The week began with horrific reports that two American soldiers had been murdered in Mosul, Northern Iraq, their throats slit and their bodies mutilated. Across North America, the reaction was outrage. "IRAQI INGRATES CURSE US, Show no sympathy for butchered GIs," said the New York Post. Days later, U.S. military officials retracted the story. The two in fact died of gunshot wounds during a robbery. They were not mutilated.
For many U.S. vets, the entire incident deepened their malaise. It roused not only memories of atrocities against the bodies of U.S. soldiers in Somalia (those stories had been true), it also increased current doubts, when it comes to Iraq, about what and who to believe.
Ron Ray, U.S. Marine Corps colonel (ret.), and a former assistant secretary of defense, says he sees the latest retraction as part of a pattern of misinformation that started long before the hyped-up rescue of Jessica Lynch and the revelation that soldiers had never sent 11 identical upbeat letters home. A combat veteran of Vietnam, now a prominent constitutional lawyer, Mr. Ray warned last year, before the U.S.-led war began, of the need for "hard evidence that war in Iraq is required to maintain the security of the United States." As a young lieutenant, he had believed that North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. "That's why Congress voted to go to war in 1965," he says now. "I survived that war and was studying law when the senior senator from Kentucky, Thruston Morton, told me there had been no attack -- 58,000 dead for a lie."
In his 1998 book, A World Transformed, George Bush Sr. outlined his reasons for not going after Saddam at the end of the earlier Gulf war: "Extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq . . . would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. . . . We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad . . . [and] rule Iraq. . . . Under those circumstances there would have been no viable exit strategy . . . the U.S. could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land."
Yet a top-secret report, drafted by the National Intelligence Council for George W. Bush on Oct. 1, 2002, but now public knowledge, confirms that the U.S. has, once again, been pulled into war by a lie. The report states that Baghdad did not sponsor recent terrorist attacks against America; was not operating in concert with al-Qaeda; and was not at the time a terrorist threat to America.
Why did the younger Bush ignore his father's advice? Many military professionals believe he is under the influence of neo-conservative ideologues led by deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "Bush isn't in control," says recently retired Air Force colonel Karen Kwiatkowksi.
A former Pentagon officer and Middle East specialist who once worked in the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy, Ms. Kwiatkowski says key areas of government have been "hijacked" by "a network of political appointees in key positions . . . operating outside normal structures and practices." A self-described conservative, she says the neo-cons advocate "perpetual war to promote abstract global morality through military imperialism, propped up by muscular national socialism at home."
Some in the military community fear such trends could ultimately lead to the destruction of the U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq. It isn't just the almost daily loss of life (which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shrugged off, after the recent shooting down of a Chinook helicopter, as a "necessary part of the war"). Rather, it is the growing unease as a truer picture of misinformation and appalling new facts about military morale come to light.
The U.S. Defense Department has forbidden the media from filming returns of "transfer tubes" (the latest euphemism for body bags) lest such images disturb the public. Meanwhile, soldiers' Web logs and e-mails detail complaints by troops of being sent to Iraq with Vietnam-era flak jackets which offer no protection against enemy Kalashnikovs. Until the Senate put a stop to it, injured reservists were charged $8 (U.S.) a day for food in hospital, and had to buy their own toilet tissue. And Stars and Stripes, the U.S. armed forces in-house journal, last month reported that half of American soldiers in country are fed up. Not properly trained for the job they are expected to do, they see no end in sight for the war and don't plan to re-enlist. It has not escaped the attention of veterans that the U.S. government recently blocked modest ($1-million) reparations to 37 former POWs from the earlier Gulf war, which had been ordered by a U.S. court to be paid out of Iraqi funds.
The trouble, many say, began immediately after Mr. Rumsfeld took office and began a series of secret studies, from which senior military leaders were excluded. The studies called for a revamping of the entire military, and proposed that all the U.S. needed to win a war were Stealth bombers and Special Forces. Sept. 11 and Afghanistan kept dissenters within the Pentagon quiet.
But only for a time. Before the Iraq war began, army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki testified before Congress that the occupation of Iraq would require 500,000 troops. At the time, he was ridiculed by Mr. Wolfowitz, who to this day seems oblivious to military disenchantment in Iraq.
Now, troop morale depends in large part on a clearly scheduled return stateside. Yet, because of the troop shortage predicted by Gen. Shinseki, soldiers have seen their return date postponed again and again. Some troops come home from Iraq and head almost immediately to Afghanistan, South Korea or Bosnia. By early next year, 30 of the U.S. Army's 33 combat brigades will either be in Iraq or on their way to another assignment. None will have been able to spend what should be compulsory time updating their skills at the national training center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
Meanwhile, President Bush refuses to admit that the U.S. Army, currently 485,000 soldiers, needs desperately to be expanded. American soldiers cannot fight a guerrilla war and keep the peace in Iraq. But Mr. Rumsfeld, like his Vietnam-era predecessors, will not admit that he erred when he pronounced that the war would end quickly.
None of this bodes well for Mr. Bush in the upcoming election. A few days ago, the 50th casualty of the U.S. First Airborne Division, which is based at Fort Campbell, Ky., arrived home and was honored with a funeral procession estimated to be 80 kilometers long.
In the last contest, Mr. Bush got a large portion of active-duty military and veteran votes. That's unlikely in 2004 unless he can persuade the Ron Rays and Karen Kwiatkowskis that he can secure enough international support so that U.S. troops in Iraq can be scaled back -- without the ignominy of withdrawing with less gained than lost.
Monika Jensen-Stevenson has written extensively about the U.S. military and has been awarded the Vietnam Veterans National Medal.
© 2003 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc