Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.
As with Vietnam, the Iraqi tar pit was oh-so-easy to sink into, but appears to be just as tough to exit.
This should be no big surprise! Most slugfests – from bar brawls to military misadventures like Vietnam and Iraq – take some clever moves to step away from once the swinging starts.
This is why most combat vets pick their fights carefully. They look at their scars, remember the madness and are always mindful of the fallout.
That’s not the case in Washington, where the White House and the Pentagon are run by civilians who have never sweated it out on a battlefield. Never before in our country’s history has an administration charged with defending our nation been so lacking in hands-on combat experience and therefore so ignorant about the art and science of war.
Now the increasingly flummoxed Bush team is stealing the page on Vietnamization from Nixon’s Exit Primer, coupled with the same deceitful tactics he used to get us out of the almost decade-long Vietnam quagmire: telling lies.
The Nixon gang kicked off its con in 1969 via a killer of a PR snow job to pacify an American public whose support for the war was exhausted. The guts of this spin show were: We have clobbered the enemy; the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) is main-event material and ready to take over the fighting; and we can bring our troops home. This propaganda was supported by ARVN combat-readiness reports systematically doctored by our brass to show that the units we were advising were good-to-go.
I was on the ground as an adviser to ARVN when the campaign launched, and I was completely floored. Even the elite outfits – Rangers, Special Forces, paratroopers – were not fully capable of defending their country when put to the test. And these gung-ho troops were ARVN’s finest. Average ARVN grunts down in the ordinary infantry divisions were so ineffective that they couldn’t have fought their way out of a day-care center without massive U.S. air support.
Meanwhile, U.S. units started redeploying. Two years after the last grunt climbed on the last silver “freedom bird” and headed home, ARVN folded like a wet noodle.
All that blood, sacrifice and billions of American taxpayer dollars went for naught because politicians hadn’t worked out the endgame before Round One. And then their solution-without-honor was to lie their way out of a no-win war.
Thirty-five years later, President Bush told the nation that Iraq had nine fully trained combat infantry battalions. Just as he was proclaiming the prowess of the Iraqi army, a major in the Iraqi Training Command told me that the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, when committed to their first battle, threw down their weapons and ran. “Not sure where the president is getting his info, but we have only one battalion that’s good-to-go,” he said.
Inquiring minds want to know: Is our president still being fed bad skinny comparable to the intel incorrectly linking Saddam to 9-11 or claiming that Iraq was chockablock full of weapons of mass destruction?
More recently, Pentagon hype claimed 140,000 trained and equipped Iraqi troops were set to go toe-to-toe against an estimated 15,000 insurgents. But when congressional pressure from both Republicans and Democrats lit fires around the feet of both SecDef Rummy’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, they were quick to admit that only 40,000 Iraqi soldiers were ready to meet the tiger. The rest, according to Myers, “were useful in less-taxing jobs … in relatively stable southern Iraq.”
The hard truth is that it takes a good 10 years to build an army from the ground up. And the major emphasis must be placed not on numbers such as how many battalions have been fielded or how ready the recruits are, but rather on good, old-fashioned officer training. Until this happens and the corrupt Iraqi officer leadership – from gold bar to four stars – gets a good scrub, our troops are stuck in the tar.
Bush needs to set up a truth squad directly outside his Oval Office door quicksmart. Then, whenever the Pentagon plays fast and loose with the truth, the liars can be immediately rounded up and punished.
Because lying won’t get our troops out of Iraq without our national security taking a long-term hit that our country simply cannot afford.