The war in Iraq is in its sixth year -- and we, the public, are in our sixth year of reading warring accounts about it.
The most recent is Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez’s “Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story.” Sanchez, a senior ground commander in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004, faults L. Paul Bremmer, the top civilian in Iraq from mid-2003-4, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for the errors and mishaps of the occupation.
The new Sanchez book follows Douglas Feith’s new book “War and Decision.” The former undersecretary of defense, who oversaw many of the original plans for the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, makes the case that the State Department and Bremmer thwarted Defense Department efforts to hasten Iraqi autonomy and form a new Iraqi army.
But Bremer himself, in “My Year in Iraq,” complained about a lack of support from both military and civilian officials like Sanchez and Feith.
And don’t forget “At the Center of the Storm” by former CIA Director George Tenet or “American Soldier” by Tommy Franks, the commander who oversaw the 2003 invasion. Both offered their own versions of where others went wrong.
Memoirs by those involved in some way in the Iraq war (or the broader war on terror) have grown into an entire industry. Former counter-terrorism director Richard Clark’s “Against All Enemies,” former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer’s “Imperial Hubris” and former Ambassador Joe Wilson’s “The Politics of Truth” all tell stories of how someone else did them in.
What are we to make of all these contradictory accounts?
First, they come in cycles and follow the pulse of the war. In 2003-4, most of our information came from administration and Pentagon press conferences. The brilliant three-week overthrow of Saddam and the relative quiet for a few months afterward resulted in favorable public opinion and few questions about the conduct of the war or the official version of it. But once arsenals of weapons of mass destruction did not show up and an insurgency broke out, published tales of American incompetence proliferated.
Now, as the violence has decreased and former officials are writing their own responses, a new defense of the war is being made. Feith’s “War and Decision” will no doubt be followed by accounts from Rumsfeld, the president himself and perhaps other principals like Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney. These men will give yet another account of what happened -- and spawn yet another counter-reaction.
Second, there is a lot of money to be made in writing first-hand accounts about the war - the more sensational, accusatory and quicker the story gets out, the better. (A few, like Feith, have magnanimously contributed their earnings to charity.)
Third, there is a “not me” theme in many of the tell-alls. Officials who used to praise each other in televised press conferences and assure Americans that things were going well apparently now turn out to have not liked each other.
Sanchez argues that he was not to blame for Abu Ghraib, but rather Pentagon higher-ups. George Tenet swears that he was not the only one who fouled up the prewar intelligence. Tommy Franks concentrates on his successful war, not someone else’s plagued occupation -- since he retired right after the three-week victory. Richard Clark argues he couldn’t stop 9/11 because of others’ mistakes. Likewise Michael Scheuer’s special group failed in its mission to catch bin Laden due to the blunders of rival agencies.
Is any of this finger-pointing new? Hardly.
The battle of Shiloh (April 1862) was re-fought for nearly a half-century, and we still don’t know whether Grant was drinking before the battle, or why Gen. Lew Wallace took the wrong road and came late to the battle with reinforcements. You can read various versions of who was to blame in the memoirs of Gens. Grant, Sherman and Wallace.
After World War II, British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery and American Gens. Dwight D Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Patton (posthumously) all bickered in print over the strategy after D-Day, the disastrous Arnhem campaign and the complete surprise at the Battle of the Bulge -- issues still not resolved over 60 years later.
Was Vietnam a necessary war, always a hopeless fiasco or a squandered victory? You can read all those versions and more in the books of Sec. Henry Kissinger, Sec. Robert McNamara, Lt. (now Sen.) Jim Webb and Gen. William Westmoreland.
The only difference with the Iraq war is that in the modern age of instantaneous global communications, those involved right in the middle of it, at least on the American side, scramble to get their “true” story out first -- and get even -- well before the war is won or lost. In such an ongoing conflict, these memoirs are often out-of-date even before they hit the bookstores.