The counterinsurgencies in World War Two and Vietnam are strikingly different precisely because the insurgencies they fought were different. Every insurgency is unique. Some feel that an insurgency carries advantages that make it inherently unbeatable. Because the superior force is rarely prepared for an insurgency they are at a disadvantage from day one. The primary lesson learned from the experiences of World War Two and Vietnam is that counterinsurgency must entail more than just the deployment of superior military forces. An insurgency is not unbeatable.
For a counterinsurgency campaign to be successful a carefully devised comprehensive strategy that integrates military, political and humanitarian goals must be devised. Insurgency and Counterinsurgency Defined Insurgency is a broadly defined term. An insurgency can take many forms. Generally speaking, it is an uprising of a smaller, weaker military and political force against the force that occupies power. Because insurgents are almost always outnumbered and lack military equipment, they fight a guerrilla-type war. Their goal is not to defeat the opposing force militarily, but instead to erode it while inflicting as many losses as possible.
Insurgents often look for “soft targets” to attack rather than facing the enemy head-on. The ultimate goal is to fight a low intensity war that drains the opposing side of resources and public support. Robert Smith, in The Utility of Force, describes a common process through which insurgencies begin. First, one political wing separates from a larger party. After arming itself, this wing initiates a low intensity conflict against a larger power. Over time, the larger force is persuaded to cut its losses and withdraw. The insurgent party then goes about establishing a dominant force of its own (Smith, 2007).
This cycle is evident in the 1980s insurgency of the Afghans against the Soviet Union and the eventual emergence of the Taliban. In recent years, the term “insurgency” has also been used to describe any conflict in which groups of foreign fighters enter a country to oppose a larger force. In either case the tactics of insurgency are similar. Counterinsurgency, in turn, is more than just military opposition to the insurgent force. Broadly defined, Counterinsurgency is the attempt by a political power or occupying force to tamp down rebellion.
In the late 20th and early 21st century the effectiveness of insurgent tactics has been rediscovered. Media and technological advances have been integrated effectively and, as a result, insurgencies have become more complex. In response, counterinsurgency tactics have been revised and modernized. It is generally recognized that a more comprehensive military, political, economic and cultural effort is now required. Between World War Two and the present day, the nature and scope of counterinsurgency programs changed dramatically. The Vietnam conflict represented a halfway point in that evolutionary process.
The learning curve has been irregular, though. As each new insurgency surfaces new lessons must be learned and old lessons re-learned. World War Two: The emergence of modern insurgency and counterinsurgency Insurgency and counterinsurgency are not terms typically used in relation to World War Two. The seeds for the modern usage of both were sown during this era, however. The French resistance is sometimes described as an insurgent campaign. The tactics used by the Germans to counter this insurgency were brutal but ultimately ineffective.
In fact, the French Resistance is credited with “coordinating sabotages and other actions which contributed to the success of Operation Overlord” (Smith, 2007). Allied forces even then were aware of the need to work with assets of “various political colors” (Smith, 2007). In working with insurgents in the early years of the war the Allies gained some knowledge about how to defeat an insurgency. This knowledge, in part, would be capitalized on at the end of World War Two and twenty years later in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Germans faced a second insurgency from the Soviet Partisans.
These were pro-communist Soviets most active in the border regions between Germany and the U. S. S. R. Like in the French resistance, these fighters sabotaged and harassed any vulnerable areas of the German occupiers they could find. Unlike in France, the Germans were never able to install a puppet regime to help them quell the population. The German counterinsurgency strategy was to stamp out any resistance as quickly as possible. The Germans and the Partisans for that matter executed thousands of civilians in this region. Counterinsurgency tactics in World War Two were somewhat primitive.
Primarily, the goal was to use overwhelming military force before installing a puppet government favorable to the more powerful force. Terror was the tool for holding on to that power. Tactical reviews after the war provided some valuable information, but were also tainted by the political atmosphere of the day. For example, U. S. reports may have overemphasized the effect of partisans terrorizing the local population into supporting them. The effect of the terror caused by German counterinsurgency forces and other possible ideological reasons for local support were not studied fully enough.
In the waning days of the war, remnants of the Nazi SS launched an insurgency of their own. Initial public support kept the insurgency afloat for nearly two years as various sabotages and political assassinations harassed the occupying forces. Eventually “Operation Werewolf” was defeated when the German public became assured that the Allies were committed to rebuilding their nation, through such programs as the Marshall Plan. This stands in sharp contrast to the terroristic methods of counterinsurgency that had been employed in earlier years.
While not specifically part of the counterinsurgency program, media control assisted the allies in a way it would not during Vietnam. The greater threat posed to the American nation itself during World War Two led the public to accept tight military control of what was released through newspapers or other media. The media blackout was perhaps more successful for the Germans. Since the German public heard little or no negative news from the front, the Partisans and The French Resistance were never able to erode support for the war within Germany.
