War Stories

Defending Rumsfeld From the Generals

But just a teeny little bit.

Is there anything to say in defense of Donald Rumsfeld, as he battles the retired generals who are calling for his head? Yes, a little bit, but no more.

At a news conference on Tuesday, the flustered secretary of defense brushed off the attacks as simple parochial politics. He listed the changes he’d instituted in Pentagon practices, the weapons systems he’d canceled, the unconventional strategies and personnel shuffles he’d pursued—and he noted that he’d met resistance from some of the officer corps at every step along the way. Rumsfeld went on:

I look back on those decisions, and I’m proud of them. They caused a lot of ruffles; let there be no doubt. … [T]o try to get from the 20th century, the Industrial Age, into the Information Age, the 21st century, from conventional warfare into irregular and asymmetrical warfare, is a difficult thing to do. And by golly, one ought not to be surprised that there are people who are uncomfortable about it and complaining about it.

Is that what’s going on here—a hidebound military brass chafing at the visionary reforms of the civilian chief? It’s true that Rumsfeld’s most aggressive changes affected the Army above all the other services—and that most of his military critics at the moment are retired Army generals. The only serious weapon system he killed was the Army’s Crusader artillery gun. He restructured the Army’s basic unit, the division, into smaller combat brigades. He named a retired general (and one from the special-operations command, at that) to be his Army chief of staff, instead of picking an active-duty general. (For details, click here, here, and here.)

But there are a few facts that get in the way of the theory that the attacks are merely Army payback. First, his two most outspoken critics—Gen. Anthony Zinni and Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold—are ex-Marines. As anyone who knows about interservice rivalry can tell you, Marines are not disposed to come to the aid of the Army (or vice versa, and you can say the same about the Air Force and the Navy). Rumsfeld has been rather good to the Marines. He is the first secretary of defense to name a Marine (Gen. Peter Pace) as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some of his ideas about ground warfare—rapid thrusts and maneuvers, as opposed to massive forward assaults—are closer to the Marines’ traditions than to the Army’s. Zinni had also spent the last years of his career running combat commands, most recently U.S. Central Command, which controls operations in the Persian Gulf and South Asia. Rumsfeld has spent more time and had more meetings with these multiservice commanders than with the service chiefs in the Pentagon.

And yet Zinni and Newbold’s critiques are exactly the same as those of their Army counterparts. They all say that, in planning the Iraq war, Rumsfeld endangered the lives of his troops and lost the trust of his officers by ignoring longstanding principles of warfare (for instance, how many troops are needed not just to fight battles but also to impose order afterward) and by dismissing the advice of his commanders. Some of the retired generals also criticized the war itself as unnecessary and as a diversion from the main conflict, which is with al-Qaida. Others didn’t go that far: They charged simply that Rumsfeld had fought the war wrong.

What about that charge? The tale is now legendary of Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee in the weeks before the invasion that a “few hundred thousand” troops would be needed not just to fight the war but also to impose order afterward. Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, publicly upbraided Gen. Shinseki the next day, saying it was “hard to imagine” so many troops would be necessary. Rumsfeld shunned Shinseki for the few months the general had left in office. And, as Gen. Newbold wrote in his Time magazine essay (the most dramatic of all the critiques and the one that triggered the many subsequent reports of a “generals’ revolt”), everyone got the message: Challenge the secretary, doom your career.

In one way (only one way, but an important one), Rumsfeld was right and the generals were wrong: It didn’t take so many troops to triumph on the battlefield. During Tuesday’s press conference, Rumsfeld put it this way:

[W]e’ve gone from … service-centric warfighting to deconfliction warfighting to interoperability and now towards interdependence. That’s a hard thing to do, for services to recognize that they don’t have to have all the capabilities, but they have to work sufficiently with the others.

The remark was hilariously inelegant, but once translated into English, it had insight. He meant that the individual services—the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines—tend to devise their war plans as if the other services don’t exist. In an age when jets can drop “smart bombs” that explode within a meter of their targets, air power can perform some of the tasks that only ground forces could perform even just a decade ago. So, during the run-up to the war, Rumsfeld insisted that the Army didn’t need all this heavy artillery—Air Force bombs could do some of the job—and therefore it didn’t need all the logistical support that went with the artillery or all the combat troops needed to defend the logistical supply lines. And he was right.

But he didn’t realize that by slicing out the support units, he was also slicing out the combat troops, military police, and logistics needed for “stability operations”—the order and occupation after the toppling of Saddam’s regime.

This, ultimately, is what the retired generals—and many of their silent allies still active—resent so deeply about Rumsfeld: that he fiddled with the war plan and threw it out of whack, without knowing what he was doing; and that (as Rumsfeld himself, in one of his poetic moods, might put it) he didn’t know just how much he didn’t know.

As a result (and Gen. Zinni, who’s been retired for longer than the other generals, foretold this at the time), an easy victory turned into a deadly stalemate and possibly a defeat to come. As a further result, the military, especially the Army, has suffered great loss of life and limb, which has made it harder to recruit and retain good officers and enlisted personnel—and a great squandering of resources, which has tightened their budgets at precisely the time when sky-high deficits are about to force budget cuts.

Here is where the generals’ parochial interests converge with patriotic concerns. And here is where Rumsfeld’s self-defense—his explanation for the mounting criticism of his tenure—crumbles into self-serving delusion and sanctimony.