The Washington Times

When the war started, an acquaintance asked me if I was going to be busy during the course of it thinking of the possibility, no doubt, that I might be doing commentary of one kind or another. No, I said, for what it’s worth, I didn’t think I’d be busy at all, which suited me fine. U.S. strategy, national security and high politics, yes, but I don’t do military operations. I’m happy, I said, to leave that to the generals for the duration. I’d be glad to come back when we are doing politics again, but not until we are done with the continuation of politics by other means, namely, the fighting, which I am not qualified to address.

Well, now I am perhaps not so happy to have left the commentary to the generals or more precisely, to the current and former top brass that was out in force from about day four to about day 12 of the war, complaining vehemently, on camera and anonymously, as circumstances warranted, about the gross inadequacy, if not indeed the complete failure of the war plan for Iraq.

It was by no means a distinguished performance. In fact, it was disgraceful. It will come as no great surprise that as large and important an institution as the Pentagon is in general riven with contention and bureaucratic infighting. How could it not be, with the services vying over missions and budget authority and with the inevitable tension between senior military officers and civilian political appointees?

That such internal Pentagon conflict should be heightened as war approaches and arrives is also no great surprise. Uncharacteristically, the whole world is watching and asking questions. Lives are indeed at stake.

Nevertheless, the stream of vitriol directed at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, along with other senior civilian Pentagon officials, Vice President Dick Cheney and CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks was nothing short of astonishing.

It’s no secret that Messrs. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have been seeking some basic changes in the way the services do business, emphasizing the new technological opportunities made available by the “revolution in military affairs.” Many argued that defense capabilities were being badly strained during the post-Cold War draw-down. Some even claimed during the 1990s that we would be unable to fight a second Gulf War, such was the decline in our capabilities.

In fact, the sense of decline invoked by shrinking budgets masked extraordinary innovation within the services, both in the development of technology and in knowledge of how to deploy it effectively in combat. The world got a look at all this in Afghanistan. It is this sort of innovative capacity that the civilian leadership under President Bush sought to promote and fund at the expense of other longtime service priorities, such as the Army’s “Crusader” artillery system.

Meanwhile, though, some of the senior uniformed leadership came to the conclusion that its own expertise was being undercut. The reformers had a misplaced faith in the efficacy of air power, precision targeting and special forces over the massed boots-on-the-ground types of forces the Army regarded as essential to battlefield success. The Crusader is actually a very interesting case. What’s the modern relevance, reformers asked, of a new heavy artillery piece designed for the Cold War and anyway too big to transport with practicality? A retired senior Army general explained it to me this way: From a position at the Pentagon, in less than a minute, one Crusader could fire six shells that would land on a single target in Baltimore simultaneously [by varying the angle of the gun]. Yes, that could indeed be useful in some future Iraq. As far as its being too big, the general said, design a smaller platform: The art is in the gun.

All in all, the stakes of military reform are huge, and the dispute is accordingly bitter. Very well. But, when that turns into an exercise in denouncing and second-guessing a war plan that is only days into its execution, matters are out of control. Much of it, as Mr. Rumsfeld and others pointed out, was coming from people who had not even seen the war plan. And in the main, they were not responding to events on the battlefield but restating their general doctrinal preferences. In other words, they were willing to contribute to the creation of an impression of battlefield failure for the purpose of vindicating their own preconceptions and preferences, regardless of whether or not the war plan was actually failing on the battlefield.

That’s bad. It’s even worse in light of the apparent battlefield success the planners have had. I defer to the generals and admirals on their expertise insofar as it’s a disinterested analysis they’re offering. But, in this case, we’d have been better off with honest but ignorant commentary than with much of the ax-grinding we got.