Thursday, October 19, 2006

General Caldwell, Iraq, and the Power Conundrum

(Cross posted at Kos.)

According to the senior American military spokesman in Iraq, the U.S. led crackdown on Baghdad is a bust. But that senior military spokesman is being very Bush administration friendly in the way he couches his terms. Major General William B. Caldwell IV calls the recent surge in violence in Iraq's capital city "disheartening."

That's an interesting choice of words, General. It's "disheartening" when the top college on your wish list turns you down, or you don't get that promotion you thought you were a shoe-in for, or the publishing deal for your first novel falls to pieces in the 11th hour. When the plans of the world's mightiest nation for terminating a war go down the tubes time after time after time after time, it's an unmitigated disaster. And when that mighty nation's senior military officers prevaricate for the sake of protecting their political masters, it's an unforgivable disgrace.

Stars on Their Collars, Tails Between Their Legs

During a recent televised briefing in Baghdad, Caldwell said it was "no coincidence" that the increasing number of deaths in Iraq “coincide with our increased presence on the streets of Baghdad and the run-up to the American midterm elections.”

It's no coincidence that things coincide? That's a brilliant conclusion, General.

Caldwell also said, “The enemy knows that killing innocent people and Americans will garner headlines and create a sense of frustration.”

I have to wonder, General, how "they" knew that our "increased presence" on the streets would result in greater deaths of "innocents" and Americans, and would grab headlines and garner a sense of frustration prior to the midterm elections and "we" didn't.

I can't help but conclude that the increased deaths and frustration prior to the elections weren't expected. I suspect that the much-ballyhooed offensives in Ramadi and Baghdad were calculated to provide major successes in Iraq prior to the midterm elections, and now that they haven't, the likes of Caldwell are helping to reverse the spin in a way that will keep the ball in the GOP's court.

Major General Caldwell commanded elements of the 82nd Airborne Divison in New Orleans during the dysfunctional Hurricane Katrina rescue effort. At the time, he gushed to the American Forces Information Service that his soldiers often told him how proud they were to help the "stricken people of New Orleans."

In his current job as spokesman for Multi-National Forces Iraq, he's trying to generate happy noise about how U.S. troops are helping the stricken people of Iraq. As recently as late September of this year, he wrote that the violence in Iraq belies "the gradual but remarkable transformation this nation is experiencing."

"This nation" is the one that John Warner (R-Virginia), chairman of the Senate House Committee recently said is "drifting sideways" and that former Secretary of State James Baker now describes as a "helluva mess."

Part of me wants to sympathize with the generals and admirals currently on active duty. They're in a hell of a spot, being in charge of troops caught up in a quagmire of bad policies and strategies thrust on them by the neoconservative chicken hawks. But you know what? To hell with the generals and admirals.

Nobody achieves high rank in the military by accident these days. They spend decades taking the right kinds of assignments, making the right kinds of connections, and learning the right kinds of manners. Many of them come from a long line of senior military officers, or marry into one, or both, and entirely too many of them came from the service academies, where they received four years of instruction on how to lie, cheat and steal their way to the top of their profession. They all had a long, long look at the nature of the positions they aspired to, and none of the generals and admirals serving today got where they are by telling Donald Rumsfeld to go eat his hat.

Mad Dogs and Generals

I tend to think we have roughly twice as much military force as we really need. America presently spends as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, and apocalyptic ambitions of the lunatic right aside, there's no need for America to go to war with the rest of the world. But realistically, America needs to retain a decisive balance of military power to maintain both its own security and a relatively peaceful environment in the global order, which means we'll need to keep a corps of career officers who will eventually become flag and senior staff officers.

The downside to that reality is that career military officers tend to become, well, careerists, and careerists' principle motivation tends to be the advancement of their own careers. It was the 19th British historian Lord John Acton who said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," and, "The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern." It's to Lord Acton's credit that he chose to pursue academia rather than the political power his birthright made available to him, but even his example leaves us with a conundrum.

