Posted 16 July 2007 On August 2, 2000, while accepting the Republican Party’s nomination as Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney told the U.S. military, “help is on the way.” Cheney used the occasion to savage the Clinton administration: “Rarely has so much been demanded of our armed forces and so little given them in return.” Yet, Cheney’s rebuke has proven to be vastly more applicable today than it has been for the past thirty years. When it comes to abuse and neglect of our military, President Clinton emerges as a rank amateur when compared with President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney.
It was the Bush administration that sent American soldiers to war in Iraq without adequate supplies of body armor, without an adequate number of armored vehicles to ward off roadside bombs and, most significantly, without an adequate number of troops to secure the peace in Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld disdained and abused the senior military leadership – and the disdain was largely reciprocated.
But listen to how Rumsfeld responded in Kuwait, in December 2004, when Spec. Thomas Wilson (a mechanic with the Tennessee Army National Guard) asserted, “our vehicles are not armored.” Rumsfeld callously replied: “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have…They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” [Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco, p. 411]
Had Rumsfeld been either an honest, honorable or forthright man, he might have said: “Son, we never planned to be in Iraq this long. I was too obsessed with demonstrating the wisdom of my policy of military transformation, which emphasizes technological superiority as a force multiplier, rather than adequately equipping a large army. Others, such as Vice President Cheney, believed we would be greeted as liberators. None of us in the Bush administration expected a long war, which we might well lose. I’m sorry, we were dead wrong.” (That is, due to our mistakes, some of your buddies already are dead and some of you soon will be.)
To readers of Thomas E. Ricks’ book, Fiasco, none of this is news. Ricks is the Washington Post’s senior Pentagon correspondent who interviewed “an extraordinary number of American military personnel, including more than one hundred senior officers” and had access to more than thirty thousand pages of documents. He’s written a sympathetic, but factual, account of the military’s “tragic” undertaking in Iraq.
Readers of Fiasco will feel the passion with which many of America’s senior military leaders (both active and retired) opposed both the very reasons for invading Iraq as well as the now demonstrably crackpot strategy to be employed there. They’ve been vindicated on both counts. In fact, after reading Fiasco, I was forced to ponder how close America came to a military coup d’etat.
The case of retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni is especially instructive. Shot three times in Vietnam, Zinni went on to become the chief of Central Command in 1997 and, thus, was the military man responsible for Iraq. And, as he told Ricks, “We contained Saddam…We watched his military shrink to less than half its size from the beginning of the Gulf War until the time I left command, not only shrinking in size, but dealing with obsolete equipment, ill-trained troops, dissatisfaction in the ranks, a lot of absenteeism. We didn’t see the Iraqis as a formidable force. We saw them as a decaying force.” [Ricks, p. 13]
Yet, while in charge of Centcom, Zinni completed plans for a possible war with Iraq. His war plans required approximately 350,000 troops. Why so many? Because, as Zinni told a group of Marine commanders in November 2002: “If you guys don’t go through the enemy in six weeks, we’ll disown you…But then the hard part begins….We have lit a fuse, and we don’t know what’s at the other end – a nuke, a hand grenade, or a dud?” [Ricks, p. 71]
As he told Ricks: “I was worried that we didn’t understand the importance of maintaining order, that we had come in with sufficient forces to freeze the situation, to understand that when we’re ripping the guts out of an authoritarian regime, you’ve got responsibility for security services, everything else. You have to be prepared to handle all that.” [Ibid]
Zinni also was one of the first Americans to suspect that the Bush administration was lying to the American public about Saddam’s so-called weapons of mass destruction. In fact, Zinni was sitting on the stage at the VFW national convention in Nashville, Tennessee on 26 August 2002 – sitting on the stage behind Cheney as the vice president told the audience: “the Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents, and they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago….Many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.” [Ricks, p. 49]
Zinni subsequently asserted that he nearly fell off his chair: “In my time at Centcom, I watched the intelligence and never – not once – did it say ‘He has WMD.'” As Ricks adds: “Since retiring he [Zinni] had retained all his top-secret clearances, he was still consulting the CIA on Iraq, he had reviewed all the current intelligence – and he had seen nothing to support Cheney’s certitude.” [Ibid, p. 50]
By the fall of 2003, Zinni “began speaking out…bitterly denouncing Rumsfeld, criticizing the Iraq occupation and saying it lacked a coherent strategy, a serious plan, and sufficient resources.” In the fall of 2003 – and thus months before May 12, 2004, the date that Gen. Richard Myers, Bush’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate committee that “there is no way to militarily win in Iraq” – Zinni told a gathering of the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association that “We’re in danger of failing.”
