Reflecting on Rumsfeld
Editor’s note: In this piece, author Stan Goff, a retired 26-year veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces, describes how two main tenets of the so-called Rumsfeld Doctrine — the reduction of all things military into “metrics” and an obsession with perception management — have left America inured to the human cost of the Iraq war.
In August 2003, I was interviewed on CNN as “the father of a soldier.” Iraq had claimed only 270 American armed forces members’ lives. I called the conflict “a quagmire,” bringing hoots of virtual laughter from right-wing bloggers the following day. They were still holding out for the Parisian Rose Parade promised them by Ahmed Chalabi, and I was just some malcontented geriatric hippie still mired in the linguistics of the ’60s.
I don’t want any last laugh. It’s not funny. My son has been to Iraq four times now, and is straightaway headed to Afghanistan, where the Taliban now controls whole towns throughout the south. (Out of respect for my son’s privacy and security, I do not publicly discuss our conversations about this or his opinions on the war.)
The figure 270 is now marching with terrible inexorability toward 3,000. The Iraqi deaths are now reaching toward 700,000, a staggering number in a country of 26 million. The only redeeming feature of the whole thing seems to be the fact that the U.S. government cannot now order an attack on Iran, since the only Iraqis willing to give conditional support to the U.S. occupation are themselves Iranian allies.
Quagmire does indeed evoke Vietnam. And there are two keys ways in which Iraq is — for all its differences — exactly like Vietnam. The aristocracy of American politics cannot win militarily; and it cannot leave politically. That is not to say the U.S. literally cannot leave. It can, and should, immediately. But neither this administration nor any Democrat administration that follows has established itself politically to tell the whole truth, including the truth that there is no painless way back for Iraq … and that all resolutions with U.S. occupation will be infinitely worse than any resolution without U.S. occupation. The difference between the Iraq war and the one in Vietnam is that resistance to the latter increased almost at a stately pace but when it crested, that rage was white-hot. Outrage about the Iraq occupation, feverishly hot at first, now seems to have yielded to some version of compassion fatigue.
The daily drip, drip, drip of horror, including the body bags and amputations and burns and psychic dislocations, is hitting a callus on our collective consciousness. We have come to protect ourselves with numerality, that mathematical reduction of human suffering that allows us to nurture the fantasy that this brutality is not irrevocable, that we are not silent or at least acquiescent alongside these sadistic and unnecessary inflictions … or that they are not happening to real people like us, who themselves do not want the one and only life given to each to be lived in a state of pain, terror and grief.
Every time I see one of those insipid yellow-ribbon magnets now, I think of Charlie Anderson, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. “I just want to ask those people,” says Anderson, referring to those who display the yellow-ribbon magnets, “when is the last time you wrote one of those soldiers? How many of them do you actually know? How many have really asked us, what did you do there? I wanna tell them, we don’t need your fucking ribbons. We need help and jobs.”
Charlie was medically released from service with severe post-traumatic stress disorder after participating in the initial ground offensive against Iraq in March and April 2003. I know dozens of these young men and women. I also know a lot of parents, partners and kids who said goodbye to a soldier for the last time when that solider went off to do Donald Rumsfeld’s wet work for him in Southwest Asia.
I know Fernando Suarez del Solar, whose son was killed by U.S. air power during the same offensive that wrecked Charlie’s head. I know Tina Garnanez, whose people were shunted off into reservations in New Mexico, who went into the Army as an economic conscript, and who felt compelled to carry a boot knife to the latrine at night in Iraq because she was afraid of being raped by fellow soldiers. I know people who ride wheelchairs in order to move, and who fight sleep because they face the inevitable nightmares when their bodies try to rest.
Many attribute the ferocity of the resistance to Vietnam — inside and outside the armed forces — to the draft. In some limited ways, this was true. Conscription is an affront to some core libertarian values in the U.S. And the sheer size of the troop commitment, over half a million at one time, was facilitated by conscription. The decisive fact, however, is that Giap and Ho Chi Minh fought the U.S. to a standstill, then — assisted by the corruption that inheres in imperial occupations — systematically degraded the U.S. military into a state of utter disrepair.
Many, however, were unprepared to accept any explanation of defeat — whether it was the enemy’s superior tactics, their superior political intuitions or the inability of the home front to continue paying the price.
From the point of view of these reality-deniers, empathy was the enemy, and it had been mobilized on behalf of the enemy by the faithless press.
We were no more empathetic then as a culture than we are now. We were a society just as savage then as we are today. This was the era of the last violent defense of American apartheid, and in Vietnam we were committing little My Lais almost every day. The trick was to prevent that empathy from ever arising … often by replacing it with apathy.
