Rich Lowry

In his classic book on the Vietnam War, "Dereliction of Duty," H.R. McMaster excoriates the Joint Chiefs of Staff for acceding to President Lyndon Johnson's flawed war plan and his dishonest salesmanship of it. McMaster dubs them "the five silent men."

What adjective best describes the equally shameful conduct of the men of the Joint Chiefs during the Iraq War? "Silent" is the least damning of the possibilities.

In his latest insider account of the Bush administration, "The War Within," Bob Woodward provides a window into the cluelessness of the chiefs and their seeming disinterest in victory that will fascinate and appall students of civil- military relations for decades to come.

In 2006, it had become obvious to almost everyone that we were failing in Iraq, with the exception of top U.S. generals. The general in command on the ground, George Casey, and his immediate superior, the head of U.S. Central Command John Abizaid, were focused on U.S. troop withdrawals the way Mr. Dick in "David Copperfield" is focused on King Charles' head.

When President Bush told Gen. Casey in a trip to Baghdad in June 2006 that "we have to win," Casey replied, "But to win, we have to draw down." It remained his dogged mantra as Baghdad collapsed all around him.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Peter Pace, commissioned a group of colonels to review war strategy for the chiefs. One of their presentations ended starkly, "We are not winning, so we are losing." Woodward writes, "Chairman Pace had an unusual sullen look on his face, almost crestfallen, as if to say, 'How could I not have realized this.'"

Good question. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld had created an environment that valued convenient fictions over hard truths, and the chiefs hoped to muddle through with the Casey strategy so they could rid themselves of the Iraq War, and its strain on the military, as soon as possible.

President Bush had his own revelatory moment when in a meeting with military experts, retired Gen. Jack Keane told him, "We don't have a plan to defeat the insurgency." When Bush set about getting one -- the surge -- he had to do an end run around the chiefs.

He fired Rumsfeld, and replaced Gens. Pace and Abizaid. He kicked Gen. Casey upstairs to Army chief of staff in a foolhardy face-saving gesture. Casey had been pulled from the field in defeat, and a new strategy was implemented that -- should it succeed -- would expose the folly of his own.

Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
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