The ‘Generalization’ of Iraq

A surprising surge of optimism has just bubbled up from America’s famously circumspect and straight-talking top military man in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. Next came a not-surprising rush to rebuke by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.

Because we all know where this is going — namely, that September report from Petraeus on whether the so-called troop surge is working — it is important to first note that the Iraq War has produced a historic shift: The unprecedented Generalization of the Iraq War, a shift historians may judge as one of the few good outcomes of this badly bungled mission that could end with America losing the war it won.

By “generalization,” we are not talking about glib statements from spokesmen, pols or pundits. (Although there has been no shortage of those in this war that began with a quick victory but evolved into an un-won peace that has dragged on longer than World War II.) The “generalization” we are focusing on is about America’s military generals and the unprecedented way they have emerged to tell us tough truths we needed to hear. Truths about miscalculations, misperceptions, deceptions and blunders that civilian policymakers committed and were hell-bent to hide.

We’ve heard them from retired generals who apparently felt free to speak their minds in ways we should have heard — but never did — during the Vietnam War. And most impressively, we’ve also heard tough truths from active-duty generals who understood that in a democracy truth is a core component of patriotic service. We did not always recognize instantly the value of the truths they told.

In 2003, when Army Gen. Erik Shinseki said that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz famously scoffed that the general was “wildly off the mark.” The Pentagon was saying just 100,000 could do it, and that was what President Bush wanted to hear and so did we all. So we just shrugged when then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s team of acolytes arrogantly pushed back until Shinseki retired.

Now this: Petraeus last week told USA Today that he was seeing “astonishing signs of normalcy” in Baghdad. “I’m talking about professional soccer leagues with real grass field stadiums, several amusement parks — big ones, markets that are very vibrant.” The same day, the new post-Rummy/post-Wolfie Defense Department was telling Congress, in a quarterly report, that the surge of some 50,000 more U.S. troops had not reduced the violence in Iraq, as Bush and others had said it would. The Pentagon said the increased troops in the capital city had merely pushed those causing violence into other areas of Iraq.

In the wake of Petraeus’ interview and the Pentagon’s comment, came the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada. In recent weeks, he has been a font of under-informed overstatements, as when he said weeks earlier that the war was lost and the surge cold not work — without giving it a chance. This time he held himself a bit more in check, telling reporters that Petraeus “isn’t in touch with what’s going on in Baghdad.” Reid said he hoped Petraeus would be “a little more candid” in his September report on the surge. In that, the Democratic leader got it just about right.

And that gets us to the bottom line. Petraeus, according to those who have known him well, has been a forthcoming and straight-talking general. He is a Princeton Ph.D. who shows that “military intelligence” need not be a contradiction in terms. He knows his duty to his country and its citizens is more than telling his desperate and dispirited commander in chief only the good news he wants to hear.

The general also knows it will be very wrong if his September report is just an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand assessment that bends over backward to find ways of saying good things about the surge — because he designed it and implemented it.

What the general doesn’t need are politicians who pre-judge. What we need are generals who possess the military intelligence and integrity to do the same — even when they are reporting on their own best efforts. We need a straight-talker, not a cheerleader.

Those who know Petraeus best believe he can be our best hope for providing the tough truth we need in this time of national disenchantment over the war we thought we’d won four years ago.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)


  1. LurkingFromTheLeft

    “Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical,” Mr. Bush said in a brief ceremony in the East Room of the White House. He called the United States “a nation founded on the principle that all human life is sacred.”

    …then why are ‘we’ in Iraq? –

    …why do ‘we’ have our sights on Iran? –

    …oh, THOSE lives aren’t sacred –


  2. Steve Horn

    I think I’ve figured this out, LFL. See, Bush is a Christian, so he probably believes in original sin and some basic “age of responsibility”. In many Christian sects you’re baptised (your soul is washed clean) soon after you’re born, in others it happens around age 12 (apparently until you’re 12 you’re not responsible for sin) – so it’s not OK to kill the unborn, as they are (in his and many Christians eyes) without sin BUT it’s Okie-dokie to whack people when they’ve hit their teens – ’cause they are sinful. Now – what about the professing Christians who are fighting in the military and dying? Well – they’re sinful as well – ’cause there’s that old “Thou shall not kill” phrase – so it’s OK for them to die. Same as those on death row – since the government has deemed it’s OK for them to die we use a convenient separation of church and state to make it OK for them to die (the state is, after all, amoral – right?).

    In some odd, twisted way, this allows GW to claim all life is precious while unborn (assuming that you consider the unborn to be living individuals – but I’m not going to debate that here) but is virtually worthless once you’ve reached the age of responsibility and have sinned.

