Retired General: Iraq was a mistake


Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold retired in late 2002 as the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the most recent issue of TIME he has some scathing words for our country’s leaders relating to the Iraq-war decision.

I’d bet anyone with an opinion on the issue will find his words interesting. Read it here.

30 Responses to “Retired General: Iraq was a mistake”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I haven’t read the article, yet, but DeJon’s question reminds me of a related one: has anybody read Cobra II and have an opinion on it?

    From what I’ve heard, it’s pretty critical of the decisionmaking, too, though maybe less on the decision to invade and more on the decisions about how to handle the post-war realities.

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Now I’ve read the article. Yikes. That’s one unhappy Marine. I’ll be curious to hear what the folks here with ties to the military think of it.

    For my part, I found myself nodding a lot. Especially at the parts where he was chastising the military leadership for not being willing to speak up when speaking up was called for. There has to be a recognition in the upper echelons of the military that telling their civilian commanders they’re about to make a huge mistake, and arguing that point strongly, is not wrong.

    And if they see their civilian commanders misrepresenting the military situation in statements made to Congress or the people, they should feel a twinge from that oath they take to defend the Constitution, because the Constitution is being violated. They have to say something — to Congress, if necessary; publicly, if necessary.

    Disclaimer: I say all that as a citizen/voter with no military experience, so no firsthand feel for how difficult that must be.

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    For the record, I also agree with Gen. Newbold that the civilian leadership in both the executive branch and the Congress lost sight of their responsibilities, and any fault in the handling of Iraq is ultimately theirs, not the military’s.

  4. DeJon Redd Says:

    As a G.I., I’m no more informed on this Newbold issue than most others. But I have to wonder if it is axe-grinding that gives the retired general his “new-found” courage to speak out.

    I’ve heard Rummy was never popular among the DoD’s senior leaders. It seems much easier to attack the boss’ agenda when you don’t work for him any more. And that sounds more like a cheap-shot than courage.

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    Is this the retired Gen. who wrote a book recently? There was a retired Gen. on Jon Stewart the other night who said pretty much the same thing, but it doesn’t look like the same person. (I admit to only skimming the article, so I may have missed something.) The Gen. on Stewart’s show accused the administration specifically for not understanding the Mid-East at all — that they were stuck in Cold War mentality. Which isn’t a unique claim, but it is unique coming from a military “insider”.

    But, I’m not sure what to do with this. How does this perspective change or shape future policy? And how can it help us figure out what to do in Iraq now?

  6. Joe Longhorn Says:

    I share Dejon’s speculation that the good General has a rather large axe to grind. The man has been retired for over three years. If he really believed the decision was wrong, he should have spoken out publicly, immediately after retiring. Now that public opinion seems to be pretty much in line with his own, he’s singing like a canary. I have little respect for this type of critique. I expect more courage from our Marines.

    As for the substance, he presents nothing new.

  7. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Different general, Mikey.

  8. Capt MidKnight Says:

    I can’t sign off on everything Gen. Newbold says, but some things sound all too familiar.

    I spent 5 ½ years in the Air Force during the heyday of McNamara and LBJ and, later Nixon and the whole Viet Nam thing. Many years later, I was checking into a hotel in Bangkok when the First Gulf War started for real. The front desk was passing out letters from the embassies for all Westerners to stay inside for fear of terrorist attacks. On September 11th, I was home and watched it on TV like everybody else. Going into Afghanistan on the side of the rebels against the Taliban seemed right to me – get Osama and his bunch and help the country in the bargain. The Iraq War, however seemed different somehow. I couldn’t really put my finger on it. It was more like a scene in Star Wars where Han Solo turns to Luke and says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

    Militarily, there was never a question. It was the aftermath and the politics that worried me and still does. Iraq isn’t another Viet Nam, but I’m beginning to have some of the same bad feelings I had back in the early ‘70s. One reason is that I don’t have a lot of faith that this administration (or the one that follows it, from either party) will be able to produce a clear cut “victory” anytime soon. For everybody’s sake, I hope the country can get itself together, but I suspect it will be messy for some time to come. I guess another reason has to do with the basic culture and mind set of the region as a whole. I’ve been through the Middle East a few times, but I know several people who have much more experience and insight than I do, and none of them are too optimistic that those folks can put aside the religious and tribal disputes and act for the greater good. After all, it’s rare enough for us to do that ourselves. A friend who grew up in Israel and who spent several years in Jordan told me an old Arab saying:

    My brother and I against my cousins.
    My cousins and I against the world.

    It’s a lot to overcome.

