General knowledge

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- In early 1998, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, sent all of his four-star generals a book called Dereliction of Duty. Then he summoned them to a breakfast at which the author, a young Army major named H. R. McMaster, described how Lyndon B. Johnson's top generals let the president bog us down in Vietnam without voicing their strong reservations.

One of the generals at the breakfast, Anthony C. Zinni, who was then head of Central Command, recalled for me the chairman's firm words. "This will never happen again," General Shelton said.


But despite internal grumbling about the Bush administration's strategy for the Iraq war, most top brass have stayed silent. Now, some retired officers are speaking up.

Mr. Zinni is one of several retired generals who recently have decried the failure of senior brass to criticize the huge mistakes by Pentagon and White House leaders that led to the miring of America in Iraq. All have called on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign.


What is so important about these critiques is that they not only confirm the egregious lack of Pentagon planning for postwar Iraq, they also underline how the same blindness is undercutting prospects for stabilizing Iraq.

Retired Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, a three-star Marine who was the top Pentagon operations officer before the invasion, wrote last week that the decision to invade Iraq "was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions - or bury the results."

Paul D. Eaton, a retired Army major general who was in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2004, accused Mr. Rumsfeld of "ignoring the advice of seasoned officers and denying subordinates any chance for input."

Mr. Zinni, who retired before the Iraq war, recalls that any questions about postwar planning were unwelcome to Mr. Rumsfeld: "The military was told not to worry about" the postwar.

Senior military officials had developed a contingency plan in the 1990s in case of an Iraq invasion, calling for 380,000 to 500,000 troops. Mr. Rumsfeld said the plan was old and stale; Mr. Zinni says it was "living, breathing and dynamic" and was updated yearly.

In 2003, the top Army general, Eric K. Shinseki, said several hundred thousand troops would be needed for postwar Iraq. But he was humiliated by Mr. Rumsfeld, which sent a clear message to other military critics to shut up.

Mr. Zinni was worried before the Iraq war that the invasion would lead to chaos. He believed that if you break a highly authoritarian state, a period of occupation would be required to rebuild it.

But the civilian leadership of the Pentagon was wholly unprepared for occupation and believed that Iraq would quickly spring back to order. Initial plans called for a drawdown to 30,000 U.S. troops within three months of the invasion. This resistance to reality is why the three generals believe Mr. Rumsfeld must go.


So long as Mr. Rumsfeld stays, Mr. Zinni says, "we are constantly defending the past, which limits the ability to move ahead. We are not as free to make changes, to accept new ideas."

A prime example is the Pentagon's new Quadrennial Defense Review, which seems to draw no lessons from failures in Iraq. Iraq has shown that any effort to help rebuild failed states calls for more, and better-trained, ground forces. Many senior officers are bitter that the Pentagon has not learned this lesson. Instead, Mr. Rumsfeld has called for a traditional goody bag of expensive heavy-weapons programs.

The message from the military on the ground doesn't seem to be reaching the Pentagon, either. Mr. Zinni says "many small-unit commanders are discouraged" at the lack of an overall strategy that builds on their work at local levels. "They go back for a second tour and can't believe how far things have sunk," he says.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is