Copyrighted material


by Michael Winship

on 2002 war games

If, as the old Unitarian hymn goes, time makes ancient good uncouth, the opposite's true as well: the noisome squawk of past failings can be drowned out by the tick of the clock.

For example, when various and sundry talk up the possibility of Rudolph Giuliani running for president in 2008, those of us who lived in New York City through all his years at Gracie Mansion like to remind people what life was like on September 10, 2001.

Rudy was not "Churchill in a Yankees cap," as someone described him right after 9/11. He was coming to the end of his final term as mayor, bruised and bedraggled, his political and personal life a mess. As consultant George Arzt recently told the New York Times, "In the second term he was fighting with a lot of people, he had tense relationships, his marriage was falling apart, nothing was going right, and he was headed for political oblivion."

Prior to 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in trouble, too. In fact, just three days before the attacks, a Times editorial took note of Washington buzz that Rumsfeld had "cratered at the Pentagon." In the paper's opinion, "Mr. Rumsfeld has done a lousy job of selling his military reform plans to the generals and admirals, not to mention to Congress." There was talk that his would be the first Dubya Cabinet head to roll.


The Long Knives Come Out For Rummy

Neo-Cons, Hawks, Circle The Wagons For Rumsfeld

The Gang Who Couldn't Plan Straight

Count On Rummy For Rosy Reports

Rumsfeld Declares War On The Press

Rumsfeld And Neo-cons Sabotaged Iran's Help Offer After 9/11

What was tripping up Rummy was his devotion to the doctrine of military reform called transformation, the belief that technology can reduce the need for overwhelming force to successfully wage war.

Two years ago, I wrote a documentary about transformation, "Battle Plan under Fire," for the NOVA series on public television. In it, the underlying principles of transformation were outlined succinctly by Major General Robert Scales (Ret.), former commandant of the United States Army War College:

"Knowledge, speed, and precision," he explained. "Knowledge, in the sense of being able to use the technical means at our disposal to seek, to track and to find out what the enemy is all about. Speed, strategic speed, the ability to project forces over great distances very, very quickly. And precision, the ability to strike the enemy with... surgical strikes to kill the enemy quickly."

In the days after 9/11, the naysayers were momentarily silenced and Rumsfeld's credibility restored when transformation's principles were applied successfully to the lightning invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. Nonetheless, the doctrine's drawbacks didn't disappear.

As I wrote for NOVA, "Fewer, better-coordinated troops, acting with speed and precision, toppled the Taliban regime, but failed to find Osama bin Laden or secure all but a few Afghan cities. Taliban and al Qaeda fighters had responded with tactics that exposed the limitations of U.S. technology. They dispersed. They hid."

Those limitations were further exposed as it became obvious that we lacked sufficient troops and a plan for what to do with Iraq once we had toppled Saddam.

In the past week, as conditions continue to deteriorate in Iraq and various retired military honchos have been sounding off in favor of Rumsfeld's resignation, another of the generals interviewed for the NOVA broadcast popped up. On the front page of Saturday's Washington Post, retired Marine Lt. General Paul K. Van Riper was quoted. "I admire those who have stepped forward," he said, "and I agree with the arguments they are making. I count myself in the same camp."

The Post continued, "Van Riper, a lifelong Republican who voted for Bush in 2000 but did not vote in the 2004 election, said Rumsfeld has failed in a number of ways, including 'disastrous' war planning and execution and fostering a poor command climate."

What the Post failed to mention Saturday: in July 2002, preparing for the Iraq invasion, the military staged Millennium Challenge, a $250 million war game designed to further test transformation policy. Thirty-thousand participants were split into two teams: one representing the United States, the other, enemy forces. General Van Riper was brought out of retirement to lead the bad guys.

As Van Riper told our producer, Scott Willis, "Three days into Millennium Challenge, we attacked with more cruise missiles from more directions and more locations at sea and the air and on land than I knew their systems were capable of handling. And the results, at least in the simulation, [were that] they lost 16 U.S. Navy ships."

Van Riper used low tech, guerilla tactics, much like those of Iraq's insurgency. To evade electronic snooping, orders were hand-delivered by motorcycle courier or encrypted in the Muslim call to prayer. Missiles were hidden on fishing boats. Small craft rammed battleships in suicide missions. "The victory exposed the weakness of transformation's reliance on high technology," I wrote. "An unorthodox sneak attack could cripple U.S. forces."

The Pentagon's response to General Van Riper's success? They stopped the games, reset, and gave themselves a big old mulligan, the mother of all do-overs. "And from that point on, the exercise was scripted," Van Riper recalled. "Each day there were e-mails and power point briefs saying exactly what was going to happen."

I wrote two years ago, "The game's planners justified that scripting by saying Millennium Challenge was more experiment than exercise. It was meant to be a test of systems and technologies rather than a win-or-lose contest."

In the "Mission Accomplished" glory days, it was argued that Van Riper's victory was born in fantasy, the military equivalent of Rotisserie League baseball. Events have proven otherwise. As The New Yorker's George Packer observed in the most recent of his remarkable dispatches from Iraq, around the same time that Bush and Rumsfeld were proclaiming victory, the Army War College's Center for Strategic Leadership released a monograph by Colonel H.R. McMaster titled "Crack in the Foundation: Defense Transformation and the Underlying Assumption of Dominant Knowledge in Future War."

McMaster, Packer writes, "argued against the notion that new weapons technology offered the promise of certainty and precision in warfare. The success of the Gulf War, he wrote, had led military thinkers to forget that war is, above all, a human endeavor. He examined the messier operations of the nineteen-nineties, beginning with the debacle in Somalia, and concluded, 'What is certain about the future is that even the best efforts to predict the conditions of future war will prove erroneous. What is important, however, is to not be so far off the mark that visions of the future run counter to the very nature of war and render American forces unable to adapt to unforeseen challenges.'"

Or, as another officer told Packer, transformation is "a vision of war that totally neglects the psychological and cultural dimensions of war."

As commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, Colonel McMaster was responsible for the military's success in the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, hailed last month by President Bush as proof that, "When Iraqis can count on a basic level of safety and security, they can live together peacefully."

But, Packer states, "The story of Tal Afar is not so simple. The effort came after numerous failures, and very late in the war -- perhaps too late. And the operation succeeded despite an absence of guidance from senior civilian and military leaders in Washington. The soldiers who worked to secure Tal Afar were, in a sense, rebels against an incoherent strategy that has brought the American project in Iraq to the brink of defeat."

Monday's Wall Street Journal seemed to back Packer's assertions as it reported, "[T]here are signs that [Rumsfeld's] firm grip on the Defense Department is slipping as some uniformed officers increasingly chart their own course. Well before the recent calls by a half-dozen retired Army and Marine Corps generals for Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation, there was an increasing challenge to his ideas about warfare from within the senior officer ranks."

The president is resisting pulling the plug on Rumsfeld. Bush's intransigent loyalty is legend and the thought of confirmation hearings for Rummy's successor that would turn into a very public debate on Iraq -- not to mention Iran and the entire war on terror -- can't be a pretty prospect for the White House.

But it might boost GOP prospects for the midterm elections. As endangered Republican Congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut told the Times, "Do I think someone else would do a better job, and if someone else would do a better job, does it help me? Of course it would."

That old Unitarian hymn that makes ancient good uncouth goes on to say, "They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth." Truth has not been a hallmark of this administration or this war, but Rumsfeld's departure would be a step in the right, upward, onward direction. Talk about a transformation.

© 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York

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Albion Monitor   April 17, 2006   (

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