By Walden Bello*
The Abu Ghraib horror show has angered the Arab world and shamed most Americans. Yet, in the short term, it is its impact on the US Army that is most threatening to the Bush administration’s Iraq expedition.
All of those accused of sexual abuse and torture at the Abu Ghraib prison are from the Army. Ironically, this is the service whose leaders were most reluctant
about the planned Iraq intervention. In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, told a committee of the US Congress
that at least 200,000 troops would be necessary to invade and pacify Iraq. He was publicly contradicted by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who projected
that the number of troops needed to garrison Iraq would go down to 30,000 by the end of the summer of 2003. With a strategy relying on precision bombing
and airpower to blow Saddam’s Republican Guards to smithereens, Rumsfeld felt confident that the Army would essentially be left with mopping-up operations
and a largely peaceable occupation.
Paying the Price
Now, to pay for the massive miscalculation of Rumsfeld and the civilian leadership at the Pentagon, the Army is the service that is being called upon to provide
more troops for the Iraq meat-grinder. Some 135,000 troops remained in Iraq as of March 2004, and with the rise in the resistance in April, some 20,000
soldiers scheduled to go home had their tours of duty extended till June 2004.
With the active-duty army reduced by the military reforms of the Clinton and Bush administrations, the army leadership has had to draw on the Reserves and
the National Guard to garrison Iraq. Already, nearly 40 per cent of the US military contingent in Iraq, says James Fallows, come from the Reserves and National
Guard, also popularly referred to as "weekend warriors" since they usually hold down civilian jobs. One result is a morale problem since, as former
Bush administration anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke asserts, the extended service has disrupted "the lives of tens of thousands who counted on their
civilian jobs to pay mortgages and other family expenses."
Now with the unfolding Abu Ghraib scandal, it seems to many in the Army that their service is being groomed to be the fall guy for the debacle that is clearly
in the making in Iraq.
A replay of what happened to the Army during the Vietnam War now seems to be a very real possibility. The debilitating impact of that war on the Army was
seared in the memory of its officers much more than those of the other services, like the Navy, Air Force, or Marines. As one key Air Force advocate of the fashionable
strategy of precision bombing told author David Halberstam, their respective experiences in Vietnam spelled the difference between receptiveness to military
intervention among officers in the Air Force and Army:
"[He] believed that he and others in the Air Force had been less damaged by Vietnam than the army. Certainly, he and his peers who had flown there…had
been frustrated by what they felt were appalling rules of engagement, and they had often taken fire from places along the Ho Chi Minh Trail that were outside
the zone of returnable fire. But the burden of combat for the air force had been carried out by an elite officer corps. There had been no widespread smoking
of dope or fragging of officers as he believed there had been in the army. Morale had never deteriorated within his service. They had lost men and overcome bitter
frustrations, but somehow it had not gone as deep or as corrosively into the bloodstream of the air force as it had in the army, he thought. Many of the
army people, he felt, had returned from the war deeply hurt, almost emotionally wounded, as if there were an element of personal humiliation in what had happened
that greatly affected the army’s views of succeeding crises."
The lessons the Army leadership learned in Vietnam and the determination never
to let the Army unravel again came to be personified by Gen. Colin Powell, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under the senior Bush administration
and the first nine months of the Clinton presidency. Powell was distrustful of civilian politicians who, as in Vietnam, did not fully appreciate the massive
implications of military decisions that seemed like "a piece of cake."
Powell and his team at the Pentagon, according to Halberstam, "were not only unalterably opposed to any seemingly quick and easy flexing of American
military might, a flash of airpower or sea power in places where it was convenient, they were also nervous about assuming any simple humanitarian role that might
be poorly thought out, too open-ended, and might somehow draw the country into an unwanted combat commitment."
The Powell Doctrine
This stance was codified as the "Powell Doctrine," which, stated simply, declared that interventions had to be massive, with clear objectives,
with significant public support, and with a well defined exit strategy. Otherwise, nothing doing.