    BTW, I just heard on the radio that Gen Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has spoken out in support of “Rummy,” and against the retired generals like Newbold who are criticizing the administration. Do you think he really means it, or is he just being a good soldier and backing up his boss?

  9. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Just out of curiosity about the axe-grinding, how is Rummy viewed within the military? Just another civilian SecDef? Better than average? Worse?

  10. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Well, Cap’n and I were simul-posting, I guess.

    Interesting thoughts, Cap’n. Thanks for sharing. Your experiences span an interesting (and enlightening) chunk of American history.

    I don’t know the answer to your question about Gen. Pace, of course. I do know, however, that if Pace was going to say anything at all on the subject, it’s certain he wouldn’t side with the generals against the boss. If I had to guess, though, I’d guess he really does support Rummy, else Rummy, et al., wouldn’t have chosen him for his current job.

  11. Capt MidKnight Says:

    You’re probably right about Pace. He seems like a standup guy. As you say, though, if he didn’t agree with his boss, you can bet you wouldn’t see him on Fox News saying so.

    It remains to be seen, but the most serious consequence of the Iraq War may be its impact on our ability to deal with other crises. What do you think? Does being in Iraq like we are now limit our options in places like Iran and North Korea or not?

  12. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I don’t know diddly-poo about military strategy, Cap’n, but considering how many troops are tied up there, I can’t see how our involvement in Iraq could not affect our capacity to act elsewhere. Do you?

    I know if I were the Iranians, I wouldn’t take the administration’s sabre rattling overly seriously. We just don’t have the troops to go invading a country 3x the size of Iraq.

    Without instituting a draft, that is, which our leadership lacks the will to do.

  13. Capt MidKnight Says:

    One thing for sure, it will all make for a lively election season this year.

    In some ways, it reminds me of Abraham Lincoln’s situation in the early summer of 1863. He had led the nation into a war that most in the North thought would be a relatively short, simple affair, only to still be bogged down two years later, with no end in sight. There was constant in-fighting within his cabinet and rampant incompetence and political maneuvering in the military command structure. Casualty figures were through the roof, the military procurement system was shot through with graft and corruption, within a few weeks there would be draft riots in New York City, and, to top it all off, the Democrats were planning to oppose him next year with one of his former generals who was busy telling the newspapers what a shambles Lincoln’s inept administration had made of the war, and proposing a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee had just divided his much smaller force in the face of “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s Army of the Potomac and soundly thrashed him at Chancellorville, and was now invading Maryland for the second time in nine months. How Lincoln held up in the face of all this, I can’t imagine.

    Fortunately for him (and the nation, many would argue), a junior general named Meade, who replaced Hooker (and was described by his peers as a “goggle eyed old snapping turtle”) handed Lincoln a victory after three horrendous days at Gettysburg, and the next day (July 4th) another junior general named Grant, who was a failure at everything except leading men in battle, handed him the city of Vicksburg and control of the Mississippi River, and everything began to change.

    I don’t know if George Bush will have his own version of a Meade or a Grant this year, but he sure could use some good news about now.

  14. juvenal_urbino Says:

    An interesting perspective. There are some pretty important differences between Lincoln and Bush, too, though.

    We could all use some good news.

  15. Capt MidKnight Says:

    An interesting perspective. There are some pretty important differences between Lincoln and Bush, too, though.

    Different times, different war, very different man, but some things never change.
    Also, I hope my un-reconstructed Southern friends understand that I’m not comparing the Confederates to the Arabs.

  16. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I’d add to the list: very different reasons for going to war.

    Now that you mention it, I’d say Southern culture is extremely similar to Muslim culture, when you boil them down. Both are very traditional (vs. modern), with all that that entails. There’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between an American Christian fundamentalist’s mindset and an Arab Muslim fundamentalist’s mindset. A fundamentalist is a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist.

  17. Michael Lasley Says:

    And — both were very anti-American.

  18. juvenal_urbino Says:

    You lost me. Both what were very anti-American?

  19. Michael Lasley Says:

    Sorry, Juvenal, I was half-asleep when I posted that and am not really sure what I meant (yes, I was asleep at 1:05 EST, deal with it). Piecing things together, I think I was referring to the unreconstructed Southerners and Muslims, not Christian fundamentalists you were referring to (which, then, makes my comment non-sensical, but when I first woke up, it sounded good). I wasn’t really making a point, I don’t think. Which you are used to, I’m sure, as I very rarely have points to be made, unless I’m feeling especially preachy.

