Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Long War Generals

If you’re not cheating you’re not trying.

--Anonymous U.S. military officer

As a naval aviator pal of mine once remarked, cadets in our military academies spend the summer before their freshman year learning an arcane honor code and spend the next four years learning how to violate it without getting caught. So is it any wonder our general officer corps is populated by Orwell-class doublethinkers who speak doubletalk like it’s their first language?

During the run up to the Iraq invasion, then Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki was the only four-star who had the strength of character to take a public stance against Donald Rumsfeld’s plan to conquer Iraq with a small force, relying on crackpot warfare theories like network-centric operations and shock and awe to make up for insufficient troop strength. Shinseki’s principled stand bought him a one-way ticket to Fort Palooka. Rumsfeld, not satisfied that any of the active duty generals would toe the line sufficiently, brought his old cow tipping buddy Peter Schoomaker out of retirement to replace Shinseki. Rummy had sent an unmistakable message: it was his way or the exit ramp. The remaining generals either fell into lockstep or kept their own counsel, and we got four years of dead-enders in their last throes.

As the 2006 elections neared, almost everyone at Defense, including Rumsfeld, was talking about lowering public expectations for Iraq and beginning a drawdown of U.S. presence. Narcissus, however, wouldn’t let young Mr. Bush lose a war that could be lost on his successor’s watch. Levers were pulled, wheels turned, somebody shoved a pie in the Iraq Study Group’s face and, voila, out trotted the surge.

For the longest time we thought neoconservative academic Fred Kagan was the chief architect of the surge. Recently, Thomas E. Ricks told us that the real genius behind the Iraq escalation was David Petraeus’s 300 lb. lapdog Ray Odierno. That assertion required a worm-to-butterfly transformation of Odierno, whom Ricks had earlier portrayed as the bull in the china shop who single-handedly fomented the Iraq civil war. Now Odie’s the Desert Ox.

Whoever actually cooked up the surge, the Joint Chiefs and commander in Iraq General George Casey were dead set against it. But then the dope dealing commenced and the four-stars’ objections faded like the Chicago Cubs. The ground service generals were promised a larger Army and Marine Corps, Casey got the Army chief of staff assignment and Admiral Mike Mullen was promised the chairman’s job.

January 2007 was a key month in American history. On the fifth, the American Enterprise Institute published Fred Kagan’s Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq. On January 10, Mr. Bush announced that he would increase U.S. presence in Iraq by 21,000 troops. On the twelfth, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain endorsed the surge and became the de facto presidential candidate of the neoconservative movement.

January 2007 was also the month David Petraeus assumed command of international forces in Iraq. Tom Ricks kick started the public image campaign to make Petraeus into a five-star deity, describing the general in the media as a “fascinating character” who was “just about the best general in the Army” and, oh yeah, “quite ambitious.” Ricks noted Petraeus’s “very successful first tour in Iraq in 2003-2004,” referring to his command in Mosul, but did not mention how Mosul collapsed after Petraeus left and the bribes he’d been handing out dried up. That January was also the month the Bush administration promised to provide evidence that Iran was providing arms to Iraqi militants. The administration never did prove those accusations, but that didn’t prevent it from repeating them loudly and often.

One of the loudest Iran bashers was Petraeus, who didn’t even pretend to have credible proof Iran was arming Iraqi militants. Reminiscent of the joke about the man beating his wife, Petraeus simply challenged Iran to prove that they had stopped arming Iraqis. Then Irony cleared its throat: in August 2007 a story broke that in 2004, while in charge of training Iraqi security forces, Petraeus had lost track of 190,000 AK-47 rifles and pistols that couldn’t have walked anywhere but into the hands of the Iraqi militants Iran was supposedly arming. Irony might also mention that as Petraeus was arming the insurgency, Doctor Conrad Crane and others at the Army War College began work on the new counterinsurgency field manual that Ricks and others would later claim Petraeus “wrote.”

Petraeus pursued an aggressive information campaign that promoted the agenda he shared with the neocons to establish a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq. His most outrageous publicity stunt was the March 2007 Baghdad shopping spree he staged for McCain and McCain’s office wife Lindsey Graham. At a news conference, McCain, Graham and other Republicans remarked that they could “mix and mingle unfettered” with Iraqis and that the market reminded them of “a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summer time." The next day, the New York Times and other sources revealed that Petraeus had put more than 100 of his troops in harm’s way to provide security for a propaganda demonstration supporting the surge strategy and the McCain candidacy.

Admiral Mullen also tried to tip the election toward the GOP. In a July 2008 Joint Force Quarterly article, Mullen wrote that every day, troops asked him questions like “What if a Democrat wins? What will that do to the mission in Iraq?” (Italics Mullen’s.) The article’s title (Irony winks) was “From the Chairman: Military Must Stay Apolitical.”

Also that month, right after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki agreed with candidate Obama that 16 months would be the right interval for a withdrawal timeline, Mullen warned on FOX News that a withdrawal timeline would be “dangerous.” In his July JFQ article, Mullen wrote that “we [in the military] defend the Constitution” by “obeying the orders of the commander in chief.” He didn’t specify whether he meant obeying all commanders in chief or just the Republican ones, but he didn’t have to. Everybody got the message.

