In April 2006, six retired generals called for then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. In May of this year, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, an active-duty officer, wrote an article lambasting the Army’s general officer corps as lacking “professional character” and “moral courage.” Now, just last Sunday, seven infantrymen and noncommissioned officers—all finishing their 15-month tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division—took to the New York Times op-ed page to dismiss prospects of victory as “far-fetched” and recent appraisals of progress as “flawed” and “surreal.”
This last insiders’ protest is the most jaw-dropping and may ultimately be the most potent. It is unusual enough to see officers—active or retired—publicly denouncing military superiors or civilian leaders for mistakes or deficiencies in wartime. But for NCOs—none higher in rank than staff sergeant—to air their contrary views on the war (and, implicitly, their sour views of high-ranking policy-makers) is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented: an act of, depending on your politics, great courage or outright insubordination—or, perhaps, both.
It is for this reason that the seven junior soldiers might have the deepest political impact. They, after all, are breathing, fighting specimens of “the troops,” whose interests President George W. Bush routinely invokes to justify staying the course. One of the authors—an Army Ranger and reconnaissance-team leader, Staff Sgt. Jeremy A. Murphy—was shot in the head during the time that he and the others were writing the article. (He is expected to live, his co-authors note.) The op-ed piece will no doubt also be invoked as a set of boots-on-the-ground rebuttal points to whatever lofty claims are made by Gen. David Petraeus in his much-anticipated report due mid-September.
The central point of the seven soldiers’ critique speaks to the very heart of counterinsurgency theory. They write:
Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched.
This difficulty, they say, is intensified by “the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army.” By day, Iraqi security forces are armed and trained by U.S. military personnel. By night, they help insurgents plant bombs that maim and kill those same U.S. personnel the next day. The seven soldiers write:
As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that [Iraqi] battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.
In some campaigns, most notably in Anbar province, U.S. troops are relying on Iraqi proxies, especially Sunni tribes, to stem violence. Successful as some of these efforts are, they too have only short-lived benefits. Proxies are “essential in winning a counterinsurgency,” the soldiers write, but, in order for that strategy to work, the proxies must be “loyal to the center that we claim to support”—i.e., they must be loyal to the central government in Baghdad. The Sunni tribes, like the other sectarian militias, have no such loyalty.
Not even the most optimistic officers and analysts would claim that the United States can win this war by itself. Petraeus, among others, has said that the military campaign cannot produce victory; it can only provide breathing room for the Iraqi political factions to reconcile and create a unified government. Many, even perhaps Bush, are beginning to doubt if Iraq’s current nominal government can handle this.
But the seven soldiers doubt something more basic than even this: They doubt, on the basis of their own experience, that the military campaign can provide the breathing room. Even with the surge, the U.S. military must rely on the coherent cooperation of the Iraqi police and military. And the soldiers say in their op-ed piece that the Iraqi police and military are part of the problem.
The seven soldiers are named in the byline—Army Spc. Buddhika Jayamala; Sgts. Wesley D. Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Omar Mora, and Edward Sandmeier; and Staff Sgts. Yance T. Gray and Jeremy A. Murphy. But are they still in Iraq? Are they transiting out or already back home? I sent the soldiers e-mails, asking these questions. They haven’t yet responded. Do they still have their laptops? Are they facing reprisals? Are their Army careers over (at their own choice or that of others)?
I’ve put the question to several Army and Central Command spokesmen. None have replied; some say they’re looking into it. Meanwhile, they’re putting the best face on the Times piece. Cmndr. David Werner, a public-affairs officer at Centcom, reading from an official statement, said, “We’re proud of their intelligence and grit and insight. We do offer a variety of means by which soldiers can express their views.” However, he added, the op-ed piece represents “seven individual views. There’s 160,000 U.S. service members in Iraq presently. Others have their own views.”
It is important to note that, at least on the face of the op-ed piece, the seven soldiers are not anti-war. In fact, the piece states, “While we have the will and the resources to fight in this context, we are effectively hamstrung because realities on the ground require measures we will always refuse—namely, the widespread use of lethal and brutal force.”
Here they open up, but don’t go on to address, a broader issue: The cases of “successful” counterinsurgency campaigns that many advocates and historians cite—most notably, the Americans in the Philippines, the British in Malaya—involved much more brutality than we would likely tolerate today and perhaps more casualties and time as well. This raises a still larger question (which some officers and specialists, including a few who helped Petraeus write the Army’s recent field manual on counterinsurgency, regard as the question): Is the U.S. military—and are the American people—well-suited and prepared to fight these kinds of wars, once they understand just what they entail?