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You want to know where we are? We’re driving down Route 1, the road leading west out of Mosul toward Tal Afar, a desert town in Iraq of about 200,000 filled to its bursting mud-brick walls with smugglers, criminal gangs, insurgents, thieves, and murderers. And you want to know what we’re doing here? You’re going to love this. We’re looking for General H.R. McMaster, one of Trump’s generals, the supposed “adults in the room” who will save us from Trump, his lunatic advisers, and the gaggle of right-wingers and mendacious billionaires stuffed into his cabinet.
To hear Thomas Friedman tell it, it’s like the West Wing is a teeter-totter, with the wild-eyed Trump true believers and apologists on one end and Trump’s generals jumping up and down on the other, trying to level things out and keep them sane. In the New York Times, Friedman published an open letter to Trump’s generals — National Security Adviser McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly — along with CIA Director Mike Pompeo (“first in your class at West Point,” noted Friedman) and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (no military background, but one of Friedman’s “few good men” by virtue of having run one of America’s largest companies). Friedman’s request? “Collectively or individually sit the president down” and talk some sense into him, get him to apologize for accusing Obama of wiretapping him, and, while they’re at it, why not get him to release his tax returns to finally clear up lingering questions about Russian influence. Because? National security! Because? They’re “the five adults with the most integrity in the Trump administration.” Because? Generals!
Our military has produced over the past seventy years a new breed of general officer. They’ve been called soldier-statesmen, and in the case of both Mattis and McMaster military intellectuals. Mattis, who earned four stars and the nickname “Mad Dog” as a Marine, had several combat commands in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he is said to really stand out from the pack because he really, really likes to read books and carried Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in his kit bag on every one of his combat tours. He also replaced General David Petraeus (about whom more later) in 2010 in overall command of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. McMaster, a graduate of West Point, earned a master’s and Ph.D. in American history from UNC–Chapel Hill, where his thesis became the 1997 book Dereliction of Duty, which took the then-unprecedented step by a military officer of criticizing the way the military’s high command fought the war in Vietnam, alleging that their dereliction was that they failed to speak truth to power to either Johnson or Nixon.
But the problem with Trump’s generals started decades ago, when they were lieutenants and captains and they put up signs in their company orderly rooms. You know what those signs said? “CAN DO!” That’s the essence of the modern military ethic. When you are told to, say, go to Mosul or Tal Afar, salute and say, “Can do!” When you’re told to bring democracy and the American Way of Life to Iraq and Afghanistan, salute and say, “Can do!” You go over there like a good general and you set up a headquarters and you bring in a few hundred truckloads of white gravel and you create your own reality.
Commanding others to create their own reality is part of what makes the generals all too well suited to the Trump administration. You look out at the desert in Iraq and imagine it as a Little America, so you give an order to create the world in your head, and the white gravel gets dumped on the desert floor.
I was in Iraq as a journalist in 2003, less than nine months after the invasion. I awoke on my first morning in-country on the eighth floor of an old Saddam office building out at Baghdad International Airport and looked out the window to find a copy of a base camp in Vietnam. Endless rows of tractors, and bulldozers and backhoes and tanks and armored personnel carriers and temporary barracks and gigantic DFACs — dining facilities run by KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary that had the contract to build America’s presence in Iraq.
And down there next to the DFAC, right next to my building, what did I find? A Burger King and a Pizza Hut. And hundreds of thousands of yards of bright white gravel, so you didn’t get dust and sand in your eyes when you were walking from your air-conditioned barracks over to the Pizza Hut for a medium with extra sausage and pepperoni. As I stood there in the window, gazing upon the Little America before me, I turned to the first lieutenant behind me and said, “We’re in fucking Vietnam.”
“Yep,” he said.
“We’re fucked, aren’t we?” I asked him.
“Yep,” he replied. Then we went down to the Burger King and ordered.
A few days later I flew from Baghdad to Mosul, to General Petraeus’s 101st Airborne Division headquarters in a walled compound, the remnants of which are still there. White gravel everywhere? Check. Huge KBR DFAC mess hall serving Hershey’s ice cream and burgers to the troops? Check.