    Either that or Bush and the other neocons are just a bunch of irrational, illogical lunatics.




    It is a mistake to see the Iraq fiasco as the result of incompetence alone. The whole thing started with a criminal act called 911, which was wildly successful at first. It might have truly succeeded it we had been greeted with flowers and candy so take out mind off the con.

    John Hanks, Laramie, Wyoming

  4. Rick Fuller

    Actually things “started” before 9/11

    * Beirut – U.S. Marine’s Barracks – 1983
    * Achille Lauro – 1984
    * Pan Am Flight 103 – Lockerbie, Scotland – 1987
    * WTC – 1993

    Had the late former President Ronald Reagan dealt with the terrorists then, in 1983, when over 200 Marines were slaughtered as they slept, instead of running away, history, today, might be different.

    Additionally, had the late former President Reagan and George H.W. Bush not bargained with terrorists for the release of American hostages in 1979, things might be different today as well – but there was an election “to win” in 1980.

  5. Joe Lawrence

    The core truth of the Iraq mess is this:

    It was and still is all about the oil.

    All that is necessary for Bush to declare “victory” is an oil revenue-sharing agreement, so my suggestion is that we simply impose one on them – forgetting all about the faux search for democracy – and, since no one in the USA has suffered or sacrificed for this idiot’s errand except the troops, both dead and wounded, we insist on setting aside $3.6 billion (and counting) for their direct monetary compensation, with the rest split equally between the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.

    End of war; end of story….and “…history can be the judge after we are all dead.”

    Joe Lawrence

  6. Steve Horn

    Apparently some people still take the the pledge “to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America” to heart – if not the commander in chief – at least those in the military. This is especially important when the primary threat is from inside of our borders, as it has been since 2000.



  7. LurkingFromTheLeft

    So have I

    …figured it out as well –

    …he’s hoping science can expedite the gestation period of the embryos –

    …and staff his armed forces with Snow Flake Babies –

    …I mean, won’t be personnel fit to fight left before too long –


    P.S. – you are spot on with the irrational, illogical lunatics theory! –

  8. jgw

    An interesting thought – generals speaking out with the truth. Actually, for the most part, its ‘retired’ generals. As far as I know any general who has spoken out negatively, ie. “We got a little problem here”, has simply been fired and what we have left are the politicals who can stomach failure and incompetence. It will be interesting to see if the current ‘forthright’ general can actually tell the truth as it has been in real short supply so far.

    I also find it interesting that the administration, having pretty much run through all the available and willing generals, has now put the navy in charge of a land war. One can only wonder if admirals can deal as well and freely, with the ‘truth’, as the previous set of loser generals have (up to now the admirals in charge have been remarkably quiet).

    john white
    Port Angeles, WA

  9. Steve Horn

    The Admirals are, I am certain, well suited to leading a land based war. Within the officer corps there has been, for quite some time, cross training exercises between the branches of the military. Naval officers have, on a consistent basis, demonstrated an ability to adapt to land based operations. Being a smaller officer corps it seems that fewer political hacks make it to the top ranks in the smaller branches than in the Army. Think about it – if the selection process is more demanding from day 1 those who rise to the top should be of higher quality.

    Please note, I say this having completed Army officers training many years ago.

  10. SnowCrash7

    As a retired vet with significant combat and counter insurgency experience I have mixed feelings about this article. Schram is correct about Shinseki, who was willing to fall on his sword for the troops, while Franks signed off on a plan he KNEW would be a disaster then got out of town quick. But the fact remains that too many active duty fighters knuckled under the stupidity and incompetence of the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz crew and meekly stood by while the mistakes of the neo-cons cost so many American lives. Col (Ret) Jacobs, who provided commentary to MSNBC told it like it is from the start while Lou Dobbs insisted on hosting a parade of perfumed princes and Pentagon lap dogs. The fact remains that for the most part, the actions of the active duty Generals has been awful.

  11. gene

    Lets see today I have (2) very active brain cells working (thankyou, I know you are impressed) but it only takes (2) to realize that all this talk about Iraq is just talk. We will eventually crawl our sorry american asses out of that country because (first) Arabs in general will continue to fight until we withdraw and (second) we DO NOT have enough troops or resources to sustain or control even a part of this area of the world.

    Yes this greedy, mineless nation needs the oil to continue our “american dream” life style (that is currently falling apart) but we will leave eventually. Bush can talk all he wants, generals can speak the truth (if their retired) but we all know it is a hopeless situation and from what I have read on other web sites, the american public is truely sick of this fabricated bullshit war.

    The only real reality is we need their oil but we don’t have the resources to steal it.