Making and Unmaking History with General Myers

Retired Air Force General Richard B. Myers — who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2001 to 2005 — has joined the faculty of Kansas State University as a professor of military history. According to press reports, Myers will continue to live in Virgina and visit the KSU campus three to four times each semester for visits of three to four days. His salary: $100,000 annually.

I know, $100,000 sounds like a lot of money for someone who’ll be in the classroom for six work-weeks per year at the very most, but Myers will have other things to fill his time. The university notes that he’ll also be “identifying potential speakers”, “attending alumni and Foundation events,” and “keeping some of his other options open.” Nice work if you can get it.

Retiring to soft, lucrative jobs at colleges or think-tanks is, of course, nothing new for ex-government officials. But most often it seems to be the good people of the Washington, DC area, New York, or New England who shoulder the burden of supporting out-to-pasture, high-profile public servants. I guess it’s time for those of us in Kansas to step up, do our part, and pay for the general’s upkeep; however, we’d really like to know more about what our students, alumni, and taxpayers will be getting for the money.

KSU’s president, to whom Myers will report directly, says, “His knowledge of foreign relations, presidential leadership and other topics as they relate to national security, international relations and military preparedness is invaluable.” But if Myers is going to be teaching military history at a rate of several thousands dollars per lecture, we can only hope that his grasp of history and current events has improved since his days as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Adjusting history to fit the future

General Myers became familiar to TV viewers via his Pentagon press conferences and Congressional hearings, usually playing straight man to the irrepressible defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In those performances and other situations, Myers displayed a steadfast loyalty to the policies of the Bush Administration, regardless of how wildly they diverged from available facts or how quickly they bogged down and ruptured under the weight of political baggage. Such stout persistance in the face of reality may help an ex-military officer land a good job, but it’s not generally regarded as the mark of a good history teacher.

Myers was the nation’s top military officer through the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. During that period, his chief interest in history appeared to be in re-writing it.

For example, in December, 2001, with the Afghanistan campaign apparently going well, Myers told American Forces Press Service, “It is not just bin Laden we’re after. [He] has handfuls of lieutenants we really want to go after …We know who they are, they already have rewards on their heads, and we’ll follow them wherever they go.”

Later that same month, a US-Afghan attack on the Tora Bora region netted not a single al-Qaeda leader. Any who might have been in the area appeared to have escaped through a well-known mountain pass that was left unguarded. The following April, feeling no doubt that his pledge of December lay safely forgotten, Myers reassured Washington Post reporters that Tora Bora need not be considered a failure. “The goal there,” he said, “was never after specific individuals.”

That, along with his famous claim a few days later that “the goal has never been to get bin Laden,” helped adjust history to the needs of the future and the coming invasion of Iraq.

“In history, there has never been a more humane campaign”

The following winter, during the buildup to the Iraq invasion, Myers responded to concerns over expected civilian casualties by providing this undeniable but less-than-enlightening observation about the nature of war: “People are going to die.”

Military history students at KSU may want to know more than that about how invading armies should handle the issue of noncombatant deaths. Myers may want to describe for them one interesting preemptive strategy that he and Rumsfeld employed a month before the invasion: to blame the enemy for deaths caused by American weaponry.

In a Feb. 19, 2003 briefing, Myers <http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0302/19/se.06.html>said, “It is a violation of the law of armed conflict to use noncombatants as a means of shielding potential military targets–even those people who may volunteer for this purpose. Therefore if death or serious injury to a noncombatant resulted from these efforts, the individuals responsible for deploying any innocent civilians as human shields could be guilty of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.”

In April, 2004, looking back over a year of war and occupation, Myers the historian told reporters, “I don’t think there’s ever in the history, the history of warfare, and warfare by its nature is not kind, it’s cruel, it’s very very cruel, make no mistake about it, but in the history of warfare, there has never been a more humane campaign than the one waged by coalition forces starting on March 19th of last year, and through today. And that goes for the operations in Fallujah.”