It was not that the spirit of the doctrine was not interventionist. It was.
But it was presented as "smart" interventionism in contrast to the open-ended interventionism of the past. As is well known, despite the fact that
he came out as one of the first Gulf War’s best known heroes, Powell opposed the plan to attack Saddam Hussein, preferring to draw a line around Saudi Arabia
that the Iraqis would cross at their peril. He was so opposed to intervention in the Balkans during the Clinton administration that a frustrated Madeleine
Albright, then US ambassador to the United Nations, said, "What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?"
Albright and Clinton came to regard the Powell Doctrine as a sledgehammer that was inappropriate for the interventions needed for the post-Cold War era. What
was needed, they felt, was something more flexible, a strategy that was tied to a greater reliance on "smart weapons" and smaller ground troop
The tension between cautious Army or ex-Army men and civilian advocates of force—"civilian militarists," in Chalmers Johnson’s felicitous term–
has, if anything, increased under the Bush administration. For even more than the Clinton people, the Pentagon’s civilian elite under Bush—derisively called
"chicken hawks" by the generals—worship precision weapons and airpower.
Asked about his relations with the neoconservatives who dominate the Pentagon’s policy staff, Powell, now secretary of state, is reported to have said, "I
won’t let the bastards drive me from office." Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state and also an Army veteran, told Washington Post reporter Bob
Woodward that his consistent advice to Powell in late 2003 whenever there was an issue with the White House on the Middle East was, "Tell these people
to fuck themselves." And Ret. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, former chief of the Central Command, had this to say of Douglas Feith, the neoconservative undersecretary
for policy at the Pentagon: "I have to deal with the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth almost every day."
Trying to Head off Disaster
As the Bush administration, fueled by Rumsfeld, Feith, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, moved closer to invading Iraq in late 2002 and early
2003, the friction between the Pentagon civilians and the Army and its prominent veterans increased. The planned deployment violated all these key tenets of
the Powell Doctrine. The objective was open-ended. The force of 150,000 was too small. There was little planning for the occupation. There was no exit strategy.
There was little appreciation for the urban insurgency to follow. Warned Ret. Gen. Joseph Hoar, another former chief of the Central Command: "In urban
warfare, you could run through battalions a day at a time…All our advantages of command and control, technology—all those things are, in part, given up and
you are working with corporals and sergeants and young men fighting street to street." Those were prescient words but Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney,
Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz were not listening.
In a last ditch effort to convince Bush not to go into what he saw as a disastrous war, Powell was said by Woodward to have had the following conversation with
"You know that you’re going to be owning this place? Powell said, reminding Bush of what he had told him at their August 5 dinner. An invasion would mean
assuming the hopes, aspirations, and all the troubles of Iraq. Powell wasn’t sure whether Bush had fully understood the meaning and consequences of full
By the time US troops reached Baghdad, it was clear that the force committed to Iraq was too small, as American soldiers were helpless to prevent the widespread
looting of government buildings, including the National Museum, where antiquities of great value were stored. What Powell’s team had feared unfolded in the next
few months, as the urban insurgency spread. As Army veteran Armitage saw it, "The Army, in particular, was stretched too thin…fighting three wars—Afghanistan
still, Iraq, and the global war on terrorism…"
An Explosion Waiting to Happen
In the campaign of 2000, the Bush people faulted the Clinton administration for overextending the Army on peacekeeping expeditions, resulting in battalions
engaged in these missions failing inspections because they had not been able to keep up with training proficiency and testing. By those measures, Richard
Clarke charges, "the Bush administration has now far more badly damaged the United States Army."
