[FoRK] Military history lesson

J.Andrew Rogers andrew at ceruleansystems.com
Wed Jul 21 00:21:18 PDT 2004

My corrections to what appears to be the from memory recital of a 
publik skool history education.

On Jul 20, 2004, at 5:33 PM, Owen Byrne wrote:
> I'm sorry - but the US couldn't defeat Vietnam

That is a really strange way of putting it.  Viet Nam was actually the 
first war after WWII where investment in technology gave the US a 
decisive advantage on the battlefield.  A lot of other countries, 
notably the USSR, copied many tactics and technologies developed for 
and during the Viet Nam conflict.  If you look at the kill ratio in 
Viet Nam, the US enjoyed very high conversion ratios and superior 
command of the battlefield, far higher than in Korea.  ARVN forces, 
equipped with American weapons and with rudimentary US military 
training, also had good conversion ratios.

Total KIA:
US = 47k +  ARVN = 227k
NVA+VC = 1.1M

The part of history that matters:  By the time US troop strength had 
parity with the NVA/VC forces around 1968, the NVA/VC were suffering 
catastrophic losses far beyond the replacement rate such that by 1969 
the US side greatly outnumbered the NVA/VC.  It is generally 
acknowledged by historians on both sides that if the US had not decided 
to withdraw for political reasons that the US would have won within two 
years.  We know now that the Tet Offensive was the last gasp for the 
NVA, a Hail Mary play, which was a military failure.  Unfortunately, 
this coincided with the beginning of a structured reduction in combat 
action against the NVA by the US, effectively giving them a free pass 
after they had already blown their wad and failed.

In essence, it was a military victory in every sense of the word.  For 
various non-military reasons, when it was time to make the final 
killing blow the US walked away.

So stating that the "US couldn't defeat Viet Nam" has no military 
truth.  The US decisively defeated the NVA/VC as a general rule and 
inflicted severe damage that the NVA could not sustain.  The war was 
almost over when the US withdrew.

> nor for that matter, Iraq.

Iraq was a starkly decisive military campaign.  I think the Syrians, 
Iranians, and such have been a larger nuisance than the Iraqi military 

> This despite the fact that pacification of
> your colonies seems to be the war you train for.

The US has colonies?

We only started seriously training for urban pacification and 
occupation in the 1990s.  This is the first combat deployment we've 
ever engaged in of this type.  We used to deal with urban pacification 
the same way everyone else does: pave the city.  Doing things the new 
way is tactically much trickier, but friendlier to civilians and 
infrastructure than all the tried-and-true methods.  There have been 
some bugs that have been worked out in practice.

One of the benefits the US will get from this is that the military will 
have a seasoned and experienced corps of officers and NCOs that are 
intimately familiar with how to do extremely effective urban conquest 
and occupation.  That is valuable institutional knowledge that is very 
difficult to come by.

> The last time the US faced a real military power - Korea - the Chinese
> discovered that US soldiers are very good at running away.

Umm... That was a UN operation and the US was a secondary part of the 
troop strength (at the peak, the US had about 300k troops there).  Even 
with badly degraded logistics of that theater, and the fact that the US 
was facing Russian fighters and fighter pilots, a numerically superior 
Chinese regular force, plus the North Koreans, the US troops gave 
*vastly* more than they got.  The Koreans just about cancel each other 
out, both in strength and casualties.  The difference between Chinese 
and US casualties was an order of magnitude.  The weapons technology in 
theater was roughly equivalent for both sides at the time (we are 
talking 1950 here, and we'd been helping the Chinese just a few years 
prior).  Despite being badly prepared and outnumbered, the US still 
managed to fight the Communists to a standstill.

If you read the Chinese accounts of the war, you'll note that they 
write that the ROK soldiers were persistent under withering fire, while 
the US soldiers would quickly withdraw ("run away").  This is easily 
explained by well-known differences of doctrine that also explain why 
the US had such low casualty rate in its engagements historically.  It 
is classic doctrine for US military forces to withdraw when faced with 
stiff resistance and make heavy use of stand-off and area effect 
weapons (e.g. bombs and artillery) to minimize the risk to soldiers.  
The willingness to press forward in a meat grinder situation shows in 
the casualty figures for the Koreans and Chinese.

> Actually I think the (obvious) solution to your points is already in 
> action.
> 1. Asymmetric warfare - hit 'em where they ain't
> 2. Sow discontent amongst their allies. Ideally the US should be left 
> alone.
> 3. Get them to invade foreign  countries to stretch their resources 
> and leave more vulnerabities to use 1. against.

This naive from a number of dimensions.

Asymmetric warfare is only effective within a certain set of 
parameters.  Arguably the biggest weakness of the US military in the 
current engagements was a lack of practical operational experience 
dealing with occupation and pacification in these types of scenarios.  
Well now the US military has that experience, and a lot of it, and the 
next time they have to do it it will go much more smoothly.  And much 
of the so-called "asymmetric warfare" in Iraq has been Islamic 
extremists, which is a completely different problem independent of Iraq 
and not unique to the US.  If anyone is still paying attention, the US 
military has slowly but surely become very effective in dealing with 
insurgents, guerillas, jihadis, and various other nuisances.

The primary weaknesses in the US military structure and doctrine 
exposed in the last few years are as follows:

1.)  While our intelligence in the industrialized countries is 
excellent, our intelligence in the third world is sadly lacking.  I'm 
sure this is being aggressively addressed.

2.)  We very obviously lacked real experience implementing our new 
civilian-friendly tactical and occupation doctrines.  This has been 
remedied by extensive experience and should not be a problem in future 

It is worth noting that the US military did not repeat any of the 
mistakes of the previous Gulf War.  The doctrine, equipment, and 
technology evolved to a more efficient and effective structure in that 
relatively short gap.  The actual warfighting machine is ridiculously 
competent and the technological advancements continue to prove 

But you still haven't explained how this will bring down the US.  There 
are certain economies of scale to military operations.  You can't just 
bait the US into invading country after country, because 1.) the US 
will be fully aware that it is being baited, and 2.) the US can invade 
an awful lot of countries before running out of steam.  In short, the 
US would have a *long* run before it went into decline.  Even if the US 
did go berserk, there would be a whole pile of countries that would 
rather make peace with the US rather than face the possibility of being 
on the other side of its military machine.  That's just practical 
reality.  And if other industrialized countries could be implicated, as 
you are suggesting, then they are setting themselves up to be hurt.  US 
intelligence is poor in the third world, but excellent in the 
industrialized world.

In fact, I think that this would have a stronger likelihood of ending 
up at an alternative outcome:  The US, along with a good sized 
collection of other countries, achieves overt military dominance and 
control of the globe.  Most countries, like people, will go along to 
get along.  The US has generally been quite restrained in the use of 
its military, and I don't see how encouraging the US to behave 
otherwise is a good idea when it is as economically and militarily as 
powerful as it is.  You'll likely end up with unintended consequences.

So feel free to come up with realistic scenarios.

j. andrew rogers

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