At Large

Losing Hearts and Minds

Winning local support is possible only in an area that has been pacified.

By 6.18.07

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Winning the hearts and minds of a civilian populace is a highly laudable goal in military strategy. Unfortunately it only works in a relatively peaceful environment.

One of the political casualties of the war in Iraq is the theory of appealing to the hearts and minds of its citizenry. Millions of dollars have been spent on social and community projects and little has been accomplished by the Iraqi people in gaining an understanding and appreciation of the peaceful ambitions of the United States.

Many examples can be given of tactical success of local efforts by dedicated civil affairs units of the American military. Schools and playgrounds along with libraries and other community buildings have been rebuilt. Imaginative programs interfacing with local leaders have been pursued with vigor.

The combat soldiers have received repeated lectures on the need to avoid civilian casualties and when possible show a friendly face to the Iraqi public. U.S. medical units have assisted in battlefield treatment of injured civilians and aided wherever they could what is left of the Iraqi civilian health structure.

Except for providing interesting subjects for journalists when the IEDs, RPGs and mortar rounds are not exploding, the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraq has been an exercise in futility. Sadly, good copy does not necessarily translate into successful operations.

The term "struggle for the hearts and minds" evolved from the Vietnam War, but the organized effort to do so has been part of the military training and doctrine since World War II. American Military Govt. (AMG) units followed advancing U.S. forces through Sicilian, Italian, French and German towns in an effort to bring civil order out of the chaos war had left behind. It wasn't difficult to create good will among people who had been left with so little after the war moved on -- even if they previously had been enemies. But therein is the key.

Later in Korea and Vietnam, U.S. Army Civil Affairs units tried the same techniques that had worked before. And, yes, when "the war moved on" these efforts had a degree of success. But we should have learned from 'Nam that if the war doesn't move on and leave peace behind, no amount of good will, kind acts, and constructive effort will have a positive, lasting effect on the host populace.

There was a crude and simple guide heard from spec ops forces regarding efforts to gain understanding and appreciation in Viet Cong-influenced villages. "Grab'em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow." The best example of the success of such direct and unsophisticated methods was the much maligned Phoenix Program which brutally retaliated for village chief cooperation with the VC. The North Vietnamese Foreign Minister and Dep. Prime Minister, Nguyen Co Thach, put it equally simply after the war when he said Phoenix "wiped out many of our bases" (Stanley Karnow, Vietnam, A History, p. 602).

The preoccupation with political correctness in U.S. pacification operations in Iraq has found precedent for the most part in the successful civil action in South Vietnam's peaceful provinces and not in the regions of strong VC presence. Preaching to the converted is not an appropriate test.

Instances of civil successes in conflicted Iraqi provinces have occurred only after covert operations to pay off or kill local tribal leaders who were assisting the insurgency. The peaceful regions are easy enough to deal with until they come under insurgent pressure.

Of course, it is logical to maintain good relations to the extent possible with indigenous groups. In this regard care must be given to avoiding unnecessary civilian casualties. Similarly, efforts must be put forth to assist local government, business, and social groups in rebuilding normal community life -- again where possible and prudent. Unfortunately that requires an absence of insurgent action.

There is an essential lesson of warfare that must be learned by the American public. The rest of the world does not wage war in a manner consistent with American values. Winning the hearts and minds of an indigenous people in areas of conflict and especially those torn asunder by religio-political rivalries, is a concept that works well on paper but not in practice. Winning hearts and minds works only if the citizenry do not have a greater fear of retribution by terrorists.

The essential goodness of the American spirit wants to believe in the transcendent value of the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. In Iraq this is an excellent peacetime guide, but it is not the way they fight war. (See "Real Torture," Jeff Emanuel, TAS, 6/12/07.) Gaining the Iraqis' good will can come only after they have exhausted their societal bellicosity.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.