By December 2005, Myers’s “humane campaign” (featuring cluster bombs, white phosphorus, and other such gentle weapons) had, even by President Bush’s own estimate, directly or indirectly caused a minimum 30,000 Iraqi civilian deaths. Relying on solid statistical analyses, the CounterPunch editors (in the print edition) have shown how the death toll is likely in the six figures, and perhaps as high as 500,000.

WMDs found: in Pentagon plans

Historians will have the task of sorting through the many and varied rationales that were used to justify the rush to war in Iraq. It will be interesting to see how Professor Myers deals with the question. Throughout the period, from the first drumbeats right up to the bitter end, Myers did his best to support the most prominent claim — that Saddam Hussein had or was developing “weapons of mass destruction”.

He even played a minor role in the Niger uranium drama. In February 2002, Marine Gen. Carlton W. Fulford Jr. went to Niger to check out charges that Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain uranium from that country. (This was around the same time that the CIA sent former ambassador Joseph Wilson on his more well-known mission to Niger.) Fulford, who “came away convinced the country’s stocks were secure” submitted his report to Myers.

But, when the Niger scandal broke into the headlines in the summer of 2003, the Washington Post found the general to be of little help in sorting out the mess: “A spokesman for Myers said last night that the general has ‘no recollection of the information’ [i.e., Fulford’s report] but did not doubt that it had been forwarded to him.”

The Post went on to convey this deft double-negative explanation provided by Myers’s spokesman: “Given the time frame of 16 months ago, information concerning Iraq not obtaining uranium from Niger would not have been as pressing as other subjects.”

By the time the war got underway, however, Myers’s interest in Iraqi weapons had intensified. In May 2003, after the Army’s chief team assigned to search for WMDs — the 75th Exploitation Task Force — concluded its work without finding anything, Myers wasn’t quite ready to give up on what had been the Bush administration’s only effective pretext for the war. Seeming to undercut the conclusions drawn by his own team of experts, he asked, “Are they [WMDs] still perhaps out there somewhere in some sort of bunker?” They weren’t.

A couple of weeks later, he was still keeping to the administration line: “Given time, given the number of prisoners now that we’re interrogating, I’m confident that we’re going to find weapons of mass destruction.” But Myers turned out to be as poor a predictor of the future as he was an interpreter of the past.

Throughout that period when the White House and Pentagon were sounding the alarm over possible WMDs in Iraq, their officials, including Myers, were pushing the US not only to develop but to use a new generation of especially devastating WMDs — so-called “bunker busting” nuclear weapons.

Myers told USA Today in July, 2003, “In terms of anthrax, it’s said that gamma rays can … destroy the anthrax spores, which is something we need to look at. And in chemical weapons, of course, the heat [of a nuclear blast] can destroy the chemical compounds and make them not develop that plume that conventional weapons might do, that would then drift and perhaps bring others in harm’s way.”

But, noted the paper, “Sidney Drell, a Stanford University physicist, determined that destroying a target dug 1,000 feet into rock would require a nuclear weapon with a yield of 100 kilotons–more than six times that of the Hiroshima bomb. The explosion of a nuclear bomb that big would launch enormous amounts of radioactive debris into the air and contaminate a huge area.”

As a military historian, General Myers will probably know a good bit about what happened when we bombed Hiroshima, so he should be able to help his classes visualize what happens to people “in harm’s way” when you drop a six-times-bigger bunker-buster.

