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On War: Learning from Uncle Abe Sacking the Incompetent

Learning from Uncle Abe

by WILLIAM S. LIND

One of the reasons the North won the Civil War is that President Lincoln was willing to sack incompetent generals and President Davis was not. Some recent remarks by the American commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, suggest that it is time for President Bush to emulate Mr. Lincoln.

According to the Sept. 7 Cleveland Plain Dealer, during Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s recent visit to Iraq, General Sanchez said, "There is no risk at the tactical, operational or strategic level… A platoon out of any one of my battalions could defeat the threat, readily."

The first of these statements is patently false, while the second suggests a breathtaking ignorance about how war is fought. American troops face tactical risk every time they venture out of their compounds, as photos of burning American Humvees and trucks show almost daily. While counts vary, it seems American forces are facing about fifteen attacks on an average day, some of which leave American soldiers dead or wounded. I suspect General Sanchez’s assurance that they face "no tactical risk" was received by American troops in Iraq about as well as General Haig’s repeated assurances to British troops in World War I that the next "big push" would win the war.

The risk on the operational level is more subtle. It is true that the Iraqis no longer have any capability to undertake operational maneuver. But the guerilla war they have launched faces U.S. forces with a serious operational threat, the same threat that defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan. The risk is that we will find it impossible to operationalize the war at all, because the enemy will possess no centers of gravity that can be targeted by operational maneuver. As the war becomes increasingly a Fourth Generation conflict, this risk will increase; Fourth Generation forces tend to have centers of gravity such as God, against whom not even M-1 tanks have demonstrated much capability. If we cannot operationalize the conflict, we will be forced into a war of attrition at the tactical level, again like the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The risk is greatest of all at the strategic level, because it is at the strategic level where we are most likely to suffer outright defeat. If a spreading and intensifying guerilla war raises American casualties beyond a level the American public will tolerate, we will be defeated. If the war in Iraq greatly strengthens our real enemies, non-state Islamic actors such as al Qaeda, we will suffer strategic defeat (and this is already happening). If the war in Iraq so delegitimizes pro-American regimes in key Moslem countries such as Pakistan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia that they are overthrown, we will have suffered strategic defeat. Far from there being "no risk" at the strategic level, it is more likely that America will be defeated at that level than that she will win.

General Sanchez’s other remark, that "a platoon out of any one of my battalions could defeat the threat, readily," suggests that he fails to pass the Gilbert & Sullivan test: he knows no more of tactics that a novice in a nunnery. If the Iraqi guerillas fought us in open combat, fighting the way we fight but without our vast fire support, General Sanchez would be correct. But why should anyone expect them to do that? They will fight as guerrillas always fight, hitting us where and when we least expect it, then running away. All the Moslems know how their ancestors defeated the Crusaders. When the Crusaders, clad in heavy plate armor, mounted their massive Belgian horses and charged, the Saracens got out of the way. That night, when the Crusaders had taken off their armor and were sitting around the campfire, the Moslems snuck up and shot in some arrows. That is exactly how the Iraqis and the Afghans will fight us.

General Sanchez’s comments suggest he should be given the Halleck Award and quietly sent home. It is of course possible that he knew what he was saying was nonsense, but also knew that it would please Mr. Rumsfeld. In that case, he should get the Braxton Bragg Medal, with kneepads and oak leaf cluster. The one thing worse than an incompetent commander is an incompetent commander who knows how to kiss ass.

WILLIAM S. LIND writes the On War column for CounterPunch.