The Jackal and the General

Public discontent serves the man at home not the soldier in the field.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

Like jackals sniffing a wounded antelope, a pack of retired generals are circling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, calling for him to resign for bungling the war in Iraq by allegedly interfering in military matters and ignoring the advice of commanders. It’s hard for us outsiders to know what’s really going on among the “perfumed princes” of the military caste, or what agendas are lurking behind the generals’ behavior. In general, the notion of civilian control of the military must rankle professional soldiers, some of whom resent taking orders from amateurs. More particularly, individual generals may have personal motives for going on the attack. Anthony Zinni is hawking a book, and John Riggs is under investigation for possible misuse of contractor personnel.

But even if the generals sincerely believe Rumsfeld has done a bad job, one has to wonder about the seemliness of publicly attacking him while troops are still under fire. According to the New York Times, current officers still in service “say respect for civilian control of the military requires that they air differences of opinion in private and stay silent in public.” As Lt. General John Vines, commander of the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps, put it recently, “If I publicly disagree with my civilian leadership, I think I’ve got to resign. My advice should be private.” That sounds about right. The primary concern for soldiers, even retired ones, should be the safety and success of their comrades still in the field. It’s hard to see how public criticism at this time on the part of our troops’ one-time commanders will do anything other than cheer our enemies, who are fighting a war of psychological attrition.

The generals’ criticisms of course please the President’s political enemies as well, who have long been harping about how he has mismanaged the war. It’s easy to see why Democrats have taken this tack. The war having been given bipartisan authorization by Congress, the only way to be against it now that things are difficult is either to claim that the President lied about the grounds for going to war — an ongoing campaign that so far has failed to gain traction with most Americans — or to criticize how he has fought the war. This latter approach serves mainstream Democrats well, for they can then disguise their well-earned reputation for being crypto-pacifists averse to using force. We’re not against war, they’re saying, just against a badly managed one.

This currently popular criticism about the management of the war, however, masks some questionable assumptions, not the least being that the uncertain and unexpected nature of collective violence can be precisely planned for in the first place. After the fact, of course, armchair generals can execute flawless plans as they move their tin soldiers around the painted battlefield. But in the chaotic inferno of conflict, even the tiniest unforeseen contingency can wreck a brilliant plan. More important, a war, particularly one waged by a modern democracy on a 24-7 news cycle, is a political as well as a military event, thus creating restraints on what commanders can do with the soldiers in the field.

Take, for example, the most popular criticism of the war: that Rumsfeld, overconfident in the ability of technology to substitute for boots on the ground, and dismissive of the possibility of guerrilla warfare, shorted his generals on the numbers of troops needed not just to destroy Hussein’s army but to secure Iraq and restore order. But it’s not just the number of troops that’s important, but what you’re willing to do with them — and here’s where the political constraints become important.

Critics who argue that more troops could’ve avoided the current chaos and insurgency assume that the mere presence of more American soldiers could’ve secured facilities, stopped looting, restored order, and strangled the insurgency in its cradle. Maybe. But for all those troops to have a credible deterrent effect, they would’ve had to kill a lot of people, something politically unpalatable. We keep hearing that the insurgency is fueled by anger at the occupation, but how much more intense would that rage had been if the occupying force were twice as large? More troops, if used effectively, mean more killing, more dying, more dead civilians, and more anger all over the Muslim world as Al Jezeera photographed the carnage. What would the reaction of the world be now if 60,000 instead of 30,000 civilians had died? And what would the political fallout here at home be if 5,000 U.S. soldiers instead of 2,300 were killed? More soldiers, more targets for the insurgency, more casualties for the media to dramatize. In those circumstances, what would the critics who now claim that too few troops were sent to do the job be saying now?

So too with some of the other popular criticisms. Maybe it was a mistake to disband the Iraqi army. Maybe if left intact it could have provided a force sufficient to fight the insurgency and jihadists. Then again, an intact army could have provided an even more lethal force fighting on behalf of the insurgency. Every choice not made has unforeseen consequences that are conveniently ignored by those criticizing the choice that was made. And of course, those choices are now history, as are all of their consequences. Thus the comparison of what happened with what didn’t happen is inherently unfair and simplifying, leaving out the many possibilities that faced those making the decisions at the time.

Let’s not forget the complexity and difficulty of the task given our forces: not just to remove a murderous dictator, but to do so with minimal casualties and destruction of infrastructure, while rebuilding at the same time an intensely dysfunctional society. Maybe it was a mistake to attempt such a task, but that debate was finished once Congress authorized the war and the troops were on the ground. Our primary concern now should be to finish the job and get our troops home in a way that serves both our short and long-term interests. The analysis and critiques of how the war was fought can wait.

If these generals are sincerely concerned for the troops they once led, if they believe that both they and the nation will best be served by doing something different from what’s being done, then they should privately give that advice to their Congressional representatives. At this point, to publicly second-guess the management of the war by scapegoating the Rumsfeld–– as though there were some obvious, easy way to fight the war that the Secretary of Defense arrogantly ignored — only serves partisan politics and encourages our enemies.

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