The Disgruntled General

No one pities retired Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez quite like he pities himself. His reputation destroyed after his disastrous year as U.S. ground commander in Iraq -- including, most notoriously, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal -- Sanchez took a surprising move toward rehabilitation on Friday, delivering a blistering indictment of the war's history and its prospects before a military reporters' convention in Arlington. The war is "a nightmare with no end in sight," declared its former commander. President Bush, having failed to accept "the political and economic realities of this war," has adopted the surge in "a desperate attempt" to salvage his political fortunes, but will, at best, "stave off defeat." The press portrayed the speech as the latest in a series of volleys by retired generals furious with the Bush administration. Liberals eager for a cudgel against Bush may suddenly discover Sanchez's previously hidden virtues.

Except that Sanchez's speech is very different from the criticisms offered during the so-called "general's revolt" of 2006. Those accounts indicted the strategy of Donald Rumsfeld, the wisdom of commanders like Sanchez, and the opportunism of the administration as a whole. Sanchez's occasionally hysterical speech represents a triumph of embitterment, coupled with a cynical willingness to blame practically every civilian institution -- prowar, antiwar, whatever -- for the war's failures. "Our nation has not focused on the greatest challenge of our lifetime," Sanchez said. "The political and economic elements of power must get beyond the politics to ensure the survival of America." That's right: the survival of America.

Contrary to its billing, this was no mere attack on the administration. Sanchez's speech is perfectly positioned to accelerate the stabbed-in-the-back myth of explaining the war now emerging on the right. That corrosive idea, revived most recently by revisionist Vietnam historian Mark Moyar, holds that sybaritic and feckless civilians recklessly squander the hard-won gains of the military.

The current crop of right-wingers is too close to the Iraq war to accept Sanchez's vituperation, since it contains an attack on Bush. But as the war recedes and the need for scapegoating expands -- particularly if conservatives lose the White House next year -- Sanchez's speech reads like a foundational text for an aggrieved conservative worldview that the war was too virtuous for the country that fought it. And it makes a lot of sense that it's Sanchez, the most disgraced general of the entire war, who issued this j'accuse.

Consider the following line, one which didn't make it into most media accounts of the speech. "While the politicians espouse their rhetoric designed to preserve their reputations and their political power -- our soldiers die!" Sanchez is interested in attacking -- repeatedly -- unnamed "political leaders" whose partisan squabbling has "endangered the lives of our sons and daughters on the battlefield."

Like with all good dishonest myths, this gets causality backward. The war's domestic politics became so acrimonious precisely because the Bush administration not only plunged the country into a disaster but treated all criticism as a mark of disloyalty. As a result, politics is understandably a contest between those who consider the Iraq war a national imperative and those who consider it a national catastrophe. For each side, political power is a national security objective, and against the backdrop of a protracted war, it's not entirely clear why that's wrong. But Sanchez prefers to wipe the blood of 3,800 U.S. troops across the entire political spectrum, rather than presenting a subtle account of who's responsible for the tragedy.

And Sanchez has no shortage of culprits. In fact, it's Bush who gets off easiest here. Nearly everyone not in uniform is responsible for the horror. The press has strayed from ethical standards -- so far, he says, that a reversal of course is needed so "our democracy does not continue to be threatened." Civilians within the Bush administration, and particularly on the National Security Council, failed U.S. troops by not devising and implementing a strategy for Iraq that involved more than military power. Congress is a particular enemy: it abdicated "focused oversight" in favor of "exhortations, encouragements, investigations, studies and discussions." America itself does not escape blame. The "greatest failures" in Iraq are linked to the country's "lack of commitment, priority and moral courage in this war effort." Sanchez's comments might benefit war opponents in the short term, since the press hasn't emphasized this vitriol, but embittered conservatives looking to place blame practically have a catechism to read from.

It's hard to know what exactly to make of this. Does Sanchez actually mean to accuse the entire country of lacking "moral courage"? Can civilian-military relations possibly be that bad? After all, sustained popular admiration for the troops fighting the war has been a hallmark of the country's pro- and anti-war movements since the invasion. Congress can be subjected to any number of critiques, both hawkish and dovish, but the fact remains that Congress has approved every war-funding request Bush has submitted.

Sanchez has a good point that civilian agencies in the government don't treat wartime remotely as seriously as the military -- you often hear military commanders in Iraq understandably bemoan the relative lack of diplomats, economists, agronomists, civilian engineers, etc. -- but Sanchez's hysteria is not easily explained. That is, unless you take into account Sanchez's guilty conscience and his anger over his disgrace.

That conscience is made guilty, of course, by the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal specifically, and the explosion of the insurgency during his year in command more generally. On September 14, 2003, in response to pressure from an effort led by Donald Rumsfeld to extract intelligence from Iraqi detainees on the insurgency, Sanchez issued a memorandum authorizing interrogation techniques imported from the Geneva Conventions-exempt Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Among them were the use of dogs, stress positions, sleep management and light, noise and dietary manipulation. Within a month, General John Abizaid, Sanchez's superior at Central Command, revoked the memo, but the techniques bearing Sanchez's imprimatur were on display at Abu Ghraib nevertheless. Senator Jack Reed asked Sanchez on May 19, 2004, if he ever "ordered or approved" the techniques. The same Sanchez who now attacks the ethics of Congress and the press replied that he "never approved the use of any of those methods," prompting the ACLU to accuse Sanchez of perjury.

Abu Ghraib was only one element in Sanchez's manifold failures as a general in Iraq. Lacking clear leadership or central coordination, his division commanders essentially ran their own occupations, resulting in drastically varying results -- from the heavy-handed tactics of Major General Ray Odierno in Anbar to the population-centric approach of Major General David Petraeus. In account after account from Iraq veterans in Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks's definitive book Fiasco, Sanchez is described as a tactician unable to see the bigger picture of the war.

Defying common sense among both liberals and conservatives, he told Tim Russert in April 2004, "the forces that we have on the ground are adequate," -- even as both the Sunni and the Shiite insurgencies inflamed the country. Whatever divides civilians and soldiers, it's not respect for Sanchez. One active-duty officer summed up the catastrophe in Iraq by telling Ricks, "In Vietnam we left Westy [Commanding General William Westmoreland] in. In Iraq we left Sanchez in."

The Iraq war was probably doomed from the start. And while Sanchez couldn't have won the war, he could have contributed less to its loss. And this is what Sanchez's account never grapples with: The proposition that a war likely to fail shouldn't be fought. That omission makes sense. After all, if Sanchez really saw the writing on the wall in July 2003 -- the beginning of his command -- he was derelict in his responsibility to either refuse command or to speak out in favor of drastic changes in strategy. Instead, he's emblematic of the general officer described in Lt. Col. Paul Yingling's recent essay "A Failure In Generalship": supine to civilian zealotry, hobbled by conventional wisdom, ignorant of counterinsurgency, and deceptive to the public. It should probably come as no surprise that his account of who's to blame for Iraq is as bitter and distorted as it is.

Earlier this year, Sanchez told AFP, "it's not about blame because there's nobody out there that is intentionally trying to screw things up for our country." The obviously self-pitying Sanchez of October 2007 has clearly amended his views. His new perspective is no sounder, and just as corrosive, than the ones that guided him in Baghdad. Having abetted one catastrophe, Sanchez may do even greater violence to the historical record.