Volney Warner thinks big. A retired four-star general who helped craft counterinsurgency doctrine during the Vietnam War, he has made a career out of thinking about how U.S. military strategy should advance America's global interests.
How does domestic politics shape military tactics? How and why did U.S. civilian and military leaders fail in both Vietnam and Iraq? What has Iraq taught the U.S. military about unconventional war?
Warner is more than a detached student of America's current conflicts: Seven of his immediate family members have served in the military, five of them in Iraq or Afghanistan. They include his two sons, one a retired brigadier general and the other a retired colonel; a son-in-law who trained local troops in Iraq as a brigadier general; a granddaughter who's a captain in the Army Reserve; a grandson serving in Iraq; and another grandson at West Point who will be commissioned as an officer in June and probably ordered to a war zone immediately.
Too, Warner's 24-year-old granddaughter, 1st Lt. Laura Walker, who served in Iraq in 2004, was killed by an improvised explosive device, or IED, a year later while on her second tour, this time in Afghanistan. Her death makes Warner ponder, sometimes publicly, who was responsible for sending his granddaughter to two war zones without a sound strategy.
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A highly regarded expert on counterinsurgency who enjoys a reputation among his peers as a sharp thinker who pulls no punches, Warner asks why the U.S. military, with all its tradition, training, equipment and support, has failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam and apply them to Iraq. He answered his own question in a series of recent interviews.
Vietnam and Iraq, he said, are both products of failed civilian and military leadership. Presidents Kennedy and Bush both began with flawed aims and assumptions, which, in both cases, produced military strategies that were doomed to fail.
"If the strategy is wrong and the policy is wrong, you can't blame the people implementing it. They are trying to implement a political strategy that won't work. It's very difficult to turn the train around," said Warner, who at 81 heads a defense consulting firm in McLean, Va. "I have to believe that military leaders in positions of trust and confidence may have made stupid decisions but never with malice aforethought towards the country that spawned them and certainly not with intent to destroy the lives of those soldiers who believed in them, trusted their decisions and carried out their orders to their deaths."
Strategy, then and now
The flawed assumptions of Vietnam and Iraq are nearly mirror images of each other.
In Vietnam, Kennedy and other policymakers believed in the "domino theory": If South Vietnam fell, other U.S. allies in the region -- Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia -- would also fall to the communists.
In Iraq, President Bush and policymakers in the Pentagon and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office believed in a democracy theory: If the U.S. succeeded in implanting democracy in Iraq, it would spread to other nations in the region -- Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. (The fact that Islamists dominate many of the region's most popular political parties, including Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon, seems not to have made much of an impression.)
The lessons of Vietnam and Iraq, however, are the same: Some wars cannot be won by the U.S. military alone. They can only be won by local populations.
The Warners and tens of thousands of other U.S. officers have volunteered for the task of making the Bush administration's Iraq and Afghanistan policy work. Unlike many in the military, members of the family contribute to the public debate. Warner posts his views on military e-mail lists, in books written by friends, in essays he shares with his circle of comrades.
He insists that his conclusions are shaped largely by his time in Vietnam, not by his family experiences.
Warner spent 10 years working on Vietnam policy, in different positions from the Mekong Delta to the White House. He rose from major to commander of the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, the division his granddaughter later joined. He helped implement counterinsurgency strategy in Vietnam, and by the end of his tour he felt that the U.S. had helped nurture a self-sufficient society in the Delta but not in the northern part of South Vietnam.
He came to the realization then that civilian advisers are key to making a counterinsurgency plan work, and that the local population must rally behind a sense of national identity, not ideology. He concluded then that advanced Western militaries shouldn't fight insurgencies; instead, the U.S. should come up with better diplomacy in order to avoid confronting such situations.
The U.S. government and especially the military establishment concluded, wrongly, that it should only seek to avoid insurgencies, but abandoned training and preparing to do so, Warner said.
"The majority of what we learned about counterinsurgency was judged not to be relevant to the world of the future. No one intended to be involved in it again, and counterinsurgency just faded away," Warner said. It was a mistake, Warner knew then, but he didn't realize how big a mistake until the Bush administration began talking about invading Iraq.
Resources were going toward building up conventional forces and for contingencies such as Bosnia and Somalia, where the focus was protecting the forces, not the population, the antithesis of counterinsurgency practice.
Warner was dubious when, 30 years after Vietnam, President Bush proclaimed a new doctrine that called for promoting democracy as a means of fending off terrorism. But when his granddaughter, Walker, a West Point graduate, asked for advice before her first deployment, Warner didn't preach about policy, leadership or strategy.
She needed more practical advice, he reasoned. He reminded her of things she'd learned in training. Avoid the side of the road because that's where IEDs are planted; the first vehicle in a convoy is the most vulnerable; carry plenty of water, he told her.
Both he and Walker frequently wrote about how they viewed the war, often on Web sites and widely distributed military lists. His postings came from the perspective of someone who had fought such battles before, confident that he could predict the ominous outcome. His granddaughter wrote about what it's like to fight a counterinsurgency campaign for the first time, excited to see what the military could accomplish. Theirs was a dialogue between the Vietnam and Iraq-Afghanistan generations.
Warner's granddaughter was to build a road that Afghans would use to participate in what were then considered historic elections.
Many now believe the U.S. called for elections too early in both Afghanistan and Iraq, leading to shaky regimes that have little control over their governments. Warner agrees. It's not clear whether Walker did. Back then, she was excited about perhaps moving the mission forward.
"With elections on the horizon, extending transportation routes into more rural areas of Afghanistan will play an essential role in encouraging the democratic process," Walker wrote two weeks before her death. "Election dates have been pushed back twice due at least in part to the logistical difficulties of coordinating between provinces. Success in road construction here means not only making day-to-day life easier for the citizens; it facilitates the success of the first democratically elected government in Afghanistan. No matter the outcome of elections, the extension of routes into rural Afghanistan provides much potential in strengthening the new government's credibility. The completion of the road couldn't come at a better time."
Hope for resolution fades
Warner tried to remain optimistic about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his Christmas 2004 newsletter, he wrote: "We grandparents will be delighted if sufficient security is provided in Iraq to hold elections at the end of January 2005, after which the new Iraqi Government might well ask that the 'Americans go home!' While not a popular view, it certainly is a personal one that we subscribe to in large measure."
Two years later, he described a dire scenario: "In my view, there are situations in the world the U.S. cannot resolve militarily or otherwise. Vietnam was one of them. Iraq is another. Neither war was ours to win and both were theirs to lose. ... We always have been very poor at making distinctions between military and political victories and losses and prone to supporting the losing side on Civil Wars -- except for our own."
In between, in August 2005, Walker was killed by an IED that detonated beneath her Humvee. The big picture and human-level thinking that had defined the way two generations think of their respective counterinsurgency wars collided.
Warner said that he at times feels guilty and frets about how much his war stories shaped her decision to join, even though his daughter, Walker's mother, tells him not to.
Walker was the first woman graduate of West Point to die in combat, and she was buried at West Point. Warner commissioned a painting of her in uniform that is displayed in a hallway of his home. As Warner describes his granddaughter's death, he no longer talks about the lessons of Vietnam or what he knows about counterinsurgency. His point of reference is much simpler.
"My view of Iraq is shaped by the loss of my granddaughter."