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, voilà, 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’ 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 Gen. 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 Adm. 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 Jan. 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’ "very successful first tour in Iraq in 2003-2004," referring to his command in Mosul, but he 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.

Adm. Mullen also tried to tip the election toward the GOP. In a July 2008 Joint Force Quarterly (JFQ) 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 Nouri 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 Adm. William Fallon two out of three falls for control of Central Command, he had handpicked 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 into 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 (SOFA) December 2011 deadline seriously. The ink on the SOFA was barely dry when both Mullen and Odierno smirked that "three years is a long time," and that the situation could 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-war 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’s 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.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.