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Conflict within the Pentagon

In the movies, it’s usually the military eager for war and combat, and the civilians and the defense department pressing for restraint. But it hasn’t been that way with the war in Iraq.

Long before President Bush gave the orders, using force to topple Saddam was a glint in the eye of the civilians who would become key players in the Bush administration.

In 1998, a neoconservative think tank called the Project for the New American Century wrote to President Clinton, “The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to ‘undertake military action.’”

A list of those who signed the 1998 letter include Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams, and John Bolton.

In addition to those who signed the 1998 pronouncement, Perle and two of his top associates had already urged an aggressive new strategy in 1996.  Perle’s group embraced overthrowing Iraq’s Saddam and replacing him with a monarchy that would “redefine Iraq.”

In 1998, after Iraq severed ties with the U.N. commission in charge of weapons inspectors, Congress passed the Iraqi Liberation Act. It called for arming rebel forces, but did not advocate U.S. military involvement.

Two years ago, during the run-up to the war, the divide between cautious military leaders and hawkish civilians got wider.

Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, Ret., former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army said of a war in Iraq:

“Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers, are probably, you know, a figure that would be required.  We’re talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems.  —Feb. 23, 2003

And for Donald Rumsfeld:

“The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces I think is far from the mark.” —February 27, 2003

Military leaders offered a mixed assessment about an Iraq without Saddam. Civilian neocons predicted that Iraqis would happily celebrate Saddam’s demise.

After leaving Iraq, General Tommy Franks accused Deputy Defense Secretary Douglas Feith of underestimating Iraq’s resistance and described Feith as “The f**ng stupidest guy on the face of the earth.”

To this day, there are still disagreements about what the U.S. is confronting.

As of mid last year, Wolfowitz said that the combatants in Iraq weren't "insurgents." "An insurgency implies something that rose up afterwards.  This is the same enemy that butchered Iraqis for 35 years."

But military leaders are saying that the enemy now includes foreign fighters from across the Arab world, but also Iraqis simply infuriated by the U.S. occupation.

Furthermore, the military commander of the first Gulf War, Norman Schwarzkopf, says this administration’s civilian leadership ignored history.

So who is responsible for the ongoing problems? The Bush administration has fired no one. Some former U.S. military leaders want heads to roll.

The important detail, of course, is that it’s not the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, or the neocons, who are getting killed in Iraq.

The blood is being shed by U.S. forces— and they are the ones who must face the grim realities that the policy wonks didn’t plan on.

'Hardball' airs weeknights, 7 p.m. ET.