What do we commemorate this Memorial Day?


“In Flanders’ fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses row on row.”

Soldiers have died in all our wars. Some of those wars were more noble than others, some of those deaths more heroic to be sure, but I think that our memory of all wars should be tinged with some feelings of sadness and regret and we should never stop asking “Why?” for I believe that we can do better than give in again and again to the dogs of war.

This year’s pre-memorial day movies on television presented Mel Gibson fighting in the American Revolution ( _The Patriot_ ) and in Vietnam ( _We Were Soldiers_ ) when the First Air Cav stumbled into invading North Vietnamese regulars in South Vietnam’s Ia Drang river valley along with John Wayne.

I took my place in the line of Americans who have fought for their country during the Vietnam War. My father and uncles fought in the South Pacific in their time. Uncle Bud still carries shrapnel from his encounter with a Japanese grenade. A grandfather served in World War I; great, great uncles volunteered for Lincoln in the Civil War, and an ancestor, Winthrop Young was in the Revolution as a volunteer with the New Hampshire militia. His son Benjamin married the daughter of Samuel Jackson who had seen action at Bunker Hill. Memorial Day and Veterans Day have meaning in my family. We have known war.

But uncomfortably, I have conflicted feelings this Memorial Day about the current war in Iraq – feelings lying somewhere betwixt and between a patriotism always loyal to American ideals, kinship with those who now serve conscientiously in Iraq, and anger at leaders whose incompetence threatens our national interest and undermines my American idealism.

By coincidence I have just finished reading _Cobra II_, the book by Michael Gordon and retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Bernard E. Trainor that tells us in retrospect the inside story of the successful military effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party dictatorship. The story told by Gordon and Trainor only exacerbated the tensions within my thoughts about the “rightness” of the war in Iraq, now in its third year.

_Cobra II_ got good press two months ago for its critique of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as to how he imposed his ideas about war on our experienced military commanders. The book is credited by some commentators as having inspired six retired general officers to go public with their opposition to Rumsfeld’s leadership of the war. This public demonstration of military opposition to the nation’s civilian leadership is unprecedented in recent American history.

What caught my attention, though, was the pervasive incompetence documented by Gordon and Trainor on the part of the Bush Administration as Saddam’s regime collapsed. The failures of strategy, planning, understanding, and implementation were massive and inexcusable. This was a leadership team that missed opportunities for success and increased the odds of failure.

For starters, our intelligence was brain dead. The CIA had no idea what was going on inside Iraq. Not just with reference to Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. No Iraqi capacity to replace Saddam with an effective government was either identified or trained. We had no Iraqi allies to join in our fight once the war began – not even from the Shiites. This after the Bush Administration had worked and planned for 18 months to initiate the war. The resistance from Iraqi guerillas to our invasion – including car bombs and foreign Jihadist fighters – was unexpected and the doom it foretold of a quagmire war was ignored by the Bush team.

The CIA allowed the son of a respected Shiite Imam to return without a security detail. He was immediately killed by followers of Muqtada Al Sadr, who now is in the front row of Iraq’s freely elected government. When I read of that murder, I knew things would go from bad to worse for our efforts to bring democracy to Iraq.

Our military commanders expected allied forces to arrive after the collapse of Saddam’s government to provide security so that American units could withdraw according to Rumsfeld’s plan. But by rejecting cooperation with the United Nations, the Bush Administration destroyed any chance of recruiting significant numbers of allied units. And no one told our generals that their assumption was an illusion.

Our exit strategy was an illusion; we didn’t have one. That was inexcusable. But the burden of failure in high office has fallen on those Americans sent to Iraq to maintain its security and territorial integrity as the Sunni and Jihadist insurgency grew and grew and divisions among Kurds, Sunni and Shiites set in deeper and deeper.

To add stupidity to simple naiveté on the part of the Bush Administration, Douglas Feith in the Pentagon, a well-connected member of the Israeli Lobby, decided both to disband Iraq’s security forces and to remove most members of the Ba’ath Party from government positions. He didn’t even know that many Iraqi generals were not members of the Ba’ath Party and had not been trusted by Saddam. An American official with no understanding of Iraq realities rolled the dice of fate. We crapped out as the insurgency was given both justification and momentum.

And our military planners – told to withdraw American forces just as fast as they had come to Iraq – also had counted on Iraqi army units to maintain local security to protect the American withdrawal. Nobody gave them a heads up that civilians in the Pentagon would sabotage that force option as well.

One reads in vain waiting for evidence of American diplomatic skill and astute interactions with Iraqi political leaders. There was no such skill and no such finesse.

By contrast, as early as May 11, 2003, John Sawers, Tony Blair’s senior representative in Iraq, accurately saw what was going on and what needed to be done. He wrote “Four days in Iraq has been enough to identify the main reasons why the reconstruction of Iraq is so slow. The Coalition are widely welcomed but are gradually losing public support.”

A copy of his analysis was shared with American policy makers and nothing very constructive happened. We continued to impose our ideas of Iraq on the Iraqis.

In reading _Cobra II_ it becomes clear that the Bush Administration knew nothing of war. They could not distinguish between the battle and the war: overthrowing Saddam was a battle; building a new Iraq was the war.

And, they never saw just how fundamental politics is to winning a war. The politics of using the United Nations, the politics of winning over allies such as India and Saudi Arabia to send troops, the politics of working with non-Ba’athist Iraqi generals, the politics of getting electricity up and running in Baghdad, the politics of winning the allegiance of tribal leaders, the politics of providing security 24/7 – all these uses of influence and building up of trust and delivering public goods were crucial to winning the war in Iraq just as politics is crucial to winning every war.

Clauswitz told us this nearly 200 years ago but the Bush team is a slow learner on the war-fighting learning curve, especially when the war is against a global terrorist insurgency.

And, Gordon and Trainor reveal in their book that the necessary knowledge of exactly how to win the war was present within our military. Such experience and insight was ignored, however, by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Franks, Jerry Bremer, and other senior Bush war fighters.

On this Memorial Day 2006, just what are the obligations we owe to all those Americans who over two centuries have given the last full measure of devotion in the faith that all was for the best? What do we owe those who have died or been grievously wounded in Iraq? What do we owe those who still serve in that country so terribly torn by violence and mistrust?