In the grim calculus of the Iraq war, August already is shaping up as a particularly ugly month for the U.S.-led coalition. Only 10 days into August, 25 American troops have lost their lives, 21 of them in combat.
What to make of such figures is a question troubling the nation at many levels – in politics, the media, in the military itself and, of course, among the families of those fighting in Iraq. Has Saddam’s fall made America safer? Was it worth all the deaths and casualties absent weapons of mass destruction? Does it matter whether Iraq emerges as a democracy, or is it enough to put “our bastard” in place of the one America toppled?
But the debate likely to have the most direct affect on the death toll is raging inside the cadre of officers commanding Army and Marine units inside Iraq. More than a year of aggressive patrols and counter-insurgency tactics have failed to slow the insurgency, and as a result an increasing number of officers are questioning the military’s core strategy: maintaining a high-profile in Iraq’s cities and villages in order to bring security, and ultimately, democracy to Iraq.
In fact, many officers are now saying the tactics adopted by American forces since Saddam’s regime fell last year are more suited to peacekeeping in regions where conflicts have already run their course than occupying a nation with an active insurgency. Aside from rare full out confrontations with enemy forces, like the battles raging right now with Shiite militants in Najaf, the emphasis on being a "presence" in Iraqi neighborhoods is being questioned.
“It seems to me we are provoking more than we are deterring,” says an officer with the 82nd Airborne Division who is serving in Iraq and asked not to be named. “We wind up getting shot at, and then we shoot back, and that means people who are just in the way wind up getting killed.”
A growing number of officers advocate pulling American troops back to a few large garrisons, from which they can launch missions in strength in support of Iraqi security forces. While not yet official policy – indeed it is fiercely opposed by some in the Pentagon and the Army -- the idea was lent some weight recently by Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff, who told the House Armed Services Committee last month that “exposing more and more of your formation to this kind of warfare may not be the smartest thing to do. And we’re looking and working very hard to do that through the commanders over there.”
Same goal, different tactic
While it may seem technical, this debate goes right to the heart of American strategy in Iraq. On the one side, some officers argue that patrols meant to “show the flag” are exposing U.S. troops to too many ambush opportunities and allowing the nascent Iraqi security forces to opt out of the most difficult missions. This, they argue, will prolong the need for U.S. forces.
Keith Mines, whose tour as a special forces civil affairs officer ended in January, argues that the U.S. must pull back and begin to force Iraqis to embrace the country’s new course and take the security situation in their own hands. In an essay entitled, “Iraq: The Next Stage,” Mines says “coalition forces are not only not stopping most of the violence, they are the active force which is provoking most of it.”
On the other side are officers who maintain that that retreating to well-guarded barracks at this point would send exactly the wrong message to the insurgents. The Marines, in particular, take a more aggressive stance, but many Army officers agree, too.
“I don't think pulling back to the barracks is the best tactic,” says Rick Francona, a retired military intelligence officer who has served in Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s and maintains close contact with commanders in Iraq. “It will send a message to the insurgents … that they have in effect forced the Americans to withdraw. In the Middle East, perception is the reality. The insurgents will perceive it as yet another victory over the Americans.”
The other side of perception
Uniting both sides of this argument is a concern about the continuing deaths and injuries American units are sustaining. Inside the military, the current casualty rate is widely regarded as light given the ferocity of past American combat missions. Yet, at the same time, the military’s senior leadership, most of who served in Vietnam, are painfully aware of the perils of pushing the American public’s support for war past the point-of-no-return.
By and large, the politics of this presidential election year is deadening the public’s antennae to any news that seems unduly optimistic or pessimistic. Yet that statistic – 25 dead in 10 days – speaks for itself.
American military commanders rightly note that the casualty rate in Iraq is relatively light when compared to past American wars. In August 1965, for instance, when the U.S. presence in Vietnam was just a bit higher than the 145,000 now based in Iraq, 45 Marines were killed in a single week-long battle known as Operation Starlite.
The average monthly casualty rate for 1966, according to Andrew Krepinevich, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, was 417. That’s 13 American deaths per day.
Yet the same officials who cite higher casualty rates in Vietnam are quick to dismiss any analogy to the Southeast Asian morass as it pertains to public support or military progress in Iraq.
Krepinevich, author of the authoritative study, “The Army in Vietnam,” argues that so many variables have changed since the mid-1960s that comparisons tend to be irrelevant. America’s economy is much larger; its military far more dominant. There is also no draft.
Yet, he notes, thanks largely to the failures and deceptions of the Vietnam era, America also has less tolerance for casualties and a more finely-honed suspicion of those who promise a light at the end of the tunnel.
"In the final analysis, much depends on how Washington chooses to employ its resources and the time frame over which it is able to sustain its efforts—in short, the strategy pursued,” Krepinevich notes. “No matter how less challenging the Iraq insurgency appears when measured against America’s Vietnam experience, or how low the relative costs, they will not offset a flawed strategy.”
But which strategy? The debate rages on.
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