Part II of our series on the Iraq War looks at the generals and their legacies. Will they be remembered as heroes of the nation or will they be synonymous with failure. Also stay tuned for part III when we take a look at the major events in the war like the invasion and the surge and try to answer the question of was it worth it?
No general came out of the war looking better than Petraeus. He started the war during the invasion as a 2 star general commanding the famed 101st Airborne Division. As invasion turned to occupation Petraeus was one of the few generals that understood the US military was facing a legitimate insurgency and he actually had ideas about how to deal with it effectively. His embrace of counter insurgency warfare from the start meant that he would go on to play a key role throughout the long war. After commanding the 101st he was then assigned several tasks including writing the army’s manual for counter insurgency warfare and also leading the effort to train Iraq’s new army. It should be noted that his effort to train the Iraqi military was not a stellar success. Whether it was because Rumsfeld and the pentagon never fully bought into the concept or maybe he just didn’t get the job done, what ever the reason there is that blemish. Of course it was later when Petraeus was appointed by Bush as CentCom Commander that he gained his real fame leading the surge and preventing total humiliation in Iraq for America. History will look back on him as an innovative commander who when offered a significant command when his nation was in dire need he was able to use that position to reverse a disastrous situation.
To me Odierno really represented the US Army as a whole because he was there during the initial invasion (as commander of the 4th Infantry division that was late getting into the fight because the Turks would not allow them access) and frankly probably did some things wrong, overly aggressive around civilians etc. However he was able to transform and help lead the change as the lead general in Iraq during the surge. To me that is no small achievement and I think he deserves great credit. He currently serves as the US Army Chief of Staff where unfortunately he has stained his record by offering no resistance to women in the infantry but that is another matter entirely. Also of note his son served in Iraq as a young officer and was seriously wounded losing an arm. I think it is always a good thing when those who send our sons and daughters into harm’s way also have their own family members sharing the same risks.
Abizaid took command of CentCom in late summer of 2003 when Rumsfeld still refused to acknowledge that there was an insurgency. To his credit at his first news conference he quickly reversed course for Rumsfeld by admitting we were in an insurgent war. Unfortunately Abizaid would be crippled by incompetent commanders in Iraq (remember as CentCom Commander Abizaid would not be the general in Iraq leading the effort on the ground). He had the misfortune of having two duds (courtesy of Rumsfeld) to carry out the war effort in Iraq. He was a big proponent of using fewer troops arguing that the more Americans that were in Iraq the more hostile the populace would become. Unfortunately for him that strategy was ultimately disproved by the surge.
He was one of the two duds I referred to that Abizaid was cursed with to run the war in Iraq. He was quickly appointed as the ground commander in Iraq after the initial invasion while he was still only a 3 star commander. It was said that because his command had only been a 3 star command that he did not have nearly enough support staff to run his new 4 star appointment (I believe this came out of the book Fiasco by Tom Ricks but it has been so long I can’t say for sure) which meant that America’s lead officer on the ground was both inexperienced and under staffed to run a 4 star command. This was not unusual for a Rumsfeld appointment, frankly it appears that Rumsfeld liked people who wouldn’t stand up for themselves against him (Sanchez replaced Gen. Wallace who was a real 4 star because many speculated that he didn’t get along with Rumsfeld). The end result of Sanchez’s tenure was the insurgency picked up steam partly as a result of his aggressive intelligence gathering techniques which relied on picking up suspects and sending them to Abu Ghraib (we all know how that ended up).
The other dud that Abizaid was cursed with to lead the war in Iraq. Another Rumsfeld appointee whose only real qualification was that he wouldn’t tell Rumsfeld no (we are beginning to see a pattern here). His major contribution to the war effort was an idea that to win the war we had to keep casualties down so he ordered troops to stay on base instead of conducting security sweeps. The results were a total disaster for Iraq and America. The insurgents ran wild killing civilians and humiliating America. After his time in Iraq he was rewarded with the Army Chief of Staff position and Sen. McCain famously said that based on his time in Iraq he didn’t deserve to be rewarded with the position.
Much like Colin Powell Tommy Franks to me is another wild card, whether he was hero or villain is quite complex. The case against Franks is that the insurgency took root while he was still in command. In his defense it appears that Franks was told that he did not have to worry about Iraq once Saddam had been toppled. That a whole separate command was to be in charge of post-war Iraq. If this were true (once again I believe this came from Fiasco by Tom Ricks) it would be hard to blame Franks for this. Also supporting Franks case for hero was that he had to fight Rumsfeld tooth and nail for even the bare minimum of forces necessary to win the invasion. This is no small accomplishment and in my opinion Franks probably helped avert a national disaster by insisting on more troops (moron civilians in the pentagon were calling for only 75,000 troops). The fact that Franks was even the commander for the invasion is evidence of Rumsfeld’s tough time getting along with army generals. Franks was due to rotate out of command of CentCom before the invasion. In an article in Time or Newsweek before the invasion it detailed how Rumsfeld couldn’t find anyone he had confidence in to replace Franks so he asked him to stay on for the invasion. This sounds ok at first but the fact that Franks did not want to stay past the invasion(he was tired after having already led the fight in Afghanistan) was the reason Rumsfeld came up with idea of shifting responsibility for post war Iraq to a whole different command. It was that decision that paved the way for the insurgency to take hold because Franks planned his invasion without post war Iraq in mind.
I wanted to briefly mention Shinseki who was army chief of staff at the time of the invasion. Remember it was Shinseki who testified to congress before the war that it would take several hundred thousand troops to occupy Iraq effectively. He was then savaged in the worst way by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. Of course Shinseki was ultimately proved right and to many he has become a hero for standing up to those bullies.
In closing, we have mentioned only the major players in the war. Basically all (except Shinseki) were either CentCom Commander or Mult-National Forces Iraq Commander. There are many others who made significant contributions to the war, but it is these men who held the command positions to influence the war the most. Because of this it is these men that history will hold accountable for the war effort in Iraq.