Channeling George: Regaining the Initiative

News Abroad
tags: Iraq, Muslims, Islamists, ISIS

Thomas Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in an ongoing series, Channelling George Washington. Mr. Fleming is on the advisory board of HNN.

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Previously in this series:  Channeling George Washington:  Losing the Initiative

“We’ve seen how devastating it is to lose the initiative in a war. You’re probably wondering if this crucial strategic dimension can be regained after it’s been lost.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking. I’m sure a lot of our readers were doing the same thing.”

“The initiative can be regained. The best example is the Korean War. We lost and regained the initiative twice in that clash. The North Koreans seized it when they attacked South Korea without warning in 1950. They mauled the South Korean army and the American troops sent to reinforce them, reducing their grip on the country to a few dozen square miles around the southernmost port of Pusan. General MacArthur regained the initiative with his brilliant landing at Inchon, far to the north of the stunned Communists. With their supply lines cut, the enemy collapsed and fled as a beaten mob.”

“Then we invaded North Korea, convinced the war was as good as over?”

“It was over, if we could have confined it to Korea. As we swept through the North with virtually no organized resistance left to confront us, Communist China decided to intervene. In the greatest failure of his illustrious career, General MacArthur ignored numerous signs of their infiltration into North Korea. The American army was left totally unprepared for a massive Chinese assault that sent them reeling back into South Korea. They abandoned South Korea’s capital and the initiative passed to the Chinese and the revived North Koreans.”

“How did we turn that disaster around?”

“At first glance the situation seemed hopeless. Like all armies who lose the initiative, the Americans were demoralized. The Chinese human wave assaults seemed unbeatable. Bug out fever became rampant in the ranks. It seemed only a matter of time before we were driven off the Korean peninsula. Then President Harry Truman made a brilliant choice for a new field commander. He sent General Matthew Ridgway to replace the previous commander, who had been killed in a jeep accident. Ridgway had been a successful paratroop commander in World War II with a reputation for unorthodox thinking.”

“What did Ridgway do?”

“He flew to South Korea and immediately went to our army’s headquarters. He asked the colonel in charge of war plans to describe their current strategy. The colonel read a carefully written plan for a withdrawal of the American army from South Korea. Ridgway asked him if there were any plans for an attack. The colonel looked at Ridgway as if he were insane – and shook his head – no.”

“What did Ridgway say to that?”

“Colonel,” the General replied, “I want you out of Korea in 24 hours. Don’t bother to pack your trunk. We’ll ship it to you. That goes for everyone else here at this headquarters who agrees with you. In three months, I plan to take the offensive. Anyone who doesn’t endorse that idea should get out of Korea, now!”

“Amazing. What did Ridgway do next?”

“He went to work on telling the men in the foxholes and dugouts that they had a commander who intended to win the war. He flew up and down the lines in a Piper Cub, a plane extremely vulnerable to enemy bullets, and repeatedly landed under fire to talk to ordinary soldiers – sergeants and corporals and privates --face to face. He listened to their gripes – no mail for weeks and no hot meals-- and made sure they were quickly corrected. He brought veteran artillery officers from America and reorganized the way the big guns were being used. Soon they were pulverizing Chinese attacks.”

“That alone must have done a lot for the infantry’s morale.”

“At least as important was Ridgway’s promise to everyone in the front lines that if his company or platoon stood and fought when the attacking Chinese cut them off in one of their human wave assaults, he would come to their rescue. That ended ‘bug out fever.’”

‘Now they were ready to take the offensive?”

“Almost exactly three months after Ridgeway arrived, he seized a Chinese-held hill on the American left flank and under cover of darkness hauled big guns to the summit. At dawn the next morning, the whole American army attacked. The artillery on the captured hill poured a rain of high explosives on the stunned Chinese from where they least expected it to come. In a week the Chinese and their Korean allies had retreated north of the 38th Parallel and South Korea was a country again. For the rest of the war, they never regained the initiative.”

“Why weren’t we able to do something like that in Vietnam?”

“Every war is different in many many ways. The terrain, the people, the enemy’s fighting ability. In Vietnam, the ubiquitous jungle changed a great deal. It made a guerilla war an obvious choice for the enemy. They’re always harder to win. Moreover, the North Vietnamese army was a formidable force. They had driven the French out of Vietnam. From generals to sergeants, they were all veterans, toughened by years of combat. South Vietnam had no army worth mentioning. It had to be created from the ground up. Anyone who reads the history of America’s revolution can get a preview of what can go wrong when comparative amateurs fight professional soldiers. I lost more battles than I won in the first years of our struggle. The same thing happened in Vietnam. Another factor were the protests against the Vietnam War by many young Americans. They encouraged the North to keep fighting. But there was a moment, late in the war, when the South came close to gaining the initiative.”

