The “Turkey Shoot” and Lessons of Military History Remembered and Forgotten

The U.S. Military seems to have a history of forgetting the lessons of the last war and then repeating mistakes during the next one. And the U.S. military and its civilian leadership seem to have the notion that winning wars is determined by comparing the number of your own casualties versus those of your opponent, with the supposition that the nation with the fewest casualties wins wars.

This notion may be true in some battles, but not necessarily in wars. The U.S. inflicted far more casualties on the Vietnamese, but still lost the war. The same is true in Korea, which proved to be a stalemate. Even in World War II, the U.S. killed more German soldiers than were killed by them (See addendum. Ed.), but the U.S. did not win the war — the Russians did, and Russian casualties were far higher than German ones. The Russians won the war at catastrophic cost.

Fast forward to Iraq. The U.S. just claimed victory in Operation Matador, because U.S. arms killed a few hundred Iraqi freedom fighters. (Or so they say). But insiders tell us that the U.S. could not take any of the target cities, and had to call off the operation because U.S. casualties, small as they were in comparison with Iraqi ones, were beginning to become politically unacceptable, and little gain was accrued from all the effort and bloodshed. If America continues to win victories as in Operation Matador, America will lose its War of Aggression Against Iraq.

The American military invaded Iraq, still thinking of old set-piece battles, in which massed armies, facing one another with a full array of warplanes, artillery, tanks and infantry duked it out till one won. Of course, superior American technology and firepower would always guarantee American victories in such encounters. The American military salivated over their delusional prospect of Saddam Hussein defending Baghdad and Tikrit and Basra and Mosul with such tactics. But Saddam and the Iraqis remembered the turkey shoot — apparently the Iraqis forgot.

During the first so-called Gulf War, the Iraqi military at times was massed in defensive formations against the Americans. Predictably, the American Air Force destroyed air defense capability as well as offensive air capabilities of the Iraqis. Then it was “bombs away” in a shocking and awesome air campaign that ensured military victory even before ground offensive operations begin. When the Iraqis finally began to retreat, in lines of military vehicles, armored and unarmored miles long, the Americans began the turkey shoot. A-10 Warthog aircraft and F-15s and F-16s pounded and pounded the defenseless Iraqis, sending them to their graves by the tens of thousands. To the American pilots, it was almost like playing video games or computerized war simulations. The Iraqis posed little threat to the Americans, and could have been allowed to escape alive back to Iraq, but that was unthinkable to the American military mindset. It was a slaughter. And the Iraqis never forgot.

So, when the U.S. invaded Iraq again, hoping for giant set piece battles with massed forces and huge advantage to the U.S. in air combat, bombing, firepower, satellite surveillance, etc., the Americans were surprised and disappointed that the Iraqis would not “play ball”. The Iraqis were not about to line up and be decimated in frontal combat. The Iraqis learned their lessons, and no doubt the Russians and other military advisors analyzed and developed strategies for a different style of fighting in the new war.

The Iraqis have proved that they are willing to accept casualties in defense of their nation, but they are determined to inflict them this time around. The Iraqis are focusing on asymmetrical warfare, guerilla warfare, and small scale, dispersed warfare with fluid movements, and decentralized planning and decentralized command and control. The American forces are not equipped and motivated to fight in this manner. The Americans have been forced to retreat into heavily fortified enclaves and duck mortars and make occasional tactical patrols with heavy air cover, hoping that their patrol and their vehicles are not the target each time around.

The Iraqis know that many tens of thousands of American troops are on their soil, and they cannot be defeated quickly or painlessly. But the Iraqis know how to win, they have the will to win, and ultimately they will turn out the aggressor. America will win the battles, and Iraq will win the war. This will spell the beginning of the end of the military dominance of the American empire. This defeat will likely be catastrophic for the entire world, though. American primacy will still be the goal of the American leadership, and if America cannot win with conventional force, the likelihood of nuclear war and other implementation of weapons of mass destruction and other exotic, highly lethal weapons will occur.

The world will become steadily more dangerous and more unforgiving as the competition for planetary resources goes from chronic to acute to strategic. There will be many losers in the coming years; perhaps the entire human species will be doomed. If historians survive to record these matters and their outcome, the beginning of the end will be traced back to the first cabinet meeting of the first administration of George W. Bush, when the Cheney team set out plans to invade and occupy Iraq. It will have proved to be a big mistake, the biggest mistake in world history.
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Addendum: a reader has pointed out that Stan Moore’s claim that U.S. forces killed more German soldiers than were killed by them, may not be entirely correct. Writing under the heading ‘Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 comparisons,’ Martin van Creveld notes that: “On a man for man basis the German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate that they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances”. Under all circumstances means things like total Allied air supremacy (Normandy) and that sort.

Van Creveld is a military expert and a prof. at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.