It’s a rather dispiriting press conference when the President defends Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and criticizes the Iraqi army, but so be it. The more important issue, at least in the short term, is what Bush termed the Iraqis’ “mixed success” in fighting paramilitaries without U.S. support. Indeed, other than the peshmerga soldiers of Iraq’s 36th Battalion, the Iraqi army has proven dismal in combat.
The problem, in Bush’s view, is leadership: “They’ve got some generals in place and they’ve got foot soldiers in place. But the whole command structure necessary to have a viable military is not in place.”
If history is any guide, Bush is correct. During the Korean War, African-American soldiers served with distinction; two, in fact, received the Congressional Medal of Honor: William Thompson and Cornelius H. Chaelton (posthumously). But their unit, the 24th Infantry Regiment, had a less laudable history. According to renowned war correspondent Joseph Galloway, during the first days of the conflict “entire platoons and companies of the 24th evaporated from their foxholes and had to be rounded up at Regimental or Division Headquarters.” The “bug-out” resulted in negative stereoptyping of black soldiers as being unable and unwilling to fight. But as Galloway notes, a 1996 Army study of the unit entitled Black Soldier, White Army shows that the regiment’s main problems consisted of the general panic which gripped all U.S. forces at the time, combined with racism and low expectations among white commanding officers and “deficiencies in leadership, training and equipment.”
Another segregated unit, the all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment, also had a troubled record during the war, largely because of “language problems and inept leadership in a few key positions.”
What can we learn from this? While segregated units fought well in World War I and during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, by the Korean War the best use of minority soldiers was to integrate them in the American army. (This was the view of Eighth Army commander Matthew Ridgeway, who replaced Douglas MacArthur in 1951.) Integration proved successful in proving black soldiers’ fighting mettle and laying to rest many of the pernicious stereotypes that afflicted them.
Today, Iraqi forces dealing with U.S. troops do not suffer from racism or–one presumes–shortages of equipment. Instead, their problem seems to be the leadership they are receiving from Iraqi commanders. The solution may be to coordinate the operations of Iraqi troops even closer with their American counterparts. This idea was recently broached in a New York Times op-ed piece by Andrew Borene, a law student and Iraqi War vet. Borene argues that the Marine Corps should expand its “combined-action program” that dates back to the Vietnam War.
The concept behind the program is that if American and foreign troops operate together, each will gain knowledge from the other as to the best way to counter an insurgency.
American soldiers, Borene observers, “were expected to live in the [Vietnamese] villages they were assigned to defend” and this in turn gave them valuable familiarity with the people.
This helped to humanize the American presence and reduced the passive support many civilians had been giving to Vietcong guerillas. For many, their respect for (or fear of) the communists guerillas waned, and they broke their silence about intelligence leads.
In Iraq, the First Marine Division has begun utilizing this program “to aid poorly trained Iraqi National Guard and police forces.” In results that correspond to the general improvement of African-American troops in an integrated army,
reports from the military and the news media suggest that the Iraqis in the combined-action program perform better in combat, have higher morale and are considerably more reliable than their regular Iraqi military counterparts.
It’s not surprising. When soldiers of even the most disparate backgrounds share the same food, experiences and danger, they tend to bond together as brothers-in-arms, leading to a virtuous cycle where the best and bravest set the example for all the rest.
Posted by Steven Vincent