The Generals’ Revolt

The Generals’ Revolt

At no point in modern American history has the civilian leadership of the nation’s military establishment come under as much criticism from serving military officers as is the case now regardin


At no point in modern American history has the civilian leadership of the nation’s military establishment come under as much criticism from serving military officers as is the case now regarding the war in Iraq. The now famous comment by Lieut. Gen. William Wallace that “the enemy we’re fighting is a bit different from the one we’d war-gamed against”–implying heavier-than-expected resistance–is but the tip of the iceberg of widespread discontent among senior officers over the design and implementation of the Administration’s invasion plan.

The generals’ deep disquiet over the Administration’s war plans originally surfaced early last summer, when it first became known to senior military personnel that the President had made the decision to invade Iraq with or without international support, and that the Administration’s favored war plan emphasized unconventional tactics–heavy reliance on precision-guided missile strikes, mass “uprisings” of antigovernment Iraqi forces engineered by US Green Berets, and a lightning assault by modest-sized US ground forces in the south and north–rather than conventional, “decisive force” tactics of the sort employed by the United States during the 1991 Gulf War. A radical plan of this sort was viable, the proponents of war argued, because Saddam Hussein enjoyed negligible support at home and because the Iraqi army would surrender en masse at the first sign of American combat troops.

Upon learning of these decisions, senior commanders raised two sorts of objections. Some generals argued that a war against Iraq was unnecessary because the existing strategy of “containment,” comprising the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq plus the naval blockade in the Persian Gulf, had effectively eliminated Saddam Hussein as a significant threat to US security. Others accepted the need to attack Iraq but objected to the overly risky nature of the Administration’s attack plan, claiming that Iraqi defenses were likely to prove more robust than was suggested by the advocates of war.

Needless to say, active-duty officers did not express their doubts in public for fear of being branded as disloyal by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a hawkish zealot with little tolerance of dissent. But many retired officers, including the senior leaders of Operation Desert Storm, were less intimidated. “It’s not going to be an easy battle,” Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf observed in August. “I think we will prevail, but I think it would be much more effective if we didn’t have to do it alone.”

Any hope of dissuading the President from abandoning containment in favor of an invasion war was quickly seen as futile, when it became apparent that the White House was under the thrall of a militant prowar cabal led by Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle of the Defense Policy Board–none of whom, it might be noted, had ever served on active combat duty. But senior commanders did voice opposition to the Administration’s unconventional war plan. Of particular concern to these officers was the fact that the original plan called for an American invasion force of approximately 75,000-100,000 ground troops–about one-fifth the size of the force arrayed against Saddam Hussein in 1991. This number was considered dangerously inadequate by officers who had studied the Iraqi military and concluded that the Hussein regime was capable of mounting a stiff defense of Baghdad.

Although unsuccessful in their efforts to persuade Bush to call off the war, critics of the Administration plan did manage to convince the President to bolster the planned invasion force by an additional 100,000 or so ground troops–less than the amount sought by top commanders, but enough to delay the planned onset of war by several months. The revised plan, dubbed “Gulf War Lite” by some, was approved by the White House in early September 2002, shortly before Bush went to the United Nations to call for fresh inspections of Iraq. (The decision to add more troops to the invasion force pushed the theoretical start date for the war from December 2002 to March 2003, thus allowing Bush the luxury of appearing to favor UN action while knowing that US forces would not be in a position to attack for another six months.)

The subsequent failure by the Administration to obtain approval from Turkey for the use of that country as a staging area for an assault from the north was seen by some US officers as a further threat to the success of the chosen war plan–but these concerns, too, were dismissed by Secretary Rumsfeld and his associates. The Pentagon simply went ahead with the compromise plan adopted in September, minus the northern front.

Thus, when the attack commenced on March 19, senior commanders had already expressed many doubts about the Administration plan and had repeatedly been forced to swallow their concerns. It is hardly surprising, then, that fresh criticism of the plan surfaced as soon as serious problems arose on the battlefront. From the perspective of senior combat officers, these problems are not simply minor glitches in an otherwise adequate plan, but rather symptoms of a deeply flawed blueprint.

As loyal military professionals, the dissident generals will not express their deep concerns in public and will only speak openly of their unease with certain technical aspects of the plan. But it is possible to read between the lines to see the profound disquiet that animates these objections. To say that the enemy in Iraq is not the one “we’d war-gamed against” is to say that the war games themselves were not an accurate representation of the situation in Iraq, and that the games’ designers–the senior leaders at the Pentagon–were blinded by their prowar zealotry from appreciating the vigor of Iraqi defenses. Put another way, this means that the civilian leadership was prepared to risk the lives of American fighting men and women in pursuit of an extremist ideology. By questioning the logic of the Administration plan, therefore, these officers are fulfilling their highest responsibility to the troops under their command and so deserve the support of the American people; the architects of that plan, however, deserve nothing but revulsion.

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