• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— The first rule of counterguerrilla warfare is never set a pattern. This is so because the guerrillas are always watching for a weak point to hit. You can go anyplace and do anything two days in a row. But on the third day, you better go someplace else or do something else.

If you saw the film We Were Soldiers you'll remember that it opens with a scene of a French convoy being wiped out. I once asked an American missionary who had been in the Vietnam central highlands at the time how it happened.

"Well," he said, "it was the regular Thursday convoy..."

American convoys are harassed constantly in Iraq. That supply line is a pattern, so much so that one stretch of the road has been nicknamed RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) Alley. Things are moving fast. For now, all we can do is beef up security. But later when we settle in, we're going to have to be a lot slicker.

(Reading that over, I can see a GI in Iraq reading this column after his mom sends it to him thinking, "Whattaya mean 'we,' old man? It's 130 degrees, and I've got sand in my crotch. You're drinking margaritas in California." That's true, my boy, but my empathy is great. Now, pay attention. The Army doesn't teach this stuff anymore, and it will save your life.)

The best weapon the guerrillas have is our military habit of establishing "standard operating procedures." An SOP is a pattern. A pattern is a target.

The sine qua non of guerrilla warfare is intelligence. Not just timely intelligence, but immediate intelligence. Not the kind where you send it up the line and the big brains at the top of the chain of command mull it over and make a plan and send you out to go get 'em. With that method, the bad guys are long gone when you come for them. To succeed against a guerrilla campaign, the guy who gets the intel acts on it...right now.

On my first mission to Vietnam in 1963-64 I was second-in-command of a Special Forces A team. It was a six-month mission, and we spent the first four months wandering the woods, waiting to get shot at, charging the ambush, killing a few and running the rest off. We got the best of these little skirmishes, but it was a stupid and wasteful way to fight.

Then I had an epiphany and said to my best Montagnard friend and interpreter, Philippe "Cowboy" Drouin, "Hey, Phil, go hire some spies." Once he had done that, we quit getting ambushed and started ambushing. I'd go out with him and a small, handpicked Montagnard reaction force. We'd go into a village. Cowboy would make a deal to meet his agent, usually a friend of his who risked his life to help us in the woods later. Then we'd find out what trails the VC were using regularly, set up, and ambush them -- usually, but not always, in the dark of night.

It wouldn't work exactly like that in Iraq. Factors of culture and terrain would be different, but the principles are the same.

We ambushed a North Vietnamese colonel and his staff that way, killed seven of ten of them, and got a trove of high-level intelligence.

Another time, one of my agent handlers was out on his own. He got some great info and convinced a Vietnamese lieutenant to loan him a platoon. He captured the VC civil administrator over a five-province area, his bodyguard, and a strongbox of useful documents. Special Forces didn't even go along. The guy was captured before we knew about it. But we sure hired the right guy.

Of course, it didn't always go perfectly. In May of 1964 Cowboy took a vacation because the South Vietnamese were looking for him. They feared he was involved in a plot against them -- he was; the politics are always complicated -- and I used information from a friend of his to make an area ambush.

Three squads of about 12 men each set up on three paths in a little trail network near a district headquarters. I sat there all night long, trying to crush mosquitoes between my thumb and forefinger, because the noise of swatting might give our position away. So did one of my other squads. But the third, led by John Watson, our 19-year-old weapons man, sat there all night while a 350-man column of enemy troops walked by his position, about eight feet away. He didn't dare even crush a mosquito.

A model for what I'm talking about was described by my friend Rick Rescorla, who served in both the British and American armies. When he died, Rick was senior vice president for corporate security of Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Center. He was killed on 9/11 but is given credit for personally saving the lives of all but seven Morgan Stanley employees (two of whom were Rick and his deputy), 2700 people, almost as many as those who died.

In the late '50s Rick was a corporal in a British airborne intelligence unit on Cyprus. When they'd pick up a terrorist, they'd encourage him to discuss his associates and their whereabouts. Then they'd visit his friends about 0300 the next morning. One-stop shopping with no messy coordination with the chain of command.

Nobody really planned for guerrilla warfare in Iraq. About the only people left in the Army who were in Vietnam are generals, and they should understand guerrilla warfare. The reason they didn't expect it is that conditions for a successful guerrilla campaign don't exist in Iraq. There is no jungle to hide in. There is not, at least now, much outside aid for the guerrillas. A successful guerrilla campaign requires the active support of at least 15 percent of the population and the indifference of most of the rest. We were pretty sure that 85 percent hated Saddam. But it's hard to maintain your distance when the Fedayeen have a gun to your baby's head.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!