The construction of apathy about the costs of this war is a direct and intentional reaction to the memory of Vietnam, embodied in the two successive military “doctrines” named after former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and now-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The Genealogy of Doctrine
In 1989, conservative culture warrior William F. Lind worked with a team of men to dress up a set of perfectly obvious military realities as a new theory, and named it Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW). The essence of 4GW is that a weaker non-state military actor is forced to use tactics that are different from those of a stronger, more conventional opponent. Being the good, imperial culture warrior that he was, Lind put this concept in a clash of civilizations frame. Starting with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 (selected because someone has determined that this treaty marked the beginning of “modernism”), he identifies the first three generations as Order, Attrition, and Maneuver. The fourth generation is the province of anyone opposing U.S. imperial power, directly or indirectly in the 20th (and now 21st) century … that is, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Iraqis, the Palestinians, etc.
Fourth Generation war is also marked by a return to a world of cultures, not merely states, in conflict. We now find ourselves facing the Christian West’s oldest and most steadfast opponent, Islam. After about three centuries on the strategic defensive, following the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, Islam has resumed the strategic offensive, expanding outward in every direction. In Third Generation war, invasion by immigration can be at least as dangerous as invasion by a state army.
Nor is Fourth Generation warfare merely something we import, as we did on 9/11. At its core lies a universal crisis of legitimacy of the state, and that crisis means many countries will evolve Fourth Generation war on their soil. America, with a closed political system (regardless of which party wins, the Establishment remains in power and nothing really changes) and a poisonous ideology of “multiculturalism,” is a prime candidate for the home-grown variety of Fourth Generation war — which is by far the most dangerous kind. (Lind, “ Understanding Fourth Generation War,” Jan. 15, 2004)
Lind, like others, including Caspar Weinberger, Colin Powell (Weinberger’s ward) and (the most intellectually mediocre of them all) Rumsfeld, have resorted to using these generational theories in the effort to buck up our soft, liberal culture, which they blame for the most humiliating U.S. defeat in their memories, Vietnam. The fact that this war theory is running headlong into another world-historic defeat for the U.S. in Southwest Asia has not fazed Rumsfeld’s faith in this emerging doctrine.
Rumsfeld, in fact, aimed to make it his applied theory for the history books, and in the process invalidated much of the doctrine that preceded him, i.e., the Powell Doctrine, whose genealogy we need to spend a little time on before coming back to Rumsfeld later in this piece.
During the Reagan administration, when Weinberger was secretary of defense (and grooming Powell as the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs), Weinberger added another acronym to the military dyslexicon, OOTW — operations other than war. Weinberger was begrudgingly acknowledging that neither war nor politics nor the evolution of the social system as a whole respects the neatly separated categories of ideology or Academy. The proverbial gray areas loomed a good deal larger than any of black or white.
What OOTW reflected was the breakdown of the distinction between police and military operations, the increasing difficulty of concealing the political objectives that underwrote the so-called war on drugs, and the increasing non-state resistance to U.S. geopolitical imperatives that neither rejected nor confined themselves to armed methods. More deeply, it reflected the continuing malaise being suffered by the political aristocracy in the wake of the defeat in Vietnam, punctuated by the humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon on Weinberger’s watch in 1984.
Powell himself was obsessed with the defeat in Vietnam, and as he ascended over the next few years to the position of top general, he began formalizing his obsession into a new military doctrine, which would take his name.
Regardless of their differences, bureaucrats all share an affinity for formulae. The Powell Doctrine read like the interrogative for a business plan:
— Is a vital U.S. interest at stake?
— Will we commit sufficient resources to win?
— Are the objectives clearly defined?
— Will we sustain the commitment?
— Is there reasonable expectation that the public and Congress will support the operation?
— Have we exhausted our other options?
— Do we have a clear exit strategy?
As important as any of these criteria, however, and central to the Powell Doctrine as an outgrowth of the U.S. defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese, is the emphasis on public perception management.
Powell sincerely believes that the U.S. was defeated in Vietnam by the combination of bad publicity and the failure to engage in more brutal tactics to subdue the population. For anyone who sentimentally thinks of Powell as the nice guy among Republicans, I apologize for the shock you are about to receive.
In 1963, well before the American public generally understood where Vietnam was located, a young Army captain led a South Vietnamese unit through the A Shau Valley to systematically burn villages to the ground. This was to deprive the so-called Viet Cong of any base of support, and was called “draining the sea,” a reference to Mao’s dictum that the guerrilla is the fish and the population is the sea.
That captain would later write, “I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male. If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him. Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion commander with whom I had served … was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard [that commander] was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong.”
On March 16, 1968, the U.S. Infantry of C Company, Task Force Barker, 11th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, went into a Vietnamese hamlet designated My Lai 4 and killed 347 unarmed men, women and children, engaging in rape and torture along the way for four hours before a U.S. helicopter pilot who observed the massacre ordered his door gunners to open fire on the grunts if they didn’t desist. The chopper pilot, however, did not report the massacre.
