Ignoring the generals, forgetting Vietnam

By Tim Grieve

Published October 11, 2004 7:33PM (EDT)

Whenever George W. Bush talks about troop levels in Iraq, he says he takes his cues from the generals on the ground there. Mr. President, meet Brig. Gen. Oscar B. Hilman.

Hilman is the commander of the 81st Brigade Combat Team, a National Guard unit from the state of Washington that runs Anaconda, the largest U.S. military support base Iraq. As the Baltimore Sun reports this morning, troops stationed at Anaconda call it "Mortaritaville" -- a reference to the insurgent mortar and rocket attacks that have pounded the area every day since July.

The Sun says that at least six soldiers and contractors have been killed -- and nearly 100 more have been wounded -- at the base since April. Since May, Gen. Hilman says he has begged for the troops he needs to fight back against the attack. "We asked twice," Hilman told the Sun. The answer: "'There are no additional forces,' and . . . U.S. soldiers are needed elsewhere, particularly to battle insurgents and cover a large area to the north that includes the rebellious cities of Tikrit and Samarra."

As the Sun notes, Hilman's comments stand in sharp contrast to assurances about troop levels coming out of the White House and the Pentagon. Not surprisingly, the Kerry campaign has leapt on the story as further evidence that George W. Bush is being less than candid about current conditions in Iraq and the ways in which he's dealing with them. "Is the president coming clean with the American people?" Ret. Adm. William Crowe, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked on a Kerry campaign conference call with reporters Monday. Crowe added: "If things were going well in Iraq, if freedom were on the march, we wouldn't have these no-go zones."

In addition to the Sun's story, the Kerry campaign has teed off on the Los Angeles Times' report that military commanders in Iraq are now postponing offensives against insurgents until after the presidential election. "When this election's over, you'll see us move very vigorously," the Times quoted one senior administration official as saying. "Once you're past the election, it changes the political ramifications" of a large-scale offensive, the official said. "We're not on hold right now. We're just not as aggressive."

Crowe said that the report shows that Bush values "casualties after the election" differently than he does "casualties before the election." Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign distributed to reporters Bush's own words about a different conflict -- words that suddenly seem fully applicable now. On "Meet the Press" earlier this year, Bush said that "the thing about the Vietnam war that troubles me" is that "it was a political war."

"We had politicians making military decisions, and it is lessons that any president must learn, and that is to the set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective," Bush said then. "And those are essential lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War."

If those were the lessons of Vietnam, it's fair to ask now: Has Bush learned them?

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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