Trying to keep torture chambers out of the history books

Seymour Hersh revealed in The New Yorker and his 2004 book Chain of Command that cruel treatment of prisoners by US troops in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and Iraq had its origins in a secret Special Access Program. He wrote that a former intelligence official told him that “fewer than two hundred operatives and officials, including Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were ‘completely read into the program.’ The goal was to keep the operation protected. ‘We’re not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness,’ he said. ‘The rules are Grab whom you must. Do what you want.’ ”

There is no evidence that Myers was concerned about the horrific results of that program until graphic evidence of abuse and torture started seeping into the public sphere. Even then, his main concern seemed to be in keeping the crimes under wraps and out of military history books. He tried to convince CBS’s “60 Minutes II” not to reveal the infamous Abu Ghraib pictures to the US public, but managed only to delay their broadcast. (At that point, he claimed, he still had not read a ” devastating” report by Major General Antonio M. Taguba on conditions at the prison and had not seen the photos.) He later went to court to stop the release of more such pictures.

Outraged last May at charges by Amnesty International that Guantanamo had become “The gulag of our time,” Myers looked to another respected organization for cover, saying, “The ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] has been at Guantanamo since day one. It is essentially a model facility.”

He somehow failed to mention that, in the words of a Los Angeles Times columnist, “The ICRC has consistently chastised the U.S. for keeping an unknown number of ‘ghost detainees’ hidden away from legally mandated monitoring, for its open-ended detentions at Guantanamo Bay, for its ‘renditions’ of detainees to states using torture and for its use of interrogation techniques that themselves border on torture.”

“We’re definitely winning”

Myers, more than most other officials, has repeatedly stressed that the war in Iraq will be long and bloody and difficult. Looking at historical precedents, he has warned that insurgencies typically last from 7 to 12 years.

But when optimism is called for, Myers can rise to the occasion.

In April of last year, commenting on an upsurge in insurgent attacks, Myers told reporters, “In terms of the number of incidents, it’s right about where it was a year ago.” But he added, incongruously, “Almost any indicator you look at, the trends are up. So we’re definitely winning.”

In July, with the the nation’s military actions appearing to be headed in no particular direction and with public support in need of shoring up, Myers and Rumsfeld appeared to decide that a repackaged effort might sell better. Myers told the National Press Club that the term “war on terror” was now out: “If you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution.” He and Rumsfeld suggested an alternative term: “global struggle against violent extremism”.

Being even more vague and clumsy than “war on terror”, the appellation “global struggle against violent extremism” has not proven as durable and will likely be lost to history.

Even though the US goal “has never been to get bin Laden”, the Pentagon has enthusiastically trumpeted the capture of anyone who could be fingered as one of his high-level associates. In September 2005, Myers’s last month as Chairman, US and Iraqi troops killed Abu Azzam, whom Myers identified as the “number two al Qaeda operative in Iraq, next to Zarqawi.” Newsweek magazine checked that claim with three US government counterterrorism officials, who said, no, Azzam was in no way Number Two.

Independent counterterrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann told Newsweek, “If I had a nickel for every No. 2 and No. 3 they’ve arrested or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’d be a millionaire.”

That same month, Myers and Rumsfeld emphatically asserted that the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan by US troops did not hamstring the military’s efforts to help Hurricane Katrina’s victims. But an exhaustive Wall Street Journal investigation showed that just the opposite was true.

As Myers’s tenure as Chairman was coming to a close and the occupation of Iraq remained awash in blood, Myers’s upbeat assessments and historical rewrites became too much even for Senator John McCain. In Myers’s final appearance before a Congressional committee as Chairman, the pro-war Arizona Republican fumed, “General Myers seems to assume that things have gone well in Iraq. General Myers seems to assume that the American people, the support for our conflict there is not eroding.”

McCain continued: “General Myers seems to assume that everything has gone fine and our declarations of victory, of which there have been many, have not had an impact on American public opinion. Things have not gone as we had planned or expected, nor as we were told by you, General Myers.”

In the academic world, twelve hundred miles from the political pressures of Washington, General Myers may prove to be a good educator. But can he be ten to fifty times as good as other part-time instructors, in keeping with his salary? One thing is clear: Whatever he accomplishes at Kansas State University can never undo the devastation he supervised for four years as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

STAN COX is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas. He can be reached at t.stan@cox.net.


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Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor at Green Social Thought, where this article first ran. He is author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing and, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia

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