Military Review English Edition March-April 2016 - Page 52

destruction, once so fearsome, became almost quaint by 1990, and many recalled the Cold War as a bipolar contest involving only the United States and the former Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR). But if Americans at the time chose to view the Cold War in those simplest of terms, then they were fooling themselves, just as we fool ourselves today by remembering it as such. The five decades that saw the perpetual clouds of World War III looming on the horizon were trying, complicated times, both politically and militarily. Robert Golan-Viella was correct when he noted that “the world itself between 1945 and 1991 wasn’t really that simple,” and yet “Americans often imposed a simplistic framework on it.”13 The combination of nuclear proliferation; fascist and totalitarian regimes throughout South America and Eastern Europe; genocide in central Africa; wars in Korea, the Middle East, and between India and Pakistan; and a myriad of civil wars and insurrections ensured that much of the world was, as historian Paul Kennedy noted, both exceedingly unsettled and “unfree.” Just because the United States was preoccupied with the Soviet Union did not mean that the rest of the world was not very much on fire. “Those were really scary times,” Kennedy argued in 2007, “and much more dangerous than our present circumstance.”14 Vietnam. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brought a renewed interest in the Vietnam War and have served as a potent reminder of the military, political, and cultural complexities surrounding that Southeast Asian conflict. As Stanley Karnow described, the war’s “origins were complex, its lessons disputed,” and we still struggle to grasp its true legacy.15 The reasons for American failure in Vietnam were legion: misunderstanding the enemy, strategic and operational constraints, a micromanaging commander in chief, confused generals, and loss of public support being among the most popular. The result was a wounded and demoralized U.S. Army that, in the words of Gen. Bruce Palmer, found itself “brooding over its frustrations and reevaluating its role in the world” a full decade after the fall of Saigon.16 Sound familiar? With a robust Soviet military to confront, and the United States struggling through a cultural and economic funk, the post-Vietnam Era was steeped in uncertainty and filled with doubt. Those who argue that today’s United States somehow faces a more uncertain, 50 daunting future might need to seriously consider what the world looked like from the American prospective in the late 1970s. The Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Fortunately for the United States and NATO, the USSR launched its ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. At the time, the alarming move threatened to serve as the long-feared trigger to World War III, but its only real impact was to significantly deplete the Soviet military over the course of ten years and contribute in large part to the collapse of the USSR. While the United States was rebuilding its own military and engaging in a series of smaller conflicts in Grenada and Panama, the Soviets were learning the hard, timeless lesson that combating an insurgency in the mountains of Afghanistan was exceedingly difficult, even for a superpower. One Russian veteran suggested, “The practice of massing a large number of regular forces against a small group of irregular forces to fight a guerrilla war on rugged terrain is bankrupt” and years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan a Russian military professor concluded:17 It was an impetuous decision to send Soviet forces into this land … the Afghans, whose history includes many centuries of warfare with various warring groups, could not see these armed strangers as anything but armed invaders.18 Of course, after nearly fourteen years of operations in Afghanistan, such observations should sound prophetic to Americans today and raise legitimate questions. Was the Soviet military experience in Afghanistan remarkably different than the American experience during Operation Enduring Freedom? Were the challenges facing the Soviets truly different? Did the Mujahideen employ tactics or strategy in the 1980s that varied drastically from the Taliban and other insurgent groups in recent years? Were the political and cultural dynamics at play inherently different? To say yes to those questions is to rely heavily on relatively small details. A more feasible answer might note the differences in the Soviet and American military organization and doctrine, but would admit that the challenges they faced in Afghanistan—and the difficulty of those challenges— were more similar than they were different. This point is important for two reasons. First, it reminds us to look outside the American experience when making sweeping judgments about global military affairs and the operating March-April 2016  MILITARY REVIEW