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The nightmare of generals 

It was Clemenceau or Talleyrand who said that war is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the generals, and they had never heard of David Petraeus, Ricardo Sanchez or Tommy Franks, George W. Bush's prized commanders.

Whichever Frenchman, if either, said it might have added that war was too important to be entrusted to chickenhawk politicians and think-tank experts.

We were put in mind of that drollery last week when The New York Times published a long, remarkable op-ed piece written by six sergeants and a corporal with the 82nd Airborne who are wrapping up a 15-month tour in Iraq. It was a rebuttal to the latest happy talk from generals and from two think-tank authorities who after a chaperoned visit to Iraq safe havens declared in another Times op-ed that the war was very manageable. The Bush administration has been touting the critique by the “authorities,” whom it describes as liberals, as evidence that the surge is working.

Next month, Gen. Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq will issue a report that will include a little gloom but say lots of things are going well and that America needs to stay the course in Iraq, which is what generals are supposed to do. Petraeus will depart sometime next year, maybe in time to get a Medal of Freedom and then, like Franks and the torturer Sanchez before him, to be blamed by Bush for the war's failings.

The non-coms' article paints another picture altogether, and it has everything — personal experience, historical context, the aura of reality — that a George Bush speech or a commanding general's solicitous report does not. If any further authenticity was required, one of the six sergeants, an Army Ranger reconnaissance leader, took a bullet in the head a week before the piece was published.

The soldiers said the recent portraits of the war as increasingly manageable conflicted with the sharply rising civil, political and social unrest they saw every day.

“We operate,” they wrote, “in a bewildering context of determined enemies and questionable allies, one where the balance of forces on the ground remains entirely unclear.” Security, they said, had to be assessed not from an American-centered perspective — the ability of a select guest to walk unmolested down a street of a once-violent neighborhood —but from that of Iraqis, on whom the whole counterinsurgency ultimately depends.

“A vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side,” they wrote.

The seven soldiers aren't oddballs. Thomas Ricks' book “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” enumerated the administration's Iraq blunders and the doubts of the men on the ground. A new postscript talks about the vast numbers of soldiers, officers and non-coms, who read it and conveyed their horror at the task in which they had been engaged.

The last desperate claim of the administration, one that is thrown at every critic, is that the people of Iraq are better off because the bloody tyrant Saddam Hussein, who committed his worst offenses with a benevolent nod of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, is dead. The loaded question is thrown at Democratic presidential candidates — is not Iraq better off without him? — and they duck it.

The non-coms address it.

Are the two million Iraqis in refugee camps in bordering countries and the two million others internally displaced and filling urban slums better off?

They could have added, what about the 650,000 to one million Iraqis who have died in the bloodbath? Or the two of every three Iraqis who now have no access to clean drinking water? Only two of the high-tension lines running into Baghdad are in operation and people there have electricity on average between one and two hours a day when temperatures run from 100 to 130 degrees. Water engineers, doctors and other health professionals have fled the country in droves. Iraqis could buy 40 gallons of gas under Saddam for 50 cents and now it is $75 if they can get it on the black market.

“In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act,” the soldiers wrote. “Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence.”

“In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.”

Meantime, they concluded, we should step back and let Iraqis try to fix their problems as best they can and not pursue “incompatible policies to absurd ends.”

It raises this question: Can you put a non-com in charge of a war?

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