13 March 2019

The US Army Is Trying to Bury the Lessons of the Iraq War


U.S. troops are still in Iraq — not to mention Syria, Afghanistan, and various African countries — to ward off or put down insurgencies. Within the national security apparatus, however, the Iraq War is old news. 

As has been explained to me by senior officers who are still on active duty, the conventional wisdom today is that our military has moved on — and in an odd redux, they note that we have returned to the philosophy of 1973. Similar to how the Pentagon abandoned its doctrine of fighting counterinsurgencies and irregular conflicts in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, today’s military has shifted away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of preparing to fight insurgents and guerrillas, our security establishment has refocused almost exclusively on the realm of great power conflict — in their parlance, peer or near-peer competitors such as Russia or China. 

This trend away from “small wars” has been so intense that it contributed to Army’s resistance to publishing its own Iraq War Study, a project that I helped lead to its conclusion in 2016. During one of the periods that the Army was withholding publication of the completed manuscripts, a colonel in the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army’s office told me that the opposition was occurring because a study on the Iraq War did not fit the official narrative of the Army “returning to decisive action,” the jargon for “fighting other great powers like Russia with tanks, artillery, and airstrikes.” In January, the study’s two volumes were at last published online. But as a result of this ideological realignment, funds that had been allocated to spread the war’s lessons — to publish hard copies of the Iraq War Study, distribute them across the Army, and hold professional development sessions to foster discussion in the officer corps — were reallocated and never replaced.

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