A Revolt of the Generals?

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PETER MACDIARMID / GETTY IMAGES

Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannatt waits to give media interviews at the Ministry of Defence on October 13, 2006, in London. General Sir Richard has stated that British military foces in Iraq should "get out some time soon."

Soldiers are supposed to follow orders. But top generals are also supposed to guide their political masters so the orders make sense — and in the end, to object if they don't. So, in the face of mounting casualties and political chaos in Iraq and no clear strategy for victory, it was only a matter of time before military commanders on the ground would start publicly voicing their contrary opinions.

That's just what happened this week, though it took a British and not an American general to start the dialogue. The straight-talking chief of the British Army, Gen. Richard Dannatt, gave interviews to the London Daily Mail and the BBC that had 10 Downing Street scrambling. Though he pointed out that British troops had made enough progress to turn over control of two southern provinces to Iraqi forces, he also noted that they weren't invited in at the outset and are widely unpopular.

"It's an absolute fact that in some parts of the country, the fact that we are there causes people to attack us, and in that sense, our presence exacerbates violence," he said. The original hope of installing a liberal democratic government is out of reach and might have been "na´ve." "We should aim for a lower ambition," he argued — just keeping Iraq a unitary state. He has "much more optimism we can get it right in Afghanistan" than in Iraq. Though the British army "doesn't do surrender," he said he wanted its 7,000 troops out "sometime soon" because "time is not our friend — we can't be here forever at this level. I have an army to look after, which is going to be successful in current operations, but I want an army in five years' time, ten years' time; I don't want to break it on this one."

When officials working for Tony Blair got first reports of Dannatt's newspaper interview, they were baffled and wondered why he had taken the army's top job if he disagreed with its principal mission. When the full text arrived, they determined he was not frontally criticizing Blair's current policy, which also favors an exit from Iraq as soon as Iraqi forces can take over, but instead was sticking up for his beloved army in a way someone more media-savvy might have done without leaving so many hostages to tabloid fortune. At a press conference, in fact, Blair tried to put a good spin on it all by saying he agreed with "every word" of Dannatt's statements.

Nevertheless, while the general's views may not technically diverge from Blair's policy, they certainly remind the public in a way that embarrasses Downing St.— as well as Washington — how difficult if not impossible that policy will be to achieve. Blair would never state that his ambitions for Iraq might have been na´ve, that British troops are a magnet for attack or should leave soon. The fact that Dannatt's views are widely shared among senior officers only intensifies the awkwardness for the Prime Minister.

In Washington, even though Coalition forces have been fighting in Iraq nearly as long as Americans fought the Axis during World War II, serving officers have been more circumspect. Recent criticism of U.S. strategy and tactics is easy to find from retired officers, such as Marine Gen. Tony Zinni, former head of the Central Command, which has responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan, who recently called the U.S. approach "bankrupt." But whatever sharp talk may be uttered in the Pentagon gets sanded down by the time it reaches the outside world.

Ambitious officers remember the fate of Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who was frozen out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld after testifying in 2003 that an occupation force of "several hundred thousand" would be required in Iraq — which contradicted Rumsfeld's conviction that a much smaller force would be sufficient. Shinseki was right, but Rumsfeld is still in charge. No senior U.S. officer has been fired or disciplined for mistakes or incompetent execution in Iraq, including Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the general in command in Iraq at the time of Abu Ghraib, who was allowed to retire quietly.

Nor has Gen. John Abizaid, the Centcom commander who has been a key decision maker, been openly criticized or sharply questioned by Congress about his strategy. The get-along, go-along culture of the top brass creates tensions with officers in Iraq, who complain that their requests for more troops are often ignored because senior officers do not want to deliver more bad news to the Pentagon. A sharp contrast is provided by the Israeli military, which started an inquiry into its own failures in Lebanon last summer even before the fighting ended. "The Israelis demand accountability for poor performance, but the U.S. military and political establishment are not willing to raise questions about their own failures and the fact that nearly 3,000 Americans have now lost their lives," says a former U.S. military officer.

Surviving the slippery slopes of power may be hard for generals, and of course it is right that they respect civilian control by not wading into political debates. But with lives are at stake, Dannatt felt compelled to speak: "Honesty is what it is all about. The truth will out. We have got to speak the truth."