Neoconservative writers playing journalist in Iraq, such as Max Boot, author of the Savage Wars of Peace, exacerbated Army morale problems by filing stories
back in the United States comparing the "smart" Marines to the "stupid"
Army, which were widely picked up. In one notable passage, he wrote, "In the Sunni Triangle, US Army patrols are often met with sullen stares. In central
Iraq, smiles and thumbs up [for the Marines] are commonplace. Little kids are especially enthusiastic. I felt like the queen of England waving regally at
Iraqis as we drove by in our three-Humvee convoy."
With Washington refusing to acknowledge they were too few to make a difference, with their own side dumping on them, and with the Iraqi resistance blasting
them day by day, morale was sinking fast in the Army, even before Abu Ghraib. But the troops knew where the problem lay, and it was at the top, with officers
trying to curry favor with their civilian bosses in Washington. As one soldier wrote to New Yorker contributor George Packer:
"The reason why morale sucks is because of the senior leadership, the brigade and division commanders, and probably the generals at the Pentagon and
Central Command too, all of whom seem to be insulated from what is going on at the ground level. Either that or they are unwilling to hear the truth of
things or (and this is most likely), they do know what is going on, but they want to get promoted so badly that they’re willing to screw over soldiers by
being unwilling to face the problem of morale, so they continue pushing the soldiers to do more with less because Rummy [Rumsfeld] wants them to get us
out of here quickly. These people are like serious alcoholics unwilling to admit there is even a problem."
Abu Ghraib was an explosion waiting to happen.
An overstretched army plagued by poor training and absolutely unprepared for dealing with a civilian population that it has conquered is the image that emerges
from the report on prison abuse at Abu Ghraib by Maj. General Antonio Taguba.
For one, the Abu Ghraib facility was severely "understrength," with only a battalion to manage a population of between 6000 to 7000 detainees. Indeed,
one passage could serve as a microcosm for the US Army’s condition in Iraq:
"Reserve Component units do not have an individual replacement system to mitigate medical or other losses. Over time, the 800th MP Brigade clearly
suffered from personnel shortages through release from activity duty (REFRAD) actions, medical evacuation, and demobilization. In addition to being severely
undermanned, the quality of life for Soldiers assigned to Abu Ghraib…was extremely poor. There was no DFAC, PX, barbershop, or MWR facilities. There were numerous
mortar attacks, random rifle and RPG attacks, and a serious threat to Soldiers and detainees in the facility. The prison complex was also severely overcrowded
and the Brigade lacked adequate resources and personnel to resolve logistical problems."
The apparent game plan of the Bush people is to limit those charged, disciplined, and punished in connection with the Abu Ghraib abuses to a few enlisted men
and women and maybe a handful of officers. The abuse will be attributed to these few bad eggs and will not be regarded as "systemic." Certainly, guilt
will be prevented from reaching up the chain of command and to the civilian leadership that planned the whole criminal invasion that spawned the conditions
that led to the abuses in the first place. The only problem with this strategy is that while it might save the high military and civilian command, it will
unravel morale even further at the lower levels.
In Vietnam, some enlisted men took to "fragging" or killing their officers with grenades when they no longer saw any sense in being told to risk
their lives in a war that had lost its legitimacy and its meaning or when they were simply angry at their superiors. There were over 200 recorded fragging
incidents in Vietnam. So far, in Iraq, there has been only one reported, by a soldier who rolled three grenades toward his officers in Camp, Pennsylvania,
Kuwait, on March 23, 2003. There could be more we don’t know about. There will certainly be more if the Pentagon succeeds in having enlisted men and women
take the entire blame for Abu Ghraib and soldiers encounter more and more resistance to what many of them now see as a senseless war.
What Colin Powell and his generation of Vietnam-era junior officers have tried so hard to avoid—the unraveling of the morale of the US Army a second time–is
upon them. Surely, many of them must be dying to have Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz in their crosshairs. But if it is any consolation to them, what
Bush extolled as "the mighty US Army" in a recent speech will not be the first conquering legion to fall apart on Mesopotamian soil.
*Walden Bello is executive director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and professor of sociology and public administration
at the University of the Philippines.