12 Captains Urge Iraq Withdrawal

Twelve former Army captains who have served in Iraq but have now left the service describe “The Real Iraq We Knew” in a column for today’s WaPo commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War resolution.

They assert that “Iraq is in shambles” and “far from being a modern, self-sustaining country.” The infrastructure is woeful and the government is corrupt.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. military has been trying in vain to hold the country together. Even with “the surge,” we simply do not have enough soldiers and marines to meet the professed goals of clearing areas from insurgent control, holding them securely and building sustainable institutions. Though temporary reinforcing operations in places like Fallujah, An Najaf, Tal Afar, and now Baghdad may brief well on PowerPoint presentations, in practice they just push insurgents to another spot on the map and often strengthen the insurgents’ cause by harassing locals to a point of swayed allegiances. Millions of Iraqis correctly recognize these actions for what they are and vote with their feet — moving within Iraq or leaving the country entirely. Still, our colonels and generals keep holding on to flawed concepts.

I’m reminded here of a young Winston Churchill’s 1899 book The River War, written shortly after his service as a lieutenant in Sudan. His scathing attack on the tactics of everyone from Lord Kitchener down earned the book the derisive nickname “A Subaltern’s Advice to Generals.”

Junior officers are quite reasonably dismissed as having insufficient experience or perspective to comment on the judgment of those who have earned their seniority after thirty or more years of service and training. Further, the nature of command such is that many decisions that appear sound to those with proven expertise and extensive training will nonetheless lead to bad outcomes. That’s especially true in a war with guerrillas.

Still, those in command often make decisions that strike their subordinates as wildly wrong at the time and in fact prove disastrous. There are plenty of smart junior officers who, like it or not, sit in constant judgment of their seniors. Many times, they have valuable insights that are dismissed. These twelve say that’s precisely what happened here:

This is Operation Iraqi Freedom and the reality we experienced. This is what we tried to communicate up the chain of command. This is either what did not get passed on to our civilian leadership or what our civilian leaders chose to ignore. While our generals pursue a strategy dependent on peace breaking out, the Iraqis prepare for their war — and our servicemen and women, and their families, continue to suffer.

Having served as a junior officer in a war zone, I can attest that my perspective on the battle was incredibly limited. All I knew of the “big picture” was what I received in ops briefings and days-old copies of the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

In this case, though, I’m rather sure that the bottom-up view and the top-down view is the same. There’s not much argument, really, that the problems these twelve describe exist. Iraq’s a mess and it’s likely to still be a mess a year from now. The question, though, goes beyond the narrow view and to the strategic consequences for the broader region; that much, certainly, is beyond the purview of company grade officers.

The close is something of a surprise:

There is one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition.

A draft is neither politically feasible nor something that would have any operational advantage in the near term. Jules Critenden agrees, observing that, “It would be far quicker, cheaper and less politically traumatic to simple expand the military, and offer financial incentives to boost enlistment.”

A thirteenth captain who served in Iraq, Phil Carter, disagrees. We debated the topic two and a half years ago at Legal Affairs.

Others commenting:

Matt Yglesias sardonically dubs them “more phony soldiers.” He contends, “These are schemes that amount to asking soldiers to risk their lives not to achieve any strategic objectives of national importance, but for the vainglory of politicians whose egos are salved by anything that lets them avoid admitting error or the need for dramatic change.”

Ed Morrissey notes that “not one of them has served in Iraq since General David Petraeus took over command of the mission. Not one of them served with the higher force levels that have been deployed to Iraq. None of them served during the Anbar Awakening. Most of them last served in 2005, two years ago.” While not dismissing their experience, he argues, reasonably, that it’s OBE.

Bob Owens concurs, dismissing the piece as “a history lesson.”

In their defense, though, I presume they’re rather voracious consumers of news about the war. Then again, so are a lot of other people.

Kevin Hayden anticipates this critique but notes, “There’s an extreme shortage of officers with a firsthand perspective saying: stay in.” Certainly, I’ve spoken with quite a few Iraq veterans who want to see this one out; I haven’t seen any comprehensive surveys, however.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mike says:

    I rarely see anyone who has something positive to say about Iraq and the situation there (and i work with active duty military day in and day out)). The most positive thing i hear is “well we can’t pull out b/c what is the alternative” and “just hope you don’t have to go anytime soon”. I have also never seen so many people sick and tired of politicians on both sides of the aisle esp the president.

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    I think the timing of their service in Iraq has a lot to say. A year ago, saying that Anabar was beyond hope and a quagmire would have been conventional wisdom. Not so today. So hearing an assesment based on a year old experience from a dozen junior officers who decided to leave the service should be taken with a grain of salt.

    Mike,
    Perhaps, just perhaps, the issue on you not hearing positive things on Iraq says less about Iraq and more about where you get your news. Here are a couple of examples you may want to consider. Some with the typical MSM spin, and others with a more independent view.

