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The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

We Can't Win An Immoral War

Bill Distler

George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, both want U.S. forces to stay in Iraq, but for different reasons.

Bush wants to turn the oil and natural gas resources of Iraq over to his corporate sponsors. Mission Accomplished!

Petraeus is another story. His entire career has led up to this chance to show that he can win a counterinsurgency war. During the '80s, Maj. David Petraeus was an adviser to Gen. John Galvin of the U.S. Southern Command. Speaking of "Low Intensity Conflict," Petraeus told The Wall Street Journal in 1986 that "LIC is a growth industry."

Low intensity conflict is the U.S. military term for "small wars." These wars are fought in such places as El Salvador, Angola and Afghanistan. Low intensity conflict planners emphasize the importance of controlling the news ("the information dimension," according to Gen. Wallace Nutting). That keeps Americans from being too concerned. But the term is misleading. For the people where those "small wars" are fought, it is just as intense as World War II, but in a smaller place.

When then-Major Petraeus referred to a growth industry he must have expected future economic opportunities for arms makers, counterinsurgency experts such as himself, and all those who profit from war.


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There are some interesting parallels between Petraeus as a general and Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Both seem to be honest military men. Both commanded the 101st Airborne Division (to which I was assigned in Vietnam in 1968). And both men agreed to lead U.S. forces in wars that were started and maintained by lies told by civilian leaders.

Like most of us, Petraeus suffers from self-delusion. For most of us, self-delusion is a defense against some uncomfortable truth. But for ambitious men such as Petraeus, self-delusion can have severe consequences for other people.

Petraeus appears to be an honest man. But he was given a tempting offer by the president to fulfill his lifelong goal, and he accepted. To do the job, he must convince himself what he is doing is right. It is not. The general is trying to do an honest job in a dishonest situation.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have disastrous effects on the people of those countries and on our own country. I'm rooting for Petraeus; not for him to win this war, but to do what is right and to end his career with integrity. He should not try to achieve his life goal of winning a counterinsurgency war when it causes so much suffering for other people. There is no way to truly win an immoral war.

Petraeus does not have to end up like Westmoreland, whose fixation on defeating the "enemy" at tremendous cost to the civilian population led to his nickname, "General Waste More Land." The real enemies we face are lies and self-delusion. Those are the enemies that Petraeus, like the rest of us, must struggle against.

Bill Distler lives in Bellingham.

© 2007 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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