Monday, September 25, 2006

An open letter to General Colin Powell

Colin Powell in Vietnam, 1963With news of a compromise between the administration and the Senate over terrorist trials and interrogation, two things became clear. One, we will have a better bill as a result of open dissent and debate prompted by the dissident GOP Senators and the letter from former Secretary of State Powell. Two, we could have had an even better result, if there was a more vigorous debate with an opposing party that shared power.

The confluence over the weekened of: the reporting of this compromise in Congress; the report of the National Intelligence Estimate attributing "a direct role to the Iraq war in fueling radicalism" and increasing the terrorist threat since 9/11; and a re-read of portions of Colin Powell's 1995 memoir "My American Journey", prompted me to write an open letter to General Powell, mailed today, the text of which is reproduced here:

Monday, September 25, 2006

General Colin L. Powell,
909 North Washington Street
Suite 700
Alexandria, Va. 22314

Dear General Powell,
My reason for writing this open letter is two-fold. First, I am writing to thank you for your September 13 note supporting Senators McCain, Warner, and Graham and their efforts on the detainee and interrogation bill. It was a timely and welcome reminder to our leadership and to all Americans that we must strive to conduct ourselves by our standards, and not the standards of our enemies. In the fog of a polarized political landscape, finding the right path between efficacy, security and morality is not easy for all Americans to see. You have a well-deserved reputation with many Americans as a man of intelligence, integrity and straight talk. Your comments on the treatment of detainees, was a beacon for many of us to more clearly see that path.

The question of interrogation of detainees is not the only issue where your opinion could be influential. Since resigning as Secretary of State, you have maintained a low public profile, choosing to either reserve judgment or simply not to share your thoughts with American public at large regarding the war in Iraq.

Which brings me to my second reason for this letter. Quite frankly, you are doing the American people a great disservice by not sharing your detailed views on the war in Iraq. We are only a few weeks away from making a decision about whether we, as a country, will be better served with greater political opposition and debate in Congress. The experience of the detainee interrogation bill argues that we would. Vietnam and Korea required a change of the political landscape in Washington before we could begin the process of negotiating and/or extricating ourselves from those conflicts. Your unique perspective would help many of us to reach a better, perhaps less partisan, decision now.

I recently reread your reflections on Vietnam from your 1995 Memoir “ My American Journey” (I am a proud owner of a signed Random House limited edition - number 1853 of 2000). I was struck by some of the similarities in your observations of that war, with the situation we face in Iraq. Clearly, there are great differences between the two wars, and drawing too many parallels would be inaccurate, and probably dangerous. But, I would like to hear from you that if the comparison is not apt, exactly why and how it is different today.

Permit me to quote some of the passages from your book and ask you the questions they prompted:
“From that mountainside, the enemy could almost roll rocks down onto us. I wondered why the base had been established in such a vulnerable spot.
“Very important outpost.” Hieu assured me.
“But why is it here?”
“Outpost is here to protect airfield.” He said, pointing in the direction of our departing Marine helo.
“What’s the airfield here for?” I asked.
“Airfield here to resupply outpost.”
I would spend nearly 20 years, one way or another, grappling with our experience in this country. And over all that time, Vietnam rarely made much more sense than Captain Hieu’s circular reasoning on that January day in 1963. We’re here because we’re here, because we’re …” p82

“While I was in Be Luong base camp, Secretary McNamara had made a visit to South Vietnam. “every quantitative measurement.” He concluded after forty-eight hours there. “shows that we are winning the war.” Measure it and it has meaning. Measure it and it is real. Yet nothing I witnessed in the A Shau Valley indicated we were beating the Viet Cong; Beating them? Most of the time we could not even find them. McNamara’s slide-rule commandos had devised precise indices to measure the unmeasurable. … added to the secure-hamlet nonsense, the search-and-sweep nonsense, tthe conspiracy of illusion would reach full flower in the years ahead, as wehe body-count nonsense, all of which we knew was nonsense, even as we did it… In spite of my misgivings, I was leaving the country still a true believer. … The ends were justified, even if the means were flawed. In spite of what Secretary McNamara had found, the mission was simply bigger and tougher than we had anticipated..” p103

