Today's New York Times carries this letter from Lawrence Korb, who in the early 1980s was an assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, installations and logistics:
I disagree with Gen. H. R. McMaster ("The Pipe Dream of Easy War," Sunday Review, July 21) when he attributes our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan to an overreliance on new technology, which clouded our understanding of the conflicts.
The problems in both wars were created primarily because President George W. Bush and his advisers ignored the advice of the Army chief of staff about how many troops to send into Iraq and the on-the-ground commanders' warnings about disbanding the Iraqi Army and civil service. Similarly, in Afghanistan they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in 2003 by ignoring our military commanders and diverting manpower and resources to the unnecessary war in Iraq.
This is the problem I have with Dr. Korb's letter: I worry that it helps enable the U.S military to go on blaming the civilians for everything that went wrong in Iraq. Yes, I know the Bush administration made huge mistakes -- like invading Iraq in the first place, not having a plan for what to do once it got there, and operating on bizarre assumptions rather than a realistic assessment of the way forward. In fact, I wrote a book about all that.
That said, the U.S. military made huge mistakes as well, but has not had to confront them nearly as much. The fact of the matter is that our military was badly unprepared for the tasks facing it in Iraq, especially at the general officer level. Had the Bush administration listened to General Shinseki and sent twice as many troops, we likely would have had our poorly commanded troops simply pissing off twice as many Iraqis. Good strategy will fix bad tactics, but good tactics will not fix bad strategy, or take the place of no strategy.
Why do I think the U.S. military has failed to heed the lessons of Iraq? Because I think that, among other things, it has never addressed two major problems it had there. The first is torture, the second is the effect of troop rotations on the conduct of the war. (For example, why did some units torture, and others didn't? And what was the effect of rotating all but the four stars out every year?) Korb's letter, and similar expressions, simply make it easier for the military to go on whistling past the graveyard.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.