Six months later, a young enlisted man, Spec. 4 Tom Glen, sent a letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Without specifically mentioning My Lai, Glen said that murder had become a routine part of Americal operations. The letter was shunted over to Americal Division, and then to the office of the same officer who had been leading the South Vietnamese arson campaign five years earlier, since promoted to major. He was now the deputy assistant chief of staff of the division — a functionary who was directed to craft a response to this report of widespread atrocities against Vietnamese civilians.
“In direct refutation of this portrayal,” wrote the officer dismissively and with no investigation whatsoever, “is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” Perhaps he believed that those killed were MAMs, and therefore outside the protection of the Geneva Conventions and international law.
That officer was Colin Powell.
The massacre at My Lai, for which it was his responsibility to conduct damage control for the Americal Division, was a turning point in the loss of American domestic support for the war. This did not lead Powell to question the legitimacy of the Vietnam occupation, or the brutality with which it was carried out. It led him to believe that control of public perceptions, ergo control of the press, is an integral part of any war effort; as an adjunct to the overwhelming application of lethal force.
The finest expressions of the Powell Doctrine were the bloody invasion of Panama and the 1991 destruction of Iraq. At the time of the latter, the Fourth Generation Warfare “theory” of William Lind was still written in wet ink. One of the people who was studying it, with the same intensity as those armchair warrior history buffs who play with toy soldiers, was Donald Rumsfeld, on hiatus from politics after having served as Gerald Ford’s defense secretary (when he was a vocal supporter of chemical warfare) and Ronald Reagan’s special envoy to Saddam Hussein (a role in which he assisted Saddam in acquiring chemical weapons). At the time, Rumsfeld was a vice president at Westmark Systems, a defense technology holding company, which further consolidated Rumsfeld’s fascination with Tom Mix Warfare — the reliance on highly technical, extremely expensive weapons systems.
Rumsfeld shared one key personality characteristic with Vietnam’s architect, Robert McNamara; he remains absolutely convinced that he can’t be wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence that he is.
Rumsfeld’s fascination with the 4GW theorists and his extreme technological optimism accompanied him into the Pentagon as George W. Bush’s SecDef, where he immediately began the grandiosely named Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The doctrinal transformation was in a clumsy phase when 19 asymmetrical fighters hijacked four commercial aircraft and turned them into poor man’s cruise missiles to strike three strategic and highly symbolic targets.
Other notable Eagle Scouts were Charles Joseph Whitman, who shot 45 people from the Tower at the University of Texas in 1966, and Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart. (Author’s disclaimer: Being an Eagle Scout in no way predisposes one to sociopathic behavior … nor does it prevent it, obviously.)
Whitman can’t claim Don Rumsfeld’s body count, of course. He was a piker compared with Rumsfeld. But McNamara can. The matchless McNamara managed to facilitate the slaughter of around 3 million in Southeast Asia. There will be those who protest this comparison, and I agree in advance; there is no comparison. Rumsfeld and McNamara were bigger killers by orders of magnitude than other Eagle Scouts and the vast majority of the world’s serial killers.
Rumsfeld put off killing anyone until he could get his degree at Princeton, where he went to Naval ROTC and first met fellow alum and future Bush dynasty Svengali Frank Carlucci.
Rumsfeld managed to tuck his military service (1954-57) as a naval aviator into a time slot after Korea and before Vietnam, though he remained in the Reserves — before they were massively called into combat (by him in 2003) while he pursued his career with the Republican Party.
With the same systematic instrumentality that earned him his Eagle Scout status by racking up the right merit badges, he worked on two congressional staffs, then did a stint as an investment banker, before running for Congress himself — eventually serving four terms as the Illinois 13th District representative. As a committee member devoted to policy on military affairs, economics and aeronautics, his affinity for high technology, “metric” measurements, and mass destruction were further synthesized and developed.
As an intra-Republican coup-maker, he undermined Minority Leader Charles Halleck on behalf of his buddy and future presidential boss Gerald Ford. When this kind of walk-over-bodies opportunism set limits on his own rise within the House of Representatives, Rumsfeld went to work for the Nixon administration, where he worked first to de-fund the Office of Economic Opportunity (with the help of a new executive assistant, Dick Cheney), then as a special advisor to the president.
Interestingly, Rumsfeld publicly supported Richard Nixon on the continuation of the Vietnam occupation and Nixon’s murderous bombing campaigns, but behind the scenes he was considered an administration “dove.” Rumsfeld confided his misgivings to his congressional buddy Robert Ellsworth, who would later recount: “[Rumsfeld] could see that we were not figuring out a strategy to win in Vietnam…. Neither could we figure out a strategy to withdraw. And it was very frustrating.” The U.S. could not win, and it could not leave!
There is nothing quite as remarkable about Rumsfeld’s career — which would later include roles as chief executive of Searle when aspartame (NutraSweet) was under fire for its manifold health hazards, the nation’s youngest secretary of defense, ambassador to NATO, and defense contractor CEO — as the fact that he would be the nation’s next McNamara, presiding over the degradation of the military in another politico-military quagmire where the U.S. could neither win nor leave.
