The Rise of Alien Warfare

From the War of 1812 to today’s campaigns in the Middle East, both Washington’s enemies and the local populations have become steadily less familiar in terms of language, religion and social traditions. 

March-April 2015

By contrast, since 1945, most major U.S. wars have ended in stalemate or defeat. Washington achieved a successful outcome in the Gulf in 1991. Korea, however, was a grim stalemate, in which nearly thirty-seven thousand Americans died to restore the prewar status quo. Cartoonist Bill Mauldin called it “a slow, grinding, lonely, bitched-up war.” Vietnam was an even more punishing experience, where the United States faced outright military defeat for the first time in its history. Despite the deaths of fifty-eight thousand Americans, South Vietnam still fell to Communism.

In 2001, the United States swept aside the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But the Taliban recovered, setting the stage for today’s stalemated conflict. After a dozen years of tough fighting, with over two thousand Americans killed and twenty thousand wounded, and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, the campaign has been far too costly to be considered a success.

Meanwhile, the Iraq War was a clear failure. The conflict killed 4,500 Americans, injured over thirty thousand, presented Al Qaeda with a new battlefield, strengthened Iran by removing its nemesis Saddam Hussein, and triggered a spike in anti-Americanism. Overall, the United States has only won one of its five major wars since 1945.

The combination of culturally unfamiliar environments and sustained nation building and counterinsurgency proved toxic. The first problem is that Americans do not understand the local country. Washington often projects a simplistic global image onto complex regional conflicts. During the Cold War, U.S. officials saw Communism as monolithic and Vietnamese leftists as mere pawns of Moscow and Beijing. But Vietnam has resisted Chinese influence for two millennia. After Vietnam unified in 1975, Vietnam and China soon went to war.

Similarly, the George W. Bush administration lumped Iran, Iraq and North Korea together into an “axis of evil” despite the lack of any real alliance between these states. Meanwhile, the “war on terror” frame presented Al Qaeda and the Taliban as fundamentally identical, even though Al Qaeda’s goals are international and revolutionary whereas the Taliban’s goals are mainly restricted to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Furthermore, U.S. soldiers were strangers in a strange land. Cultural incomprehension was a much greater problem for the United States in counterinsurgencies than in interstate wars. When Washington fights an unfamiliar country, like Japan in World War II, mutual misunderstandings produce errors on both sides that may cancel themselves out. The Japanese thought that Americans lacked the necessary resolve to win. U.S. troops were told the Japanese were half-blind and could not fight. On balance, neither side benefited from these mistakes.

But when Washington wades into a distant civil war, cultural differences damage the United States far more than the insurgency. The two sides battle for the loyalty of the people, but the rebels understand this prize much better than the Americans. The United States needs accurate intelligence to separate the guerrillas from the people. Washington, however, has limited knowledge of local social dynamics.

In South Vietnam, for example, Washington attempted an ambitious nation-building program, which involved creating a civil service; building hospitals, roads and telecommunications; and training police. But, as Frances FitzGerald described, there was a culture clash between the individualistic and capitalist West and the communal Confucian-Buddhist Vietnamese. U.S. soldiers “knew everything about military tactics, but nothing about where they were or who the enemy was.” Senator J. William Fulbright said Westerners were “alien to their culture, and where the French failed, we will fail.”

The second problem with alien warfare is that the local people do not understand Americans. For the indigenous population, Americans are the aliens. U.S. soldiers descend from nowhere and start reordering their society. America’s destructive machines of war may seem like the Martian tripods in H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. Armed to the teeth and shouting in a strange tongue, American soldiers can be a terrifying sight. U.S. intervention may provoke an antibody response as the local people rally against the threatening intruder, creating what counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen called “accidental guerrillas.”

Alien warfare runs headlong into the most powerful political force in modern history: nationalism. The idea that every nation should decide its own fate free of external compulsion is now widely accepted—and is even inscribed into the UN Charter. After 1945, national self-determination was the insurgents’ ace card. During the Cold War, Communist insurgents combined nationalism and Marxism in a “national liberation movement.” More recently, the Taliban fused together nationalistic appeals against the foreign occupier with calls for stricter forms of Islam. As the United States found in Vietnam, trying to hold back the tide of nationalism can be a futile endeavor.

The third problem with alien warfare is that Washington failed to adapt to the new era of conflict. In conventional interstate wars, the United States developed a playbook for victory: overwhelm enemy countries with mass production, logistics and technology. At its peak capacity in World War II, American industry churned out a new aircraft every five minutes and forty-five seconds.

After 1945, U.S. military campaigns shifted from interstate war to counterinsurgency, but Washington clung to the same set of tactics. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, said the solution to the insurgency lay in one word: “Firepower.”