The Same Lesson, War after War

October 14, 2007

At an Army School, Blunt Talk on Iraq

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — Here at the intellectual center of the United States Army, two elite officers were deep in debate at lunch on a recent day over who bore more responsibility for mistakes in Iraq — the former defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, or the generals who acquiesced to him.
“The secretary of defense is an easy target,” argued one of the officers, Maj. Kareem P. Montague, 34, a Harvard graduate and a commander in the Third Infantry Division that was the first to reach Baghdad in the 2003 invasion. “It’s easy to pick on the political appointee.”
“But he’s the one that’s responsible,” retorted Maj. Michael J. Zinno, 40, a military planner who worked at the headquarters of the Coalitional Provisional Authority, the former American civilian administration in Iraq.
No, Major Montague shot back, it was more complicated: the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the top commanders were part of the decision to send in a small invasion force and not enough troops for the occupation. Only Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff who was sidelined after he told Congress that it would take several hundred thousand troops in Iraq, spoke up in public.
. . . As the war grinds through its fifth year, Fort Leavenworth has become a front line in the military’s tension and soul-searching over Iraq. Here at the base on the bluffs above the Missouri River, once a frontier outpost that was a starting point for the Oregon Trail, rising young officers are on a different journey — an outspoken re-examination of their role in Iraq.
Rising young officers on a different journey — an outspoken re-examination of their role in Iraq. Where have I heard that before?

These Generals who failed us, who acquiesced in the face of an aggressive and ignorant civilian adventure were also on a different journey thirty years ago. Their sworn pledge to the military was not to do exactly what they have done. Their template was Vietnam.

Every time–every time–this nation has aggressively followed a flawed foreign policy into war, it has had its ass kicked. The military responds at the command of the civilian leadership, as it should, as it is constitutionally constructed to do, as it must. But there is a responsibility not too easily to take its toys to war, an obligation to lay the facts very carefully but with great honesty on the desk of the commander in chief.

That was not done with the Iraqi conflict. Generals such as Eric Shinseki must not be abandoned by their peers because they do not suffer the consequences alone, the nation suffers with them. A Joint Chief, if he is worth the elevation to that exalted grade, must be prepared to resign in the face of a mission that cannot be accomplished. The Iraq preemptive attack was such a mission and the Pentagon knew it. They failed the nation.

Resignation by a Chief is not insubordination. Another general is available to take his place and no harm done, but the message will have been delivered.
Otherwise, what is there to learn? How many Vietnams and Iraqs are required for the debates of decades of young officers over lunch?

* For more in-depth articles by Jim on Iraq War, check out

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