“Losses in the war were perceived as if they were happening only to the military and their families, people unlucky to get caught up in a messy conflict; they were not seen as sacrifices shared by the country for a common purpose, as in other wars. As a career officer, I was willing to do my duty. But as far as the rest of the country was concerned, we were doing it alone. We were in a war against an enemy who believed in his cause and was willing to pay the price, however high. Our country was not; yet it took our government five more years to get us out.” P129
General Powell, you wrote this last about the summer of 1968 when you were returning for your second tour of duty in Vietnam. It was in that same year that Robert McNamara resigned from the LBJ administration. It was not until 27 years later, that Robert McNamara (writing in his memoirs "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam"), revealed that (with 25,000 American dead) he no longer believed that America could win the war in Vietnam. As a direct consequence he left the LBJ administration, but neither McNamara nor LBJ chose to share McNamara’s insight with the American public. Ultimately, as you point out, it took five more years and 30,000+ more American lives for a majority of Americans to learn that their government could not be trusted on the reasons for, nor the progress in, Vietnam.

It is reasonable to posit, that if McNamara had recognized in 1968 that his loyalty was owed first to the American people, second to the LBJ administration, and had communicated what he believed then directly to the American people, we might have seen a better end, a quicker end, and fewer deaths and casualties in Vietnam. General Powell, you and, perhaps, you alone, are in a position to know whether this is an apt comparison to what we face today in Iraq. I ask you to consider, whether sharing your perspective on Iraq in detail with the American people, might shorten the war or lead to a better and quicker end to our participation in the conflict.
The powers that be seemed to believe that by manipulating words, we could change the truth. We had lost touch with reality. We were also deluded by technology. The enemy was primitive, and we were the most technologically advanced nation on earth. It therefore should be no contest.” P145

“In the years between my first and second tours, the logic of Captain Hieu’s explanation - the base is here to protect the airstrip, which is here to supply the base - had not changed, only widened. We’re here because we’re here…
General Powell, how different is this Vietnam rationale, than the current rationale for our continued presence in Iraq as articulated by the President – We’re there now because it will be worse if we leave?
War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support; we should mobilize the country’s resources to fulfill that mission and then go in to win. In Vietnam, we had entered into a a halfhearted half-war, with much of the nation opposed or indifferent, while a small fraction carried the burden.” P148
General Powell, does the war in Iraq have the understanding and support of the American people? Have the country’s resources been adequately mobilized? Has anyone been asked to pay the price, beside the military and their families?
“I came to reexamine my feeling about the war … We accepted that we had been set to pursue a policy that had become bankrupt. Our political leaders had led us into a war for the one-size-fits-all rationale of anticommunism, which was only a partial fit for in Vietnam, where the war had its own historical roots in nationalism, anticolonialism, and civil strife beyond the east-west conflict. Our senior officers knew the war was going badly. Yet they bowed to groupthink pressure and kept up pretenses … the military failed to talk straight to its political superiors or to it itself. The tip leadership never went to the Secretary of Defense or the President and said, “The war is unwinnable the way we are fighting it.” p149
General Powell, has our military been set to pursue a policy that has become bankrupt? Have our political leaders led us into a war in Iraq for the one-size-fits-all rationale of anti-terrorism, which is only a partial fit for Iraq?” Is the Iraq war “unwinnable” the way we are fighting it?

Have we failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam?

From my perspective, there are disturbing similarities between your words describing Vietnam, and the current conflict in Iraq, and there are disturbing similarities between McNamara’s public silence in 1968, and your public reticence on the war now. I am admittedly viewing this from a distance, and through the filters of media, ignorance and politics. You, are in a position to know. You were in Vietnam. You shaped our victory in Desert Storm. You participated in and argued for the decision to occupy Iraq in 2003. Your experience with the military, with this administration, with the field of conflict in Iraq, with both failed and successful US conflicts, means you are uniquely qualified, to help the American people find the right path, by shedding some light on the problem.

Permit me to be blunt. As an American citizen that supported this war to a large extent because of your support of it, and your eloquent arguments before United Nations in January of 2003, I do not find it acceptable for you to withhold your assessment of the status and outlook for this war now. Quite frankly, you owe this country the benefit of your honest assessment now. You owe us your complete, unexpurgated, unvarnished view.

If you choose to withhold your perspective from the American people now, at least do not write in your expanded memoirs 10 or 20 years from now, when it will no longer matter, that you knew we were on a wrong course today.

Respectfully, Mike Wallach - [mailed 25-Sep-06]


Divided and Balanced.™ Now that is fair.

Just Vote Divided.

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