Understanding the context of conflict is critical toward the success of one side in armed conflict. A number of case studies bare testimony to this proposition. In this paper, two of these examples will be explored, both involving the United Sates on one side of the conflict. One is an example of a failure resulting from a lack of understanding of culture, while the other is a success as a result of understanding it.
The Vietnam War
This is arguably the most emotive war America has ever been involved in besides the Civil War. Debates still rage as to whether the U.S should have been involved at all. But almost unanimous is the agreement that the strategy employed in the war was fundamentally flawed.
From the start, the U.S assumed that the key to winning the war was basically military – that a lot of fire power would shock and awe the enemy into submission. No considerations were made for the sentiments of the locals and the nature of the Saigon partner in the war. At the same time, the dynamics on the ground were greatly distanced from the people in Washington who insisted on micro-managing a war they thought they understood but barely did.
The U.S went in with a strategy of attrition, where they would wear out the opposition through heavy losses in footmen and military capacity through heavy bombardment. However, by 1966 it had become clear that this strategy was not working because the North Vietnamese were replacing combatants in the field faster than the Allied forces were eliminating them. The reason for this phenomenon was that the local peasant population – by far the overwhelming majority, was largely in support of the guerrilla war being waged by the Viet Cong within Southern Vietnam, and supplied men from their ranks to fight.
The reason for the locals’ support of the ‘enemy’ was multi-pronged; the first was the rural Vietnamese’ belief that their government was indifferent to them, and did not care much for their welfare. Even the junior officials closer to the ground were regarded as puppets of the senior people in government and the local rich, a group they despised for the sheer inequality they represented in Vietnam. At the same time, the government was inherently corrupt; they held scarce credibility in the eyes of the Vietnamese, and many people blamed their economic situation to people in power lining their pockets with their resources.
Meanwhile, the U.S heavy offensive continued; a lot of it had to be done within rural South Vietnam in a bid to root out the guerillas. The bombardment was indiscriminate for the most part, and where it was precise, it inevitably hit local populations as well since the guerillas originated from and took shelter in local communities. The resulting death and destruction from such raids built up animosity within the Vietnamese, further fuelling their desire to see the U.S and their government defeated. By this time, the picture being painted was that of an imperial U.S coming to impose its pretences of democracy in a reluctant country, supporting a corrupt and incompetent regime.
Some U.S military officials tried to warn their leaders of the perils in development because of the strategies being employed, but such were subdued. An example is John Vann, who in his memoirs mentioned that if he were a peasant in Vietnam, there was no doubt that he would have sided with the Viet Cong, in light of the situation on the ground. By the time the U.S realized the mistake it had been making all along, it had gotten itself too deep into the conflict to retract; the peasantry was actively fighting them, the Saigon government was incompetent as a partner and support for the war at home had all but dissipated. It would have been wise of the U.S to carry out a study of the Vietnamese social structure prior to application of strategy.
The Persian Gulf War
The second war that will be explored in light of social, political and cultural dynamics is the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the subsequent retaliation by allied forces. Saddam Hussein’s mistake to attack Kuwait without due diligence was part of the reason the retaliation that came later was so successful. Having been loaned money by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during its war with Iran, the Iraqi government showed no courtesy, instead insulting its benefactors by stating categorically that it would not pay back the debts.
Further, the Saddam government lay claim to Kuwaiti territory, calling the boundary between the two states an invention of the British, and therefore invalid. They also slighted the Saudis further by equating them to ‘infidels’ romancing with the West. This was after the Saudis welcomed U.S military presence on their soil to counter the military build-up by Iraq along its border with Kuwait. This was correctly deemed necessary in case Iraq got too close to Saudi oil fields, the leading supplier of oil in the world.
