Richard Reeves

Soldiers Speaking Truth to Power

NEW YORK -- I'm with the kid in Fallujah, the Army private in the Third Infantry Division, who said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ought to resign. Rummy and his crowd led and misled those soldiers out there to occupy a country we can defeat but not control.

Rumsfeld, who should never have been given an army to play with, is either nuts or incompetent. I tend toward the former. He and President Bush overreached in sending 16 of the Army's 33 combat-ready divisions to win an easy war and now have to leave them out there to occupy the desert -- something they are not well-trained to do -- until we withdraw or find someone to take our place.

Now there's a problem. We mocked and bullied most of our allies in the run-up to war -- we didn't need the wusses of Old Europe and old everyplace else -- and now we are begging the people we ignored, the United Nations and our own North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to come bail us out.

We can't really win this game. In that way we are repeating the mistakes we made in Vietnam all those years ago. This is quite a different war in quite a different place, but there is this similarity: The Vietnamese and the Iraqis have been there forever and will be there forever, but we will leave sooner or later.

So our soldiers want to go home -- and some now feel they have been betrayed by their superiors right up to the commander in chief. This is what our young guardians are saying:

A private: "We liberated Iraq. Now the people here don't want us here, and guess what? We don't want to be here either. So why are we still here?"

A corporal: "I'm not sure people in Washington really know what it's like here. We'll keep doing our jobs as well as anyone can, but we shouldn't have to still be here in the first place."

The problem the military has now is that some of these soldiers and marines, too, have been freely sharing their thoughts with the American people, exercising their freedom of speech -- most notably on camera with ABC News. If I were an ABC correspondent I would have used them on the air, too; the press is not part of the military.

But if I were in a command position in the military, I would discipline those poor kids to set an example. Armies have to be watched and controlled by officers and civilians -- and that means troops can't go around dissing their superiors, even when those superiors richly deserve disrespect. That, after all, is why Harry S. Truman, the World War I artillery captain who became commander in chief in the Korean War, had to fire the most famous soldier in the land, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, for deliberately breaking the rules designed to control men and women issued weapons and trained to use them.

MacArthur's bullheaded strategy got us into a war with China. God knows where Rumsfeld would take our privates and corporals, though at the moment, with commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas obligations, he has only three ready divisions at his disposal.

So, yes, privates and corporals who made a mistake have to be disciplined, and so should their superior, the secretary of defense.

I feel this way largely because of an extraordinary exchange I witnessed between Arnold Toynbee and a U.S. Air Force general more than 30 years ago, during the Vietnam War. I was a young New York Times reporter writing about "think tanks," a relatively new business back then, and was at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, Calif., when Professor Toynbee, the great British historian, then 78 years old, told a small group that the time had come to allow military men to exercise their own consciences in wartime. He was specifically talking about American pilots bombing North Vietnam.

The general, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, spoke up after a time, and said something like this:

"Dr. Toynbee, I have read all of your 'A Study of History' and you are one of my heroes. But I command some of those pilots, and I must tell you that if they were allowed to follow their own consciences, they would not bomb Hanoi; 90 percent of them would head straight for Moscow. My job is to prevent that from happening."

Armies are dangerous things, and young men and women in uniform, with weapons, cannot have some of the freedoms they are defending. That's the way it is, even when those kids are speaking truth to power.

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