Ernest Dunlop Swinton first published “The Defense of Duffers Drift” in 1904.[i] Michael L. Burgoyne and Albert J. Marckwardt came along 105 years later and gave us the modern reboot known as “The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreaa.” Both texts explain in straightforward yet poignant terms what it means to be the invader in unfamiliar lands, and how easy it is to fall victim the deadly trap of complacency. One would think that idea of allowing locals to wander freely about your base, or forgetting to hire sufficient translation staff would be rookie mistake, and that such errors would have been trained out of our armed services well before the 21st century. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case.
The tragic and preventable losses that lead Burgoyne and Marckwardt to publish their updated version are a clear sign that there is something very wrong with the way our commanders viewed their mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. [ii] Swinton’s words, though a little stiff for the modern tongue, were not so incomprehensible that its lessons were unclear. Yet somehow they did not manage to stick. Perhaps it was America’s endless preoccupation with the Russians, or the resounding defeat of Saddam during the First Gulf War, but somewhere along the way the United States got cocky. It forgot how to fight a real honest to goodness ground war, the kind where fighter jets and long range missiles can only get you so far, and the real work has to be done on the ground, cheek to jowl with the enemy and in an environment that is far from hospitable.
One would think that Commanders would have learned a thing or two about COIN since the time of Duffers Drift, perhaps in Vietnam.,but apparently those lessons didn’t stick either. What will it take for the most common sense ideas to be incorporated into basic military policy and curricula? Does every trainee need to recite “The Defense of Duffers Drift” from memory before being awarded his commission? Probably not, but adding a few more cultural awareness classes into the mix wouldn’t hurt. America is the most prosperous nation in the world. It can afford to teach its soldiers which way to shake hands and how not to insult the chieftain’s daughter.