When the Iraqis went ahead with their threat to invade Kuwait against all expectation, a number of critical issues immediately cropped up; first, they were in contravention of international law; second, they were within striking distance of Saudi Arabia and its oil fields, which meant that either a military confrontation with them or an attack on the oil fields would severely disrupt oil supplies; finally, they had effectively overstretched the amiability of the Arab League – even though it proposed that the matter be handled internally, it was clear this was not feasible. Iraq was now on its own. At the same time, it had its own internal weaknesses in the strife it had with the Kurds, who supported the Iranian revolution.
The U.S, after consideration of all these factors, decided that the atmosphere was right to launch an offensive against Iraq. They led the U.N resolution 660 and the subsequent resolutions regarding Iraq. These condemned the invasion in the strongest terms, and ordered sanctions against the country. The embargos were quickly enforced, with unanimous support worldwide. The resolutions also included an ultimatum for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait by January 15th 1991. In the meantime, the U.S, still receiving wide support, set up Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi Arabia against Iraqi offence. This was the pitch-perfect move because an outright attack on Iraq without the backing of the world’s nations would have been seen as the return of American imperialism, thereby eliciting negative sentiments. While avoiding a backlash, the U.S was able to position troops close to Iraq in readiness for an attack.
On the 12th of January 1991, when it had become apparent that Iraq was unwilling and unable to beat the deadline of withdrawal, the U.S marshaled together a coalition of 34 countries to launch an offensive against it. This overwhelming positive response can be attributable to how the U.S handled the situation all along; they consulted the international community to craft resolutions together, they sought to protect the world’s energy interests in Saudi Arabia and they sought multilateral agreement and support before they attacked.
The U.S also knew that the Arab League, and indeed the whole world, had been taken aback by Iraq’s belligerence, and any support for them was feeble if existent in the first place. The Iraqis had been widely reported, with sufficient evidence, to be carrying out unspeakable violations of human rights in Kuwait. In one instance, the Iraqi forces killed 3 innocent brothers in cold blood without trial.
There were also allegations, propagated by the lobby group ‘Citizens for a Free Kuwait’ and supported by Transparency International that the Iraqis were pulling babies out of incubators and leaving them to die on the floor in hospitals. Though these allegations would be proven false, they nonetheless went a great way to sway the support of Congress into supporting the war, ending in a close 52-47 vote in favor. Six Senators went on record to state that their votes had been influenced by the incubator allegations.
The international community was also irked by the same allegations, and international support for the attack mounted. At the same time, Iraq was known to possess chemical weapons, following their war with Iran where they employed their use. It was also speculated that they owned biological weapons. All in all, the U.S read excellently the global culture and sentiments at every step of the way, judging correctly that Iraq lacked support externally and faced resistance internally. The support they got when they eventually invaded and the subsequent victory can be credited to a prudent understanding of international and local culture.
From the above examples, the U.S military can learn a lot. The first lesson, not necessarily in order, is that multilateralism works, and is probably the best way to go when one intends to be offensive. The success of the Persian Gulf War can be attributed largely to this. In contrast is the ongoing Iraq war started under George W. Bush which has received lots of condemnation for its unilateralism. Also, getting multilateral support involves convincing other nations that their interests are at stake, as did the Americans concerning Saudi Arabia’s oil.
Second lesson is that even with multilateralism, one can still fail when they don’t do their homework on the ground. The war in Vietnam received the backing of the U.N and capitalist countries contributed significantly to the allied forces on the ground. Still, the U.S failed to read the signs on the ground and ended up creating enemies of the local peasantry who gladly supported the enemy, ultimately leading to withdrawal by the U.S. it is therefore imperative to set aside significant portions of resources dedicated to catering for the well-being of communities. At the same time, it is wrong to support corrupt, ineffective regimes simply because they support your cause; this is folly and is bound to fail.
Atkinson, R. (1994). Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War. Mariner, 608pp
Steel, R. (Sep 25, 1988). ‘The Man Who Was the War’, in New York Times, retrieved 30th April 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/25/books/the-man-who-was-the-war.html
Sheehan, N. (1989). A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House. 861pp.