Appointed by George W. Bush at the behest of his neocon advisory core, Rumsfeld as secretary of defense was specifically to ensure that Secretary of State Colin Powell — who held the neocons in contempt for their military fantasies — did not use his powerful influence within the military to mobilize resistance to the Cheney-Wolfowitz agenda. Rumsfeld, however, saw his role in much more grandiose terms than being Colin’s counterweight. His conviction of his own genius, the transcendent power of technology to solve all problems, and his devotion to the fevered Lindian theory of strategy led him to see the armed forces of the United States as his personal tool to secure his place in history as a kind of latter-day Clausewitz.
Rumsfeld then combined his ideas in such a way that he oversaw a war that would come to be opposed by his mentor, William Lind; shatter the grand vision of the neocons in the streets of Fallujah, Ramadi, Baghdad, Naja and Samara ; grind down and demoralize the armed forces to such a point that his own generals would lead a rebellion; lead to Powell’s departure as secretary of state; and secure himself a place in history alongside Robert McNamara for the same thing Rumsfeld himself had criticized about McNamara’s war.Cyberwar and Commandos
William Lind and other the Fourth Generation Warriors did validly identify some of the characteristics of our epoch. Wikipedia, describing 4GW, says, “fourth generation war is most successful when the non-state entity does not attempt, at least in the short term, to impose its own rule, but tries simply to disorganize and delegitimize the state in which the warfare takes place.”
They did not, however, anticipate that 4GW might be used to trap a unitary superpower in a regional invasion that would delegitimize the superpower throughout the world. They did not anticipate that an asymmetric attack might create an unstoppable political stampede that could pull the superpower into a second Vietnam. They did not, in other words, anticipate what would happen on Sept. 11, 2001.
Rumsfeld, however, along with the entire Bush administration, saw 9/11 as divine political intervention (exactly as the attacks’ planners, I suspect, knew they would). The Bush II government was already suffering a deep crisis of legitimacy, not from asymmetric war but from the capture of executive power in 2000 by unabashed African-American disfranchisement and judicial fiat. With the collapse of the twin towers came the collapse of a growing politics of resistance that was manifesting itself from the streets of Seattle to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.
Rumsfeld wrote a memo at the time, after objecting to the previously scheduled invasion of Afghanistan to slake the American thirst for vengeance. There were no “good targets” in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld complained. The U.S. needed to go directly for Iraq, followed by the destruction of neighboring states in a kind of domino theory of domination. Even as electronic intercepts were pointing at non-state perpetrators, themselves hostile to Iraq, Rumsfeld, on the same day, suggested: “ Go massive … sweep it up. Things related and not.“
There was a surfeit of agendas released by the atom that was split on 9/11. But in the case of Donald Rumsfeld, there was the singular and overwhelming opportunity for this man — convinced since his privileged childhood of his entitlement and his superior intelligence — to finally satisfy his driving male ambition by becoming the architect of a world-historic shift in military affairs. This ambition achieved a seamless confluence with the longstanding neoconservative vision for the post-Cold War re-disposition of the U.S. military, from containment of a now defunct Soviet Union to placing the imperial mail fist on the global oil spigot.
If Rumsfeld were a truly tragic-heroic figure, in the Aristotelian sense (he is not), then we would be in conformity with the canon to seek out the one fatal flaw that has sent him down this trail to infamy. But his flaws, if that is how we wish to see them, are not character defects as much as they are the norms of a ruling stratum in a crisis of context. Rumsfeld is a late-coming act during the death throes of the Enlightenment.
A belief in the ability of mathematics to explain anything (except hubris, it seems), the belief in one’s own innate racial and class superiority expressed with Machiavellian muscularity, and the fetish for gadgets all come together in the Rumsfeld Doctrine … the Revolution in Military Affairs… in Network Centric Warfare. In Rumsfeld’s hands, the complex, dynamic and nonlinear ecologies that govern everything in the military, geopolitical and interpersonal arenas are inevitably reduced to linearity, to “metrics.”
Tony Corn, a fellow at the crypto-libertarian Hoover Institution (an imperial think tank) and a former “foreign service” officer (who worked in political sections, which is where the spooks reside), wrote a very good essay — albeit from the perspective of a hard-shelled, Eurocentric, Spencerian imperialist — that touched on the fallacy of metrics, “Clausewitz in Wonderland,” for Hoover’s Policy Review (September 2006).
Corn describes how the metrics fallacy expresses itself in military doctrine, in what he calls the “tacticisation of strategy”:
Isn’t it the educators who drew the wrong lessons from Vietnam and came up with the surrealistic Weinberger Doctrine; who dubbed “Operations Other than War” (OOTW) anything that did not resemble a Clausewitzian “decisive battle;” who, having reduced “war” to “battle,” “battle” to “combat,” and “combat” to “targeting and shooting,” dismissed post-combat planning as postwar planning best left to civilians.
