Staffing the War

by Jonathan Wallace

In February 2003, General Eric Shinseki was testifying in Congress about force levels in Iraq when he made an unusual and commendable decision: he told the truth when asked how many soldiers would be needed to win.

"Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably a figure that would be required," Gen. Shinseki said. "We're talking about a post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems."-- Wolfowitz criticizes 'suspect' estimate of occupation force Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times, February 28, 2003

Depending on whose account you believe, General Shinseki was fired or forced out as a result of this testimony. Just short of two years later, he seems to have been one of the few people in the administration with a basic handle on reality.

Today, we are losing the war with a force of about 150,000 U.S. troops. (Early in 2004, the number had dipped to about 114,000 but has been increased mainly via "stop loss" orders, which force soldiers to serve longer tours in-country than they had anticipated.) It is no mystery to anyone, certainly not to the insurgency, that we are so thin on the ground that we cannot protect our own people, munitions dumps, truck convoys, election workers or employers of NGO's. Among the most tragic of the casualties in Iraq are those who went because they relied on the administration's smug assurances that the war was over.

We don't even hold the places we think we hold; every attack in Bagdad, especially in the Green Zone, proves that the adversary goes everywhere he wants, while we cannot. The situation is so Vietnam-like it is eerie: we are occupying a confusing country where we can't tell friend from foe, where the enemy strikes in small groups at night, or plants bombs to equalize the extreme imbalance between his numbers and ours; where our local allies are poorly trained, timid, few in number and terrified of the other side; where the population increasingly feels that it has suffered unreasonably under our intervention, with no improvement in sight.

How could such a mistake be made by men many of whom were already adults and serving in the government during Vietnam? Do they not remember what a mess it was? The only imaginable answer is the stupidity of the very intelligent, who are blinded first by their own ideology and then by their arrogance.

Donald Rumsfeld seems to have persuaded himself that it was possible to fight a "Tom Peters" war. Tom Peters was a very entertaining business guru, popular in the early '90's, who hit upon the insight that business didn't really require infrastructure. He called the idea archaic that an enterprise manufacturing automobiles, for example, requires grimy factories populated by thousands of workers. A company, Peters said, is really a brand. Maintain the brand, he recommended, and subcontract everything else. No factories, no workers. A business of any size, Peters said, could be run out of your bedroom with a computer and a telephone.

At the time, Peters' ideas were captivating. They seemed to be rooted in the 1960's "small is beautiful" ethic; it was fun to think that two people in a garage could rival General Motors. Peters also rode the "networking" wave, arguing that a business enterprise could consist of a highly decentralized network of separate entities cooperating in a joint goal. Finally, Peters promoted the "dematerialization" of American culture. In the 90's, we had an optimistic idea that Americans didn't really need to make anything; they could just sell information to one another. What we lost sight of, until reminded by the bursting of the Internet bubble, was that the information had to be anchored to something concrete, it had to be about something. A favorite example whenever the information economy was discussed used to be TV Guide. The magazine, which sold information about television, was more profitable than any network. Peters and the disciples who preached his doctrine showed us a future in which you could have TV Guide without television. The information could just be about itself.

Peters is probably somewhat morally responsible for the Internet collapse, as well as for fiascos like the privatization of British Rail, where in fact exactly what he called for came to pass: railroad companies owned nothing but the trademark and outsourced the actual running of the trains and the maintenance of the equipment. After a disastrous derailment in which a few dozen people died, a spokesman for one of these companies said with a straight face that the train and the rails both met specifications but apparently did not work together well.

Rumsfeld apparently thinks that wars can be won by skilled utilization of the United States' worldwide brand. Now, the U.S. is in fact the most powerful brand in the world; it certainly is known to remote people who don't even recognize Coca Cola, and who associate with us specific ideas about wealth, diversity, and power. But in order to successfully fight a Tom Peters-style war, several other results would have had to flow from the strength of the brand. Potential adversaries would have to be deterred, just as for years, Microsoft's expression of interest in a new technology would preempt others from competing. Allies, enraptured by the benefits of associating themselves with us, would have to step up to do much of the heavy lifting. It is exactly the Tom Peters philoosophy that led us to subcontract the hunt for bin Laden to Afghan warlords at Tora Bora.

But the brand is not strong enough any more to do all that work. It hasn't been maintained. Rumsfeld relied on the brand perpetuating itself, when really the last maintenance we did was sixty years ago. Every war we have fought since World War II offers the insight that Americans will only fight three day wars, that in all longer ones, we can be fought to a draw (Korea) or simply made exhausted by attrition (Vietnam). Russia may have been deterred for fifty years, but Islamic fundamentalists are not, partly because of ideology, largely because of practicality. They know they are fighting a country that values its pleasures and its indolence and that does not really like to fight.

Nor have our allies fallen over themselves to support the brand. There are only about twenty-five thousand allied soldiers in Iraq, and many of them will be leaving soon. (Thirteen countries have already pulled out troops or are planning to do so.) In the ideal Tom Peters war, all of the fighting would have been done by the allies and the Iraqis, leaving the Americans free to manage the brand. This, after all, was the original conception of the Vietnam war.

You don't have to be a military genius to see that General Shinseki was right. He may even have underestimated. It might take a half million soldiers or more to secure the cities and the roads, to make travel really safe, to make a meaningful election possible.

There are really only two choices now. In order to win the war, the administration must reinstate the draft and greatly increase the number of soldiers in Iraq, without slighting our numerous other commitments around the world. Everybody in the world knows we don't have the will to do this. It would require a much larger sacrifice than we have been willing to make. In Iraq so far we have lost more than thirteen hundred soldiers. We lost more than fifty thousand in Vietnam. The administration cannot possibly have the sense that Americans would tolerate this kind of suffering again. We are more obese, more selfish and more inward than we were forty years ago.

If this is unpalatable, the only other choice is the one the administration may already have secretly selected: continue to lose people at a relatively slow rate (compared to the number we would lose in a "real" war) and stall until an opportunity presents to declare victory and get out. This is really unfair to the people who have to die for the brand, and it probably will involve passing the problem to the next administration. This is exactly what Johnson did in Vietnam.

Sadly, the only one who has figured out how to fight a Tom Peters war is bin Laden. He brought down the trade towers with nineteen men and some box cutters. He too has an extremely powerful brand, and comes much closer to the Tom Peters idea of running a world-wide enterprise with only a phone and a computer. His brand deters liberal and secular forces in the Arab world, and has inspired allies all over to step up and sacrifice their lives in his cause. Due to the peculiarities of the situation, including the perceived laziness and weakness of the United States, this entrepreneurial warrior cannot be fought with Tom Peters-style tactics but only with old-fashioned ones: huge numbers of troops using extremely powerful technology to wield over-whelming force. If we are not willing to do that, then the soldiers and civilians dying in Iraq are dying for nothing, except to save Donald Rumsfeld's face.