If one thing is sure about the Iraq war, it is that it will have far-reaching effects on the US military. Defeat in Iraq could halt critical reforms needed to prepare the military for future irregular conflict, where guerrillas, by hiding among civilians, can effectively attack conventional forces.
On the other hand, victory in Iraq could validate current reforms that increase irregular warfare training, and spur additional changes. These reforms would require nothing less than a radical departure from the soldier's mentality that only direct combat, rather than the hearts-and-mind approach of irregular warfare, is worthy of pride.
Maintaining superiority in conventional warfare is important. It led to victory in the Persian Gulf War and helps prevent conflict through deterrence. The irony is that the United States has amassed such a lead in military strength that adversaries are now loath to fight on the conventional battlefield. Conflict today is marked by the rise of asymmetrical warfare, where groups exploit the weaknesses of stronger opponents through guerrilla tactics. One can think of the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Al Qaeda's attacks, and the Israel-Hizbullah conflict in Lebanon.
Unfortunately, at a time when irregular warfare is becoming increasingly important, the US military is struggling to meet the irregular threats it faces today. Some leaders understand the need to reform. They know that today's soldiers can no longer simply train to assault an enemy position; these soldiers must also be savvy enough to learn from the populace where the enemy is hiding. The Iraq war has given new impetus to reformers, but they face strong opposition from those who support the traditional focus on conventional warfare. At the small-unit level, training still revolves around direct combat, including building assaults and counterambush actions. Most troops do not understand irregular warfare – such as counterinsurgency – and the importance of gaining support from the local populace.
The emphasis on conventional warfare can be traced back to World War II. It set a paradigm in the US military about how war should be fought: with overwhelming firepower and conventional tactics. Confident in this type of warfare, the military applied the same approach to the Vietnam insurgency with disastrous consequences. Reeling from its defeat, the Armed Forces treated Vietnam as an aberration, focusing on avoiding unconventional conflicts and preparing for World War III.
Judging from the response to Vietnam, failure in Iraq would probably lead the military to focus yet again on training in conventional tactics. Dealing with a loss against a supposedly weaker opponent – insurgents – is psychologically difficult for a proud military. Defeat makes an army want to ignore irregular wars, rather than learn how to win them. Counterinsurgency is also much less appealing than conventional warfare: The former is frustratingly slow, due to the gradual process of winning over the people so that they no longer support the insurgents.
Most important, there is a strong cultural bias in the military against irregular warfare. Many officers view it with apathy. Firefights are still put on a pedestal because they offer the truest test of a soldier's training and fulfill a certain image of combat. It is hard to attain the same level of pride in counterinsurgency where success often means avoiding the use of force.
The attitude is still prevalent that "real soldiers" do not engage in civil affairs, even though it creates goodwill and yields information about insurgents. Unless military leaders value irregular warfare training, they will not conduct it. For them, losing in Iraq would signal that their efforts at this kind of training were worthless.
But if irregular tactics help to win the war, leaders will have a compelling reason to strengthen the military's irregular warfare training. Troops must gain a better understanding of counterinsurgency. And units need to develop police and civil affairs skills, not just combat skills.
Such a monumental shift in tactics for a conventional military will require it to develop a new paradigm of what it means to be a soldier: A soldier is more than a fighter, and direct combat is not his or her only worthy purpose. Service men and women can take pride in winning the hearts and minds of the people – which is critical to defeating an insurgency. The military has already begun to train for irregular warfare. But it needs a victory in Iraq to validate such training and to institutionalize the paradigm that will help it win future conflicts.
A new generation of military leaders – one guided by this new mentality – could create a more balanced force that retains conventional superiority while showing proficiency in irregular warfare. This force would be a potent weapon in the war on terror.
• Erik Swabb served in Iraq as a Marine infantry officer. He now attends Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.