The Best Defense

Iraq: Why is everyone so damn surprised?

One of the editors at Foreign Policy was pushing me yesterday to say more about Iraq, despite my feeling of numb wordlessness.

OK, here goes. My question is, Why the hell is everyone so surprised? Was this not inevitable? Perhaps it was foretold on the day we removed Sunni power from Baghdad, and so took down the bulwark that prevented the westward expansion of Persian power. Certainly it looked likely from the time Maliki decided to attack the Sunni towns to the west of Baghdad.

Is this what American troops were fighting for? No, John, because they don't get to decide what they are fighting for.

You want a lesson of Iraq? Here's one: Don't go invading countries about which you don't know enough to know what you want to do once you get there.

Ready for another? OK, here: Don't destroy a power without considering what will fill the ensuing vacuum.

A third lesson, aimed at myself: This situation makes me think I was wrong when I supported the idea of having a small "residual force" of perhaps 10,000 troops based near Baghdad to support the Iraqi government and to discourage coups. If we had troops there now, we would be facing the choice of pulling them out under fire or reinforcing them, two equally unpalatable choices.

No, I don't think we should do airstrikes. The last thing we need is American pilots being held prisoner by the new guys. And where would you base your combat search & rescue helicopters, and what do you do when one of them gets shot down? I don't think Obama faces hard choices in Iraq.

The one interesting suggestion I've heard is that the U.S. government make military aid to Iraq dependent on Maliki stepping down. But I think Iran has more say in that than we do.  

But I do think we will continue to be surprised and chagrined for many years to come by how Iraq plays out. Ryan Crocker, then the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said to me in 2008 that the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered hadn't yet happened.  I think we may be seeing the beginning of those events now. But everything in Iraq takes longer than expected, so it may be a decade or even more before we know what really has happened.  

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

The Best Defense

Bergdahl and more (I): The Army haunted by recruiting mistakes of last decade

With Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl arriving on American soil earlier today, you all might be interested in a conversation I have been following among several current and former Army officers about how recruiting mistakes made during the height of the Iraq war have come back to haunt the Army.

First, from my friend Crispin Burke:

"Looking back at many of the Soldier scandals of the past few years, a common theme is that they should have either never been brought onto active duty, or should have been kicked out of the service a long time ago.  But those were the standards back in 2004-2009 or so.  Cases in point:

Manning -- Outbursts of violence, screaming, punched his female company commander in the face... chain of command warned not to deploy him. 

Hasan -- Poor performance, clear evidence of his political views.  PCSed to Fort Hood.

Morlock  -- Marijuana smoking, went AWOL to avoid a drug test, allowed to deploy.

Bergdahl -- Washed out of Coast Guard Basic Training

Bales -- Multiple arrests due to alcohol-related issues.  Hit-and-Run accident... never kicked out of the service, goes on to murder about a dozen Afghans."

Tom again, now quoting another friend with experience inside Army recruiting:

"I commanded the Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion.

As the battalion commander, most of the waiver requests came to me.  In LA, I did a whole bunch for tattoos, drug use, and gang affiliation.

One applicant came to me for a marijuana waiver.  These were very routine. If we disqualified every kid in LA who ever smoked pot, there would be precious few enlistments.

His application said that he had tried marijuana twice.  In the mandatory interview, I asked him how much he smoked.  'Three times a day.' 'For how long?'  'About two years.'

I disapproved the waiver.  In my mind, it was a fraudulent enlistment because I knew it to contain false information.  This started the clock on 30 days that had to pass before he could resubmit.  I told him to redo the paperwork, be honest about everything in it, and come back.  I stood him in front of the "Integrity" poster from the set of Army Values posters in my battalion headquarters and told him this was the standard to join the Army.

Not an hour later, my brigade commander called to chew me out because I had deviated from the Army requirements for enlistment, which did not include honesty.  He told me that the recruit would learn that in basic training. Oh, and that I had just screwed the recruiter.  (Of course, this was the recruiter who I knew damn well coached him on what to put on his enlistment application.)

A month later, he returned with fresh paperwork.  I granted the waiver. I then called his parents, put them on the speaker phone in my office and congratulated them on having a son who was going to become a Soldier. They were all crying like babies.

This incident contributed to LA Recruiting Battalion being my last assignment in the Army.  But I think I helped a young man turn a corner in his personal life, and hopefully become a good Soldier."

U.S. Army via Getty Images