This is an old tale. Long forgotten. But like all good political bedtime stories, it’s well worth telling again.
Once upon a time, there was a retired general named Paul Van Riper. In 1966, as a young Marine officer and American advisor in Vietnam, he was wounded in action; he later became the first president of the Marine Corps University, retired from the Corps as a Lieutenant General, and then took up the task of leading the enemy side in Pentagon war games.
Over the years, Van Riper had developed into a free-wheeling military thinker, given to quoting Von Clausewitz and Sun-tzu, and dubious about the ability of the latest technology to conquer all in its path. If you wanted to wage war, he thought, it might at least be reasonable to study war seriously (if not go to war yourself) rather than just fall in love with military power. It seemed to him that you took a risk any time you dismissed your enemy as without resources (or a prayer) against your awesome power and imagined your campaign to come as a sure-fire “cakewalk.” As he pointed out, “Many enemies are not frightened by that overwhelming force. They put their minds to the problem and think through: how can I adapt and avoid that overwhelming force and yet do damage against the United States?”
As a result, Van Riper took the task of simulated enemy commander quite seriously. He also had a few issues with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s much vaunted “military transformation,” his desire to create a sleek, high-tech, agile military that would drive everything before it. He thought the Rumsfeld program added up to just so many “shallow,” “fundamentally flawed” slogans. (“There’s very little intellectual content to what they say… ‘Information dominance,’ ‘network-centric warfare,’ ‘focused logistics’ — you could fill a book with all of these slogans.”)
In July 2002, he got the chance to test that proposition. At the cost of a quarter-billion dollars, the Pentagon launched the most elaborate war games in its history, immodestly entitled “Millennium Challenge 02.” These involved all four services in “17 simulation locations and nine live-force training sites.” Officially a war against a fictional country in the Persian Gulf region–but obviously Iraq–it was specifically scripted to prove the efficacy of the Rumsfeld-style invasion that the Bush administration had already decided to launch.
Lt. Gen. Van Riper commanded the “Red Team”–the Iraqis of this simulation-–against the “Blue Team,” U.S. forces; and, unfortunately for Rumsfeld, he promptly stepped out of the script. Knowing that sometimes the only effective response to high-tech warfare was the lowest tech warfare imaginable, he employed some of the very techniques the Iraqi insurgency would begin to use all-too-successfully a year or two later.
Such simple devices as, according to the Army Times, using “motorcycle messengers to transmit orders, negating Blue’s high-tech eavesdropping capabilities,” and “issuing attack orders via the morning call to prayer broadcast from the minarets of his country’s mosques.” In the process, Van Riper trumped the techies.
“At one point in the game,” as Fred Kaplan of Slate wrote in March 2003, “when Blue’s fleet entered the Persian Gulf, he sank some of the ships with suicide-bombers in speed boats. (At that point, the managers stopped the game, ‘refloated’ the Blue fleet, and resumed play.)” After three or four days, with the Blue Team in obvious disarray, the game was halted and the rules rescripted. In a quiet protest, Van Riper stepped down as enemy commander.
Millennium Challenge 02 was subsequently written up as a vindication of Rumsfeld’s “military transformation.” On that basis–with no one paying more mind to Van Riper (who, this April, called openly for Rumsfeld’s resignation) than to Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki when, in February 2003, he pointed out that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to occupy Iraq, the “transformational” invasion was launched–with all the predictably catastrophic results now so widely known.
The Millennium Challenge 02 war games were already underway when, late that July, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA), returned to London from high-level meetings in Washington to report to Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top officials. In a secret meeting, he told them that the decision for war in Iraq had already been made by the Bush administration and that now, in a memorable phrase, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
On May 1st, 2005, notes from this meeting, dubbed “the Downing Street Memo,” were leaked to the London Sunday Times. Thanks to that memo and other documents, it’s now commonly accepted that the Bush administration “fixed” the intelligence around their war of choice. But Lt. Gen. Van Riper’s forgotten story should remind us that they also “fixed” the war they were planning to fight.
Between then and now, when it came to Iraq, there wasn’t much that wasn’t “fixed” in a similar manner. Only recently, James A. Baker’s Iraq Study Group report described the way levels of violence in Iraq were grossly underreported by U.S. intelligence officials–in one case, only 93 “attacks or significant acts of violence” being officially recorded on a day when the number was well above 1,000. As the report politely summed up this particular fix-it-up methodology, “Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.”
But here’s the thing: The Iraq Study Group, too–like every other mainstream gathering of advisors, officials, or pundits–“fixed” the intelligence. Think of the ISG as the clean-up-crew version of the Blue Team of Millennium Challenge 02. Before they even began, Bush family consigliere Baker and cohorts ensured that, while the ISG would be filled with notable movers and shakers from numerous previous administrations, no one on it, nor any expert “team” advising it would represent the one point of view that a majority of Americans have by now come to support–actual withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq on a set timeline.
You would not, for instance, find retired Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, the former Director of the National Security Agency, who has openly called for the U.S. to “cut and run” from Iraq, on the panel. Despite the report’s harsh descriptions of the last three years of failed policy and some perfectly sane negotiation suggestions, it dismissed the idea of such a withdrawal out of hand–because such a dismissal was simply built into the group’s very make up.
It turns out, of course, that when you control both sides of a war game or the range of opinion on a panel, you are assured of the results you’re going to get. The problem comes when you only control one side of a situation; and when, as American commanders learned in the early days of the Korean War and again in Vietnam, whether due to racism or imperial blindness, you also discount and disrespect your enemies.
Unfortunately for the Bush administration, it turned out that, while you could fix the war games and the intelligence, you couldn’t be assured of fixing reality itself, which has a tendency to remain obdurately, passionately, irascibly unconquerable. Yes, you could ignore reality for a while. (The President, when being told a few hard Iraqi truths in 2004 by Col. Derek Harvey, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s senior intelligence officer for Iraq, reportedly turned to his aides and asked, “Is this guy a Democrat?”) But you couldn’t do it forever, not when the Lt. Gen. Van Ripers of Iraq refused to step aside and you weren’t capable of removing them; not when you couldn’t even figure out, most of the time, who they were. It was then that the fixers first found themselves in a genuine fix, from which none of Washington’s movers and shakers have yet been willing to extract themselves.
For more on why the “withdrawal option” was off the table for the Iraq Study Group, check out Michael Schwartz’s “Why Withdrawal Is Unmentionable” at Tomdispatch.com.