Churchill quote, etc.

I am still in a the mood to suggest books. Having read Roy Jenkinsí biography of Winston Churchill last year, I have gone a bit of a Churchill jag. I bought a bunch of his books, and have been picking around in them. One thing Iíve noticed is that you can drop some serious coin buying his out of print books. He is one of the greatest writers I have ever encountered, and there is almost literally not a single page that doesnít have something good in it. One I picked up is the seven volumes of his collected war speeches, which is simply awesome. If you already have a basic familiarity with World War II, you will find many good things in there. In particular, Churchillís reports to the House of Commons on the status of the war are tremendous — Lengthy, detailed, blunt about setbacks and disasters, respectful of his audience. We have no equivalent in the United States. One small item I found this evening, just flipping around was entitled ďA speech to American troops during a visit to a southern army camp in the United States, June, 1942Ē and reads in its entirety thus:

I am enormously impressed by the thoroughness and precision with which the formation of the great war-time army of the United States is proceeding. The day will come when the British and American armies will march into countries, not as invaders, but as liberators, helping the people there who have been under the barbarian yoke. That day may seem long to those whose period of training spreads across the weeks and months. But when it comes, it will make amends for all the toil and discipline that has been undergone. Also, it will open the world to larger freedom and to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as the grand words of your Declaration of Independence put it.

This passage reminds me of Iraq, for obvious reasons. Even in the very dark times of the early months of World War II Churchill was already looking at the Anglospheric armies as liberators.

Fortunately, instead of having to throw together an enormous army on the fly, as we were doing in 1942, for Iraq we were able to employ a very powerful military already in existence. Money well frigging spent. We went into Iraq with the best military equipment the world has ever seen. We went into World War II with a tank, the Sherman, which was basically a rolling coffin when it encountered the high-velocity guns on the German tanks. (See Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II.) Never again.

8 thoughts on “Churchill quote, etc.”

  1. Well, I don’t want to play the stereotypical party pooper but all the US Army has encountered so far is Iraq’s old, obsolete, badly equipped, demoralized military. It’s somewhat indicative that the toughest fighting involved foreign volunteers. Sure, given the dire predictions from the so-called experts, it felt like a shockingly successful operation. And it was, in many ways. The logistics, the speed, the precision.

    Still, it was only Iraq. I guess I’m saying the outcome of the conflict reflects the incompetence and irrelevance of the Iraqi military at least as much as it shows the abilities of the US armed forces. This was not WW2’s Germany, with its excellent, well-trained, well-equipped troops, its technologically superior gear and its gifted senior officers. There was no Monte-Cassino. No Bastogne either.

    Which leads to a tricky paradox. Good armies are paranoid and, ideally, train to fight themselves, or worse. In other words, get ready by training to confront an enemy who is better than you.

    But in the case of the US military, this means an adversary with large-scale conventional capabilities, huge firepower and excellent technology.

    The gap between this ideal training scenario and the real potential adversaries is such that one wonders if it does not leave some units under-prepared, or at least prepared for the least likely kind of fighting. If you train for a smart high-tech war against a modern opponent, what happens when you find yourself in some dirty Somali-like hell hole, a Rammallah-type close-quarter environment where the enemy is willing and ready to use every dirty trick in the book, including using civilians as shields, suicide bombers and other twisted booby traps ?

    The US military has nothing to learn when it comes to conventional engagement, or the logistics and tactics of invasion-style command & conquer. But when it comes to fighting low-tech guerilla, it still seems like it has to go through a steep painful learning curve every single time. At least for your average infantry unit. The Airborne or the Rangers are always better prepared for this kind of stuff. But you always get to this stage where it feels like it’s way too short on Special Forces, and too reliant on those tools that will not be available or relevant when and where the enemy strikes.

    After all, the enemy knows the strengh of the US military. They won’t run against it in human waves. That would be suicide. Guerilla is their best and only option to put up a lasting fight. How well prepared are the troops in this respect ?

