In April 2006, six retired generals called for then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. In May of this year, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, an active-duty officer, wrote an article lambasting the Army's general officer corps as lacking "professional character" and "moral courage." Now, just last Sunday, seven infantrymen and noncommissioned officers—all finishing their 15-month tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division—took to the New York Times op-ed page to dismiss prospects of victory as "far-fetched" and recent appraisals of progress as "flawed" and "surreal."
This last insiders' protest is the most jaw-dropping and may ultimately be the most potent. It is unusual enough to see officers—active or retired—publicly denouncing military superiors or civilian leaders for mistakes or deficiencies in wartime. But for NCOs—none higher in rank than staff sergeant—to air their contrary views on the war (and, implicitly, their sour views of high-ranking policy-makers) is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented: an act of, depending on your politics, great courage or outright insubordination—or, perhaps, both.
It is for this reason that the seven junior soldiers might have the deepest political impact. They, after all, are breathing, fighting specimens of "the troops," whose interests President George W. Bush routinely invokes to justify staying the course. One of the authors—an Army Ranger and reconnaissance-team leader, Staff Sgt. Jeremy A. Murphy—was shot in the head during the time that he and the others were writing the article. (He is expected to live, his co-authors note.) The op-ed piece will no doubt also be invoked as a set of boots-on-the-ground rebuttal points to whatever lofty claims are made by Gen. David Petraeus in his much-anticipated report due mid-September.
The central point of the seven soldiers' critique speaks to the very heart of counterinsurgency theory. They write:
Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched.
This difficulty, they say, is intensified by "the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army." By day, Iraqi security forces are armed and trained by U.S. military personnel. By night, they help insurgents plant bombs that maim and kill those same U.S. personnel the next day. The seven soldiers write:
As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that [Iraqi] battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.