Isaiah "Ike" Wilson: West Point historian interviewed about Iraq

Historians in the News

Lieutenant Colonel Isaiah "Ike" Wilson, a visiting professor at SIPA on loan from West Point, has a more than academic understanding of the Iraq War, having studied it from both an historian's and a commissioned officer's perspective. Bwog editor Sara Vogel caught up with Wilson before class to talk about bad planning, doing better, and--of course--Fox News. Forget Baker-Hamilton--it's all here!

[Q.]What is your course here [Limited War and Low Intensity Conflict] about?

The course here is a double headed oxymoron by title, which I love, I think it's part of what draws students to it. Really it's a course that revisits the classic works, some of the seminal works on what we've come to regard as limited war, others would call it wars of national liberation, revolutionary war, insurgency, counterinsurgency, terrorism, counterterrorism, small wars.

[Q.]Small wars. What exactly is a small war?

Well, we've spent 15 lessons in this course exploring that question. What does limited war mean? Kind of to cut to the chase, it depends on your point of view and perspective. At least as classical literature lays out, it has at least two different schools of thought. With the Western perspective, we cover it all, but we're admittedly leaning towards the First World, advanced industrial nation state perspective, we have tended to define wars as small vs. total.

The West has, for a long number of years, been challenged with the idea of not only waging limited wars but winning them, finishing them well and legitimately. I mean, kind of case in point, Iraq, Afghanistan, the global war on terrorism. So that's an important question to at least return to, if not begin with: is there actually such a thing as a small war, or is it just a matter of perspective?

[Q.]Especially if you see it as just an aspect of the global war on terror.

Exactly, or if you take it from the perspective of the Iraqis themselves, and the members of the wider neighborhood. I'm sure that the Iraq war appears at that level of the enterprise as neither limited nor low intensity.

[Q.]Is that how the US military is characterizing the war?

That's a very interesting question, and it's one that we're struggling with now, the Iraq Study Group report just came out yesterday. I've been doing some of my own research. Another great thing about being able to teach is to play off new propositions, ideas, theories with your students, and that's been a part of the course, rightly or wrongly. I've had 20 other people in the class to explore this. For me, Iraq is a very interesting case because it seems to defy our modern notion of what might constitute a small war. Iraq seems to defy all the modern categories. It's a hybrid war, some have called it, but it's definitely an internal war that has also been internationalized, which somewhat defies the standard principles. It's also a war that seems by its very nature, regardless of how it started, was going to be a grand enterprise, something beyond the notion of small. Clearly, change in Iraq was dependent on some sort of change of the Hussein Baathist regime in Iraq, either complete tearing down of that regime, or a change of the nature of how that regime governed, the latter being less likely than the former.

[Q.]As part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, going in, did you think that you'd be in the next phase of trying to figure out what to do next in Iraq?

I figured, back in 2002 when the idea of regime change in Iraq was going to be the top of our agenda, that what ever it was it was going to be a long enterprise that the US was going to be a part of, if not a lead in. My first experience on the ground in Iraq was working for General Shinseki's Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group, the history writing campaign.

[Q.]The history writing campaign?

Right, General Shinseki was at that time still chief of staff of the army. When the invasion of Iraq became imminent, General Shinseki put together a study group of military historians, experts in different fields in the US Army, to go in as rapidly as possible after the major combat operation began to begin chronicling the ground operation as it was occurring. Not only to get that on the books as a start point for the definitive histories, but also to gather lessons from the soldiers, from the private all the way up to the four star generals in terms of what equipment was working, what was failing to work, what doctrine was working, what doctrine was failing to work. Some things we didn't think about that the test of combat tells us. Necessity is the mother of invention, particularly in warfare, and so to try to take advantage of that combative environment to innovate, to bring those lessons gathered back to maybe give them insight to the acquisition production cycle, to maybe make some immediate changes.

[Q.]Did the government take a lot of advice from the group?

A lot of the advice and the findings have been put to bear. A lot of what we see in military reorganization and transformation. There were a couple of other groups put out there to do the same, different levels in the military structure. There were some strategic studies groups send forward to focus largely on strategic lessons gathered. Our task was really more of a tactical operational level assessment. We have seen some of those changes, with the modular force concept, how we've configured our war fighting organizations to be more plug-and-play, more multi-functional, not just combative functions and capabilities, but putting in civil affairs and engineers to cover the full spectrum of requirements.

[Q.]Are you still involved in that?

I was pulled off that project in June of 2003. I was called up to the North to serve as chief of plans for General Petreius for the 101st Airborne division. It was a very interesting first year of the war for me because I was able to enter it as an observer, as an historian, kind of be the academic, which was unique....

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