My brother-in-law is a Captain in the Marines, serving in Iraq as a logistics officer. We’ve been emailing back and forth, and it’s been an enlightening experience for me. He’s extremely intelligent, forthright and capable. He’s also a strong supporter of the war in Iraq and of the Bush administration. I disagree with him, but it’s what I think of as the right kind of disagreement: a constructive working through of ideas and principles.
He sent an email complaining of press overreaction to Donald Rumsfeld’s comments regarding armor for the troops. I agreed with a lot of what my brother-in-law had to say — he pointed out that it’s not a simple on-or-off question, but one that involves tradeoffs: the more armor you add, the slower the vehicles become, and the more fuel, maintenance and spare parts they require, while the money for armor might be better spent on more intelligence or more forward deployment of up-armored combat vehicles ahead of convoys. But he did make one comment that I disagreed with strongly:
But in the end the Secretary is right; we go to war with what we have.
Here’s what I wrote back:
This is my one area of disagreement. You go to war with what you have, because you’re a Marine within the chain of command. Donald Rumsfeld, however, is the man in charge of determining what war we go to and what we have when we go. He’s second only to the president, and war planning is his responsibility. In the case of this war, we chose the time and we chose the shape of the fight. It’s not like troops were massing on our border and he had to go right away, or like we were responding to an attack. We could have invaded a week earlier, a week later, six months later. (This is not to debate whether we made the right political decisions regarding the Security Council, etc., but just a tactical observation: the status quo would almost certainly have held for a few weeks or months). And we could have gone with more troops, or with fewer, or with different configurations of forces. Rumsfeld is largely responsible for how we went, and with what equipment. He’s a strong believer in the transformation process, which means smaller, lighter forces — that is, less armor, more mobility. I’m not saying he’s wrong to have made that choice — I’m by no means certain that we would have been better off with the kind of giant force we’d built up over the decades to push the Soviets out of Poland — but he was wrong to imply that this was just something that happened, rather than something for which he was responsible.
I do think that Rumsfeld’s attachment to the concept of a quick, light, small military blinded him to some very real tactical concerns, particularly the looting that took place just after the invasion (and which was predicted in a detailed State Department report that the Pentagon largely ignored). In that instance, similar to this one, Rumsfeld’s response was that it was all up to fate — “Stuff happens” — when in reality, he had a great deal of responsibility for what was happening. Again, I’m not saying that a much larger force would necessarily have been better, but it was possible to plan for the potentiality of widespread looting, and one possible plan would have been to send in a greater number of troops to keep the peace in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. So either Rumsfeld was aware of the possibility of looting but chose not to worry about it — a tactical decision — or he was unaware of the possibility of looting — a failure of military intelligence and planning, for which he is ultimately responsible. Either way, as top man, Rummy should take responsibility: “Yes, that’s right, we’ve decided that there are limits on how much armor we want to use because that keeps our forces faster and lighter, which we think will improve our operational efficiency and win this thing faster, ultimately saving more lives.” That would be acceptable to me, although I might then choose to question his decision on tactical grounds. But it’s unfair to the troops and the American people for our SecDef to pretend like this war was a big surprise thrust upon him. It wasn’t. According to some reports, he was ready to hit Iraq just days after 9/11, and there’s no question in my mind that Rumsfeld’s Pentagon should have been developing Iraq war plans even before 9/11, simply because there was always the possibility of our needing to fight Saddam’s regime. I recognize that back before the war, Rumsfeld couldn’t just waltz on over to Congress and demand a whole pile of heavily armored Humvees, but I do think he had greater control over how we went to war than he is letting on.