Small Wars Journal

Needed: A Comprehensive History of the War on Terror

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 4:11pm

Needed: A Comprehensive History of the War on Terror

Stephen B. Young

In the Wall Street Journal of April 17* Jonathan Burks, former Chief of Staff to Paul Ryan, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, called for the Congress to charter a commission to write a comprehensive history of the War on Terror.  This would be the first step in a comprehensive review of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

Burks wants the American people to take stock of how our country “has conducted itself in a war that is still not won (or lost).”

Such a study is needed indeed, at least out of respect for the truth that, sometimes, war is too important to be left only to the generals.

But the study needs to start with a baseline of how to defeat terrorists and insurgents. It can’t accept at face value the hopes and aspirations of American policy makers and field commanders as they entered the War on Terror. It needs to measure their strategies and tactics against proven success. 

Using victory over insurgents as the standard by which to measure what we have done and not done in the War on Terror will reveal what we did correctly and what we omitted to do well.

Thus, the study to be comprehensive must review the only modern success of the U.S. in winning a guerilla war – the CORDS program in South Vietnam. This combined effort – U.S. and South Vietnamese, military and civilian combined chain of command, villages and central government – defeated the Viet Cong between 1968 and 1972.

But the lessons of CORDS were never applied in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the Vietnam War lessons of mobilizing communities to stand up on their own and fight the terrorists ever contemplated as a “grundnorm” of war fighting.

A comprehensive study of the War on Terror, second, must seek to find a strategy for success as part of its conclusions.  That goal to would direct efforts towards a new look back at how we did succeed importantly in standing with the people of South Vietnam against Communist aggression.


*“The Longest War Needs Fresh Thinking” by Jonathan Burks – Wall Street Journal

Congress should call a bipartisan panel of experts to examine the antiterror effort.

… After almost 18 years of fighting, the U.S. still seems to have no clear goals, no clear measures of success or failure, and no clear prospect of victory in Afghanistan or the broader war against terrorism. To refocus and make good on the nearly 7,000 American lives lost combating this threat, Congress should mandate a comprehensive review of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

An important first step is to complete a comprehensive history of the war on terror. The Army recently released a military history of the Iraq war, but a broader accounting is needed, including other theaters as well as diplomacy, reconstruction and stabilization, homeland security and efforts against terrorism financing.

To ensure prompt access to information not yet available to the public, Congress should charter the review in a statute. Given the tendency in Washington for every debate to divide along party lines, the review should be conducted by an evenly divided panel, so that recommendations would necessarily be bipartisan…

Read on.


About the Author(s)

Stephen B. Young served with the CORDS program in the Republic of Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 as a Deputy District Advisor in Vinh Long province and as Chief, Village Government Branch. Young's service with CORDS was recognized by President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and CIA Director William Colby. A fluent speaker of Vietnamese he has written on human rights in traditional Vietnam, Vietnamese legal history, Vietnamese nationalism, and with his wife translated Duong Thu Huong's novel The Zenith into English. Young is a graduate with honors of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is a former Assistant Dean of the Harvard Law School and Dean and Professor of Law at the Hamline University School of Law. He is Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table and the author of Moral Capitalism and The Road to Moral Capitalism. His most recent book is The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972.