Bush Prepares the Generals for a Long War

  • Share
  • Read Later
Wars are easy to start. But they can be difficult to sustain. George W. Bush understands this, and so has been furiously managing expectations, pressing the case with almost everyone he talks to that this will be a long war against terrorism. Even his generals are getting the pitch. Take last Monday morning, shortly after 11, when Bush pulled a chair up to the long oval table in the Secretary of Defense's private conference room across the hall from Donald Rumsfeld's office on the E-ring of the Pentagon. It's the side almost opposite the one sliced open by American Airlines Flight 77. Behind Bush, the battle flags of the services with their campaign ribbons hung from poles. Rumsfeld, Gen. Richard Meyers (who will soon take over as joint chiefs chairman) and the generals and admirals in charge of the country's Reserve and National Guard forces sat around the table with thick briefing books opened.

The senior officers were there to brief Bush on the reserve call-up. Bush had approved putting as many as 50,000 on active duty, but the Pentagon for the moment only needed 35,000. There was no banter this morning. NSC Adviser Condi Rice and other senior White House aides sat with him, but remained silent, deferring to Bush to ask all the questions.

Bush was upbeat, but not cocky. He wanted his generals to hear the same message he was delivering to Americans. "This will be a long campaign," he told the senior officers in the room, "and the people in uniform are very important to it." From the beginning, Bush has been worried about sustaining American resolve to fight a long war against terrorism over many months. In an Oval Office meeting the week before with the four senators from New York and Virginia, Bush had voiced those private concerns. "We have to be resolute," he told the senators gravely. "If after the World Series, America forgets our mission and our duty, we'll lose."

Bush kept the Pentagon meeting moving at a crisp pace; his schedule called for him to also attend a briefing by the Joint Special Operations Command on the top-secret operations it could launch. The senior officers in this meeting quickly outlined the capabilities they would tap in the first callup. Most of the reservists would be used for homeland defense, such as helping out with recovery in New York City and piloting jets on patrol against further aerial attacks on cities.

The Pentagon relied on reservists and guardsmen far more now to handle jobs the regulars once did, the senior officers told Bush. Reservists and guardsmen now fly many of the cargo and refueling planes and are considered some of the Air Force's best jet fighter pilots. Other military duties, such as civil affairs, water purification in the field, legal and medical services, are handled almost entirely by reservists.

Bush was impressed. The generals cautioned, however, that there would be problems they'd have to deal with in the callup: employers angry at losing workers for reserve duties, family separations, uncertainties among the reservists about how long they would be in uniform.

"I understand," Bush said. And he did. He's a former Texas Air National Guard F-102 pilot, as well as a governor who had to call on his state's National Guard in emergencies. It was important for the reservists to have an idea of how long they would be on active duty, Bush told the senior officers, and for the Pentagon to stroke the employers so they don't start complaining. "The employers must understand that we appreciate their support," Bush said. And the reservists must know "we're going to take care of their families."

When the meeting ended, photographers and reporters were allowed in for photos and a few questions. Bush turned from calm tactician to visceral hawk. "I know that this is a different type of enemy than we're used to," he told the reporters and photographers. "It's an enemy that likes to hide and burrow in, and their network is extensive. There are no rules. It's barbaric behavior. They slit throats of women on airplanes in order to achieve an objective. That is beyond comprehension."

"Do you want bin Laden dead?" a reporter asked.

"I want justice," Bush answered. "There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive."

A few of the generals looked at each other and smiled. They liked that kind of bravado, even though they didn't know if the Pentagon could back it up.