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Revolt of the Generals
A revolt is brewing among our retired Army and Marine generals. This rebellion--quiet and nonconfrontational, but remarkable nonetheless--comes not because their beloved forces are bearing the brunt of ground combat in Iraq but because the retirees see the US adventure in Mesopotamia as another Vietnam-like, strategically failed war, and they blame the errant, arrogant civilian leadership at the Pentagon. The dissenters include two generals who led combat troops in Iraq: Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division, and Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who led the First Infantry Division (the "Big Red One"). These men recently sacrificed their careers by retiring and joining the public protest.
In late September Batiste, along with two other retired senior officers, spoke out about these failures at a Washington Democratic policy hearing, with Batiste saying Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was "not a competent wartime leader" who made "dismal strategic decisions" that "resulted in the unnecessary deaths of American servicemen and women, our allies and the good people of Iraq." Rumsfeld, he said, "dismissed honest dissent" and "did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war."
This kind of protest among senior military retirees during wartime is unprecedented in American history--and it is also deeply worrisome. The retired officers opposing the war and demanding Rumsfeld's ouster represent a new political force, and therefore a potentially powerful factor in the future of our democracy. The former generals' growing lobby could acquire a unique veto power in the future by publicly opposing reckless civilian warmaking in advance.
No one should be surprised by the antiwar dissent emerging among those who have commanded our legions on the fringes of the US military empire. After more than sixty-five years of increasingly centralized and secret presidential warmaking, we have concentrated ultimate civilian authority in fewer and fewer hands. Some of these leaders have been proved by events to be incompetent.
I speak regularly to retired generals, former intelligence officers and former Pentagon officials and aides, all of whom remain close to their active-duty friends and protégés. These well-informed seniors tell me that whatever the original US objective was in Iraq, our understrength forces and flawed strategy have failed, and that we cannot repair this failure by remaining there indefinitely. Fundamental changes are needed, and senior officers are prepared to make them. According to my sources, some active-duty officers are working behind the scenes to end the war and are preparing for the inevitable US withdrawal. "The only question is whether a war serves the national interest," declares a retired three-star general. "Iraq does not."
How widespread is antiwar feeling among the retired and active-duty senior military? And does it extend into the younger active-duty officer corps? These are unanswerable questions. The soldiers who defend our democracy on the battlefield fight within military, and therefore nondemocratic, organizations. They are sworn to uphold the Constitution and obey orders. Traditionally, they debate only on the "inside."
Earlier this year, Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, drafted a highly classified briefing plan that was leaked to the New York Times in June. It called for sharply reducing US troop levels in Iraq from the current fourteen combat brigades to a half-dozen or so by late December 2007. The plan contained a great many caveats, and events soon rendered it obsolete. Now General Casey says the Iraqi security forces may be ready to take the lead role in twelve to eighteen months, but he says nothing about troop withdrawals.
Casey's leaked plan revealed the thinking of some of today's top-level officers. These senior military men believe that our forces will have to win the potentially decisive battle for Baghdad before the United States can leave. In August the Army announced an urgent transfer of American forces from insecure western Iraq to the capital in preparation for that coming battle. The move barely doubled the number of troops in Baghdad, to only 14,000 GIs spread over a sprawling metropolis with a population exceeding 7 million.
On August 3 the commander of US forces in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, the universally respected, Arabic-speaking warrior-scholar who knows Iraq intimately, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that worsening Iraqi sectarian violence, especially in Baghdad, "could move [Iraq] towards civil war." In private, senior officers openly refer to civil war, and have indicated that the Army would depart in such circumstances to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
The dissenting retired generals are bent on making Iraq this nation's last strategically failed war--that is, one doggedly waged by civilian officials largely to avoid personal accountability for their bad decisions. A failed war causes mounting human and other costs, damaging or entirely destroying the national interest it was supposed to serve.
Let me interject a personal note. At the height of the Vietnam War, between 1966 and 1968, I was a conservative Republican in my early 30s on the campaign staff of the likely next President, Richard Nixon. What I heard from junior officers returning from Vietnam convinced me that US military involvement there should give way to diplomacy. We no longer had a coherent political objective, and were fighting only to avoid admitting defeat. I wrote Nixon's secret plan for "ending the war and winning the peace," a rhetorical screen for striking a summit deal with the Soviet Union, followed by a historic opening to China that would allow us to extricate ourselves from what we belatedly recognized was an anti-Chinese Indochina.