In this sense, a totalitarian state with vast resources and complete media control has a certain advantage in counterinsurgency over free nations. When World War Two was over, the template of a successful insurgency had been advanced farther than that if a successful counterinsurgency. In the words of U. S. General Robert Smith: By the end of the Second World War, the defining characteristics of the antithesis of industrial war had been established, as a combination of basic guerilla and revolutionary warfare. (Smith, 2007) None the less, Allied knowledge increased from having been on both sides of irregular conflicts.
Allied forces would put much of what they had learned about counterinsurgency into action during Vietnam. As always, some lessons had to be re-learned under difficult circumstances. Vietnam: Hard Lessons Researchers are still debating the effectiveness of the counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam. There is no doubt that operations such as “Market Time” and “Phoenix” were more sophisticated than any such efforts in World War Two. Militarily, they were at least partially successful. Efforts such as these combined elements of Allied experiences with what they had learned by studying German methods during World War Two.
The military began to create “strategic hamlets” throughout South Vietnam. In order to do so, though, entire villages of civilians would often be relocated. Air assets also sprayed chemical agents on large tracts of farmland growing crops that could be used to help the North Vietnamese. In some cases, large numbers of civilians only suspected of collaborating with the communists were killed. Ironically, at the same time a humanitarian effort was established. USAID personnel, who had 6 months of language immersion and training in nation building, spearheaded the effort.
The Military Assistance Command for Vietnam also worked with the National Revolutionary Development Plan to help Vietnamese victims of the war. Even when pacification efforts within Vietnam itself were going well, the insurgents were winning the media war. The Tet offensive was a military defeat for the communists. After Tet “the flagging rural pacification program picked up momentum…” (Chant, 1990). Despite its military success, the counterinsurgency failed in two critical ways. The Vietnamese Communists fought the “hearts and minds” battle better, giving the peasants promises that had real meaning to them.
For instance; the communists promised land loans and lower taxes to peasants (Alexander, 2002). The coalition could never establish a trust relationship with the majority of the population. When Congress cut off funds and recommended that “ground forces should not be committed” the mistrust of the Vietnamese was confirmed (Chant, 1990). In Vietnam, the media was on the front lines of war as never before. Initially the Allies believed that this would be a showcase for the military and would help maintain support for the war. By the end of the war, the insurgents had turned this factor completely in their favor.
The North Vietnamese capitalized on American broadcasts and broadcasts of their own, essentially communicating directly to the American people that the war was unwinnable. They rightly assumed that the American media could play a significant role in eroding public support for the war. When the American military tried to exert greater control over the media, distrust and opposition to the war only increased. Analysis and Conclusion Contrary to popular belief, insurgencies have a long track record of success. In fact; “irregular or guerrilla warfare is, in fact, the most successful form of conflict” (Alexander, 2002).
It is the repeated failure of major powers to recognize this and anticipate it that itself are the major reasons for insurgent success. In World War Two, insurgencies were relatively contained. In Vietnam and in the 21st century they are not. They are sophisticated multinational operations in which the insurgents sometimes cannot even be identified. World War Two and Vietnam are evidence that insurgency can take many different forms. The overall lesson, however, is the same. The degree of success for a counterinsurgency is directly related to the degree the insurgency was anticipated and planned for.
Another clear lesson is that a counterinsurgency employing only military means is destined to fail. The experiences in World War Two and Vietnam do give some clues as to how to deal with the insurgency in Iraq. A comprehensive strategy must be developed that separates the insurgents from those who support them. Then an effective intelligence network with ample numbers of human assets must be developed and maintained. As shown in Iraq the lessons of prior wars are forgotten and must be re-learned. For example, when insurgents were driven out of a town coalition forces would often leave that area undefended.
It was not until at least three years into the war that coalition forces began to use the “take and hold” method used in Vietnam more than three decades earlier. The ability to defeat insurgencies in the future depends upon learning and capitalizing on lessons such as these. The first step to defeating an insurgency is to expect one. The second step is to plan a counterinsurgency. Beyond these simple steps the process is incredibly complex and there are no hard and fast rules. Sources Alexander, Bevin. (2002). How Wars are Won: the 13 rules of war from ancient Greece to the War on Terror. New York: Crown Publishers.
Chant, Christopher. (1990). The Military History of the United States (Vol. 13). New York: Marshall Cavendish. Markel, Wade. (2006). “Draining the Swamp: The British Strategy of Population Control”. Parameters. Retrieved 1/7/2008 from: http://www. carlisle. army. mil/usawc/Parameters/06spring/markel. htm . McClintock, Michael. (2002). “U. S. Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990”. Instruments of Statecraft. Retrieved 1/7/2008 from: http://www. statecraft. org/chapter3. html . Smith, Robert. (2007). The Utility of Force: the art of war in the modern world. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
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