Corn points out, rightly in my view, that the context of conflict can never be understood from mathematics, and that the orientation that yields the most useful insights is anthropology. Anthropology — at its best — is a multidisciplinary, synthetic pursuit … the opposite of analytic reductionism.
Corn and Lind both recognize the disturbing similarity between Rumsfeld’s “metrics” and the McNamaran “body count” formula in Vietnam.
On Oct. 7, 2006, Asia Times carried an article by Sami Moubayed (“The two faces of Iraq”), in which he gave a very typical “metric” summary from Rumsfeld’s CENTCOM accountants.
This is a far, far cry from the triumphalism that characterized administration discourse during preparation for the war, all the way to the jet-pilot presidential declaration of victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 2, 2003. To understand the disconnect between theory and practice in Rumsfeld’s war, it’s necessary to understand Rumsfeld’s original vision.
Rumsfeld believed that quick, devastating precision strikes from highly computerized standoff weapons (cruise missiles, aircraft, etc.) could be combined with technologically “advanced” ground weapons systems in the hands of “light, agile” ground forces, and strategically employed (again “light”) special operations forces, to replace the Powell Doctrine’s emphasis on massive numbers of troops. It was Rumsfeld’s cyberwar-commando thesis. He regarded it as brilliance. Many generals regarded it as delusional.
When Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki — a proponent of an increasingly light and agile military himself — told Congress in February 2003 that an occupation of Iraq might require half a million troops — contradicting Rumsfeld’s estimates that the “job” might be done with 100,000 in a matter of mere weeks — Rumsfeld resolved the question by firing Shinseki. This was the origin of the acrimonious behind-the-scenes debate about Rumsfeld doing the war “on the cheap.”
I will avoid the impulse to digress overmuch here and explain why I believe they were both wrong, and that the Iraq war could never and can never be “won.” The point is: Even the generals still captive to larger imperial logics understood the basic “anthropological” difficulties associated with the military occupation of another people. They understood it as a logistical nightmare. They understood it as a cultural nightmare. And they were deeply skeptical that Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” demonstration would so cow the Iraqis as to transform them into willing sycophants.
Failure in Iraq is both political and institutional. The writer D.A. Clarke coined the term “dog-waggery” as shorthand for the institutional tail wagging the mission dog.
Dog-waggery has emerged with terrible inexorability in Iraq. It is built into the technological “superiority” of the West. This is not an obvious point to our Western-trained minds, but it is an extremely — I would say critically — important concept to understand if we are to understand why Vietnam was and Iraq is unwinnable.
Ivan Illich described this very well in his 1973 book (published during the death throes of the Vietnam occupation), “Tools for Conviviality” (Harper & Row).
Any institution that moves toward its second watershed [dog-waggery] tends to become highly manipulative. For instance, it costs more to make teaching possible than to teach. The cost of roles exceeds the cost of production. Increasingly, components intended for the accomplishment of institutional purposes are redesigned so that they cannot be used independently. People without cars have no access to planes, and people without plane tickets have no access to convention hotels. Alternate tools which are fit to accomplish the same purposes with fewer claims are pushed off the market. (p. 23)
We create technologies to serve as “slaves.” Technology is seen to “serve” human beings. Illich and Alf Hornborg and others, however, have pointed out that many technologies become “material objects of our own making over which we have lost control.” Any of us who look critically for more than a second at American car culture will not find this claim to be controversial. The machine-slave becomes the technological master, taking on a seemingly uncontrollable and determinative role in our lives. This is what Illich calls non-convivial technology.
Non-convivial technology — like cars, or television, or cruise missiles — expresses its determining influence through institutionalization, be that in factories, in urban development planning boards or in portfolios in a government bureaucracy, and that institutionalization is locked into vast social, economic and political feedback loops that exist beyond any individual’s ability to intervene and change them. This is how the military-industrial complex came into existence, and how it is perpetuated, and how the high-technology weapons systems that are procured by the military shape future military doctrines in ways that cannot anticipate how the actual “enemy” will be organized or behave.
The thoroughgoingness and sheer mind-boggling scale of this techno-political complex that is the United States military makes any adaptation more than merely difficult. Discrete changes in doctrine ripple through the system, triggering the Law of Unintended Consequences in every single case. Using a medical metaphor, we might say that technologically determined institutions this large, designed to operate against an unknown “threat,” are caught in a perpetual state of finding treatments for their own cures. It is a dynamic that is totally self-referential. It can never match itself to a real human opposition that has made the simple, non-technologically determined decision to continue fighting, no matter what, against military occupation.
It is this inseparable connection between technology, institutions and the evolving forms of political power that forms the basis of asymmetric warfare, and the reason that there is ultimately no solution, mathematical or anthropological, available for Rumsfeld’s military in Southwest Asia.