  20. Capt MidKnight Says:

    I’ll certainly grant you the different reasons for going to war, although, in their own ways, both Lincoln and Bush were “True Believers.”
    As for fundamentalists being the same the world over, I’d like to submit that, even if that’s true, the practical effect is very different, depending on the underlying belief system. A “fundamentalist” Christian may strike you as a narrow minded redneck and cause you to throw things at the TV, but he’s not likely to stand you up in front of a home video camera and cut your head off with a sword to show how orthodox he is.

    On a slightly different subject:
    All this discussion of the Iraq War caused me to wonder why I haven’t heard anything lately from my all time favorite military maverick, David Hackworth. On investigation, I was saddened to find out that he died almost a year ago of cancer. Love him or hate him, “Hack” was probably the most qualified and best informed journalist covering the many conflicts of the past 15 years or so. Starting with the First Gulf War, he reported from Kuwait, Haiti, Bosnia, and other “brushfire” conflicts. I checked out some of the columns he wrote and interviews he gave after the Iraq War started, and he makes Gen. Newbold sound like a choir boy. Hackworth’s concern was always for the soldier or sailor or airman or marine grunt at the sharp end of the spear. He reserved his harshest criticism for the civilian planners and policy makers and the upper command structure of the military, many of whom were his contemporaries from the Viet Nam era. A few of them he respected as “war fighters,” but most he considered either “perfumed princes” or “horse holders.” In a 2003 interview, he was asked what we should about the insurgency that was just beginning. He said that the current commanders had a mechanized armored unit mind set and didn’t understand how to deal with the “G’s” (guerillas). “They ought to fire those *&#?ers and get a snake eater,” he said.

    If you’re interested, go to and put in David Hackworth. You’ll be able to read some of his interviews and columns for Worldnet daily. If you’re squeamish about a real soldier’s language, however, you probably should pass it up.

    Anybody got any comments about Hackworth?

  21. juvenal_urbino Says:

    A “fundamentalist” Christian may strike you as a narrow minded redneck and cause you to throw things at the TV, but he’s not likely to stand you up in front of a home video camera and cut your head off with a sword to show how orthodox he is.

    Only because he has other ways of exercising control over those in his society whom he anathematizes. When his means of control are restricted, the violence begins. That has been the pattern throughout Christian history. In our own day and society, physicians who perform legally protected abortions have learned this the hard way.

    Your description of Christian fundamentalists glosses over the deeper similarities between them and Muslim (or any other) fundamentalists. They are the same.

    Both insist on highly patriarchal societies.

    Both insist on authoritarian social structures.

    Both fear and reject modern science.

    Both believe everything truly worth knowing is knowable only through the direct revelation entrusted to their group.

    Neither admits the possibility of being wrong about who God is or what he might want.

    Neither admits the possibility of others being right about who God is or what he might want.

    Both reject the secular state, insisting instead on a state that enforces their own religious vision of how life should be lived. (Note that “enforce” requires the notion of “force”; in this case, state-controlled violence. If the fundamentalist can’t get his way through state-controlled violence, he will eventually resort to other kinds.)

    Both locate the ideal human life outside the course of human history, in some pre-historic paradise and/or post-historic afterlife.

    Both fundamentally loathe what Paul called “the world” and “the flesh” and everything that comes along with them.

    Those last two points add up to the fact that both basically dislike life in this world, want to be somewhere else, and if they find themselves in a completely untenable situation here, have strong motivation to act violently without regard for their own mortality. Everything in this world is ultimately disposable, anyway, including themselves.

    The Arab Muslim fundamentalist hates America reflexively, as the Great Satan. The American Christian fundamentalist loves (one might even say worships) America reflexively, as God’s Chosen Nation.

    Both hate the notion of equal, extensive individual rights and freedoms.

    As far as I can see, there’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between Jerry Falwell or Tim LaHaye and Muqtada al-Sadr or Mullah Omar, except the accidents of birth. Falwell and LaHaye haven’t done what al-Sadr and Omar have done only because they exist in a system where they haven’t had to. Either, given a chance at the power the Taliban wielded in Afghanistan, would gladly grab it and do exactly the same thing with it: remake their society in their image of God’s image, absolutely rock-solid certain of their rightness, without regard to empirical evidence.

    They are all the same person, and they all want the same things. That’s the ultimate irony of our current administration. Their left hand — fighting Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attacks on America — doesn’t know what their right hand — making America more like what Islamic fundamentalists would like it to be by kowtowing to Christian fundamentalists — is doing.