  2. Sylvain, I do not know how well-prepared our troops are for a guerilla-type war. Having fought lots of them over the years, and lost a big one in Vietnam, you’d think this would be part of their repertoire. I know there is training on urban combat, and lots of writing about these types of war scenarios. We’d need a current or recent active service person to weigh in on this to get a good answer.

    As to it only being Iraq, yeah. But Iraq had an army, and tanks, and other stuff, and we demolished it in days. A major achievement, in large part because we had made the investment in serious weapons and training. We should always do that. We should always have the weapons we need, in quantity, in all relevant categories. What happened with the Sherman was an unnecessary tragedy. We don’t ever want to be in that position again.

  3. Lex, sure. They had tanks. How old ? And how did they use them ? Remember Gulf War 1 and the half-buried tanks set up as artillery pieces ?

    Had the Iraqis been given the same gear as the US Army, I’d bet the end result would have been the same. At a certain level of incompetence, the amount of gear you have makes little difference.

    Remember the Iraq-Iran trench war. Modern equipment, World War 1 tactics. 1990-1991 showed the Iraqis to try and fight the same way and get slaughtered. I don’t think this one was any different.

    There was an enemy. But it was only Iraq. If you allow me an overly easy analogy, imagine having a no-holds-barred football game between a pro NFL team and the local high-school; the latter will get slaughtered and half of its players will probably end up in the infirmery or the hospital within the first 4 minutes. It doesn’t follow this NFL team will win the SuperBowl. Nor that it could win an NCAA basketball game or the World Series.

    The Iraqis can’t play the US Army’s game of predilection – nobody can – and there are some clues that some units knew this and chose not to, for various reasons. However, the game they are playing now is not something the US military has ever been good at from the get-go; it’s a skill that keeps being learned and unlearned at great cost. And a type of war the crucial public opinion back home is even less trained and ready for. We’re not Israelis in that respect. We were, in a way, after 9/11. Some of us still are in that mode. Most aren’t anymore. We can deal with large-scale conventional war far away from home. Or covert ops we know almost nothing about. But are we collectively able to handle the stuff in between, the dirty, everyday low-tech tit-for-tat stuff, the kind of grinding combat Israel has been fighting on and off for 40 years and counting ? I think the country has what it takes, but there is a lot of historical, political and psychological baggage between here and there.

  4. I like Sylvain’s NFL analogy, but it begs the question: so where are the other NFL teams? “Only Iraq”? Nowhere in the world is there a conventional military that could fight it out WW2-style (Bastogne, Monte-Cassino, what-have-you), with the US armed forces. Maybe the Chinese military, at home, but they can’t win on the road (e.g. their brief, bloddy incursion into Vietnam at the end of the 1970s). The Iraqis buried their tanks because they were smart enough to know that driving around the desert with the USAF in the neighborhood was inviting instant destruction. Whose air force, exactly, could deny air superiority to the current USAF? The fact that nobody else can fight a conventional war against the US and hope to win doesn’t help matters in a guerilla war, but I think the US military is going to prove adaptable enough to win there, too. (And as far as human wave attacks, the accounts I’ve read of the fighting at Objectives Larry, Moe and Curly in Baghdad sure sound a lot like human-wave attacks …)

  5. Taras, there are armies who can take on the US Army, but thankfully, not among its enemies. Think Israel. That’s one bunch of people I wouldn’t want to fight. Or the Brits for that matter.

  6. “However, the game they are playing now is not something the US military has ever been good at from the get-go; it’s a skill that keeps being learned and unlearned at great cost. And a type of war the crucial public opinion back home is even less trained and ready for. We’re not Israelis in that respect. We were, in a way, after 9/11. Some of us still are in that mode. Most aren’t anymore. We can deal with large-scale conventional war far away from home. Or covert ops we know almost nothing about. But are we collectively able to handle the stuff in between, the dirty, everyday low-tech tit-for-tat stuff, the kind of grinding combat Israel has been fighting on and off for 40 years and counting ?”


