Are Petraeus and Westmoreland Birds of a Feather?


The killing in Hawijah, Iraq of 18-year old Corporal Jeremy Shank of Jackson, Missouri (population 12,000) merited an article in the Southeast Missourian. Corporal Shank was killed on 6 September, 2006 and I was in that part of Missouri when his body came home for burial. According to the Pentagon, Shank was on a ‘dismounted security patrol when he encountered enemy forces using small arms.’

Shank’s death came two years after US President George W Bush greeted then-Iraq Prime Minister Iyad Allawi at the White House, proudly announcing ‘months of steady progress’ toward a free Iraq, despite persistent violence in some parts of the country. His death came two weeks after National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley acknowledged that the mid-2006 upsurge in violence meant that the new challenge in Iraq ‘isn’t about insurgency, isn’t about terror; it’s about sectarian violence.’ Iraq’s current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki underscored the point: ‘The most important element in the security plan is to curb the religious violence.’

So what was the mission of Corporal Shank while on security patrol, and who were the ‘enemy forces’ he encountered? Was his mission to prevent Iraqi religious fanatics from killing each other?

On 7 September, 2006, the day after Shank was killed, President Bush in effect mocked Jeremy Shank’s death by drawing the familiar but bogus connection to 9/11:

Five years after September the 11th, 2001, America is safer and America is winning the War on Terror [and]will leave behind a more peaceful world for our children and our grandchildren.

At the First Baptist Church in Jackson, Reverend Carter Frey eulogised Shank as one of those who ‘put themselves in harm’s way and paid the ultimate sacrifice so you and I can have freedom to live in this country.’

General David Petraeus

That was a stretch a staple of FOX and other ‘news,’ but, still, a stretch. And I have been asking myself in the year since how many young men and women like Jeremy Shank have been, and will be killed trying to stop Shi’a and Sunni from killing one another?

A few weeks after Shank’s death, President Bush described ‘our job’ as being ‘to prevent the full-scale civil war from happening.’

Was/is that the mission? And is it worth what is so facilely called the ‘ultimate sacrifice,’ or the penultimate one tens of thousand of veterans trying to adjust to life without an arm or a leg?

Is it quite correct to say they put themselves in harm’s way? Or was it their Commander in Chief who put them in harm’s way? Is it truly possible that he remains determined to keep treating our young men and women as disposable soldiers for the rest of his term? And will those in Congress who are supposed to represent those young men and women go along with that?

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was entirely correct when she insisted in a recent op-ed that the ‘threshold question in any war is: What are we fighting for? Our troops, especially, deserve a convincing answer.’

The sacrifices of Shank and his family and others and their families are being mocked by glib sloganeering.

It is now just over a year since Corporal Shank was killed. In a few weeks we will know where the small-town Shanks of America stand in the priorities of members of the US Congress. As far as the President is concerned well, he does not seem to be very concerned at all. They should simply smile appreciatively as he presents them with a rubber turkey, and then populate the backdrop for photo-ops.

More unconscionable still, those Shanks clearly sit low on the priority lists of those senior generals who command them generals like the sainted David Petraeus, smart enough to know the War cannot be won, but not courageous enough to come out and say it. The Shanks are merely what we used to call ‘warm bodies’ to throw into the fight.

For many of us with some grey in our hair, we’ve seen it all before and, ironically enough, exactly 40 years ago. What General David Petraeus has set in motion, or at least condoned, is the massaging of data to justify what his boss, President Bush, wants to do in Iraq; namely, to keep enough troops ‘in the fight’ in order to stave off definitive defeat before he and Vice President Dick Cheney leave office in January 2009. That’s what the ‘surge’ is all about, and Petraeus is smart enough to know that only too well.

Like his apparent role model, General Colin Powell, he can bear four stars on his shoulder, but he must also bear on his conscience thousands of dead and wounded Shanks as a result of his eagerness to play in the Bush/Cheney charade.

A more precise counterpart to Petraeus is the late General William Westmoreland, commander of our forces in Vietnam. The argument over whether or not the ‘surge’ is working brings back un-fond memories of the deliberate smoke-and-mirrors approach Westmoreland forced on intelligence analysts in Saigon and Washington DC including deliberate falsification of the numbers on enemy strength.

It would be tempting to sift through the ample grist of the week and cite, for example, the demonstrable failure of the ‘surge’ to meet its stated aim; the key judgment of the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that the current government in Baghdad ‘will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months;’ the conclusion of a blue-ribbon group of retired generals that it is necessary to rebuild the Iraqi police from scratch; the amply justified fear on the part of analysts in the General Accountability Office and the intelligence community that the Army will continue to do all it can to water down their assessments; and, not least, the controversy over the various methodologies being used to track the security situation in Iraq, including such basics as what incidents to count and how to categorise them.

I shall resist the temptation.

