The Only Way Out Is Forward
Iraq is the wrong war at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. But it’s time to break the paradigm of Vietnam and finish the job—despite the political consequences
By Col. Mike Turner
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
Sept. 12 — The other day, the Bush administration warned that U.S. troops in Iraq may have to endure consecutive overseas deployments. If the change takes place, it would mark the first time since the end of the Vietnam War that troops would be required to serve back-to-back one-year tours.
IT WAS YET ANOTHER in the growing series of comparisons between Vietnam and today’s war in Iraq.
Some of the similarities between the two wars are obvious. The Vietnam War began when senior White House officials used overblown and distorted threat assessments as an excuse to commit U.S. troops to an action they’d already decided upon months before. The operation was a unilateral, conventional, U.S. military operation against a Third World power which, in the final analysis, posed only an indirect and peripheral threat to U.S. vital interests. The operation lacked formal United Nations backing and broad international support, two factors that eventually sapped U.S. will and drained our resources. Mission success was ill-defined, and administration officials, assuming a quick victory, adopted and stubbornly adhered to a tragically simplistic and naive view of the both the military forces required to achieve military victory and the level of societal change necessary to win and sustain the peace.
It’s hard to overstate how profoundly the Vietnam War shaped America’s political and military thinking for decades after that conflict ended. I spent my entire military career living and working within its shadow. Vietnam’s aftermath changed our tactics, our command-and-force structure and our understanding of the significant analysis and planning, both military and political, that must precede every major, modern military operation. In Vietnam, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell experienced firsthand the colossal hubris of our political leaders and watched their mistakes kill tens of thousands of American troops. The so-called Powell Doctrine was born in those jungles, in the crucible of that nightmare, and it wasn’t until Operation Desert Storm that these two remarkably gifted Americans, as much statesmen as warriors, were able to demand from our political leadership the kind of prudent restraint, fact-based analysis and broad international support upon which any modern global military action must be based. Without this kind of due diligence, it is extremely difficult to truly win the war, but it is impossible to win the peace.
The point is, though it took all of us 20 years to fully absorb the lessons of Vietnam, we learned them. The stunning and absolute victory of Desert Storm was no accident. It was based squarely on the lessons of Vietnam: before you commit U.S. troops, know and isolate your enemy, precisely define military success, precisely define how and when you will disengage U.S. troops and, most importantly, whenever possible obtain U.N. sanction and long-term, multinational, multiorganizational support to share the burden. It was this comprehensive analysis before the war that led to our decision not to cross the Euphrates River in Desert Storm, a decision unanimously supported by every political and military leader involved, most especially former president Bush. That decision was as correct then as it is today, fanciful, revisionist history of the past ten years notwithstanding.
All that is why what is now occurring in Iraq is so profoundly and viscerally offensive to those of us who thought we had moved past this point in American history. It is simply inconceivable to me that a U.S. administration could have made so many of the same mistakes made by the Johnson-McNamara group of thirty years ago. In a word, I’m outraged. This is the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. And this Administration should be held responsible for its conduct in the next election. Once again, the politicians have handed the military the nightmare scenario.
So where do we go from here? Rehashing the administration’s unforgivably shortsighted mistakes is, at this point, a fruitless exercise. Up until two weeks ago, I just wanted the troops out. Screw the politicians. The foreign-policy disaster had already occurred, let’s just try to save some lives. Then I watched a documentary during which the U.S. soldiers of the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia were interviewed. To a man, each of them said their biggest regret was not being allowed to finish the job. Each of them felt betrayed by their civilian leadership for lacking the will and character to stay the course despite the enormity of the setback. They were echoing the sentiments of our military troops sent to Haiti, Somalia, Lebanon, and yes, Vietnam. In fact, with the exception of Desert Storm and Bosnia, they were voicing their frustration with what has become an American paradigm. Our civilian leadership commits U.S. troops when it’s politically expedient and withdraws them when the operation becomes a political liability.
And suddenly I realized, as angry as I was with the Bush Administration’s obsession with “getting Saddam,” the real reason for the invasion, it is now too late to turn back. We’ve crossed the Rubicon. It is time, therefore, finally and forever, to break the paradigm of Vietnam. There is only one possible way out, and that way is forward. The administration has simply burned too many bridges for us to withdraw. And though I believe long-term victory in Iraq is, at very best, a long shot, we have a sacred responsibility to the military men and women who have been and will be lost to finish the job. Indeed, the enduring lesson of Vietnam was not, “Never engage,” it was “Engage responsibly.” What does that mean? It means winning this time. It means returning to the U.N. and obtaining U.N. backing at any price. It means going to the allies we have arrogantly disregarded and asking for help. It means dramatically internationalizing the force and, more importantly, the reconstruction of Iraq. This is, quite simply, the only way we will ever get our troops home. Our greatest strength is our capacity to spend and build. We must coordinate a vast international effort to do just that in Iraq. And though we have not seen a shred of compelling evidence suggesting Iraq was ever a serious player in the terror war before our invasion, it has become just such a player now. We have significantly strengthened the very monster we seek to defeat, and, even worse, handed our enemies home-court advantage. This war will test America’s character and resolve as nothing has in modern times. Ultimately, the war will cost hundreds, possibly thousands of lives, hundreds of billions of dollars and take years to win. But win we must.
The Marine Corps has a wonderful motto—Semper Fi—always faithful. This war is going to get very, very ugly. Yet the president and the war’s principal, civilian architects in the Defense Department promise us they will see it through to the end. I believe they mean that. I sincerely hope so, because those of us in uniform have heard these kinds of hollow assurances many times during the past 30 years. They’d better mean it this time. Because the ghosts of the several hundred American servicemen and women who have died in Iraq as well as about a million veterans in and out of uniform are watching very closely.
Retired Air Force Col. Mike Turner was a personal assistant to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and served as the air operations briefing officer in the war room in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during Desert Storm. From 1993-1997, Colonel Turner worked as a Middle East/Africa politico-military policy planner on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, working for two years for then Lt. Gen. Wesley Clark. He is currently a consultant at TheSynerGGroup in Colorado Springs, Colo.
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.