Saturday, May 17, 2008

It Wasn't My Fault Say the Generals

One day in 2004, my team and I stood by at the front doors of the Water Palace (Al Faw Palace) at Camp Victory. As a protective service detail, we were waiting for our general to emerge from the palace after meeting with then-commander Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (pictured above).

Before our boss exited the palace, Sanchez came walking out of the doors, followed by his “Incredible Hulk”-style Army bodyguard. I saluted Sanchez and he crisply returned my salute.

At the time, all of us average soldiers believed that men like Sanchez had their fingers on the pulse of the war. Still, we were concerned with several issues whose solutions seemed fairly obvious, even to the average privates and sergeants.

The failure of CPA boss Bremer to pay for obviously critical improvements to Iraqi society bothered us all. We had invaded a nation of more than 25 million people, removed their government, their army, their police and their infrastructure, but somehow we were supposed to fix everything with only 140,000 troops. The people needed electricity, water, jobs and a host of other things. Our failure to provide these necessities resulted in a lot of hungry ex-soldiers and ex-cops joining the insurgency.

When fiery cleric Muqtada al Sadr launched his up-risings in 2004, the troops wanted to take him out along with his Mahdi Army. The CPA succumbed to political pressure from al Sadr’s fellow Shiites. Now, in 2008, the Mahdi Army is Iraq’s version of Hezbollah or Hamas and this Iranian-trained militia is still killing Americans and Iraqis.

Also in 2004, we watched our troops fight valiantly in Fallujah, only to be pulled out when a former Iraqi general under Saddam Hussein was given permission to form the “Fallujah Protective Army”. This was a force of Fallujah residents who did exactly as all of us average soldiers predicted - nothing. They gave insurgents free reign in Fallujah and refused to turn over the foreign fighters.

The soldiers always knew what should have been done in the beginning. We had faith that our military leaders would do what was necessary to succeed in Iraq, but our faith was misplaced to a large degree in those early days of the war.

We must still emerge victorious in Iraq – as long as the Iraqis continue to work with us. But now we are watching some of our former commanders, like Sanchez and other generals, try to put all of the blame on the politicians for those early strategic mistakes. Most of the blame belongs with the political leaders in Washington, but some of it does not.

Generals whose men are making the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield must do more than “follow orders”. When it comes to the ultimate test of honor, a general has an obligation to speak up on behalf of those who are doing the fighting and dying, even if it costs that general his job. A good example of such a general of honor is Eric Shinseki, who told Congress exactly what it would take to succeed in Iraq and who was summarily shuffled off into retirement.

Like many veterans of the Iraq war, I have become tired of listening to retired generals who have become “talking heads” on the evening news. It wasn’t their fault, they say. They were only following orders, they say. Many of these generals were commanders who failed as leaders because their honor became secondary to their next promotion.

Things have changed for the better in Iraq because the military leaders, and the soldiers under them, have taken the lead in getting things done. As it should have been in the beginning, authority to make things happen has finally been delegated to all levels of command. This is much improved over those early days in the war when very little authority was granted – even to the generals.

The following article about retired Lt. General Sanchez’s new book appeared in today’s Miami Herald.

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Miami Herald
May 17, 2008

Ex-Iraq Commander Distances Self From Culpability
The former head of command in Iraq said he may have been the chief, but he was just following orders.

By Nancy A. Youssef

WASHINGTON--To hear retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez explain it, the mistakes of the Iraq war that happened while he was in command there weren't his fault. Not Abu Ghraib, not the birth of the insurgency, not the decision to let rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr survive.

Sanchez was a soldier, and according to him, a general's job is to give advice. What the civilian leaders decide after that is out of a general's hands.

''It's our responsibility to provide the best judgment we can,'' Sanchez said in an interview with McClatchy. ``But when those decisions are made, if they are not illegal or immoral, civilian control of the military dictates that we comply.''

Sanchez argues that crafting a strategy wasn't his responsibility, even as the top commander in Iraq. That fell to the civilian leaders, such as the secretary of defense and the president.

But as part of the military's emerging counterinsurgency strategy, commanders now are calling their soldiers ''strategic corporals.'' That is, every soldier's decision is part of the broader strategy.

Captains serving in outposts throughout Iraq now are leading fiefdoms alongside local Iraqi leaders, deciding everything from who should protect the community to how local funds should be spent. Commanders now stress to corporals and captains stationed in those outposts that their decisions are part of the broader strategy.

''It's all well and good for a general to say I am not responsible for grand strategy,'' said retired Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan. ``But corporals can be strategic. They can make things happen.''

Latest book

Sanchez's comments were part of a series of interviews he's given recently to promote his new autobiography, ''Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story,'' the latest of several books by key Iraq decision-makers that seem intended to exonerate them of responsibility.

In his book, Sanchez repeatedly spells out instances in which civilian leaders made decisions that countered his recommendations.

Advice ignored

Sanchez said the key window for the United States to turn the situation around in Iraq opened with the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003.

It closed the following April, he said, when the U.S. made two key mistakes: It launched its first major offensive into Fallujah and decided not to capture Sadr, whose Shiite militia has since grown into one of Iraq's most powerful forces.

Sanchez said he advised President Bush not to go into Fallujah in April 2004 after four private security contractors were taken hostage and killed. Their burned bodies were hung from a bridge as several Iraqis celebrated beneath them, in widely-circulated photos.

Sanchez said he feared that proponents of attacking Fallujah were being driven by a knee-jerk reaction to the photos and not by any consideration of the difficulty of moving into the city, which had been a troublesome redoubt of anti-American insurgents since the day U.S. troops toppled Hussein.

He said he advised against the offensive. The president ''appreciated our caution but then ordered us to attack,'' Sanchez wrote.

That battle ended in failure less than a month later and signaled to the insurgency that the U.S. would walk away from a major fight.

That same month, the U.S. had a chance to arrest Sadr, but Sanchez said that L. Paul Bremer, then the head of the Coalition Provincial Authority, called off the operation. Sadr has been haunting U.S. efforts in Iraq ever since.

Abu Ghraib

Sanchez said that he should have known more about what was going on at the Abu Ghraib prison, where Iraqi prisoners were subjected to abuses that resulted in the courts-martial of seven low-ranking soldiers.

But even there, he said he bore no direct responsibility for what was taking place. Instead, the abuses of Abu Ghraib were a result of the Bush administration's endorsement of aggressive interrogations, which began in Afghanistan. He points out that an Army inspector general report ultimately absolved him.

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The early mistakes in Iraq do not negate the necessity to succeed in our military efforts in that country. We must never forget that the ultimate problem is, and shall be for some time, the Iranian issue. If we pull out of Iraq before the Iraqis can defend themselves, Iran will use Muqtada al Sadr to carry out a proxy takeover of Iraq.

This is the ultimate goal of the radical Shiites and such a victory would only ensure a continued river of blood throughout the Middle East.

SFC Chuck Grist


  1. Some of us are still 100% behind you guys. Thanks for sharing. What can I do to help!

  2. You hit on some very real issues here. While I rarely get into direct criticism of Generals on the ground, Sanchez appears to be the product of the Peacetime Aversion to risk and CYA paperwork.

    The old adage of having to relearn the lessons of past wars remains true. Safety of Our Troops and Victory is best achieved by Agressive Tactics that are high in risk in the short term and high in success in the long term.

    Keep up the good work SFC Grist