By mid-summer 2008, Petraeus had beaten Admiral William Fallon two out of three falls for control of Central Command, he had hand picked the next generation of Army generals, and young Mr. Bush had announced that his “main man” Petraeus would be the decider of when and if U.S. troops would redeploy from Iraq. Petraeus and his long war generals owned American foreign policy, and they were determined to keep it. Fortunately for them, their best course of action was obvious: they merely had to keep doing what they were doing, which was entrenching America deeper and deeper in to Iraq. If McCain pulled an upset in the election, great, he was already on board. The beauty part was that Obama would have to go along with what the long warriors wanted as well. If he crossed them openly, and things went poorly (which they’re bound to whether Obama follows their advice or not), it would be Obama’s fault for ignoring his generals. Defense secretary Robert Gates turned a nice trick in this vein during a recent interview on Meet the Press. He told David Gregory that the generals would obey the mandate to end the combat mission in Iraq by August 2010, but if they “had had complete say in this matter, they would have preferred that the combat mission not end until the end of 2010.”

Obama played into the long war strategy by insisting he would finish the job in Afghanistan. Now his generals are pushing him into an aimless escalation of that conflict that will likely make us the latest superpower to embalm itself in that part of the world. Nobody in the Pentagon is taking the Iraq Status of Forces agreement’s December 2011 deadline seriously. The ink on the SOF was barely dry when both Mullen and Odierno smirked that “three years is a long time,” and that the situation cold change. Gates claims that Obama himself may force Maliki to renegotiate the agreement. Thanks to Ricks, Odierno is on record as wanting to keep 35,000 or more troops in Iraq through 2015. And if anyone thinks to question the need to sustain these two wars, the long generals can always tell another lie about Iran (like Mullen did recently when he said the Iranians have enough fissile material to make a bomb—they don’t) and claim that our presence in Iraq and the Bananastans is necessary to keep Iran contained.

Our generals are forcing a self-defeating security policy on us for the sake of preserving their institution, which means far more to them than the Constitution they swore to protect or the country they’re supposedly defending. In a finer era of American journalism, editorial pages across the nation would have demanded the forced retirement of every four-star on active duty. Today’s big news media, unfortunately, are either afraid of the Pentagon or in its corner. Congress has been on life support for nearly a decade, and as we have discussed, Obama political constraints are considerable.

It’s up to what few retired or active duty generals of integrity we have left to confront the junta in a very public “have you no sense of decency?” moment.

Unfortunately, that would amount to generals ratting out fellow generals, which would violate their honor code.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword. Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now.


  1. Anonymous7:44 PM

    Historical note: Gen. Peter Schoomaker and another would-be Napoleon were in command at Fort Hood, Texas and were helpful in supplying tanks and other hardware to facilitate the Branch Davidian massacre in 1993.

  2. Ah, no wonder he and Rummy were such pals. Fellow bodysnatchers/podfellows.

  3. Commander,
    Again, thank you.

  4. My distinct pleasure, Jeg.


  5. Just finished reading Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. If you haven't, I highly recommend it.

    My comment after all that is what's the next phase in Iraq? Minimizing to 35,000, lowering risk and maximizing profit margins? When will the Enormo-Embassy get built?

  6. Anonymous3:45 PM

    Would you say that the American officer corps has always been so career-centric; generals such as Patton and Smedley Butler strike me as having been more than sycophants?

    And, if not, when would you say it changed?

  7. Jeff - its been a while since I read your blog, so perhaps you have already discussed this, but do you think that the Navy's Individual Augmentee (IA) program had anything to do with the selection process for the current Chairman?

    From the trenches at N1, that is how it looked to me. By offering up young bodies only lightly trained for the job and by pulling them piecemeal out of operating units without compensation, it looked like a typical budgeters trick of "finding resources" by evenly spreading the pain of not having them available.

    Your thoughts would be welcomed.

  8. Rod,

    There's no question the IA program was a case of me too-ism. It may have been a factor in Mullens's promotion, but a slight one if so. I think his willingness to play ball in other areas and being a chairman who would not try to interfere with Petraeus dominance in the ME wasrs were the main forces at play.


  9. Jeff,

    Good one. Brings to mind:

    Yossarian says, "You're talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive."
    "Exactly," Clevinger snapped smugly. "And which do you think is more important?"
    "To whom?" Yossarian shot back. "It doesn't make a damn bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead."
    "I can't think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy."
    "The enemy," retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, "is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on."


  10. We have met the enemy...

  11. CDR,

    Been a long time reader of your blog but just read the book. As a SNA down in Corpus learning the ropes, I have to ask, in the spirit of professional development, of course: did the great big backfire raid really happen?


  12. Nugget,

    It supposedly happened a little before my time.


  13. wkmaier1:31 PM


    Have you seen the New Clown Show that popped up?

    (No disrespect meant to actual clown shows)

    The About Us will give a shudder.

  14. Jeff,

    I'm thrilled to see that you just finished the Shock Doctrine. I found out about the book ten minutes after I left a poli-sci lecture on Milton Freedman. Is that comic timing or what?

  15. Not me, Nunya. I just finished Maugham's Then and Now.


  16. A friend from college was the prototype college-rock band dude. Later they moved to Austin, where I heard he did a local-cable TV talk bit where he would go on about Milton Friedman. Wonder what he thinks now?

    Sorry for the confusion, my usual tag prevents confusion: Jeff (no, the other one)

  17. My bad, wrong Jeff :(

    I'm with the Jeff who's right (Or is that lefty Jeff :)

    If you read Klein's book you will have a whole new peek at the cold warriors (who never retired) and a look at the 'evil' Russians.

    Don't get me wrong, I surely have not idealized them, I have read the Gulag Archipelago and I have not read Marx.

    Maugham appears to have led (sic?) quite an interesting life. I don't read much fiction, though.

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