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Losing More Than Lives in Iraq

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Message Daniel Smith

One of the “innovations” of the Red Army in the post-1917 struggle of the communists to consolidate the party’s control over the former tsarist realms was the introduction of political “commissars.” Their job was three-fold: prevent a coup d’etat against the Kremlin; “re-educate” the officers and enlisted men being integrated into the new army from the former tsarist armies to have a force large enough to defend the new USSR; and to distribute Kremlin propaganda. Until 1942, commissars even had the power to countermand operational orders, undoubtedly as a hedge against any attempted coup. A reform of the commissar system in 1942 abolished the separate, parallel commissar chain-of-command established by Leon Trotsky and making the commissars “deputy commanders for political affairs.” When the USSR dissolved in 1991, this “commissar” position underwent a further title change – to “deputy to the commander for educational work.” 

Such blatant mingling of politics with military matters here in the good old “U.S. of A.” could never happen, right? Just look at the insistence of the White House throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that battlefield decisions be made by the generals in the field, not the politicians in Washington.   Well, whatever else you might do, don’t mortgage the farm on it not happening. Not after the latest move by the Bush administration to curtail congressional access to the men and women in the armed forces who see the fighting where it is "up close and personal."  Back in April, according to a memo obtained by the Boston Globe, the Pentagon told the House Armed Services committee staff that the military would decide who was “deemed appropriate” in the ranks below full colonel  to speak with or brief Members of Congress. No operational information is in question – e.g., future deployment or sensitive special operations plans that lieutenant colonels and colonels write for approval of the generals – were included; this was an across-the-board ban on anyone below the rank of general or admiral (I suspect only colonels who had commanded separate units like armored cavalry regiments would escape all restrictions) testifying before Congress.

Moreover, the Pentagon memo, by Robert Wilkie, formerly a senior program director of the Bush National Security Council in the White House, listed two further restrictions on those “deemed appropriate”: no transcripts of the remarks or answers to questions would be allowed, and all officers the Pentagon “allowed” to testify had to be accompanied by a political appointee.  Now in the armed forces, legislative liaison is akin to public affairs, one of three military specialties I held. The objective of these legislative liaison and public affairs is the same: provide the maximum amount of information possible. The only substantive difference is the public's information has to be unclassifed, something the president can make happen. 

Yet the military seems incapable of shedding its penchant to classify anything and everything that doesn’t move. The result is unnecessary antagonism and costly delays as the Congress, in attempting to exercise its oversight responsibilities, is forced to re-establish its authority to require the appearance of long-serving civilian bureaucrats, enlisted, noncommissioned, and junior officers, plus relevant documents, electronic records, and messages that pertain to the formation of military policy and programs.   The memo reeks of conspiracy by politicos to hide the “ground” truth from the public about what is going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the administration’s so-called “war on terror.”

When the unvarnished truth  is wanted and needed, most people go to experts for information. And the best “experts” on war – any war – are those who have been in-country fighting for extended time periods, who have sent heir comrades die, who may themselves have been wounded – not the senior officers and civilian officials who fly in and out of the country or who work in well-protected headquarters, venturing out from time to time to see how their plans are standing up to the real world.    There has already been “walk-out by Pentagon lawyers who refused to let officers testify because a transcript was being made. In the end, however, Congress will win this battle, for it has the power to subpoena people and documents. A good person to start with is Robert Wilkie.

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Colonel Daniel M. Smith graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1966. His initial assignment was with the 3rd Armor Division in (more...)

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