    With a couple qualifications I agree with you (, the T-55 was top of the line Soviet heavy armor in 1990). The US military isn’t, and maybe shouldn’t be, used in cases of cross border guerilla conflicts. The British government put out a fairly interesting White Paper (Green Paper?) about the use of PMC’s… Private Military Companies (mercs) as a substitute for regular army (even special forces) engagements in certain types of conflict. It’s my impression that the titfortat dirty war will be fought by other than active service personal.

    The US military has too many legal and operational limitations to fight cross border Maoist type guerilla wars. It’s too vunerable on the Propaganda and Political Fronts (as understood by Maoist doctrine) to beat a well organized campaign against it by an enemy that’s secure in it’s funding, suppily, and geo-political backing (aka French missles in Iraq via Syria). The strategy necessary to win, if undertaken by a US administration openly via D.C., will more probably bring down that US administration than lead to lasting peace, as the cold war taught a succession of American administrations.

    That said, I think you should consider the Iraqi and Afghanistani conflicts not as isolated ‘wars’, but rather as pieces to a global versus domestic political puzzle/strategy that determines much of the timing of events and progress… and one that doesn’t lend itself to anything other than a hyper-flexable range of strategies to achieve the optimal outcome given developments beyond the US’s ability to predict or influence.

  7. Alexander, the original question still stands. Should one judge the performance of the US Army on its 3-week victory against a rather puny, unprepared and demoralized enemy ? Again, this was not WW2 Germany. Even Italy put up a bigger fight than this.

    Or should it be judged on both the war and the post-war ? I think it should be judged on its ability to conquer *and* hold and secure the terrain. And the latter has proven quite tricky because it requires unconventional forces and tactics on a large scale. Which is the hardest combo. If someone can pull it off, it would be the US. And the Brits.

    So far, progress seems quite slow, though. As to whether it is too slow, we’ll have to wait and see…

  8. Sylvain,

    The US operation this time around in Iraq abandoned the Powell doctrine approach of 1990 and instead served as a trial for a ‘fast and lean’ doctrine that was largely successful. The strategic objectives were dramatically different. The target was a minority military faction surrounded by a civilain majority that every bit of collateral damage would make more difficult to work with later. Because the Korean DMZ was so hot, the two front ideal had to really be put to the test (questionable results). I’m pretty sure the preformance reviews are over at, but it’s my recollection that the push to Baghdad was successful, yet the failure to follow up into the Sunni triangle was a fiasco and lost the US an advantage.

    Was the conflict a serious test? If by that one considers the degree that it resembled likely future conflicts of a similar nature against a similar enemy, yeah. But more along the lines of a very dangerous war game using unfamilar and untried technologies to test an unproven system of command and control. I don’t think anyone would call it a cakewalk, but obviously the Iraqi military wasn’t eager to repeat 1990.

    You’re right… not even close to WWII Germany or Italy. Although the Sicilian civilian populace resembled the Baathist irregulars to a certain degree. It’s often forgotten that Italy was a “second front” for Stalin (third front for the US), and the “soft-underbelly of Europe” concept was Churchills, and considered a side-show to the US command (the Pacific theater and d-day were the priorities).

    The Italians certainly fought harder, but we killed a heck of a lot more of them and destroyed half their country as a result (and practically depopulated Sicily). And the US won’t fight a third conventional war against Germany anyway, so why plan for it? (We’d nuke ’em). Still…

    You’re certainly correct that too many mistakes were made regarding post-war planning in Iraq (although that’s not the Militaries problem). You’re likely correct that our unconventional aka covert operations look pathetic. We’re still short translators despite thousands of Iraqi expats living in the US, and the CIA has gotten itself into a bureaucratic fight with the White House at a time when that’s unacceptable, inappropriate, and unprofessional (goodbye Tenet, hello OIG/HLS audit).

    Again, think of the whole, not just the part. Iran, Israel, Arafat, Paris, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, N Korea, Russia, Taiwan, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and November 2004.

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