    Al-Qaida in Iraq reported crippled

    Better numbers

    Casualties drop in Iraq

    The tide is turning in Basra

    ‘Journalists’ Tell Howard Kurtz Why Good News from Iraq Shouldn’t Get Reported

    Top Saudi Cleric Issues Warning

    Last letter from doomed Al Qaida chief: ‘We are so desperate for your help’

    nyt-takes-aim-at-blackwater-hits-self

    I know that I hear negative news from Iraq. But I try to get a balanced view by seeking out some other sources.

  3. cian says:

    Junior officers are quite reasonably dismissed as having insufficient experience or perspective to comment on the judgment of those who have earned their seniority after thirty or more years of service and training

    When senior officers,with thirty or more years of service and training, step forward to speak out against the conduct of this war and the calibre of those leading us, then dismissing junior officers does indeed seem unreasonable.

    From reading Thomas Rick’s ‘Fiasco’ we know the Generals have little or no say over strategy. Petraeus himself knows the level of troops he has under his command cannot achieve the stated goal of the administration- to create the space within which political dialogue can take place. Strategy has and continues to be run by a group of people who, when their time came to step forward and serve their country, failed to act.

    Important as it is that those doing the fighting speak out, more important still is that we listen.

  4. Wayne says:

    Talk into any group of officers and you will get a wide variety of opinions. The fact that someone could find 12 officers to say just about anything is no big surprise. Isn’t anyone curious how these officers are connected?

    It would be more informative if the captains stated what their jobs were over there. From the article they made claims like pre-war conditions that at most is hearsay. Many of their statement sounded agenda driven.

    Yes there have been junior officers criticisms that have been valid but many have not.

    Should we listen to them? Yes, but understand you have many out there with different opinions. Isn’t it odd that only the negative ones find the press? I know from personal contact that there are many positive opinions as well.

  5. ken says:

    Five years ago I observed that the military loathed Bush. This is not so true today. Today they are resigned to suffering his foolishness until a new command is in place. Their sole hope is in a Democratic victory in 2008.

  6. yetanotherjohn says:

    Ken,

    I’m not sure where you get your “Bush loathed” observation, but it doesn’t seem to match reality.

    By an astonishing 72 to 17 percent margin, the active-duty military personnel who took the survey favored Bush over Kerry (Guard and Reserve respondents favored Bush, 73 to 18 percent).

    In the 2000 presidential election, absentee military ballots from overseas helped deliver the narrow margin of victory that sent Bush into the White House.

    HAVE YOU EVER SERVED IN THE MILITARY?
    BUSH KERRY NADER
    TOTAL 2004 2000 2004 2004

    Yes (18%) 57% n/a 41% 0%

    No (82%) 49% n/a 50% 0%

    Now this doesn’t mean that you can’t find people currently or formerly in the military who loathe Bush, but I don’t think you can make the case for the blanket statement that “the military loathed Bush”.

  7. Pug says:

    “Captain” (not a real one) Ed:

    not one of them has served in Iraq since General David Petraeus took over command of the mission. Not one of them served with the higher force levels that have been deployed to Iraq. None of them served during the Anbar Awakening. Most of them last served in 2005, two years ago.” While not dismissing their experience, he argues, reasonably, that it’s OBE.

    It seems he is dismissing their experience while “not dismissing their experience”.

    I guess it could also be argued that Captain Ed has not only not served in Iraq since 2005, but has never served a day in uniform and never been to Iraq, period. He seems eminently unqualified to comment on the quality of experience of these captains. He is a classic armchair general, in fact.

  8. James Joyner says:

    It seems he is dismissing their experience while “not dismissing their experience”.

    Well, no. Presumably, service in Iraq gave them some experience with the situation in Iraq. But the passage of time has, quite obviously, dated that experience.

    I guess it could also be argued that Captain Ed has not only not served in Iraq since 2005, but has never served a day in uniform and never been to Iraq, period. He seems eminently unqualified to comment on the quality of experience of these captains.

    He’s read the news for the last five years and would seem to have a reasonable grasp of the facts on the ground. Military experience and training gives some helpful tools through which to filter information, to be sure, but it’s not disposative.

  9. anjin-san says:

    “Captain” Ed. A lot of good irony here. Another armchair warrior…

    But hey, he does read the news.

  10. garett says:

    I was just an E-4, but I can tell you a lot of soldiers are sick of George Bush and current policy. Many soldiers don’t want to pull out because they buy into talking points about quiting, cutting and running, and giving up. But many of us are starting to see that the occupation in Iraq is losing the War on Terror. Possibly the only victory we can muster is by removing the troops from Iraq, since staying only encourages more Islamic extremism. We are sick of fighting this war and getting now where.

    None of us wanted Kerry really either and few of us have the confidence that the democrats have the answers this time around either.

    SPC Garett R.