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Vietnam's Forgotten Lessons

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Back when Hugh Shelton was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he sent all 17 of his four-star generals "Dereliction of Duty" by H.R. McMaster and asked them to a Pentagon breakfast to discuss the book with the author. The book charges that the U.S. military was derelict in its duty by meekly allowing duplicitous and inept civilians from the president on down to lead the nation into a war (Vietnam) that it then fought unsuccessfully. Shelton vowed that this would not happen again.

We all know the cliche about generals fighting the last war, but in Iraq it is not the tactics that were duplicated -- certainly not compared to the Persian Gulf War -- but the tendency of the military to do what it was told and keep its mouth shut. Shelton, who retired in 2001, cannot be blamed for this and maybe no one but Donald Rumsfeld can, but the fact remains that the United States fought a war many of its military leaders thought was unnecessary, unwise, predicated on false assumptions and incompetently managed. Still, no one really spoke up.

Now, some have -- although from retirement. In recent days, three former senior officers have called for Rumsfeld to be sacked. The most recent is Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, who does not stop at faulting Rumsfeld but blames himself as well. "I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat -- al-Qaeda," he writes in a Time magazine article this month. He joins Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who commanded the training of Iraqi security forces and who has also called on President Bush to fire Rumsfeld. "President Bush should accept the offer to resign that Mr. Rumsfeld says he has tendered more than once," Eaton wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece.

The third retired general is Anthony Zinni, a four-star Marine with vast experience in the Middle East. (He was Bush's Israeli-Palestinian negotiator for a while.) He goes further than (merely) recommending Rumsfeld's political defenestration. He also strongly suggests that something is broken in the American military, that its priories are misplaced. Too many senior officers put their careers first and candor or honesty second. One who did not, the then-Army chief of staff, Eric K. Shinseki, was rebuked by Rumsfeld and his career essentially ended. After that, the brass knew that the path to promotion was to get with the program. They saluted Rumsfeld and implemented a plan many of them thought was just plain irresponsible.

Zinni would be the first to concede that it is not easy for military men to express their own opinions. Officers have been trained to obey and respect civilian leadership -- and, as history instructs, it's a good thing, too. Moreover, they are inculcated with the virtue of loyalty -- to their superiors and to their service. Even in retirement, most of them are loath to speak up and Zinni, for one, says he has felt the opprobrium of former colleagues. "There are certainly generals out there who don't like me speaking out," Zinni told me.

No American institution can escape blame for the disaster of Iraq -- not Congress, not the CIA and certainly not the media. But the military has both a constitutional duty and a solemn obligation to its troops to be candid with the American people. Yet in testimony before Congress and in statements from the field and elsewhere, all we get are ridiculously optimistic assessments, no calls for more troops and no suggestion that Rumsfeld and Bush were mismanaging the war. The occasional peep of dissent is quickly reversed. From the very sound of it, you would be entitled to think that everything has gone swimmingly in Iraq. Instead, the military has participated in a debacle.

In several ways -- some obvious, some not -- the war in Iraq has been likened to Vietnam. Certainly, it has opened the same credibility gap, has been funded by deficit spending and has turned into a quagmire. Maybe, though, this sense of deja vu is felt most keenly at the Pentagon. Within that building, it must be Vietnam all over again -- another asinine strategy, another duplicitous civilian leadership, more conformity and careerism, and, of course, more unnecessary loss of life.

Donald Rumsfeld famously came to the Pentagon to reform it. Instead, as we are coming to realize, he broke it, and H.R. McMaster, now a colonel with Iraq service, has at least one more book in him. Unfortunately, he can use the same title.

cohenr@washpost.com


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