After I left Nixon's staff in August 1968, I helped end the draft. In 1969-70, I co-wrote and edited the Report of the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force. Our blockbuster proposal to end the draft combined political expediency and libertarian idealism. Our staff's numbers crunchers calculated that if we raised enlisted men's pay scales, retention rates among the sons of lower- to middle-income families would stay high enough to create a de facto all-volunteer Army. So why not take credit for acting on principle? Nixon's domestic adviser Martin Anderson pushed it, the private computers of consultant Alan Greenspan (who would go on to become chair of the Federal Reserve System) confirmed it and I delivered the text that the commission accepted. Nixon, for once, enjoyed the media's acclaim. The draft was swiftly abolished.
The Iraq War only confirms the wisdom of the nation's commitment to the all-volunteer armed forces. A draft would merely prolong the Iraq agony, not avoid defeat. More than 2,700 GIs killed and more than 20,000 wounded, along with tens of thousands of dead and wounded Iraqis, are enough to carry on the nation's conscience.
Some of the officers from the first generation of the volunteer Army, now mostly retired, are speaking out and influencing their active-duty colleagues. Retired Lieut. Gen. William Odom calls the Iraq War "the worst strategic mistake in the history of the United States" and draws a grim parallel with the Vietnam War. He says that US strategy in Iraq, as in Vietnam, has served almost exclusively the interests of our enemies. He says that our objectives in Vietnam passed through three phases leading to defeat. These were: (1) 1961-65, "containing" China; (2) 1965-68, obsession with US tactics, leading to "Americanization" of the war; and (3) 1968-75, phony diplomacy and self-deluding "Vietnamization." Iraq has now completed two similar phases and is entering the third, says Odom, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. In March he wrote in the newsletter of Harvard's Nieman Foundation:
Will Phase Three in Iraq end with U.S. helicopters flying out of Baghdad's Green Zone? It all sounds so familiar. The difference lies in the consequences. Vietnam did not have the devastating effects on U.S. power that Iraq is already having. On this point, those who deny the Vietnam-Iraq analogy are probably right. They are wrong, however, in believing that staying the course will have any result other than making the damage to U.S. power far greater than would changing course and making an orderly withdrawal.... But even in its differences, Vietnam can be instructive about Iraq. Once the U.S. position in Vietnam collapsed, Washington was free to reverse the negative trends it faced in NATO and U.S.-Soviet military balance, in the world economy, in its international image, and in other areas. Only by getting out of Iraq can the United States possibly gain sufficient international support to design a new strategy for limiting the burgeoning growth of anti-Western forces it has unleashed....
The fact that so many retired generals are speaking out against the war and against Rumsfeld, and are doing so at such forums as New York's prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, reflects the depth and intensity of the military's dissent. Traditional discipline and career-protecting reticence prompt many disillusioned field-grade officers (majors and above) to keep silent. These are "the Carlisle elite," who attend the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and from whose ranks are selected the generals and top leaders of tomorrow.
The military's senior active-duty leadership will not openly revolt. "We're not the French generals in Algeria," says Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, now retired. "But we damned well know that the Iraq War we've won militarily is being lost politically." The well-read retired Marine Lieut. Gen. Gregory Newbold wrote in a Time magazine essay: "I retired from the military four months before the March 2003 invasion, in part because of my opposition to those who had used 9/11's tragedy to hijack our security policy." Newbold calls the Iraq War "unnecessary" and says the civilians who launched the war acted with "a casualness and swagger" that are "the special province" of those who have never smelled death on a battlefield.
When civilian Pentagon officials bungled the long, dishonorable endgame of the Vietnam War, disciplined senior soldiers kept silent. After that war ended in US defeat and humiliation, a flood of firsthand military accounts of the war appeared. Embittered generals and other officers, like future general Colin Powell, vowed it would never happen again.
Today, a retired major general privately asserts: "For our generation, Iraq will be Vietnam with the volume turned way up. Three decades ago, the retired generals who are now speaking out against the Iraq War were junior officers in Vietnam. The seniors who trained and mentored us, and who became generals but who kept silent, did not speak out after retirement against Vietnam." Now, even before the Iraq War has ended, generals have shed their uniforms and begun publicly to fight back against Rumsfeld's bullying and a new generation of Pentagon civilians' bloodstained mistakes. These former generals despise Rumsfeld, with several, like Batiste, describing him as totally dismissive of their views. They recall repeatedly trying to warn Rumsfeld before the Iraq invasion that the US forces he was planning to deploy were barely half the 400,000 they said were needed.
Rumsfeld publicly humiliated all who dissented, beginning with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who was virtually dismissed the day he honestly gave his views to Congress. Rumsfeld's deputy, neoconservative ideologue Paul Wolfowitz, listened respectfully before rejecting the generals' advice. As the Iraqi insurgency grew, the generals found Rumsfeld "completely unable and unwilling to understand the collapse of security in Iraq," says Maj. Gen. Eaton. The severely understrength US forces have never been able to provide adequate security. Once Iraqi civilians lost their trust and confidence in America's protection, the war was lost politically. As General Newbold says: "Our opposition to Rumsfeld is all about his accountability for getting Iraq wrong from day one."
Bureaucratic accountability comes hard and very slowly. According to a stark consensus of global terrorism trends by America's sixteen separate espionage agencies, the US invasion and occupation of Iraq "helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and [expand] the overall terrorist threat." This highly classified National Intelligence Estimate is, according to the New York Times, "the first report since the war began to present a comprehensive picture" of global terrorism trends.
There's blame enough to go around. In his recently published bestseller Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post's senior Pentagon correspondent, offers a devastating, heavily documented indictment of almost incredible civilian and military shortsightedness and incompetence, such as the foolish decisions that encouraged the Iraqi insurgency. "When we disbanded the Iraqi Army, we created a significant part of the Iraqi insurgency," explains Col. Paul Hughes, whose advice to retain the army was rejected. Before he retired he told Ricks, "Unless we ensure that we have coherency in our policy, we will lose strategically." The most critical political-strategic decisions about post-Saddam Iraq's future were made by deeply mistaken civilian officials in Washington and in the Green Zone by our "viceroy," Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
The senior military dissenters will not rest until they indict the mistakes of Rumsfeld and his principal civilian aides at Congressional hearings. The military always plays this game of accountability for keeps. Should the Democrats gain control of a Congressional chamber in the November midterms, televised Capitol Hill hearings in 2007 will feature military protagonists speaking of "betrayal" and "tragically wasted sacrifices." The retired generals believe nothing would be gained, and much would be lost, by keeping the truth about Iraq from the families of America's dead and wounded.
Says retired two-star General Eaton: "The repeated rotations of Army Reservists and National Guardsmen are hollowing out the US ground forces. This whole thing in Iraq is going to fall off a cliff.... Yet we have a moral obligation to see this thing [the Iraqi occupation] through. If we fail, it will cause America grave problems for several decades to come." These earnest, if contradictory, sentiments echo what some conflicted US military officers told me thirty-five years ago, as Vietnam was being abandoned. After President Nixon's Watergate disgrace and resignation, a fed-up American public and a heavily Democratic-controlled Congress finally pulled the plug on our Saigon ally, allowing South Vietnam to fall.
Over the past year, the United States has pressed into service newly trained Iraqi army, police and security forces, replacing elements of the 140,000-plus US troops. But the Iraqi forces lack everything from body armor to tanks and helicopters. Major General Eaton, who in 2003-04 was in charge of training Iraqi security forces, says the United States needs another five years to train the Iraqi army, and as much as another decade to train and equip an effective Iraqi police force.
Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a hero in the 1991 Gulf War who visited Iraq and Kuwait this past spring, writes in an unpublished report: "We need to better equip the Iraqi Army with a capability to deter foreign attack and to have a leveraged advantage over the Shia militias and the insurgents they must continue to confront. The resources we are now planning to provide are inadequate by an order of magnitude or more. The cost of a coherent development of the Iraqi security forces is the ticket out of Iraq--and the avoidance of the constant drain of huge U.S. resources on a monthly basis."
Thus, the crucial "Iraqification" process has barely begun and is mostly still self-deception. New York Times Iraq correspondent Dexter Filkins reports that Baghdad has become "a markedly more dangerous place" over the past year. This undercuts "the central premise of the American project here: that Iraqi forces can be trained and equipped to secure their own country, allowing the Americans to go home," a replay of the failed Vietnamization scenario.
The retired generals' revolt may be inspired by their apprehension over a wider Mideast conflict spreading to potentially nuclear Iran, writes former Pentagon planner and now antiwar critic Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and a razor-sharp PhD. Writing in MilitaryWeek.com, she speculates that the generals are trying to get rid of Rumsfeld now to head off a conflict with Iran. The Bush Administration reportedly has contingency plans to bomb Iran's UN-disapproved nuclear sites. Some underemployed Navy and Air Force officers are lobbying to strike Iran, but the overstretched ground combat forces overwhelmingly oppose it as the worst of all possible wars. She writes: "If Rumsfeld retires, we will not 'do' Iran under Bush 43." Such concern over Tehran is well founded. According to Kwiatkowski and retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, American Special Forces are already secretly inside Iran, identifying potential targets for future air strikes. The Iranians are of course aware of their uninvited visitors.
