POLITICS DECEMBER 9, 2004
It took only a few sentences on Wednesday for Donald Rumsfeld to demonstrate why he is both morally and strategically unfit to serve as secretary of defense. In a townhall-style meeting at a staging area in Kuwait, Rumsfeld was asked by Specialist Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard why soldiers were forced "to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic [i.e., bulletproof] glass to uparmor our vehicles?" There was a short pause, and then many of the 2,300 troops in attendance erupted in cheers and applause. Faced with soldiers asking for the bare minimum from their leadership--the tools with which to do their jobs--Rumsfeld managed to be at once callous, self-deluding, and dishonest.
"[I]f you think about it," he said, "you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can [still] be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee and it can be blown up." The sheer condescension of the reply was breath-taking. If you think about it? One imagines that Specialist Wilson has thought quite a bit about being blown up--and the other dozens of ways he might be killed in Iraq. And what exactly was Rumsfeld suggesting, anyway? That Wilson simply adopt a more philosophical attitude toward combat? That he turn to the old AA prayer and ask God for the serenity to accept the things he cannot change? Perhaps Rumsfeld could suggest that troops begin patrolling without helmets. After all, you can wear your helmet until the end of time--and still get shot in the chest.
But more astounding was Rumsfeld's contention that "[y]ou go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time." Astounding because, of course, the United States did not go to war with the army it had; it went to war with a mere fraction of the army it had (nor, for that matter, was there any reason it could not have gone to war "at a later time"--even the administration's most dire predictions of Saddam's capabilities did not demand action in March 2003). In fact, invading Iraq with a light force (or, on the cheap, to put it less charitably) reflected the central thrust of the Rumsfeld doctrine--a drive to transform the U.S. military to a smaller, more mobile force less dependent on heavy, cold war-era equipment. The success in toppling the Taliban using only a few hundred special operations and CIA forces in late 2001 only cemented for Rumsfeld that what the military had was not necessarily what it needed.
So when, in late November 2001, General Tommy Franks, then head of Central Command, first briefed Rumsfeld on the existing war plan for Iraq, which called for the use of 500,000 troops following a seven-month buildup, the defense secretary scoffed and sent Franks back to the drawing board. Deploying half a million troops, after all, would have effectively relaunched Desert Storm, a conflict modeled on the Powell Doctrine and its demand for decisive force. But as Bob Woodward reports in Plan of Attack, Rumsfeld believed that such a traditional approach was too risk-averse, resulting in the addition of needless troops and time to any plan. Instead, the defense secretary argued that the Pentagon needed to embrace more risk, not less. In this, he had allies who floated radical war plans. His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, suggested using only about 10,000 troops to establish an enclave in Iraq from which Saddam could be overthrown; and Rumsfeld was, at least briefly, impressed by the thinking of Colonel Douglas MacGregor, who believed the Iraqi regime could be toppled with 50,000 men. Facing intense pressure from the secretary to devise a plan with a smaller ground component, Franks's estimates shrank and shrank again. The next iteration of the plan Franks presented to Rumsfeld called for fielding 400,000 troops over six months. By January 2002, invading Iraq required only 245,000. Ten months into the planning process, the number was down to 140,000.
Reducing the number of troops deployed was not the only change Rumsfeld made. In April 2003, Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that the defense secretary removed the original war plan's call for hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles to be sent to the region before the invasion; instead, he wanted to rely on the far smaller number of heavy vehicles that had been pre-positioned in Kuwait. This rubbed many the wrong way. According to Hersh, "In the months leading up to the war, a split developed inside the military, with the planners and their immediate superiors warning that the war plan was dangerously thin on troops and materiel." But Rumsfeld was unconcerned. In fact, he was willing to give up not only troops and equipment, but an entire military front. In early March 2003, just weeks before the invasion, when Turkey unexpectedly told the Pentagon that it would not allow the 4th Infantry Division to pass through its territory, Rumsfeld decided to launch the war without a northern front--or the 4th Infantry. In other words, he very consciously, and quite literally, decided to go to war without the army we have.
Rumsfeld chose to do this not only because he believed the military could tolerate greater risk, but because, like many hawks, he thought his critics overstated the difficulty of invading Iraq. He assumed that Americans would be welcomed as liberators and that post-invasion Iraq would remain relatively stable--despite the fact that U.S. intelligence agencies and the State Department warned of the opposite. In fact, following the invasion, the situation rapidly came unglued, and it quickly became clear that the United States did not have enough troops to guard the border, watch over government buildings, protect weapons depots, or even secure supposed WMD sites. Baghdad was so unstable after its fall on April 9 that retired General Jay Garner, who was initially placed in charge of reconstruction, couldn't enter the city for almost two weeks.
That initial instability, and indeed many of the most egregious problems the United States has subsequently faced in Iraq, can be traced to the early lack of troops. Though today's insurgency obviously has many causes, it was the immediate post-invasion looting that firmly established the break between the order of the Saddam regime and the chaos of the American occupation. As former Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer said October 4, "We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness." That atmosphere of lawlessness in turn drove U.S. attention from reconstruction to antiterrorism activity. The lack of security and basic public services fueled Iraqi resentment against the Americans, providing fertile ground for radical groups and preventing us from smothering the insurgency in its cradle. Even the Abu Ghraib scandal can be traced in part to the lack of troops. As the Rumsfeld-appointed commission headed by James Schlesinger noted in its August report, the lack of translators with Army patrols meant that U.S. soldiers arrested anyone they considered suspicious, flooding the prisons, which, because of a lack of military police, were ill-equipped to manage the detainees. Concluded Bremer in a different speech, "The single most important change--the one thing that would have improved the situation--would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout" the occupation.
Rumsfeld's faulty assumptions about the occupation left troops haphazardly deployed without sufficient equipment well before Wilson asked his provocative question. The Washington Post has reported that Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, at the time the commander of Iraq forces, had written the Pentagon in December 2003, after a particularly fierce period of counterinsurgency fighting, to complain that his units were "struggling just to maintain ... relatively low readiness rates" on their M-1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, anti-mortar radars, and Black Hawk helicopters. He further noted that 36,000 soldiers still needed protective ceramic inserts for their body armor. The problem was not solved. This spring there were press reports of soldiers buying their own body armor before deploying to Iraq, and in October members of the 343rd Quartermaster Company actually refused orders to drive a fuel shipment from near Nasiriya to a town north of Baghdad because their trucks were not armored and they did not have an armed escort.
On Wednesday, Rumsfeld assured the troops he spoke to in Kuwait that everything possible was being done to get them the armor and equipment they need--that only the logistical hurdles of producing and shipping the materiel stand in the way. But it should never have come to this. With the senior military, the intelligence agencies, and the State Department all concerned about postwar instability, Rumsfeld's assumptions never should have made it out of the E-Ring. And, in an elective war with little cost to delay, there's no reason that troops should have been sent to Iraq without an overabundance of equipment. The war Rumsfeld planned has gone grievously wrong, yet he has lacked the introspection to understand his mistakes. And confronted with those mistakes by one of the men who may die for them, he lacked the humility and courage to acknowledge them. One can only hope his doctrine winds up with the scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass--buried in a landfill somewhere in the Gulf.