“I don’t think many people know that story. Could you give us some details?”

“By the spring of 1972, President Nixon’s decision to ‘Vietnamize’ the war was in full swing. He had withdrawn almost all our combat troops. Only a few hundred advisors remained behind, working with various South Vietnamese divisions. The overconfident North Vietnamese launched an offensive aimed at ending the war. It was a disaster for them. They were defeated everywhere. Their worst humiliation came in the town of An Loc, where a South Viet force, outnumbered five to one, held out while American airpower pulverized the attackers. Suddenly we saw a way to seize and keep the initiative without recommitting large numbers of American infantry.”

“That sounds like a great idea. Why didn’t we do it?”

“President Nixon became embroiled in the political scandal of Watergate. His support in Congress evaporated. The enemies of a South Vietnamese victory seized control of Congress and cut the flow of money and weapons from America, while the Russian and Chinese Communists reequipped the shattered North Viet army. When they attacked again, the South’s morale had been wrecked and their army starved of crucial weapons. American air support had vanished. The North seized the initiative –and the war ended in catastrophic defeat for our abandoned allies.”

“So we come to Iraq.”

“As I indicated the last time we talked, attacking Iraq seemed a good way to expand the initiative we had won in Afghanistan after 9/11. At first our army performed brilliantly, combining air and armor and infantry in battles that routed the dictator Saddam Hussein and his troops. Then we made some nearly fatal errors. Instead of incorporating a major portion of the surrendered Iraq army in a pro-western force, we discharged all of them. We ignored the need to understand these men as Sunnis – conservative Moslems who had utter contempt for the Shiites, the Moslem majority in Iraq, whom the Sunnis had ruled under Saddam. These discharged soldiers became the nucleus of a nasty guerilla war. The Shiites contributed little or nothing to help us keep control of cities other than Baghdad. As the war dragged on, Americans lost enthusiasm for it at home. We were on the edge – or maybe over that disastrous cliff -- where the initiative slips away.”

“What did we do?”

“Like President Truman in Korea, President George W. Bush found a commander who knew how to deal with the situation. General David Petraeus saw that the real problem was our inability to retain control of towns and cities where we had defeated the enemy. As we moved on to other embattled sites, the enemy, in standard guerilla fashion, infiltrated men and weapons into the supposedly pacified territory, and resumed their destructive tactics, with the help of the intimidated local population. Petraeus’s answer to this was “The Surge.” With forty thousand reinforcements, he was able to keep the places we pacified under our control, and the peace-hungry majority soon turned pro-American. That is how we regained the initiative in Iraq and won the war.”

“But it hasn’t stayed won, alas.”

“That’s because President Obama, pressured by the left wing of the Democratic Party, withdrew too many troops too soon, and there were enough guerrillas still in the game to take advantage of it. When a President listens to domestic politicians instead of to his generals, we have a veritable formula for losing the initiative.

“How long must we feel obligated to keep troops in a country like Iraq to avoid this disaster? I have to confess I sympathize with civilians who feel there has to be a limit to such overseas commitments.”

“My answer to that is Korea. America has maintained a peacekeeping force on the border with North Korea for over sixty years. It currently numbers 28,000 men. It’s played a large role in keeping that powder keg from exploding again.”

“What was the origin of that decision?”

“President Harry Truman offered the Chinese and North Koreans peace on his terms – the independence of South Korea. They were so enraged by the way General Ridgway had defeated them, they refused to negotiate. The war dragged on for another two years, with more American casualties. When Truman left office, his popularity had sunk to around twenty percent in the polls. But he never thought about his poll numbers. He only asked himself what was best for the United States – and the world in which we are, whether we like it or not, a crucial leader. “

“Did the Communists finally make peace in Korea on Truman’s terms?”

“They capitulated within a few months of his successor, General Dwight Eisenhower, becoming president. Part of the deal was that peacekeeping force on the 38th Parallel. Thanks to their presence, the Republic of Korea is a vibrant hugely successful free nation today. I’ve discussed this subject more than once with Harry Truman here in Elysium. He is convinced that South Vietnam could have become a similar example of freedom’s transformative power, if we had kept the initiative we had almost seized in 1972 at An Loc. Instead we have a Vietnam ruled by a Communist dictatorship that muddles along, boasting about its prosperity but never achieving it. Anyone who suggests an idea that is not from the Marxist playbook is sentenced to long years in jail. A century from now, who will historians say did the right thing? Harry Truman in Korea? Or the anti-war congressmen and senators of 1973-4 who cut off aid to South Vietnam? I’m betting on Harry.”

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