The obvious diplomatic recourse is for the Bush Administration to talk to Tehran about our pending exit from Iraq, but the White House refused to do so until late September, when the Bush family's longtime political fixer, former Secretary of State James Baker, entered the picture as a deal-maker. Baker is co-chair, with retired Indiana Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton, of the Congressionally created Iraq Study Group (ISG), which is due to issue a comprehensive report on US options in Iraq after the November elections. After a four-day visit to Iraq, Baker, Hamilton and the eight other members of the bipartisan task force returned to Washington with an obvious recommendation: Start talking to Tehran. After receiving President Bush's immediate approval, Baker invited an unidentified "high representative" of the Iranian government, as well as Syria's foreign minister, to meet with the ISG. Baker realizes the leverage is largely on Iran's side of the table.
An expert on Shiite Islam, Professor Vali Nasr of the Naval Postgraduate School, sees a glaring missed opportunity the ISG could help seize. He suggested in the July-August Foreign Affairs that "Iran will actively seek stability in Iraq only when it no longer benefits from controlled chaos there, that is, when it no longer feels threatened by the United States' presence. Iran's long-term interests are not inherently at odds with those of the United States; it is current U.S. policy toward Iran that has set the countries' respective Iraq policies on a collision course."
General McCaffrey warns that "U.S. public diplomacy and rhetoric about confronting Iranian nuclear weapons development is scaring neighbors in the Gulf. Our Mideast allies believe correctly that they are ill equipped to deal with Iranian strikes to close the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. They do not think they can handle politically or militarily a terrorist threat nested in their domestic Shia populations."
The recent war in Lebanon has only made the prospect of war with Iran more problematic. As Richard Armitage, the astute onetime Navy SEAL and former Deputy Secretary of State, told reporter Seymour Hersh: "When the Israel Defense Forces, the most dominant military force in the region, can't pacify little Lebanon [population: 4 million], you should think twice about taking that template to Iran, with strategic depth and a population of 70 million."
McCaffrey's report raises the possibility that US forces will have to fight their way out of Iraq. He says, "A U.S. military confrontation with Iran could result in [the radical Islamic Mahdi Army's] attacking our forces in Baghdad or along our 400-mile line of communications out of Iraq to the sea." The Bush Administration needs Iranian cooperation for the eventual safe exit of our troops, as General McCaffrey advises. This assumes that the Iranians will not risk World War III by trying to entrap our hostage Army in a humiliating Dunkirk-in-the-desert. After successful negotiations, the United States should be able to withdraw via the southern exit route leading through Kuwait to the Persian Gulf and the blue waters beyond.
Once we get our troops safely out, a newly elected, post-2008 administration in Washington may be able to begin reassembling America's scattered global allies to address the region's problems anew, next time multilaterally, and through diplomacy rather than pre-emptive unilateral military force.
America is a uniquely favored nation that redefines itself in each generation. But we have had a lifetime of embracing one democratic global war, and numerous presidentially inspired, politicized and secret smaller wars that have turned out badly. Sixty-five years after Pearl Harbor, we owe it to the past three generations to resume the debate on our national identity, suspended on December 7, 1941, and foreshortened on September 11, 2001.
In the post-cold war era, we have severely cut back our military manpower, reducing the regular Army to only 480,000 troops, but we have not cut back fantastically expensive Air Force weapons systems or the somewhat more useful but still gold-plated Navy. Nor have we redefined our strategic goals to fit realistically within reduced budgets. We have "paid" for the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by borrowing heavily from foreign dollar-holders, such as China, that are awash in trade surpluses, and have left debt service to future US generations.
A key argument in the ex-generals' indictment is this undeniable fact: Our armed forces are too small to police and reorder the world and intervene almost blindly, as we have in Iraq. That invasion acted out the world-changing daydreams of pro-Israel neoconservative policy intellectuals like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and others who gained warmaking power and influence atop the Pentagon but who evidently never asked themselves, Suppose we're wrong? What happens then? Sober, realistic Israelis privately fear the neocons' "friendship," and where it has led America, more than any Arab enemies. In the inevitable post-Iraq War tsunami of US political recrimination, such Israelis foresee Christian Zionist evangelicals, whose lobbying muscle in Congress was decisive in the run-up to the Iraq War, attempting to scapegoat the high-profile neocons and endangering Israel's all-important security ties to the United States.
Growing public disgust and frustration with the Iraq War has begun to arouse a self-defeating desire to retreat into isolationism. Rather, the United States should revive the traditional but recently neglected realistic approach to foreign policy, as the ISG is starting to do, and it should begin with a renewed multilateral approach to peacemaking in the Middle East.