General Puff

During World War II, one of the Fuhrer’s favorite sayings was, “All generals lie.” Today, Washington prefers the word “spin” to lie, although the difference is often difficult to parse. As an 18th-century man, I prefer an 18th century word: puffery. If we consider some of the statements coming from our military leaders regarding the war in Iraq, we might think they are all clones of General Puff.

In recent days, a classified report on the situation in Anbar province, written by a senior Marine intelligence official in Iraq, has been widely reported on in the press. The report, which I have not seen, apparently paints a bleak picture of the situation there. According to a story by Tom Ricks of the Washington Post, the Marine commander in Anbar, Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, said, “I have seen that report and I do concur with that assessment.” Score one for the Marine Corps in the honesty department.

But then, Gen. Puff seems to have stolen Gen. Zilmer’s identity. According to Ricks’ story, Zilmer "also insisted that ‘tremendous progress’ is being made in that part of the country."

“‘I think we are winning this war,’ he told reporters. ‘We are certainly accomplishing our mission….’

"The 30,000 U.S. and allied troops are ‘stifling’ the enemy in the province, Zilmer told reporters. But he wouldn’t say the insurgents are being defeated."

Puffery, you see, tries to avoid statements that might later be checked against facts. By puffing out nice-sounding words such as “stifling,” it seeks to create an impression that is favorable but too nebulous to hold to account.

The Associated Press reported a wonderful piece of military puffery on Sept. 7. Speaking of a supposed turnover of command of the Iraqi armed forces to Iraq’s government, U.S. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said,

“This is such a huge, significant event that’s about to occur tomorrow. If you go back and map out significant events that have occurred in this government’s formation in taking control of the country, tomorrow is gigantic.”

In reality, the Iraqi government took control of just a single division; most troops in the Iraqi army take their orders from militia leaders, not the government; and the Iraqi government itself takes its orders from the United States. This “huge, significant event” changed nothing.

According to a story on Sept. 12,

"The U.S. military did not count people killed by bombs, mortars, rockets, or other mass attacks – including suicide bombings – when it reported a dramatic drop in the number of killings in the Baghdad area last month, the U.S. Command said Monday. …

"That led to confusion after Iraqi Health Ministry figures showed that 1,536 people died violently in and around Baghdad in August, nearly the same number as in July.

"The figures raise serious questions about the success of the security operation launched by the U.S.-led coalition. When they released the murder rate figures, U.S. officials and their Iraqi counterparts were eager to show progress in restoring security in Baghdad."

Sufficiently eager, it seems, to puff the numbers.

We expect puffery from politicians. But when Gen. Puff represents the military to the American people, the military puts itself in a dangerous situation. The loss of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will, at some point, have domestic political repercussions, perhaps of some magnitude. The U.S. military will rightly bear some of the blame for both failures. It cannot credibly claim that it was forced to fight two Fourth Generation wars with Second Generation tactics and doctrine, when it has rebuffed every effort to move beyond the Second Generation (the Marine Corps is a partial exception).

But the American people, I think, will be more forgiving of mistakes than of puffery, which in the end is a deliberate attempt to deceive. If the public comes to think that all generals lie, the American armed services may find it difficult to reestablish their good reputations. 

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Author: William S. Lind

William Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former congressional aide and the author of many books and articles on military strategy and war.