Several months ago, when Rep. John Murtha, the Marine Corps veteran and longtime Democratic advocate for military preparedness, spoke out on the Iraq War, I received an interesting phone call from the Pentagon.
When Murtha advocated a fundamental reassessment of American strategy in the war, including an early redeployment of U.S. troops to neighboring countries, I noted that he had spent many hours visiting with wounded veterans of that war at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval hospitals. A warmhearted, emotional man, Murtha was responding, I suggested, to what he had experienced in those hospital wards.
The unsolicited caller from the Pentagon identified himself by name and rank, then said, "This is a private call. I am not speaking officially. But I read your column, and I think it is important for you to know that Jack Murtha knows us very well and speaks for many of us."
I thanked him and said, "I get the message." Don't dismiss Murtha's misgivings as just sympathy for the wounded. He has allies in the uniformed military who cannot speak out themselves.
I've thought back to that conversation as a succession of retired generals have come forward in the past few weeks to express their disagreement and dismay at the conduct of the war and to call for the resignation of its architect, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Seeing these senior officers take this public stand is unprecedented; even in Vietnam, with all the misgivings among the fighting men, we saw no such open defiance.
The president has reaffirmed his confidence in Rumsfeld, and the secretary himself has been dismissive of the complaints, saying that if the defense secretary were fired "every time two or three people disagreed ... it would be like a merry-go-round."
But the case the generals are making is as serious as it is passionate. To take but one example, the essay in Time magazine by retired Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, the former director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, lists six separate areas where he saw failure on the part of the civilian leadership of government:
"The distortion of intelligence in the buildup to the war, McNamara-like micromanagement that kept our forces from having enough resources to do the job, the failure to retain and reconstitute the Iraqi military in time to help quell civil disorder, the initial denial that an insurgency was the heart of the opposition to occupation, alienation of allies who could have helped in a more robust way to rebuild Iraq, and the continuing failure of the other agencies of our government to commit assets to the same degree as the Defense Department."
Adding these together, he concluded with the words that have come to constitute the definitive rebuke to the administration's leaders: "My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions - or bury the results."
Newbold makes it plain that he is not advocating immediate withdrawal from Iraq unless the Iraqi political factions fail to form a government and fall into civil war. But he insists new leadership is needed in the Pentagon.
His words echo those of another retired Marine general, Anthony Zinni, whose criticisms were quoted in an earlier column of mine. And there are other notable leaders in civilian life, outside the White House, who have been making the same points publicly for months and even years.
Sen. John McCain, a Republican, and Sen. Joe Biden, a Democrat, have been in and out of Iraq more than a dozen times since the start of the war. Both of them supported the war and oppose withdrawal. But both have said repeatedly since their first visits that they have never found an officer of any rank who has not said, privately and urgently, "We need more troops to complete this mission."
Rumsfeld and President Bush insist that the manpower and strategy have been exactly what the commanders in the field thought best, but now general after general is speaking out to challenge that claim.
The situation cries out for serious congressional oversight and examination; hearings are needed as soon as Congress returns. These charges have to be answered convincingly - or Rumsfeld has to go.
David Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post. E-mail him at email@example.com. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday.