Retired General Watch

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Like Maggie Thatcher and Tip O'Neill in their great SCTV debate, Marine Lieut. General Greg Newbold, retired director of operations at the Pentagon's military joint staff, understands that there's no foreign policy question that can't be solved by considering the lyrics of The Who:

To us, ["Won't Get Fooled Again"]'s lyrics evoked a feeling that we must never again stand by quietly while those ignorant of and casual about war lead us into another one and then mismanage the conduct of it. Never again, we thought, would our military's senior leaders remain silent as American troops were marched off to an ill-considered engagement. It's 35 years later, and the judgment is in: the Who had it wrong. We have been fooled again…

To those of you who don't know, our country has never been served by a more competent and professional military. For that reason, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent statement that "we" made the "right strategic decisions" but made thousands of "tactical errors" is an outrage. It reflects an effort to obscure gross errors in strategy by shifting the blame for failure to those who have been resolute in fighting. The truth is, our forces are successful in spite of the strategic guidance they receive, not because of it.

What we are living with now is the consequences of successive policy failures. Some of the missteps include: the distortion of intelligence in the buildup to the war, McNamara-like micromanagement that kept our forces from having enough resources to do the job, the failure to retain and reconstitute the Iraqi military in time to help quell civil disorder, the initial denial that an insurgency was the heart of the opposition to occupation, alienation of allies who could have helped in a more robust way to rebuild Iraq, and the continuing failure of the other agencies of our government to commit assets to the same degree as the Defense Department. My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions–or bury the results.

Whole article. It's not totally coherent. Newbold starts off in the Kwiatkowski-Zinni-Shinseki mode of anger against the "zealots" whose rationale for an "unncesssary war…made no sense." But then he downshifts to arguing over details of the invasion and occupation. But if the invasion itself was the problem, what amount of tinkering is going to make anything come of that? I believe it was your folk-rock legend Bob Dylan or Dylan Thomas who said, "After the first death, there is no other."

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  1. “But if the invasion itself was the problem, what amount of tinkering is going to make anything come of that?”

    I find these assertions highly disingenuous…and I find nothing, absolutely nothing, incoherent about attacking both the decision to go to war, and the handling of the war itself.

    You sound like the trolls who hang around here…whenever any libertarians have a discussion that presupposes the existence of the welfare state, said troll zings them with the ol’ “I thought libertarians didn’t support the welfare state!” One can disagree with an entire idea being implemented, but still debate the details of said idea once it has been implemented.

    Why don’t you toss that Dylan line at some of the families of the soldiers that have died since the first was killed. Discussions of how to handle the war sure as shit matter to them—regardless of whether you disagree with the war itself or not.

  2. What Evan said. Both Operation Anvil (the invasion of southern France shortly after D Day) and the Gallipoli campaign of WWI were unnecessary invasions that lacked solid strategic justifications, but the former was competently executed and the latter was not.

    Seen any tragic films titled “Anvil” lately?

  3. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
    George Santayana
    This is going to make Vietnam seem like kisses from a friend….

  4. Evan is right — Bush has offered up a twofer. Horrible policy coupled with incompetent execution. There is nothing contradictory about that. Actually, George has made it his signature.

  5. I on the other hand agree with Condoleeza.

    I kind of sort of agree with the DOD guy a little too though. The Army (more so than the Marine Corps) has been hurt by years of mistaken policy.

    I don’t know who’s decision the non-engagement of early in the war was, but that in my opinion was a mistake.

  6. “”But if the invasion itself was the problem, what amount of tinkering is going to make anything come of that?”

    Like commenters above (Evan et al), I disagree with this. My pop was a Marine Capt working on Gen Westmorland’s staff during vietnam, and his sentiments about Vietnam were pretty much the same as this guy’s. I think what you see as his incoherency is actually a facet of the way soldiers commonly think. They are not usually particularly concerned with theory, or winning complex arguments. They like to simply solve problems. They dont care if a problem is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, so long as they are allowed to and are given appropriate resources to solve it.

    I think the dual resentment here is that many military planners had reservations about the war, were ignored, and then were later blamed for ‘tactical’ failures when the strategy blew up in their face.

    JG

  7. This is going to make Vietnam seem like kisses from a friend….

    I somehow doubt this, as the American death toll has just recently reached the death toll for the worst single month of Vietnam.

    I will admit to being a supporter of the Iraq endevor, and I still think it was the right thing to do; however, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Bush handling of it was overambitious, to be charitable. That said, I don’t really think that the Vietnam comparisons hold much water. It’s entirely possible for this war to be a complete and total disaster (which I’m not sure it is, but it certainly isn’t all sunshine and lollipops either) without being analogous, at all, to Vietnam.

    Viewing all military conflict through the lens of a poorly executed war in SE Asia isn’t very informative, and I don’t think it helps anybody figure out how to deal with the problems that we have now. This is one of many reasons I’ll be glad when every last boomer is dead: no more Vietnam analogies, and none of this “the 1960s produced the best music OF ALL TIME and NONE WILL EVER BE BETTER” garbage.

  8. Agree with Tim on most things. These two things are different. While the US body count has no chance (barring a new front in Iran) of reaching Viet Nam levels, the strategic damage done to the US has been much more devastating. US soft power has probably taken such a hit that it will never regain levels it was at when GWB took over the Presidency, much less what was possible after 9/11.

  9. This is going to make Vietnam seem like kisses from a friend….

    As I recall, that black granite wall in DC is a hell of a long walk from one end to the other and the writing is small.

  10. Coach: I think that’s a fair point. Although it’s arguable that the US hasn’t used soft power in a while anyway (look at Bosnia). I also think that the damage liberties-wise was done long before the adventures in Iraq began.

  11. “This is going to make Vietnam seem like kisses from a friend….

    I somehow doubt this, as the American death toll has just recently reached the death toll for the worst single month of Vietnam.”

    and

    “As I recall, that black granite wall in DC is a hell of a long walk from one end to the other and the writing is small.”

    I’m tired as hell of hearing how the relatively low death toll proves that this is nothing like Nam.

    A big reason for the low casualties is vastly improved med-tech since the 60’s. As a result, alot more victims of attacks survive their wounds, only to go home with life-altering injuries (loss of limbs, etc.) The proportion of these badly-injured-in-combat casesis much higher for the Iraq war. When people talk about comparisons to Vietnam, body count is usually the only figure that is put on the table—conveniently ignoring the huge costs of losing a limb or having half of your face blown off, but still surviving.

  12. “A big reason for the low casualties is vastly improved med-tech since the 60’s. As a result, alot more victims of attacks survive their wounds, only to go home with life-altering injuries (loss of limbs, etc.) The proportion of these badly-injured-in-combat casesis much higher for the Iraq war. When people talk about comparisons to Vietnam, body count is usually the only figure that is put on the table—conveniently ignoring the huge costs of losing a limb or having half of your face blown off, but still surviving.”

    That is an interesting point that I had not considered. Undoubtedly medical treatment is better now-days, but it seems improbable to me that it could account for a huge difference.

    I think a more likely explanation is that we are just getting started with our Iraqi adventure. It would be interesting to see a comparison of casualties for the first three years of the Vietnam war with this one.

  13. wayne,

    I’m talking about casualty/injury rates, not totals.

  14. The good Lieutenant General seems to have missed the point of the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. The song was a semi-satirical commentary on the futility of revolution as a vehicle for obtaining political change or freedom (hence the closing line “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”), not an anti-war anthem.

  15. Wayne,

    I think the guy who writes about war for the Atlantic(James Fallows?) has written about this specific issue before, and I think it’s not only advances in medical technology that have enabled the ‘death count’ to drop so significantly, but also redefinitions of what constitutes casualties.

    There seems to be a much higher threshold for being a ‘casualty’ these days – many are redefined as being simply ‘combat ineffective’, and discharged. Part of this i think has to do with the Army also trying to get out of lifetime medical compensation for the wounded. Which is pretty nauseating in my view. One of my best friends died of ‘gulf war I’ syndrome (leukemia brought on by anti-nerve agents the Army gave to forward area troops), and while he refused to sign on to various class action suits, the VA still cheaped him pretty hard over his care, and his family had to cover about 1/2million bucks in expense before he died. He would have been ashamed to have sued though. He was really torn about it. He felt that he volunteered, and it’s no one elses fault he got ill or wounded, but also that the service should have looked out for him more.

    Sorry, went off on a tangent there.

