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The Iraq War: Learning from the Past, Adapting to the Present, and Planning for the Future

The Iraq War: Learning from the Past, Adapting to the Present, and Planning for the Future - Cover

Authored by Dr. Thomas R. Mockaitis.

February 2007

70 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Taking full account of the factors beyond the control of the U.S. military and avoiding glib comparisons with Vietnam, the author examines how the American approach to the war in Iraq has affected operations there. He also draws on the experience of other nations, particularly the United Kingdom, to identify broad lessons that might inform the conduct of this and future campaigns. He documents the process by which soldiers and Marines in Iraq have adapted to the challenging situation and incorporated both historic and contemporary lessons into the new counterinsurgency doctrine contained in Field Manual 3-24.


Iraq confronts the U.S. military with one of the most complex internal security operations in history. It must occupy, pacify, secure, and rebuild a country of 26 million people with fewer than 150,000 troops organized and trained as a conventional force in predominantly heavy armored divisions. They occupy a land divided into two broad ethnic and three religious groups crisscrossed by hundreds of regional, local, and family loyalties. For the past 3 years, Iraq has been wracked by a Sunni insurgency augmented by foreign mujahedeen terrorists and complicated by general lawlessness. Growing intercommunal violence between Sunni and Shiite militias has taken the country to the brink of civil war.

Developing an effective strategy to counter such a complex insurgency would be challenging for any conventional force. However, the historical experience of the U.S. military compounds the challenge. That experience has engendered a deep dislike for all forms of unconventional war. This aversion naturally reflects American attitudes. Popular democracies have great difficulty sustaining support for protracted, openended conflicts like counterinsurgency. The Vietnam War strengthened this tendency and led the Pentagon to relegate counterinsurgency to Special Forces. These factors help explain both the difficulty the armed forces have had in conducting operations in Iraq and the growing impatience of the American people with the war.

Faced with a conflict they did not expect to fight and denied the resources, training, and requisite troop strength to fight it, however, the U.S. military understandably has resented criticism of its efforts in Iraq. American troops have made the best of a difficult situation. They have adapted their methods to an evolving war, learned from their own mistakes, and even learned from the study of history. However, the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq can benefit from further study of current operations and past campaigns. Such study may provide valuable lessons to inform the conduct of this and future campaigns.

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