Moreover, given the bureaucratic career imperatives of a vast military institution, U.S. commanders are going to husband their forces, and conventional U.S. forces will not willingly be committed to any kind of sustained ground action that would probably be required for “pacification” (which didn’t work in Vietnam, even when troop strength was well over half a million).
The current quagmire was not Rumsfeld’s original plan, in any case, so his doctrine, developed in advance of the failed occupation, is now a stranded foreign body enveloped in a phagocyte. His network-centric doctrine was conceptualized as the combination of pinpoint application of death-from-above technology, based on intelligence that is called a “product,” and commando actions that emphasize quick strikes, based on surprise, speed and violence of action to minimize their exposure. It all sounds good on paper, but the anthropological reality is different.
U.S. forces, even the hardest of the hard core, cannot long sustain operations abroad without a huge logistical tail. At bottom, they are products of a pampered and pasteurized society, and they are very fragile. You can put all the muscles you want on a U.S. soldier, and a local E. coli will bring him crashing down like a tall tree. Bottled water only for these guys. This is a contradiction of imperial warfare, a kind of reverse social Darwinism that is seldom discussed or fully understood in its ramifications.
Four to five days is the maximum that U.S. troops can stay in the field without bringing in helicopters or ground cargo transportation and exposing the choppers, the trucks and their own positions. This, in turn, means they must have bases for logistics and stand-downs between missions. So the most agile forces available to the U.S. will in short order always bring with them a massive, expensive and well-appointed fixed installation (subject then to sustained surveillance as a potential target).
With the exception of highly choreographed, high-publicity operations (carefully planned to ensure “maximum force protection”) and essential sustainment operations (resupply convoys, e.g.), U.S. forces in Iraq (and more frequently now, Afghanistan) are already kept largely behind the installations’ concertina wire. Conventional troops have bunkered down into progressively hardened positions as glorified guards with rising divorce rates and diminishing morale.
Rumsfeld, meanwhile, has — with all his scorn for Powell — merged two key elements of the Powell Doctrine into his own: High casualty rates create domestic political opposition to the war, and the key prophylactic measure against this opposition — aside from casualty-avoidance — is the management of public perceptions about the war.
The management of American perceptions of the war has been an uphill battle for the administration. The whole process has been a repeating cycle of raising expectations, having them shattered, the redefining the war. With each cycle, the credibility of the administration has been further battered.
That is why the administration tried to hide the photographs of flag-draped coffins. That is why the administration covered up the cases of military fratricide (friendly fire deaths). That is why the administration buried the dozens of reports of rape committed by American soldiers against other American soldiers. That is why the Abu Ghraib scandal struck as hard as it did. That is why killers like Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano and the perpetrators of Haditha are exonerated or investigated until they fall out of the public memory.
In October 2003, Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo was the commander of the 2nd Battalion/503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, stationed in Iraqi Kurdistan, when hometown newspapers across the United States received 500 identical letters to the editor. All the letters were from Caraccilo’s unit. Each letter was signed with a name from his battalion. Some members of the battalion were not available, so their signatures were forged.
The letter, in addition to giving sundry descriptions of New Eden, said: “After nearly five months here, the people still come running from their homes, into the 110 degrees heat, waving to us as our troops drive by on daily patrols of the city…. There is very little trash in the streets, many more people in the markets and shops and children have returned to school…. This is all evidence, that the work we are doing is bettering the lives of Kirkuk’s citizens.”
This Caraccilo letter swarm was conducted, coincidentally, at the same time the Bush administration had launched a massive publicity counteroffensive against critics of the war.
CIA Director George Tenet had just been forced to march into Congress and commit professional seppuku over the Niger uranium story, which had hit the floor and splattered into 16 embarrassingly malodorous words.
Caraccilo did as Tenet had done, and took the rap to protect the king. Bad judgment on my part, he explained, but I just wanted to “share that pride with people back home.”
As part of his confession, he preempted felony charges by stating no one was forced to sign the letter (before the question was even asked).
The press was even more accommodating than usual, taking down this lame story like a raw oyster. For more than a day, few bothered to ask, “How curious it is that this ‘letter campaign’ coincided with the PR counteroffensive of the National Command Authority?”
Rumsfeld had openly declared his intention to manage public perception, and even attempted to develop a perception management agency, the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI).
On Feb. 19, 2002, more than a year before the American military entered its Iraqi quagmire, The New York Times ran a story about the OSI. The purpose of said office was “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations … to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries.”
Amid the publicity about this publicity management organization, the OSI was killed.
Rumsfeld, in a fit of arrogant pique at reporters in November of the same year, railed at them:
There was the Office of Strategic Influence. You may recall that. And “Oh, my goodness gracious, isn’t that terrible; Henny Penny, the sky is going to fall.” I went down that next day and said, “Fine, if you want to savage this thing, fine, I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done’ and I have….”
