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Look before you learn

You can't trust political columnists -- not yesterday, not now, not ever. If I had an exam percentage point for every columnist who has been using the gulf war to flip-flop and re-write political paradigms, I would still be in 6.001.

Not that I believe re-thinking one's views, especially given new evidence, is improper -- but relying only on limited empirical evidence to determine courses of action is dangerous. Particularly in war, the US government has plotted strategy on the success or failure of the previous conflict. Pedantic pens, in turn, have based their policy criticisms on the same past standards.

The United States went into Korea, fighting North Korean and Chinese communism with the mindset of World War II Allied crusaders fighting Axis powers in large-scale aggression. In Korea, however, parity between North and South, not unconditional victory, proved to be the desired goal. When the United States went into Vietnam, it expected a three-year, Korea-like war, with UN backing and equilibrium between North and South Vietnam the ultimate war aim. It didn't get it.

In Grenada and Panama, US defense planners, molded by failures in Vietnam, went paranoid. Forget three-year commitments. Forget UN backing. If you're going to sack an aggressor state, storm it everywhere at once, and achieve objectives using numerical superiority and technology, not time. Find a tough enemy army unit? Don't fight it -- blow up their barracks. Keep the press out, topple the government, and pull your troops back home before they're missed.

The gulf war was built on what we learned in Panama. Rapid, high-tech, large scale operations work well, everyone thought, much better than sneaky guerrilla warfare aimed at containment and control.

In Panama, however, President Bush acted without UN approval and took flak for it. US forces also unplugged Manuel Noriega, wasted most of Noriega's police, and found themselves occupying a country without law and order. Lacking sufficient military police, post-liberation Panama was sucked into chaos by a power vacuum that has yet to be adequately filled.

Planning Operation Desert Storm, these two glitches of the Panama invasion weighed heavily on the planners' minds. In their eyes, an international coalition would be the best war-making body, and when sacking an opposing state, it would be best to allow a small number of enemy troops to remain to prevent chaos. The coalition proved almost more logistical trouble than it was worth, and the desire to prevent post-war chaos has allowed Iraqi Republican Guard units to chew up Kurds.

Over the past 40 years, the United States has continuously used past experience to plan future operations. However, legally tenuous wars of containment against ethnically homogenous populations like North Korea are in no way like wars of survival against leaders who are despised as much at home as they are abroad. Equally, wars over flat desert terrain must be air-based -- jungle operations require small-unit ground operations. In our desire to win and correct every failure, we must not draw parallels where none can be drawn.

Columnists are guilty of the same vice. In the first days of Desert Storm, columnists' Vietnam analogies pervaded the media. They were wrong. Fighting in the desert is nothing like rice-paddy warfare, and Iraq's internal troubles stem not from economic struggles, but from repression of the Kurds, a distinct group demanding self-determination for a wide range of cultural reasons.

Later analogies drew Iraq as the China that Truman feared to invade in the Korean war after his containment objectives had been achieved. Close -- but not close enough. Saddam Hussein is no Mao, and the US public has consistently overestimated the military strength of Saddam Hussein. Crushing Saddam's machine would have been a simple matter at the time the ground war was halted.

Other comparisons call post-war Iraq a Lebanon of the oil fields, or a Balkanized, strife-ridden twin of Southeastern Europe. These parallels, as well, are inaccurate. Small, free independent states in a post-war Mideast will not necessarily clash, especially while a superpower like the United States exists to prevent aggression.

In short, when looking towards future defense needs, US policy makers, and anyone who hopes to influence them, must be willing view each crisis on a case-by-case basis.

Looking at potential trouble spots -- Syria, North Korea (again), South America and Iraq (again) -- columnists are calling for the same kind of techno-blitz as Desert Storm, and are using Desert Storm as a play book for global defense. Desert Storm, utilizing the new AirLand warfare doctrines, worked, but wait a minute. In Iraq, the United States faced no guerrilla threats, and fought against a body of soldiers who occupied a land too barren to live off of. General Schwarzkopf even indicated that he thought most of the Iraq army didn't even fight. There aren't even any guarantees that AirLand would ever work anywhere else but Iraq, Western Europe, or maybe Korea. In much of the world, tanks can't even travel. If Desert Storm taught us anything, it was that innovation wins wars, not reliance on proven strategies.

While our defense structure should involve some standardized policies or objectives, any doctrines on strategy or specific global relations must favor generalizations over hard-and-fast rules. Specifically, the United States must never totally reject counter-insurgency, air assaults, large-scale ground engagements, and the covert aiding of friendly powers. At the same time our actions must be motivated by a larger sense of duty -- to suppress aggressive forces rather than maintain them to prevent chaos, to achieve the self-determination of peoples, freedom of the global transportation and communication, and collective responsibility for international security.

A few of you might recognize these tenets as President Woodrow Wilson's proposal for a peace treaty at the end of World War I. In many ways it is. However, unlike President Wilson, I am not searching for salvation through the United Nations, and I question the effectiveness of joint military actions. I also recognize the need for unquestionable, unconditional victory over aggressors, rather than the "peace without victory" that Wilson advocated. And, one must admit, there are places in the world where foreign meddling is in nobody's interests. And, unlike Wilson, I have no hopes that New World Orders will always work. At some time, we may even have to fall back on old strategies that failed the first time around.


Matthew H. Hersch, a freshman, is associate opinion editor of The Tech.