Jewish World Review March 8, 2002 / 24 Adar, 5762

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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Timidity and indecision by
senior American commanders -- THE American military high command snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at the battle of Tora Bora, soldiers of the British Special Air Service (SAS) are convinced.

British journalist Bruce Anderson wrote in the Feb. 16 issue of The Spectator about the visit in January of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the SAS headquarters at Stirling Lines.

"Kissinger...was talking to men with a grievance, who believed that American generals had let bin Laden escape," Anderson wrote.

Two squadrons of the SAS and soldiers from America's Delta Force had Osama bin Laden trapped in a mountain valley, and wanted to move in for the kill, Anderson wrote. But senior American commanders, fearful of casualties, dawdled until the opportunity was lost.

"Strategy was sabotaged by schizoid irresolution," Anderson wrote. "There followed hours of fiffing and faffing...While the generals agonized about bodybags, bin Laden was escaping."

"The SAS and Delta Force won a victory for the West," Anderson said. "The American generals then assured that the full fruits of victory could not be harvested."

This is, alas, by no means the only account of timidity and indecision by senior American commanders.

MSNBC reported Feb. 18 that when the commander of the 82d Airborne Division learned that Al Qaeda terrorists were escaping from Afghanistan into Pakistan, he asked permission to drop his paratroopers along the border to block their escape. Permission was denied, for fear of casualties.

Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker reported that early in the war, U.S. soldiers operating a Predator drone armed with a hellfire missile had an opportunity to kill several senior Taliban leaders, but were denied permission to fire because the senior lawyer for the U.S. Central Command in Florida had concerns.

Kissinger explained to his SAS inquisitors that U.S. losses in Vietnam has made many American leaders, in and out of uniform, casualty averse.

"He told the SAS that in his first five weeks as National Security Adviser, the U.S. lost at least 400 lives every week in Vietnam," Anderson wrote. "The scars of those losses in a lost war take a long time to heal."

Though they described Kissinger as "a good bloke, that," the SAS troopers were unsatisfied with his explanation for the timidity of the U.S. generals. So was Anderson:

"When Charles Guthrie was Chief of our General Staff, he had a simple principle when choosing generals," Anderson wrote. "His reading of military history had taught him that the generals who rise to the top during long periods of peace are rarely fitted to fight a war. So he was determined to promote men whose temperament was not that of a peacetime soldier, and to ensure that all the key commands in the British army were held by warriors."

General George Marshall was of similar mind. He passed over 350 more senior officers to make Dwight Eisenhower commander of all U.S. forces in Europe.

Casualty aversion is more a fixation of America's elites than of Americans generally, or of American soldiers. Opinion surveys indicated a majority of Americans supported the Vietnam war until well into 1968, when it became clear the political leadership was unwilling to do what it would take to win.

Americans reacted poorly to the deaths of Marines in Lebanon in 1983, and of Rangers in Somalia in 1993 not because the casualties were so horrendous, but because they wondered what we were doing in those places in the first place.

But when the cause is just, the political leadership is committed to victory, and the military leadership is competent, the American soldier is ready to fight, and the American people will back him up.

"If the U.S. wants to get Saddam, it will have to go in and get him, with a full-scale invasion," Anderson wrote. "But are the generals who hung back at Tora Bora the right men to invade Iraq?"

Probably not. For eight years, Bill Clinton picked America's senior generals. Few of his choices reminded anyone of George Patton or Chesty Puller.

"It is now time for Donald Rumsfeld to retire a number of his Vietnamized, risk-averse generals, and to replace them with warriors," Anderson said.

"After all, he will shortly have a war to fight."

Comment on JWR contributor Jack Kelly's column by clicking here.

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02/25/02: Don't rule out a quick victory --- even if prez says otherwise
02/21/02: Saving our military from itself
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02/15/02: Our European allies are like the fat kid who wants to play quarterback
02/13/02: Is the Army in danger of becoming "irrelevant"?
02/11/02: So, I "propagate hatred"
02/06/02: Bush whacking the media
02/04/02: Why serious folks disregard the European Union --- and why Bush must, too
01/30/02: Give economy pneumonia in order to protect it from a cold
01/28/02: Media is its own worst enemy
01/25/02: Journalists making road to peace a bumpy ride, or: A case study in stupidity
01/23/02: Toward a stronger defense at a lower cost
01/21/02: How Bush could be Generations X and Y's Kennedy ... and guarantee a GOP victory in the midterm elections

© 2002, Jack Kelly