Hindsight should be 20-20, but often isn't. Retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, writing in The Washington Post Wednesday, gave this reason for his public call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld:
"We went to war with the wrong war plan. Senior civilian leadership chose to radically alter the results of deliberate and continuous war planning ..."
I have great respect for Maj. Gen. Batiste's character, courage and integrity. He turned down a third star to retire in protest. But I don't think much of his judgment.
It is indisputably true that Secretary Rumsfeld demanded changes in the war plans for Afghanistan and Iraq. He wanted smaller, lighter forces that could move fast, with more emphasis on air power and special forces.
But it is also indisputably true, as the Centcom commander at the time and his deputy have acknowledged, that Mr. Rumsfeld was right and the generals who advocated a slow, ponderous buildup of conventional forces a la the first Gulf War were wrong.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban was ousted before the massive conventional forces called for in the military's original plan could have arrived in theater. Saddam's regime was deposed in a little more than three weeks, with minimal U.S. casualties. (Saddam could have been deposed even earlier if the ground forces commander, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, hadn't contracted a case of the slows outside Najaf.)
Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are our finest public servants. As Ralph Peters notes, there is no profession in America where the senior leadership is more thoroughly vetted.
But in the military, as in all government agencies, there is too much bureaucracy and too little "out of the box" thinking. Many generals, especially in the Army, cling to the methods of warfare in which they were trained (for a conventional conflict with the Soviet Union) even though these are often inapplicable to a guerrilla war against Muslim extremists.
Great success in the march on Baghdad was followed by egregious, inexplicable and inexcusable failure. Virtually no planning had been done for what would happen after the fall of Saddam, and what little planning was done was puerile.
Ultimate responsibility for this failure rests with Secretary Rumsfeld, but not just with him.
"There's a shared responsibility here, said retired Gen. Jack Keane, vice chief of staff of the Army from 1997 to October 2003. "I don't think you can blame the civilian leadership alone."
Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki has become a cult figure to officers critical of Mr. Rumsfeld, and for journalists looking for a club with which to beat the Bush administration. The admiration stems from Gen. Shinseki's testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2003, that several hundred thousand more troops than the administration was planning for would be required to pacify Iraq.
It appears, in retrospect, that Gen. Shinseki was right. But we ought not to make this assumption as glibly as so many have.
To begin with, the Shinseki plan called for more troops than there were in the active U.S. Army, which casts some doubt on its practicality. But the larger issue is the debate within the military between the "big footprint" guys and the "little footprint" guys.
Gen. Shinseki is a big footprint guy. He favored an occupation like that in Germany and Japan after World War II.
The little footprint guys, most of whom are in special forces, said the presence of a large number of American troops was in itself an incitement to insurgency.
I'm a little footprint guy. I think by far the most serious of the mistakes we've made in Iraq was creation of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The CPA (soldiers said it stood for Can't Provide Anything) did little good, and provided a very visible "American occupation" for extremists to rally against.
We'd have been better off, in my opinion, if we'd followed the Afghan model and stood up right away an Iraqi interim government.
We wound up with the worst of both worlds a big footprint strategy with a force structure more suitable for a small footprint strategy.
A related egregious mistake was our failure to begin rebuilding immediately the Iraqi army and police. Great progress has been made since Lt. Gen. David Petraeus took over this responsibility in June 2004, but a critically important year was lost.
We are in the early stages of what figures to be a long war against a ruthless and determined enemy. To win this war, it is important we learn from our mistakes. But we can do that only if we hunt for the truth, not for scapegoats.