By 2003, the Pentagon propaganda program had been repackaged, and a secret 74-page directive emanated from Rumsfeld’s office, now struggling with the catastrophic cascade developing in Iraq, where key advisors had assured the administration a year earlier of the “cake walk.” That directive was the “Information Operations Roadmap” (IOR). Using the almost painfully dissociative wordsmithing of good military bureaucrats, IOR was described thus:
The integrated employment of the core capabilities of electronic warfare [EW], computer network operations [CNO], psychological operations [PSYOP], military deception, and operations security [OPSEC], with specified supporting and related capabilities to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp adversarial human and automated decisionmaking while protecting our own.
IOR was neither new nor innovative. Rumsfeld and one of his sycophants merely renamed what had been going on for some time, even before Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld’s new “doctrine” was just one more part of the Rumsfeldian “revolution.”
Perception management is about killing empathy, and replacing it with some cultural entertainment convention. Our society has been trained to want to be entertained, and entertainment is the highest form of happiness. It costs a lot of money to entertain us, and it costs a lot of money to snuff out our empathy.
Perception management programs are extremely well planned and employ an army of public relations experts and professional spin-masters. That is why they are hugely expensive.
Just as Rumsfeld has hired more than 20,000 private mercenaries to fill in the gaps in Iraq and to conduct activities that escape congressional oversight, the Bush administration (like the Clinton administration before it) has hired private contractors whose sole purpose in life is to reconstruct the war in Southwest Asia as a story — using story conventions with which the American public is familiar and comfortable — that resonates emotionally and mythically.
The Rendon Group has been around through both the Clinton and Bush II administrations. It is not the only PR outfit feeding at the public trough for the purpose of shoveling bullshit at the very public who signs its checks, but Rendon is emblematic. Rendon stage-managed much of the run-up to the current quagmire in Iraq. The company was largely responsible for the organization of the Iraqi quisling regime that was originally intended to take power — dubbed by the Rendon Group the “Iraqi National Congress,” complete with the changed regime head and convicted embezzler Ahmed Chalabi.
Said one unnamed State Department official in a moment of anonymous candor, “Were it not for Rendon, the Chalabi group wouldn’t even be on the map.”
Rendon had picked up where Hill and Knowlton, the Gulf War I perception managers, left off. H and K contracted with the U.S. government to hatch the “Kuwaiti babies thrown from their incubators by Iraqi soldiers” story. This complete fabrication mobilized massive press and public support for the Bush I invasion. It proved so persistent that an HBO movie about Gulf War I in 2004 actually echoed it again as fact. It should not surprise anyone that Victoria (Torie) Clarke, Pentagon spokesperson during the stop-and-start blitz at the beginning of this invasion, is a former Hill and Knowlton staffer.
Clarke went on to become the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, the office responsible directly to Rumsfeld for military perception management.
The Rendon Group was founded by former Democratic Party operator John Rendon. Rendon Group worked alongside Hill and Knowlton during Gulf War I, inside Kuwait, where it learned quickly how to mine America’s consumer witlessness.
Rendon boasted to the National Security Conference about his efficacy at selling a lie.
If any of you either participated in the liberation of Kuwait City … or if you watched it on television, you would have seen hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags. Did you ever stop to wonder how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American flags? And for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries? Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs.
Hill and Knowlton actually published a book with so many lies it was almost a new fiction genre; it’s called “The Rape of Kuwait.” It was sent directly to troops before the launching of Desert Storm, presumably to remove their inhibitions and imbue them with the proper fighting spirit by dehumanizing their new enemy.
Retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner in October 2003 published a remarkable document online, “Truth From These Podia,” which I recommend. He found over 50 systematic and intentional lies that were generated for the express purpose of deceiving not some putative enemy but the press and the people of the United States and Britain.
He describes the evolution and structure of the White House’s Office of Global Communications — an office almost run by Rendon people — and how it generated news stories out of CENTCOM and elsewhere faster than the press could keep up in order to push deadlines and competition and thereby inhibit fact-checking.
As the stories come apart, sometimes in mere days or hours, the Rendon technique counsels that fabrications be allowed to “ linger” without comment.
This tactic is combined with message control — explaining why “Americans are not the running kind” can show up in two separate speeches in the same day by different members of the administration. Redefining all opposition to U.S. actions as “terrorists” is another example of building false associations through repetition — “echoing,” as it is called in the perception management trade.
How many times did we hear “September 11,” “terrorists” and “Saddam Hussein” in the same breath? Gardiner shows how this is a PSYOPS technique, a method to “construct memory.”
When the spinners get caught, they reconfigure the story with elliptical language, then let it “linger” some more. Weapons of mass destruction become a “weapons program,” then a “seeking” of WMD. George Tenet’s CIA “had questions” about the British forgery on Niger’s purported yellow-cake uranium. Caraccilo just “wanted to share that pride with the people back home.” And let the lingering constructed memory kick in as the next flurry of stories is released to bury the newly emergent lie.
