The American failure at nation-building.

If you attempt the impossible, you will fail.
        ==One of the Ten Truths of Management

If a problem cannot be solved, it may not be a problem, but a fact.
        ==One of Rumsfeld’s Rules

mason.strategiclessons.PUB1269Why was the United States so successful in building up Germany, Japan and South Korea as independent nations after World War Two, and such a failure in building up South Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan?

Chris Mason, in his book Strategic Lessons, wrote that the reason is that while it is possible to help an existing nation build up a stable government, it is not possible for outsiders to create a national consciousness among a people who lack it.

That is the reason for the failures in South Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—not any lack of valor or professionalism among American troops, but the fact that they were given a mission equivalent to trying to make water flow uphill.

He said the U.S. military is well-suited for carrying out two kinds of missions:

  1. Defending allies from invasion by use of “intense lethality” against the aggressor.
  2. Intervening in a foreign country to protect American lives or interests by striking hard at a military target, and then leaving—preferably within 90 days.

If the American government is considering intervening in a country for an extended length of time, it should summon the best academic experts to assess whether the people of that country have a sense of nationhood.  If not, the only unity those people will have is in resisting the invader.

Actually there were people inside the government who understood what would happen in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and said so, but they were ignored, Mason said.   Instead decisions were made by people who knew nothing about those countries, but knew what to do and say in order to advance their careers.

Those are harsh words.  The fact that the Army War College has published his book shows that there are some people in the military who value intelligent dissent.


Click on The Strategic Lessons Unlearned from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan: Why the Afghan National Security Forces Will Not Hold and the Implications for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan for the text of Chris Mason’s book in PDF form.  I thank Craig Hanyan for suggesting it.

Click on America’s Future in Afghanistan for interviews by ARRA News Service giving the opposing viewpoints of Chris Mason and General John R. Allen, USMC-Ret.  [added 11/20/2015]



Germany and Japan.

The United States did not engage in nation-building in Germany or Japan after World War Two.  Both nations were already built.  The leaders of these countries decided for their own reasons to rebuild under U.S. protection.

The victorious allies had the good sense to maintain the continuity of government and administration in both countries.  They were devastated by war, but never suffered the chaos that Iraqis and Afghans suffered after the invasions of their countries.

Germany and Japan both maintained continuity with pre-war governments.  Germany’s Konrad Adenauer worked to make West Germany the custodian of German national identity, and the successor of the German Empire, Wiemar Republic and even Nazi Germany.  The East German leaders, on the other hand, broke with the past, especially the Nazi past.  Perhaps partly for that reason, East Germany was regarded as an artificial construct.

General MacArthur helped maintain continuity of government in Japan by keeping the Emperor Hirohito as a symbol of national unity.

Both Germans and Japanese felt threatened by the power of the Soviet Union.  Without the Cold War, there would have been more problems with the rebuilding of these two countries and their relations with the United States.

The lesson here is that success was due to things that the American government did not control.

South Korea and South Vietnam.

South Korea and South Vietnam were both rumps of one-united nations recently freed from domination of colonial powers.  Both were ruled by governments put in power by the United States, and neither had any particular legitimacy.  The peoples of both Korea and Vietnam yearned to be united nations once more.

The Vietnamese regarded Ho Chi Minh as their national hero, who had fought against both the Japanese and the French.  The rump government put in power in Saigon had no legitimacy in their eyes, and its supporters never fought with the same fanaticism as the Vietnamese Communists.

Military historian Max Hastings, in The Korean War, wrote that South Korea might have foreshadowed the history of South Vietnam if the North Korean government had supported an insurgency rather than conducted an invasion.  The South Korean people would not have supported their corrupt government, and Americans would have grown weary of fighting a popular uprising.

But the North Koreans chose to invade, and, with their mass killings, discredited themselves.  South Korea found an identity in its struggle for survival.  Over the course of years, with the American garrison still in place (as it is in Germany and Japan), there were military coups and struggles for democracy, and South Korea emerged as the prosperous, democratic nation it is today.

The lesson here is that the difference between success and failure was due to things the American government did not control.

Iraq and Afghanistan

Iraq and Afghanistan were made up of diverse religious and ethnic groups with no natural sense of unity.  In Iraq, the largest groups were the Sunni Arabs, the Shiite Arabs and the Kurds; in Afghanistan, the Dari-speaking tribes of the north and Pushtu-speaking tribes of the South.

Iraq was created as a British mandate colony after World War One.  Afghanistan had a long history, but its boundaries consisted of where the Russian Empire had stopped coming south and the British Empire had stopped going north.

The occupying forces in Iraq and Afghanistan did not try to build on anything already there.  King Zahir Shah, a symobl of Afghan unity, was not invited back into the country.  The armies of both countries were disbanded, and the U.S. military tried to create a new force from scratch.  None of them were a match for the fanatic ISIS and Taliban fighters.  No Iraqi government force was equivalent to the Kurds’ Peshmerga militia.

It is possible to imagine things being done differently.  Suppose in Iraq that Saddam Hussein’s army had not been disbanded, but had been disarmed.  Suppose the Iraqi people had been invited to rebuild their own country instead of making reconstruction a gravy train for U.S. contractors.  Suppose the spontaneous elections of local leaders had been recognized as legitimate.  Suppose there had been no Abu Ghraib.

Suppose in Afghanistan the king had been invited back and the different peoples had been invited to resume their traditional way of life.  Would these things have made a difference?  I don’t know.

The lesson here is that there is no way to guarantee success, but many ways to guarantee failure.

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