  22. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Let me start with a less controversial question on an entirely different subject:

    How do you get a selected part of a previous post to appear at the beginning of yours in italics? I’ve tried several ways to do that, but no luck so far.

    Now, back to Fundamentalists.
    I won’t argue many of your points, because history, for the most part, bears you out,. Your description certainly fits many a “True Believer” down through the ages. I would submit, though, that the folks who fit your fundamentalist definition (on the Christian side, at least) are misrepresenting the basic tenants of the system they claim to follow.
    The church of the first century had no mandate to spread it’s “Good News” by any other means than by preaching, reasoning, and personal example and testimony, even had it had the ability to do otherwise. Granted, that church changed over time, as it acquired power and legitimacy, to become the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, which used tactics every bit as barbaric as anything the Taliban or Al Qaeda ever thought of to convert and control, but did so against the principals of its founder.
    Your answer will probably be “So what?” A misguided fundamentalist is just as dangerous and just as certain of the righteousness of his cause, and I’d have to agree. My only point is that while the fundamentalist mind set may be the same regardless of the system of beliefs, the systems themselves have very real differences which the fundamentalists are usually misrepresenting to followers who can’t or won’t investigate for themselves.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t intend for the discussion to get quite so grim. Anybody have a happy thought?

  23. Joe Longhorn Says:

    “Anybody got any comments about Hackworth?”

    I was brought up not to speak ill of the dead, so no.

  24. Joe Longhorn Says:


    I don’t disagree with your definition of fundamentalism, but I do think that you throw the “fundamentalist” label around too freely, and that you have a pretty low threshhold for saying that a particular group meets the standards you put forth.

  25. Capt MidKnight Says:

    “Anybody got any comments about Hackworth?”

    [I was brought up not to speak ill of the dead, so no.]

    Most folks seem to have a strong opinion about him – one way or the other. One thing for sure, he was never shy about speaking his mind.

    My feeling is that anybody who can rile up the military establishment as much as he did can’t be all bad.

  26. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I would submit, though, that the folks who fit your fundamentalist definition (on the Christian side, at least) are misrepresenting the basic tenants of the system they claim to follow.

    A couple of thoughts. One, the same is true of Islamic fundamentalists. Two, Christians do lay claim to the Old Testament as authoritative, and the basic plot of the OT is God’s Chosen Nation’s use of genocidal violence to remake Palestine into what God wanted.

    Your question about snipping from previous posts — I just copy the text, paste it in, and put tags around it to italicize it.

    Joe — you could well be right. Can you think of an example or two that struck you as misuse of the label?

  27. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I heard on the radio on the way home from work that yet another retired general, this one from the Army, has blasted Rumsfeld and called for his resignation.

  28. Joe Longhorn Says:

    There you go, Juvenal, challenging me to back up my points. Darn you!

    The first thing that jumps to my mind is the characterization of abortion protesters as “fundamentalists.” Some certainly may be, but there are many others that aren’t. Is holding a sign that says “abortion stops a beating heart” tantamount to blowing up a clinic?

    And I disagree that Christian fundamentalists, if brought to power, would set up an authoritarian system of government.
    Christian fundamentalists had every advantage and every opportunity to do this in America during the 1600-1700s. Why didn’t it happen?

  29. DeJon Redd Says:

    The trend continues

  30. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I don’t remember saying all abortion protesters were fundamentalists, but maybe I did. I mentioned the people who kill doctors who peform abortions, who I think definitely qualify. Regardless, I do think it’s true that most of the people who picket and block access to abortion clinics are fundamentalists.

    Christian fundamentalists had every advantage and every opportunity to do this in America during the 1600-1700s. Why didn’t it happen?

    Well, I think it’s pretty debatable whether the early Christians in the American colonies really qualify as fundamentalists in the current sense. Part of the definition of fundamentalism is it’s reaction against modernism, which didn’t really exist in the 17th-18th centuries, although there are tremors of it very late in the 18th, in the French Revolution.

    That aside, what you describe pretty much DID happen in America. It happened in all the New England colonies, where the dominant Christian group, the Puritans, most resembled modern fundamentalists. Those colonies had very authoritarian (and completely patriarchal) governments.

    It happened to much lesser degrees in the other colonies, largely because the dominant groups there (Anglicans, for the most part) were not particularly fundamentalist. (The people who had been Anglican “fundamentalists” had separated themselves from Anglicanism prior to the establishment of the colonies. That’s who the Puritans were.) Even in those colonies, however, they did establish official churches (the Anglican Church) and persecute Christians of other varieties — including throwing them in jail.

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