If people who seek power are inherently corrupt, and virtuous people avoid or shun power, then who winds up in power?

I'm perhaps overly fond of joking that we've arrived at a point in U.S. history where our politicians run wars and our generals play politics, but that's not really a new phenomenon. Keep in mind that George Washington, our first civilian Commander in Chief, was also the first general of our first army.

There's no easy way to undo the Gordian knot we presently find ourselves twisted into, but Americans may be wise to consider what happened when they gave total power to a single, warfare-centric party to hand-pick a cadre of yes-men generals and admirals.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.


  1. William R. Feltes9:01 PM

    You're dead right on. Would you mind if I posted this article to my fellow West Point classmates' page. Might cause a little ruckus.

    William R. Feltes

    A-3, Class of '73

  2. Please be my guest, William. I live to cause ruckusses. ;-)

  3. William R. Feltes9:54 PM

    oK. Thanks. I'll give it a shot.
    My "Classmates" have tossed me off before mainly cause I quit drinking the kool aid while I was still there at WooPoo.

    I'll let ya know what transpires if anything.

    By the way, Abizaid and Eichenberry are members of the Class of '73.

  4. William R. Feltes11:14 PM

    It got posted. You'd better send me an email to so we can communicate if this becomes a "Ruckus" of gargantuan proportions. Put something in the subject line so I'll know it's you. I didn't find a way to contact you on this blog other than comments.

  5. William,

    The e-mail's away. Let me know what transpires. Glad to hear you kicked the Kool Aid habit. ;-)

  6. Common sense doesn't seem very common these days, huh?

    Read a story years ago about a guy moving to the country and buying his first tractor. He started to yank out a stump with it one day, got the tractor chained up, and got ready to pull. His elderly farmer-neighbor watched over the fence with some interest.

    Fortunately, City Boy took it slowly, and noticed right away that the tractor's nose kept wanting to rise -- like maybe it wouldn't be able to pull the stump -- maybe it would just flip over backwards! He eased off the clutch; then hesitated. Something sure didn't seem right. So he sat and scratched his head.

    The neighbor finally spoke up: "I wondered if you'd figure it out...! Try the chain on the other end and pulling it out in reverse."

    Our current civilian leadership would've flipped the tractor, and if they'd survived, sued the manufacturer, the neighbor, and probably invaded the stump, too.

  7. Jeff,

    Would you mind if I used this anecdote in an article?

  8. Anonymous11:37 AM


    But we diverge ...

    You've mentioned the Katrina disaster. How much has it left the public consciousness, what with the election coming into clear relief. But how much Katrina needs to be in the picture. It's still a mess.

    But it didn't have to be, still.

    Consider for a moment, what would have been the consequences, had Bush directed a tactical withdrawal, at the time of Katrina. The public reasons may have gone something like: "Our American family needs us more right now. We have something to do that is truly important to the American people.".

    The private reasons may have gone something like: "Withdraw not retreat. Regroup. Reprovision. Remotivate. Do something truly good. Go down in history as a great president with high (humanitarian?/Christian?/Methodist?) values."

    Certainly, such a plan would have its own problems to address: The mobilization and logistics of getting them back here. The problems associated with managing the project to rebuild and rejuvenate New Orleans and the military (the Great Mistake in project management of throwing more resources at a project that suffers slippage in timeline or results; diminishing returns; and the like). More problems; more opportunities.

    And none of this would preclude the possibility of going back to Iraq with a hammer, after taking care of clear, present, dire circumstances for American citizens.

    To think how the troops would have felt to have done something truly special and wonderful.

    Bush might have been one of the greatest presidents in history.

    Sigh ...

  9. Jeff, I keep thinking about Eisenhower's caution about the danger of the military-industrial complex - which has come to fruition... The worst example I can think of at the moment is the Army's Future Combat System which is the delight of many a careerist, and has a team of two contractors to serve as "Lead System Integrator", very much a fox guarding the henhouse.

  10. Not "very much," Nav. "Exactly" is a better term for it.