He also said, “We can’t go on breaking our military and doing things like we’re doing now.” Then, invoking parallels with Vietnam, Zinni asserted: “My contemporaries, our feelings and sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice…We swore never again would we allow that to happen. I ask you, is it happening again?” As Ricks notes: “There were hundreds of Marine and Navy officers present, and many of them arose to give his denunciation of their civilian leaders a standing ovation.” [Ricks, pp. 241-42]
Matters have worsened significantly since then. Last year, retired General Colin Powell observed that the U.S. Army is “about broken.” Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, chief of the Army National Guard, complained, “we have absolutely piecemealed our force to death.”
Retired U.S. Army Colonel and scholar Andrew J. Bacevich has provided some of the details that would support Powell’s conclusion: “One third of the regular Army’s brigades qualify as combat-ready. In the reserve components, none meet that standard.” The Army “is currently short 3,000 commissioned officers…young West Pointers are bailing out of the Army at a rate not seen in three decades….The stress of repeated tours is sapping the Army’s lifeblood.” [Bacevich, “Bushed Army,” The American Conservative, June 4, 2007]
But, rather than respond to this dire situation, Republican smacked-asses, like Senator Saxby Chambliss, place party loyalty to Bush’s lost war over country and soldiers. Thus, when Senator Jim Webb, a combat veteran of the Vietnam war, attempted to introduce legislation (S. 2012) that would provide some relief to U.S. troops, chicken hawk Chambliss felt the need to chastise Webb for not knowing America’s military history.
What Senator Webb didn’t understand, according to blowhard Chambliss, was that “during World War II and other wars of this country, service members participating in those wars deployed for 3 and 4 years with little or no break.” [Bob Geiger, “GOP’s Chambliss Compares Iraq Troop Relations to WW II,” Huffington Post, July 13, 2007] Yet, had the smacked-ass party loyalist from Georgia taken the time to seriously inform himself about this issue, he might have learned what retired General William E. Odom knows.
According to Gen. Odom, “No U.S. forces have ever been compelled to stay in sustained combat conditions for as long as the Army units have in Iraq. In World War II, soldiers were considered combat-exhausted after about 180 days on the line. They were withdrawn for rest periods…In Iraq, combat units take over an area of operations and patrol it daily, making soldiers face the prospect of death from an IED or small arms fire or mortar fire each day. Day in and day out for a full year, with only a single two-week break, they confront the prospect of death, losing limbs or eyes, or suffering serious wounds.” [Odom, “‘Supporting the Troops’ Means Withdrawing Them,” Neiman Watchdog, 5 July 2007]
Some have argued that Webb’s bill was an unconstitutional constraint on the president’s war-making authority, even if it had survived a presidential veto. But, then, the question remains: “Why hasn’t the Bush administration taken similar steps to support the troops?
Why? Because such relief would jeopardize Bush’s plans to “string out the war until he leaves office, in order to avoid taking responsibility for the defeat he has caused and persisted in making greater each year for more than three years.” [Odom] Ever decreasing combat readiness and the death of a few hundred more soldiers and Marines can be offset temporarily by a “surge” in troop strength.
Unfortunately, in a regime where such losses seem but a small price to pay, in order to assure that Bush can claim that Iraq wasn’t lost during his presidency, “support for the troops” becomes synonymous with the support that a noose provides a hanging man.
Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA).
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