The American officer corps tried to blame the fall of Saigon on their civilian masters. If not for political restrictions—in particular, no invasion of North Vietnam—the U.S. would have won the war. So argued the late Col. Harry Summers in his celebrated 1981 book, On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context. That was, at best, a gross oversimplification.
As then-Maj. Andrew Krepinevich showed in The Army and Vietnam (1986), the U.S. defeat could be attributed in large part to the inappropriate, firepower-intensive strategy adopted by the Army. In the absence of a better counterinsurgency doctrine, not even occupying all of Vietnam, as the French had once done, would have won the war. If the generals wanted to know who was to blame for their defeat, Krepinevich suggested, they should have looked in the mirror.
His analysis is now widely accepted, yet we are in the early stages of another stab-in-the-back myth in which officers line up to blame their civilian bosses for the setbacks we’ve suffered in Iraq. In the last few weeks, six retired generals and counting have called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
As it happens, I agree with their advice. As I first said on this page two years ago, I too think that Rumsfeld should go. But I am nevertheless troubled by the Revolt of the Generals, which calls into question civilian control of the armed forces. In our system, defense secretaries are supposed to fire generals, not vice versa.
The retired generals, who claim to speak for their active-duty brethren, premise their uprising on two complaints. First, many (though not all) say we should not have gone into Iraq in the first place. Former Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold calls it “the unnecessary war,” and former Gen. Anthony Zinni claims that “containment worked remarkably well.”
That is a highly questionable judgment, and one that is not for generals to make. They are experts in how to wage war, not when to wage it. If we had listened to their advice, we would not have gone into Kuwait or Bosnia or Kosovo.
Their second complaint—about how the war has been fought—is more valid. There is no doubt that the president and his top aides blundered by not sending enough troops and not doing enough occupation planning. But what about the blunders of the generals?
To listen to the retired brass, the only mistake they and their peers made was not being more outspoken in challenging Rumsfeld. But that’s not the picture that emerges from the best account of the invasion so far: “Cobra II” by veteran correspondent Michael Gordon and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor. They present copious evidence of Rumsfeld’s misguided micromanagement. But they also show that Gen. Tommy Franks, the top military commander, was guilty of major misjudgments of his own.
“Tommy Franks never acknowledged the enemy he faced,” they write, “nor did he comprehend the nature of the war he was directing.” He was so focused on defeating the Iraqi armed forces that he ignored the threat posed by irregular fighters like the Saddam Fedayeen. After the fall of Baghdad, Franks was happy to declare victory and retire, unaware that the real work had just begun. Although some generals, such as then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, rightly warned about the need to dispatch more troops to pacify Iraq, Franks was eager to send units home as soon as they reached the Iraqi capital.
Franks’ missteps included abruptly pulling out the top ground-force commanders who had run the invasion and replacing them with a new group headed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was not up to the job. Amid the inevitable change-of-command confusion, Sanchez did not adequately reconfigure U.S. forces for counterinsurgency and nation-building. In the absence of strong leadership from the top, U.S. division commanders were on their own.
As retired Gen. Jack Keane, not one of those calling for Rumsfeld’s head, told the New York Times: “There’s shared responsibility here. I don’t think you can blame the civilian leadership alone.” Yet that’s just what some of his former colleagues are trying to do.