Out of Uniform, Out of Touch?

President Bush’s recent declaration that the “combat phase” of the war in Iraq is over has prompted speculation about where the next battlefield in the war on terror will be. Iraq, it seems, is yesterday’s news.

But moving forward without taking stock of lessons learned in Iraq would be an enormous mistake if America—in particular average citizens hungry for information—is to prepare itself for the next stage in the war on terror.

Much has been written about how wrong the civilian “experts” were in their dismal predictions of how the Iraq war would unfold. But surprisingly little has been made of the fact that virtually all the retired military experts were just as wrong. As ubiquitous as they are, military experts are granted much public trust – but it is worth reviewing just how much they elevate the level of public debate and understanding.

Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni warned that a rapid push to Baghdad would be a “black hole” for US forces. Retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf charged that US war planners didn’t appreciate the depths of Iraqi loyalty to Saddam Hussein. And Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey predicted, just hours before the fall of Baghdad, that US casualties would reach 3,000. Other lesser-known retired officers offered similarly errant forecasts.

The commentaries of these military experts point to one conclusion: Armchair generals suffer from the same lack of access, information, and objectivity that hinders civilian commentators.

Most retired officers on TV don’t have access to sensitive information. Those who do are legally prohibited from discussing it. Yet, retired officers, like MSNBC’s Col. Jack Jacobs, lace their comments with references to their “intelligence sources” and “sources inside the Pentagon,” creating the impression they’ve just come from a classified peek into war planning at the Pentagon.

The military experts’ lack of access translates into a lack of information. A revolution in military affairs has occurred since the 1991 Gulf War; officers retired for only a few years are hopelessly behind the strategic and technological curve. In Iraq, US forces operated with weapons systems that some field commanders didn’t even know about until the moment of their deployment. Military tactics and weapons are constantly transforming—in ways both dramatic and subtle—undetectable to those out of uniform.

Take the case of air power. General McCaffrey was quick to complain that the number of bombs dropped in the initial days of the war paled in comparison with the Gulf War. But US forces can now deliver far more exacting bang for the bomb—often from weapons systems that the retired talking heads have neither seen nor commanded.

A final factor that limits the value of the armchair generals is the occasional lack of objectivity. Americans typically think of military officials as apolitical, but that’s only true when they wear a uniform. Once they retire, all bets are off.

Consider the case of Gen. Wesley Clark, arguably the most knowledgeable of the retired generals on TV. Earlier this year, he warned that a war with Iraq would distract US attention from war on terrorism. As US forces continued wrapping up Al Qaeda cells worldwide, he complained that the Pentagon had not sent enough ground forces to the Gulf region. When US forces rapidly advanced toward Baghdad, he warned that they couldn’t possibly occupy a post-Hussein Iraq. With US forces slowly restoring basic services throughout Iraq, General Clark is now complaining that US forces are dangerously overstretched.

An observer need not be a cynic to suspect that other factors may be driving Clark’s assessments. The former Rhodes scholar from Arkansas is considering a run for the presidency in 2004. His constant second-guessing of US tactics might well reflect partisan ambition rather than an objective reading of events.

The war in Iraq has taught valuable lessons for those willing to learn them: Generals embedded in TV studios fare no better than journalists embedded in military units on the battlefield in helping make sense of war. More ominously, if the military “experts” can miss the call on Iraq—scrutinized as an enemy for more than a decade—what can the public expect from these experts as the war on terror moves to more exotic, less familiar territory? It’s a question worth asking before the next conflict begins.