Once upon a time, the standard for implementing this code was straightforward: Win, and you gain fame and fortune; fail to win, and you’re toast. As commander in chief during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln enforced this standard ruthlessly. As a result, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman achieved a measure of immortality. Meanwhile, Irvin McDowell, George McClellan, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker and George Meade, among a host of other mediocrities, found themselves unemployed or consigned to lesser positions.
In the post-9/11 era, President George W. Bush abandoned this standard. In 2003, Gen. Tommy Franks presided over a campaign in Iraq that dispersed a pathetic local army even as Franks neglected to consider what might ensue. The answer was not long in coming: chaos and a far uglier and more costly conflict than Americans had bargained for.
Historians will probably place Franks in the company of Burnside and Hooker rather than Grant and Sherman. Yet, for whatever reason, Bush glossed over his field commander’s shortcomings, ordained him a great leader and awarded him the Medal of Freedom. Franks had neither won nor lost his war; he had merely mismanaged it and then moved on, washing his hands of the mess. Here was a troubling precedent.
War induces barbarism, and the Iraq war proved no exception. Soon enough, egregious transgressions by U.S. troops surfaced. Abu Ghraib provides one especially notorious example; the massacre at Haditha another. But there were others, now mostly forgotten, at least by Americans — among them the Iraq insurgency’s equivalent of the Boston Massacre. In Fallujah on April 28, 2003, with Franks still in command, U.S. troops opened fire on Iraqi demonstrators, killing more than a dozen and wounding several dozen more.
The Pentagon declared each of these an aberration. In each instance, extensive investigation singled out a handful of minions for punishment. In each, senior commanders escaped unscathed. (Abu Ghraib is the partial exception that proves the rule: In the scandal’s aftermath, a female Army Reserve brigadier general — not quite a member of the club — lost her star, a fate thus far shared with no male counterpart and no regular officer.)
In an earlier day, this misconduct might not have mattered. When Sherman’s troops marched to the sea in 1864, few cared about any atrocities they might commit. The object of the exercise, after all, was not to win Confederate hearts and minds but, as Sherman succinctly put it, to “make Georgia howl.” Similarly, although the desecration of remains by U.S. troops today pales in comparison with the treatment visited upon Japanese dead during World War II, ensuring that Marines at Peleliu or Okinawa complied with the Hague Conventions did not figure as a priority. Their job was to kill.