WASHINGTON — Volney Warner thinks big. A retired Army four-star general who helped craft counterinsurgency doctrine during the Vietnam War, he's 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 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'll be commissioned as an officer in June and probably ordered to a war zone immediately.
Also, Warner's 24-year-old granddaughter, Army 1st Lt. Laura Walker, who served in Iraq in 2004 and was killed by a homemade bomb a year later on her second combat 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 for victory.
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 gave his answers in a series of interviews with a McClatchy Newspapers reporter.
Iraq and Vietnam, he said, are both products of failed civilian and military leadership. Presidents John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush began with flawed aims and assumptions, and in both cases they 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 (in the course of fighting an insurgency), 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."
The flawed assumptions of Vietnam and Iraq are nearly mirror images of one another.
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 — also would fall to the communists.
In Iraq, Bush and the neoconservative policymakers in the Pentagon and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office had a democracy theory: Implanting democracy in Iraq would be easy, and from there it would spread to Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and beyond. The fact that the most democratic nation in the region, by most standards, is Iran and that Islamists dominate some 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.
One of the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq, however, is the same: Some wars can't be won by the U.S. military alone. They can be won only 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 policies work. Unlike many in the military, members of the family also contribute to the public debate over those policies. 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 about what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan are shaped largely by his time in Vietnam, not by his family's 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 a key piece of making a counterinsurgency plan work, and that the local population must rally behind a sense of national identity, not ideology. He concluded 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, and it 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," he said.
Warner knew was a mistake, but he didn't realize how big a mistake it was until the Bush administration began talking about invading Iraq.
America had been building up its conventional forces and preparing for contingencies such as Bosnia and Somalia, where the military's focus was protecting its forces, not the population, the antithesis of counterinsurgency practice.
Warner was dubious when, 30 years after Vietnam, Bush proclaimed a new doctrine that called for promoting democracy as a means of defeating terrorism. But when his granddaughter, Walker, a West Point graduate, asked for advice before her first deployment, Warner didn't preach to her 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 bombs are planted; the first vehicle in a convoy is the most vulnerable; carry plenty of water, he told her.
He and Walker often 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'd fought such battles before, confident that he could predict the ominous outcome. His granddaughter wrote about what it was like to fight a counterinsurgency campaign for the first time, excited and patient 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.
"Road construction in theater . . . is best described as an endurance sport; not for the faint of heart or the easily distracted," she wrote on a Defense Department Web site in 2005. "Traditionally progress is made a few hundred meters at a time."
Many now think that the U.S. called for elections too early in Afghanistan and Iraq, leading to shaky regimes that have little control over their newly formed governments. Warner agrees. It's not clear whether his granddaughter did. Back then, she was excited about 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 she was killed. "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."
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 had been killed by an improvised explosive device that detonated beneath her Humvee.
The big-picture vs. on-the-ground thinking that had defined the way the two generations thought of their respective counterinsurgency wars collided.
Warner said that even though his daughter, Walker's mother, had told him not to, at times he felt guilty and fretted about how much his war stories had shaped Walker's decision to join the military.
She was the first female graduate of West Point to die in combat, and she was buried at West Point. Warner commissioned a painting of her in her uniform. It hangs near the U.S. and Army flags that stand in a hallway of his home. The picture is hung so that his eyes meet hers when he walks by it every day.
As Warner described his granddaughter's death, he no longer talked about the lessons of Vietnam or what he knew about counterinsurgency. His point of reference was much sharper.
"My view of Iraq," he said, "is shaped by the loss of my granddaughter."