The American Generals and Iraq

The Iraq war is the first in American history to steadily worsen our national security. Our generals, through action and acquiescence, despite their sworn duty to protect the nation, have played no small role in endangering America. This is all the more paradoxical and alarming because some thirty years ago they determined to go to war only if national security was at stake. The military–and perhaps only the military–can get us out of the calamity and reorganize the foundering war on terror. They must bear in mind where their duty truly lies and call for a rapid withdrawal from Iraq.

The effort to westernize Iraq and the region has failed. Insurgents and foreign fighters are as strong as ever and demonstrate a surprising ability to adapt tactically. Meanwhile, the coalition grows smaller and smaller. There is little chance that al Malaki’s coalition will be able to do anything but issue proclamations from a Baghdad fortress to a heedless and increasingly violence-prone populace. Sectarian violence has become so intense in recent weeks that it is likely only a matter of time until one horrendous incident or another triggers full and open combat between sectarian forces. Reports are surfacing that Shi’as in the coalition are pressing for partitioning, which would raise still more problems for our occupation.

The news on the overall war on terror, now obscured by events in Iraq and Lebanon, is almost as grim. Our ideology-based efforts to modernize Afghanistan have led, predictably, to widespread anti-Westernism, which has brought about a strong Taliban resurgence in the South, where NATO troops are taking increasing casualties. There’s little doubt that voters back in Europe will look at their losses and press to withdraw from a failing mission led by a ham-fisted and increasingly reckless ally. Elsewhere, the group we back in Somalia has been driven from the capital by an Islamist group supported by Eritrea and opposed by Ethiopia. We may have yet another war on our hands. The introduction of over a hundred thousand US troops into the Middle East has breathed new life into al Qaeda, and many countries in the region fear that skilled jihadists, fresh from Iraq, are returning home to ply their trades.

Long-standing allies have seen us as a bit haughty since World War Two, but now they see us as irresponsible, and even dangerous. Our tactless policies seem devised not to transform the Middle East into a peaceful, pro-West region, but to bring about lasting enmity between Islam and the West–a clash of civilizations by design. Russia and China, whose antagonisms reach back centuries and even thrived during decades of ideological affinity, look with concern upon the behavior of the remaining superpower and seek rapprochement with each other, including joint military measures–presumably not aimed to deter Mongolian or Tajik aggression. We may be at the outset of a diplomatic revolution in which the US is no longer trusted with leadership, indeed many heads of state pursue policies to contain the United States or, worse, keep us bogged down in the Middle East.

Our generals deserve considerable blame. They surrendered, with hardly a murmur, the principle of going to war only when America’s security was at stake, which had enjoyed doctrine status under Weinberger and Powell. The former is deceased, the latter disgraced. They stood at parade rest though perhaps not at ease, as politicians who had adroitly avoided military service–while they were chasin’ Charlie -­ told them that our invasion of Iraq would be welcomed and swiftly lead to the flowering of democracy throughout the region. An institution that assigns the writings of T. E. Lawrence and Vo Nguyen Giap as routinely as a seminary assigns those of Augustine and Aquinas could not produce generals or even many lieutenants credulous enough to believe these think-tank scenarios. The military’s post-Vietnam writings abounded with assertions of the generals’ solemn duty to oppose unwise military ventures, through resignations if need be. It became a credo in service academies and staff colleges. In 2003, our generals had neither the courage of their youths nor that of their convictions.

In Iraq, our generals put aside the lessons of counter-insurgency and rely on massive firepower, which even with precision guided munitions devastated large portions of Fallujah and Ramadi, creating ruins reminiscent of Stalingrad and Hue. They have made piles of rubble and called it victory. They have allowed politicians in Washington to delay combat operations in order to reduce casualties at election time. They round up thousands of innocent Iraqis unfortunate enough simply to be near a car-bombing, detain them for lengthy periods, and submit them to systematic humiliation and torture. The ratio of future insurgents to actual ones caught up in these sweeps is likely appallingly high. Ably displaying the mordancy war imparts, GIs call one detainment center, “Jihad University.” We are more despised in Iraq today than we were three years ago, more than we ever were in Vietnam.

It is time our generals speak out. Our politicians, with rare and estimable exceptions, spout only insipid dialog from page-worn scripts. Most of the public, urged on by media gunsels, simply cheers or hisses from their seats, unable to feel personally involved in events and unable to comprehend the unfolding tragedy–obvious though it is to those who studied and participated in past ones. Having played a leading and unappealing role in the unfolding tragedy, our generals can offer hope for a bold reappraisal and a painful recommendation.

Unfortunately, there are too many junior and field-grade officers who entered the service in the years of the great contest with the Evil Empire, men and women filled with national pride approaching militarism and a can-do spirit well into naiveté. They lack the historical judgment and sense of limits that a previous war impressed, at considerable cost, onto the minds of men now honored by three or four stars on their epaulets. There are more than a few who look back on past decades of civil-military harmony and wonder if their partner has failing senses or is now enamored by another and no longer faithful to America. Heretofore, a general or two have spoken out, but only in timid words questioning postwar planning, criticizing civilian meddling, and lamenting insufficient troops.

Their demurrals are true, but irrelevant and pusillanimous. It is difficult to believe such men earned Combat Infantryman Badges. The war was a mistake from the moment we crossed the Iraqi frontier three and a half years ago, from its inception, from the moment the administration advanced the preposterous notion that an American invasion of an Arab country would result in anything but a vicious guerrilla war.

It is time for our senior officers, active and retired, men who understand war and cannot be daunted by the “cut and run” gimmick, to make it clear to the public and the politicians, perhaps through a joint statement, that the war in Iraq is lost, that we are squandering young lives, and that we must withdraw in short order. Having done this, they can help devise a thoughtful strategy to combat al Qaeda, a strategy based on military realities and regional knowledge, not on ethereal ideology or the schemes of think tanks.

Our generals owe this measure of patriotic dissent–the term is not simply a leftist catch phrase–to America’s military institutions, which are badly overcommitted and rapidly losing public trust. They owe it to the nation and Constitution they swore to defend, which supersedes subservience or acquiescence to any administration, let alone one as unschooled in world politics and military matters as the present one. Most of all, they owe it to the young men and women whose lives they swore some thirty years ago never again to waste in an unwinnable war. Failing that, they might have the decency to return their Combat Infantryman Badges.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at:




Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of  The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at (Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing)