General David Patraeus faces a Herculean task in Iraq, but he is not the first post-WWII American general to confront such a challenge. In Korea, Matthew C. Ridgeway assumed command of a battered American Eighth Army reeling from Chinese attacks. In Vietnam, Creighton Abrams succeeded William Westmoreland in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive and political turmoil at home. Both Ridgeway and Abrams succeeded admirably in trying circumstances. Both took command in unpopular wars under politically damaged Presidents. Both introduced new tactics and operational methods better adapted to the conditions on the ground than those of their predecessors. Both stabilized the military situation–all that could be realistically expected–and provided the breathing space necessary for shaky governments to take halting steps forward. By achieving stalemate, Ridgeway and Abrams created the conditions for tenuous peaces. Both redeemed military and political situations that pessimists–and political opportunists–had written off as lost. So, although Petraeus’s challenge is a daunting one, the feats of his illustrious predecessors demonstrate that the dark omens of political Cassandras are not foreordained.
Ridgeway’s legacy survives to this day, in a free and prosperous South Korea. Abrams’ achievements were thrown away when the US Congress abandoned South Vietnam to a conventional North Vietnamese attack by depriving it of material support and the backing of US airpower (which had shattered the NVA’s Easter Offensive in 1972).
In many ways, Petraeus’s problem resembles Abrams’ more than Ridgeway’s. Although the political atmosphere in Washington in 1950-1951 was rancorous (this was the beginning of the McCarthy era) it was nothing compared to that of the Vietnam era, especially post-Tet. Sadly, today’s political environment evokes comparisons to that of Abrams’ time (although mass demonstrations are notably lacking.) Ridgeway’s military problem was primarily a conventional one. Although the havoc wreaked on the Viet Cong in Tet had reduced the insurgency threat, it still existed. Ridgeway’s theater of operations was well-defined, and although he could not operate against targets north of the Yalu River, his enemy could not readily infiltrate from and exfiltrate to safe zones. In contrast, the VC and the NVA that Abrams fought could receive support from, and withdraw to, sanctuaries in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Similarly, Patraeus must deal with a guerrilla threat supported politically and logistically by hostile regimes in Iran and Syria that are off limits to American arms. Like Abrams, Patraeus must also deal with a hostile and defeatist Congress that views the war as a front in domestic political battles.
Patraeus’s surge strategy is largely an application of well-established counterinsurgency tactics. The previous strategy of withdrawing to large bases was misguided, ceded the initiative to Al Qaeda and Shiite militias and extremists, and was at odds with the ways that insurgencies have been defeated since time immemorial. Insurgencies must be strangled, denied of safe havens, and pressured into narrower and narrower areas, as Edward I did against the Welsh, for example. By establishing a presence in ever widening areas in Iraq, the surge pressures the insurgents, wrests the initiative from them, forces them to attack on unfavorable terms to protect their bases, and dislodges them from the network of sympathizers that is essential for their survival. It will not be rapid. It will not be easy. But the instrument at his command–the American Army and Marine Corps, with support from the Air Force and Navy Air–is far superior to that wielded by Ridgeway and Abrams, as effective as their forces were. With adequate political backing, Patraeus has an excellent chance of surpassing the achievements of his distinguished predecessors. Given the consequences of failure–which are arguably far more dangerous to the US than in Korea or Vietnam–let us hope that he is given that chance.