    JG

  16. Don’t forget, that we only have 1/5 to 1/4 of the number of troops in Iraq as we did in Vietnam in the late ’60s. It would be astounding to see similar casualty numbers from the two conflicts.

    I think trying to analogize them does a historical disservice. Had we occupied both North and South Vietnam, then we might be on firmer ground for a comparison.

    Regardless of the merits of occupying Iraq in the first place (now a rather pointless debate), the outcome is still heavily in doubt, and I say this as someone who has believed since the war started that a partition is the likely ultimate outcome. I’m not as sure of that now as I was a couple of years ago.

  17. Evan: That’s a fair point. Do you think the general analogy holds? I don’t, for a few different reasons:

    1) Differing troop levels, as was mentioned earlier.

    2) Different purposes: ‘Nam was to shore-up a failing friendly government, Iraq was to remove an unfriendly foreign government. I see Vietnam as a primarily defensive war for the US, where as Iraq is a primarily offensive one.

    3) Different on the ground conditions: Jungle vs Desert.

    4) Volunteer soldiers in Iraq rather than unwilling draftees in Vietnam.

    5) More theatre control given to the generals in Iraq than they had in Vietnam.

    6) There’s not another superpower backing our opposition in Iraq.

  18. US soft power has probably taken such a hit that it will never regain levels it was at when GWB took over the Presidency, much less what was possible after 9/11.

    This is such a totally unquantifiable, and even undefinable, assertion, as to go beyond unverifiable and into the realm of pure theology.

    That said, what has this perceived diminution of US “soft power” meant? What accomplishments have we not achieved because our soft power has been diminished?

    I’m one of those people who think that soft power, meaning diplomatic leverage, flows primarily from economic and military power, in which case Iraq probably made no difference at all, or possibly (by showcasing the utter inferiority of everyone else’s military) increased our soft power just a tad.

  19. If Dubs gets us in a shooting war with Iran, bet you we’ll lose our first aircraft carrier since WWII.

    The thing about Iraq is we can always declare victory and get out. Same as Vietnam. Iran would be an unfixable global FUBAR.

  20. I’m one of those people who think that soft power, meaning diplomatic leverage, flows primarily from economic and military power, in which case Iraq probably made no difference at all, or possibly (by showcasing the utter inferiority of everyone else’s military) increased our soft power just a tad.

    We’re basically on the same page. I guess it all depends on how you define “soft power.” Since I’m a cynical, realpolitik sorta bastard, I tend to think it means saying to the leaders of another country whose policies you oppose: “You really ought to do [xyz]. I’d hate to see something bad happen to you,” rather than just going in and wrecking the place. However, most of the folks who bandy the term about seem to use it in the French/EU sense: “If you do not do [xyz], I shall be forced to taunt you mercilessly!”

    In other words, there is no such thing as “soft power” that is not backed up by some threat of “hard power.” Equatorial Guinea can exercise all of the “soft power” it wants. But does anyone else notice?

  21. “bet you we’ll lose our first aircraft carrier since WWII.”

    You think the mullahs could sink a carrier?

  22. US soft power has probably taken such a hit that it will never regain levels it was at when GWB took over the Presidency, much less what was possible after 9/11.

    I kind of have to agree with RC. I never thought the post-9/11 international reactions of sympathy, pity, and schadenfreude really had much to offer as a basis for “soft power”.

  23. No idea. The closest I’ve been to the millitary is the Cub Scouts.

    I wonder though if the Navy is as vulnerable to unconventional warfare as the Army is. (As every army is).

    http://www.defensetech.org/archives/002291.html

    http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article7147.htm

  24. I think Mr. Cavanaugh is missing the point.

    While the General touches on the past, he’s mostly looking forward. His audience is the officer corps.

  25. I somehow doubt this, as the American death toll has just recently reached the death toll for the worst single month of Vietnam.

    It also took over ten years of mucking around in Vietnam for the casualty rate to even come near what we have in Iraq. We’ll see how things are in ten years if, God forbid, we’re still in Iraq.

    I wonder though if the Navy is as vulnerable to unconventional warfare as the Army is

    They are if you carry it out right. Rockets on fishing boats, that sort of thing.

  26. “They are if you carry it out right. Rockets on fishing boats, that sort of thing.”

    I don’t think so.

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