Caraccilo, curiously enough, took the heat off the Bush administration in the Wilson-Plame case, and who could even remember the Jessica Lynch fable, the stage-management of Basra, the yellow-cake uranium, the Iraqi anthrax, the bio-weapons trailers, the Iraqis using American uniforms, the Iraqis who used white flags to lure their prey, the 10-year-old soldiers, the disappearing Scuds, the Iraqi killer drones, the Iraqi woman hanged by the Fedayeen for waving to an American, and the whole wretched list of fabrications that came and went — what I referred to in my book “Full Spectrum Disorder” as the CENTCOM lie of the day.
All of this was dutifully echoed by the press, blindly obedient to some self-censoring convention of their own, called “the presumption of goodwill and good faith,” which the press gives to government officials.
In March of this year, Mark Mazzetti, writing for the Los Angeles Times, filed a story entitled “ Gen. Casey says U.S. to keep up Iraq PR program.” It makes reference to another PR agency called the Lincoln Group that last year was exposed as the source for hundreds of faked stories that were being planted in Iraqi newspapers as part of the Pentagon effort to reacquire some semblance of the initiative there.
The U.S. military plans to continue paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories favorable to the United States after an inquiry found no fault with the controversial practice, the top U.S. general in Iraq said Friday.
Army Gen. George W. Casey said that the review has concluded that the U.S. military has not violated any American laws or Pentagon guidelines by running the information operations campaign in which U.S. troops and a private contractor called Lincoln Group write pro-American stories and pay to have them planted without attribution in the Iraqi media.
“By and large, it found that we were operating within our authorities and responsibilities,” Casey said, adding that he has no intention of shutting the program down.
The information program has been heavily criticized both inside and outside of the military as detrimental to U.S. credibility and contrary to the principles of a free press in a nascent, embattled democracy….
…While the final report by Navy Adm. Scott Van Buskirk is not yet complete, Casey’s comments are the clearest sign that the U.S. military sees the propaganda effort as a critical tool for winning hearts and minds in Iraq. Van Buskirk’s report could pave the way for the Pentagon to duplicate the practice — which would be illegal for the military in the United States — in other parts of the world.
Casey’s comments, made during a video teleconference with Pentagon reporters, also highlighted the split in attitude on the program between military commanders in Baghdad and some senior officials in Washington. After the existence of the Lincoln Group program was revealed in an article in the Los Angeles Times three months ago, White House officials said they were “very concerned” about the practice of paying Iraqi newspapers to publish unattributed stories written by American troops….
…American troops write articles, called storyboards, which are given to the Iraqi staff of Lincoln Group to translate into Arabic. The contractor’s Iraqi staff pay newspaper editors in Baghdad to publish the articles without revealing their origin.
It would be credulous to the point of stupidity — absent the presumption of goodwill — for anyone to assume that this manipulative mind-set is aberrant in the Rumsfeld Pentagon or the Bush administration.
Because, of course, the first and most successful bit of perception management was that “the war was won but the peace was lost.” I have to challenge that. The war — the tactical war — was lost when the U.S. crossed the line of departure between Kuwait and Iraq on March 29, 2003.
At the end of the day, military success is not measured in tactical outcomes, but political ones. The “capture of Baghdad” was touted as a great military victory, but it was an abject failure and a trap. The capture of Baghdad toppled a political regime that had already decamped. But the political objective was regime change that implanted a regime subordinate to the U.S. in a pacified Iraq. The topping of Saddam was a foregone conclusion by everyone. Baghdad’s occupation was an intermediate objective.
But this managed myth of “winning the war” persists even among the war’s critics. As the memories of 2003 fade, and the fact of this big-picture defeat begins to penetrate our collective consciousness, the perception managers have been forced to ever more diligently attack American empathy.
* * *
The United States is not suffering from some collective personality disorder called compassion fatigue. We are suffering from the most well-funded thought-control experiment in history, more sophisticated and deadly by many orders of magnitude than anything contrived by Kim Jong Il — the latest bete noir of American public discourse, and we are suffering from the complicity of journalistic hacks like Judith Miller and the anodyne intellectual narcotics of policy think tanks.
It is our empathy that is under attack, because if it is aroused to a point where Iraqis or Afghans or even our own imperial soldiers become real people (and not a yellow-ribbon magnet), the jig is up.
So here is a simple reminder. This war is wanton cruelty in our name; there is no rationalization that can mitigate or excuse it; “we” will not win it and somehow transmogrify a swine into a swan … and it is not over.
Stan Goff is a retired veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces. During an active-duty career that spanned 1970 to 1996, he served with the elite Delta Force and Rangers, and in Vietnam, Guatemala, Grenada, El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Somalia and Haiti.
He is a veteran of the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama and also taught military science at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Goff is the author of the books “Hideous Dream — A Soldier’s Memoir of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti,” “Full Spectrum Disorder — The Military in the New American Century” and “Sex & War.”