a similar mission. And the Marines had the Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons (CAPS).
The CAPS, 13-man squads of Marines, a Hospital Corpsman, and South Vietnamese Militia, provided the“steel fists,” while CARE, the international relief agency, established a special program called Marines Care that enabled people all over the world to simply donate to“Marines Care.” Millions of dollars were raised in this“helping hand” mission.
In the new war against the Islamic State, the required number of steel fists and helping hands would depend on the size and nature of the territory.
The Marines’ first priority would be to ensure security. They could then get on with the business of improving life in a village as envisioned by the village leaders with counsel from the CAP. The Marines would provide reinforcements, as needed. Village improvement and building materials would be provided by non-governmental organizations such as Care International.
In the case of Iraq – as was the case in Vietnam – we should make clear that our steel fist-helping hand approach is not for taking new territory. Instead, it is for protecting, consolidating and getting on with a constructive life once land has been liberated.
In Vietnam, 109 CAPs were established; 104 held during the Tet offensive, and the five that withdrew were reestablished in a few days.
In summary, the CAP mission was to secure, hold and develop. The failed metrics of the main U.S. forces implemented by Gen. William C. Westmoreland in Vietnam were “search and destroy” and “body count,” a strategy that should not be applied in dealing with the Islamic State.
As the Islamic State begins to retreat, there will be large numbers of people needing security, logistical assistance, and help meeting basic needs. Ways to meet those needs will carry increasing importance. These are jobs for the steel fists and the helping hands.
If the U. S. and Allied Forces are to provide “steel fists and helping hands,” we could establish “America and World Care” to solicit international contributions and good will. In due course as security, water, food, energy, medical services, willing workers and open markets become available, business enterprises would emerge to reduce the need for outside reconstruction funds.
Better cultivation of existing food sources would be a priority. A great deal could be learned from the Jewish kibbutz in terms of high yielding crops with little land and water.
This then leads to a brighter future where caring for family, community and the planet becomes their priority; and politics and religion give way to reality and the freedom to practice their faith peacefully.
The Marines have already show-cased the value of “partnering” with local populations in Iraq’s Anbar province where U.S. forces and tribal leaders joined to turn back al-Qaeda.
There, the Marines performed the politically tricky role of getting different power centers – the tribes, police and army remnants – to work together, with the goal of shifting responsibility for security and development to the Iraqis.
As Marine Gen. John F. Kelly put it:“Words like `won' or `victory' do not apply when speaking of counterinsurgency operations.”
There is a lot to be learned. But search, destroy, and body counts will not win in a war fueled by an idealism, culture and tribal animosity. Once the land has been freed from the worst of these conditions and replaced by good works and sensitivity, America’s heritage in that vital section of the world should be construction – not destruction.
Bill Holmberg, a retired highly decorated Marine officer, helped start the CAPS program in Vietnam.