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President Trump with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine general.
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Fifty years ago, I could have tried to stop the Vietnam War, but lacked the courage. On Aug. 20, 1967, we at CIA received a cable from Saigon containing documentary proof that the U.S. commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, and his deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams, were lying about their "success" in fighting the Vietnamese Communists. I live with regret that I did not blow the whistle on that when I could have.
(I wrote about this two years ago: "The Lasting Pain from Vietnam Silence," republished below.)
Why raise this now? Because President Donald Trump has surrounded himself with starry-eyed generals (or generals with their eyes focused on their careers). And he seems to have little inkling that they got their multiple stars under a system where the Army motto "Duty, Honor, Country" can now be considered as "quaint" and "obsolete" as the Bush-Cheney administration deemed the Geneva Conventions.
All too often, the number of ribbons and merit badges festooned on the breasts of U.S. generals these days (think of the be-medaled Gen. David Petraeus, for example) is in direct proportion to the lies they have told in saluting smartly and abetting the unrealistic expectations of their political masters (and thus winning yet another star).
In my apologia that follows, the concentration is on the crimes of Westmoreland and the generations of careerist generals who aped him. There is not enough space to describe (or even list) those sycophantic officers here.
There are, sadly, far fewer senior officers who were exceptions, who put the true interests of the country ahead of their own careers. The list of general officers with integrity -- the extreme exceptions to the rule -- is even shorter. Only three spring immediately to mind: two generals and one admiral, all three of them cashiered for doing their job with honesty. What they experienced was instructive and remains so to this day.
1-On February 25, 2003, three weeks before the attack on Iraq, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that post-war Iraq would require "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers." He was immediately ridiculed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, for having exaggerated the requirement. Shinseki retired a few months later.
2-Army General David McKiernan was cut from the same cloth. When President Barack Obama took office, McKiernan was running the war in Afghanistan. Even before Obama's election, he had expressed himself openly and strongly against applying the benighted Iraq-style "surge" of forces to Afghanistan, emphasizing that Afghanistan is "a far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq," where he had led U.S. ground forces.
"The word I don't use for Afghanistan is 'surge,'" McKiernan told a news conference on Oct. 1, 2008. He warned that a large, sustained military buildup would be necessary to achieve any meaningful success. Worse still for the Washington Establishment, McKiernan added a stunning "no-no" -- he said to achieve anything approaching a satisfactory outcome would take a decade, perhaps 14 years. Imagine!
For his political bosses, that cautionary realism was too much. On May 11, 2009, the Defense Secretary whom Obama's predecessor bequeathed to him, Robert Gates, sacked McKiernan, who had been in command less than a year. Gates replaced him with the swashbuckling Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a prote'ge' of Gen. (and later CIA Director) David Petraeus.
Now, more than eight years later -- with the American death toll almost quadrupled since the start of the Obama administration (now exceeding 2,400), with a vastly greater death toll among Afghan civilians and with the U.S. military position even more precarious -- President Trump is receiving advice to dispatch more U.S. troops.
3-Admiral William J. ("Fox") Fallon, one of the last Vietnam War veterans on active duty late into George W. Bush's administration, took over as chief of the Central Command on March 16, 2007. Fallon had already come under heavy criticism from the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute for not being hawkish enough.
Fallon had also been confronting Vice President Dick Cheney's desire to commit U.S. forces to another Mideast war, with Iran. As Fallon was preparing to take responsibility for U.S. forces in the region, he declared that a war with Iran "isn't going to happen on my watch," according to retired Army Col. Patrick Lang who told the Washington Post.