Inside the old Saddam-era palace Petraeus had seized for his headquarters, the general proudly showed me the ballroom where, a couple of times every day, he attended a Battle Update Briefing. He took me to one such briefing. Behind us an amphitheater had been constructed of scaffolding atop which sat several levels of young staff officers with laptops. These were the soldiers who reported two or three times a day on the status of the “battle” out there on the other side of the walls protecting the compound. In front of us were three large flat-screen TVs connected to the laptops so the staff officers could put up their PowerPoints and report on operations and intelligence and logistics — all of the usual military metrics by which modern wars are measured. In Vietnam, the staff officers reported to military geniuses like General William Westmoreland on the body count. In Mosul, most of the young staff officers reported on how many tons of garbage had been collected that day, and how things were going with the sewer construction, and how many Motorola handheld walkie-talkies had been distributed to the Iraqi police force. Oh, yeah, they also uncovered and disabled a few dozen IEDs that day and arrested a couple of suspected insurgents.
When the Battle Update Briefing was over, Petraeus, looking proud of his staffers, asked me what I thought. I told him it made him seem more like a CEO than a general, which didn’t make him happy at all.
In 2006 McMaster became famous for his command of an armored cavalry regiment that succeeded in pacifying the outlaw town of Tal Afar, about fifty miles west of Mosul. A PBS Frontline documentary praised his accomplishment, and a New Yorker story that year focused on his Tal Afar campaign as the kind of counterinsurgency operation that might turn the war in Iraq around. You remember turning the war in Iraq around, don’t you?
Out in Tal Afar, at the airport compound where McMaster established his headquarters in 2005 in furtherance of his career-enhancing pacification of the outlaws and killers, I was having breakfast at the huge KBR DFAC one morning, seated at a table with a bunch of dusty unshaven soldiers who had just returned from a mission in Sinjar, yet another outlaw town a few miles to the west, near the Syrian border. On the wall in front of us was a large flat-screen TV. Most of the TVs I saw in other DFACs were tuned to ESPN Classic, but on this morning, the TV was tuned to C-SPAN and up there on the screen was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith, famous among the pro-war pundit class as one of the three architects of the war in Iraq.
Feith was giving a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in real time, running his mouth about strategic footprints and the tactical qualities of the projection of power thereof, when one of the dusty unshaven soldiers turned to me and asked, “Sir, do you have any idea who that stupid fucker is?” I explained that was Douglas Feith, one of the architects of the war. The soldier picked up a piece of toast with butter and jam and threw it against the TV screen. “Shut the fuck up, you stupid-ass piece of shit,” he yelled. Soon the others were throwing toast and eggs and little plastic jam containers at the screen and yelling at Feith. Finally one of the KBR civilians came over and turned off the TV. It apparently wasn’t a very good idea for one of the architects of the war to be explaining to these soldiers why, exactly, they were over there projecting tactical power with their strategic footprints in Sinjar.
When General George C. Marshall became Truman’s secretary of State in 1947, he had been the Army chief of staff who led the way to the defeat of both Germany and Japan in World War II. The combined efforts of Trump’s generals to win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended up losing both of them.
So what do you think? You think Mattis and Kelly and McMaster are going to save us from all the loons down there on the other end of the Trump cabinet teeter-totter? You think when Trump decides to, say, send a couple of American artillery batteries into Syria to shell Raqqa, as he did a few weeks ago, that they’re going to “speak truth to power” and ask President Trump what’s going to happen when those artillery batteries pull out? What’s going to happen when those five thousand American troops currently stationed in Iraq pull out? What’s going to happen when President Trump decides it’s about time to send a few missiles into North Korea to teach them a little about the American Way of Life? You think they’re going to get together on their end of the cabinet teeter-totter and jump up and down and say, “Wait a minute, sir! We’ve made this mistake before!”?
Or do you think maybe they’ll stand up and salute and shout the words that made their military careers: “Can do!”?
If you are looking for an answer, you’ll find it over in Tal Afar, in the Iraqi desert.