Rather, I believe it will be much more instructive to show that this kind of thing has happened before within the lifetimes of half of us; that it was an unconscionable performance on the part of Westmoreland and his Pentagon bosses, and that thousands more Shanks not to mention Vietnamese died as a direct result of the dishonesty.

My Vietnam Flashbackwas occasioned by press reports on 6 September that senior US Army officers in Baghdad were trashing the conclusions of the NIE and the GAO analysis on grounds that they employed ‘flawed counting methodology used by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency.’

Speaking of flawed counting methodology, someone has inserted into the President’s mouth the claim that:

Our troops have killed or captured an average of more than 1500 al-Qaeda terrorists and other extremists every month since January of this year.

Finally, some good news! But wait. As a homework assignment, I invite readers to look up what has been said previously about how many al-Qaeda fighters may be in Iraq. Then do some arithmetic and try to calculate how many of them may now have been killed more than once.

It was exactly 40 years ago that my CIA analyst colleague Sam Adams was sent to Saigon to have it out with the Army Intelligence unit there. After several months of exhaustive analysis, Sam had connected a whole bunch of dots, so to speak, and concluded that there were more than twice as many Vietnamese Communists under arms as the Army had on its books. Bewildered at first, Adams quickly learned that Westmoreland had instructed his intelligence staff to falsify intelligence on enemy strength, keeping the numbers low enough to promote the illusion o
f progress in the war.

After a prolonged knock-down-drag-out fight, then-CIA Director Richard Helms decided to acquiesce in the Army’s arbitrary exclusion from its enemy aggregate total paramilitary and other armed elements numbering up to 300,000. These categories had been included in previous estimates because they were a key part of the combat force of the Communists. The Adams/CIA best estimate was total Communist strength of 500,000.

The doctored estimate went to the President and his advisers in November 1967, just two months before the country-wide Communist offensive at Tet in late January/early February 1968 proved at great cost that Adams figures were far more accurate than the Army’s.

Years later, when Adams and CBS exposed this travesty, Westmoreland sued, giving Adams his day in court-literally. Subpoenaed documents and the testimony of Westmoreland’s own former staff in Saigon established the accuracy of Adams’s charges, and Westmoreland withdrew his suit.

Right up until his premature death at age 55, Sam Adams could not dispel the remorse he felt at not having gone public with his findings. He believed that, had he done so, the entire left half of the US Vietnam War memorial would not be there, because there would be no names to carve into the granite for the last few lingering years of the war.

More recently, whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg expressed great regret that he did not disclose earlier deceptions, as well as those witnessed during 1967-68 when the Administration of Lyndon Johnson worked up plans to expand the ground war into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam right up to the Chinese border, perhaps even beyond.

Early in 1967, Westmoreland addressed a joint session of Congress and congratulated himself on the ‘great progress’ being made in the war. What Congress did not know, but Ellsberg did, is that the war was going poorly, and that Westmoreland was on the verge of getting President Johnson to agree to sending 206,000 more troops for a widening of the war that threatened to bring China in as an active combatant.

Leaks to the New York Times put the kibosh on those plans. One patriotic truth-teller leaked the 206,000 figure, which the NYTimes published on 10 March, 1968. Emboldened by that, Ellsberg himself told the NYTimes about the suppression of the accurate 500,000 count of Vietnamese Communists under arms, the Donnybrook between CIA analysts and their fettered counterparts in Saigon, and other information about the games Westmoreland was playing.

The NYTimes used those materials for major stories on 19, 20, and 21 March.

On the 22nd, President Johnson announced that Westmoreland would be leaving Vietnam to become Chief of Staff of the Army, and the general was told there would be no change in strategy to expand the war.

Things like that can happen quickly.

On March 25, 1968, Johnson complained to a small gathering of confidants:

The leaks to the New York Times hurt us We have no support for the war I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.

Moral to the story: patriotic truth-telling can prevent wider wars. Please take heed, those of you privy to plans for expanding the war in Iraq into Iran or elsewhere.

There will be lots of spin in Washington DC these next few weeks, and ‘hope’ will be the byword. In his 28 August speech on Iraq, the President Bush set the tone:

All these developments are hopeful they’re hopeful for Iraq, and they’re hopeful for the Middle East, and they’re hopeful for peace

Bush went on to mention that General Petraeus. Indeed, over the past several weeks, the President has been punctuating virtually every other public sentence with ‘General Petraeus’ or ‘David.’ It is as though Bush is expecting what might be called a ‘Petraeus ex machina’ to extricate himself from the deep hole Cheney and he have dug together.

The spinning will only succeed if Congress is blinded by the nine rows of campaign medals and ribbons on Petraeus’s chest, forgets about the Shanks in our Army and Marines, and allows itself to be taken in by the new Westmoreland.

This is an edited version of a piece published on 8 September on Common Dreams  

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.