Dissent from the Front Lines

When will we listen to the troops? I'm not talking about soldiers used as props for a George Bush photo op, telling reporters what Washington wants to hear. The military is disciplined and thus accustomed, from Gen. David Petraeus on down, to toeing the official line. But the Iraq war has also produced brilliant messages of dissent from the ranks that should cause us to stop in our tracks and reconsider what we have wrought. First, a group of sergeants came forward, and on Tuesday it was the captains' turn to speak out.

In "The War as We Saw It," an eloquent Op-Ed article published in The New York Times in August, seven sergeants summarized the futility of their 15 months of fighting in Iraq: "To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is farfetched." After penning that crie de cour, two of the soldiers died in Iraq and a third was severely wounded.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post printed "The Real Iraq We Knew," by 12 former Army captains, all of whom served in Iraq. It begins: "Today marks five years since the authorization of military force in Iraq, setting Operation Iraqi Freedom in motion. Five years on, the Iraq war is as undermanned and under-resourced as it was from the start. And, five years on Iraq is in shambles. As Army captains who served in Baghdad and beyond, we've seen the corruption and the sectarian division. We understand what it's like to be stretched too thin. And we know when it's time to get out."

How come those brave veterans know it's time to get out, but leading Democrats, who voted for the war to be authorized, are still pussyfooting about quickly removing the troops from this ever-deepening quagmire? They're jockeying for political advantage, knowing that drawing out the war hurts the Republicans. It is a deeply cynical ploy that works only because with our all-volunteer military, most Americans don't have to face the choice of sacrificing themselves or their loved ones in a futile and losing war.

Yes, it costs the taxpayers, but so do the "Halo 3" video games they are purchasing in record numbers, and for most Americans, Iraq is a make-believe war. Even the cost seems unreal, as Bush is the first president in U.S. history to cut taxes in a time of war, with the result that more than a trillion dollars in long-term obligations will not come due while his administration has to foot the bills.

If there was a draft, people would be in the streets demanding an end to this carnage, which now threatens to go on for decades. That is precisely what the neocon ideologues who got us into this mess built their fantasies on: a volunteer force, supplemented by hundreds of thousands of contractors (including 50,000 mercenary troops like those from Blackwater) and the purchase of largely irrelevant but highly profitable high-tech weaponry, although they forgot about simple armor for the troops.

The most fraudulent neocon claim was that pro-Western, even pro-Israel Iraqis, like their favorite, the now totally discredited Ahmed Chalabi, would police the country as surrogates for the U.S., and that Iraqi oil sales would pay for it all. The 12 captains, who worked with the locals, are very clear as to the forlorn outcome of that plan: " ... many of us witnessed the exploitation of U.S. tax dollars by Iraqi officials and military officers. Sabotage and graft have had a particularly deleterious impact on Iraq's oil industry which still fails to produce the revenue that Pentagon war planners hoped would pay for Iraq's reconstruction."

As for that other ongoing illusion-that we are turning power over to Iraqi forces we have trained-the captains write: "Iraqi soldiers quit at will. The police are effectively controlled by militias. And ... corruption is debilitating. U.S. tax dollars enrich self-serving generals and support the very elements that will battle each other after we're gone."

Building an empire on the cheap and by proxy doesn't work. If you want one, and of course most of us don't, since only a few fat cats benefit from such imperial adventures, you need a vast conscript army.

As the captains put it: "There is only one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately." Enough said.

Robert Scheer is editor of Truthdig.com and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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