“Windbags of war,” quipped a television critic back in April as cable news airwaves normally filled with slick broadcasters were invaded by graying former generals. With American troops thrusting into Iraq, television networks put these retired officers on retainer to ride shotgun with their anchors. When several of them dared warn that the American war plan spread U.S. forces dangerously thin, the Pentagon quickly launched a broadside that all but accused them of undermining the war effort. Five months later, however, American troops are dying in a guerrilla war, more National Guard and reservists are being mobilized and the Bush team has few allies abroad willing to send their own sons into harm’s way. The “winds of war” appear to have shifted.
The debate over “the war plan” fell off the front pages of American newspapers the day Saddam’s statue fell in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Yet this debate, and related disputes over strategy and logistics, rage on inside the military, where the fact that a smaller Anglo-American army overcame a demoralized, corrupt and obsolete Iraqi foe is not regarded as the last word on the question.
Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC News military analyst, Gulf War commander and Vietnam combat vet, became a lightning rod for such criticism when he warned in early March that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s battle plan, while likely to put American troops in Baghdad within 25 days, could result in a post-war situation much like the one that exists today.
Bridges and troubled waters
McCaffrey and other military analysts offered their first real criticism of the “war plan” as American forces got caught up in bloody rearguard actions in mid-March trying to guard key junctions and bridgeheads at Nasiriyah and other towns in south-central Iraq.
Drawing on their knowledge of how such operations are supposed to unfold, McCaffrey and his colleagues — among them retired generals like Montgomery Meigs and Bernard Trainor on MSNBC, Wesley Clark on CNN Gregory Newbold at ABC News — worried aloud about the long-term implications of an army having trouble keeping open the vital arteries to its supply depots in Kuwait.
“We had none of the force structure that our fighting doctrine calls for to conduct land operations,” McCaffrey says. “It was an absolutely crazy assumption to not have had two or three army divisions, an engineer brigade, a military police brigade and an armored cavalry regiment, all of which would have ensured no one challenged our lines of communications.” This on top of the 190,000 U.S. Army and Marine Corps troops Rumsfeld deployed.
When Baghdad fell, of course, Rumsfeld and the war’s senior commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, declared that the result had vindicated them. But McCaffrey and others persisted, and today they insist that the seeds of America’s current problems in Iraq run right back to the bloody fighting at Nasiriyah, Al Kut and other junction towns.
“I argued on the air during the war, that the coalition did not have enough troops to finish the conventional campaign against the Iraqi Army and simultaneously disperse to centers of regional and tribal power to establish the safe and secure environment needed to support reconstruction,” says Gen. Meigs, a retired four star general, former commander U.S. forces in Europe who appeared on MSNBC during the war. “I think that position has been born out by events.”
A red flag
The looting and anarchy that followed Saddam’s disappearance is often cited as evidence that the American force was too small.
But these experts say — and have said for months — that the more important and lasting errors made by the administration was the decision to disband the Iraqi Army and send its entire strength, including Republican Guard, fedayeen militia units and senior officers, back to their home villages without vetting them or creating POW camps.
“This is a 400,000 man army that disappeared into thin air, was never engaged or defeated on the battlefield,” says McCaffrey. “That was a stupid thing to do. We should have kept every officer we captured; we should have kept every member of Republican Guard and every fedayeen until we could finger print and get a digital photo of them, releasing them knowing where they live. But we had no troops to guard and process them, just as we had insufficient troops to guard key buildings, to garrison key towns and to search for weapons of mass destruction.”
“Now, elements of this army is attacking us with truck bombs, mortars, RPGs, remote controlled mines — all stuff in the Iraqi Army arsenal,” McCaffrey says.
Meigs agrees: “Dismissing the entire Iraqi Army en masse after the war ... was a major mistake. We should have done what the Germans did with the East German Army after reunification [in 1990]. Send away all over the rank of major and sift through the rest for the ones that could be used to form a new Army, then use them to help maintain a secure environment as part of our effort.”
The continuing debate over the war plan is being fueled by a complex dynamic inside the Army, the larger military and the Bush administration itself.
Among these rifts are disputes over war fighting doctrine, force structures and concerns that precedents set in Iraq will be used to argue against larger troops commitments in future wars.
Rumsfeld and other proponents of “transforming” the military tend to view the army as the most hyde-bound of the military services. Rumsfeld is on record saying the army should slim down, moving away from its Cold War tank-centric structure and toward a more deployable, flexible force more akin to special operations forces. To many inside the army, the trouble in Iraq today is a direct result of Rumsfeld’s determination to use the Iraq war to prove his transformation theories.
InsertArt(2023754)“The war plan was pushed on Tommy Franks with insufficient forces for Rumsfeld’s own ideological reasons,” says McCaffrey. “He personally sat on the army’s deployment schedule and made sure the four or five divisions that should have been deployed never got there. And he and his people denigrate the army and its top generals in a way that suggest they pay no attention at all to them.”
A generational factor
Underlying all of this is a generational rift that pits senior officers, some retired, some still serving, who recall the incrementalism of Vietnam against younger, rising stars whose cut their teeth during the Gulf War. It’s a rift Rumsfeld has exploited, for instance, by choosing as his new Army Chief of Staff a general, Peter J. Schoomaker, who never served in Vietnam.
McCaffrey’s generation worries that any war conducted with excess hubris can turn into a protracted meat-grinder, a guerrilla war that saps public support and leaves the military holding the bag.
“The generals and admirals of Desert Storm were the lieutenants and ensigns of Vietnam,” writes McCaffrey in this month’s American Legion magazine. “They were determined to avoid the painful and humiliating disasters that engulfed our forces in Southeast Asia. ”
McCaffrey, himself wounded three times in Vietnam, is the first to say that the United States cannot cut and run from Iraq, where the president has put American prestige on the line. Nor does he see Vietnam as a fitting analogy for Iraq.
But he and his retired colleagues have been right about the trouble the Pentagon was courting from the start, and they deserve an apology from the Bush administration as public as the unwarranted criticism leveled at them during the war. They’re unlikely to get it, but at least one of them, a former CNN analyst named Wesley Clark, is seeking satisfaction on another battlefield.