by James Bamford
That, in essence, was the message of retired four-star Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni, a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War and the White House point man on the Middle East crisis. Zinni is one of a growing number of uniformed officers, in and out of the Pentagon, urging caution on the issue of a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.
In an address recently in Florida, he warned his audience to watch out for the administration's civilian superhawks, most of whom avoided military service as best they could. "If you ask me my opinion," said Zinni, referring to Iraq, "Gen. (Brent) Scowcroft, Gen. (Colin) Powell, Gen. (Norman) Schwarzkopf and Gen. Zinni maybe all see this the same way. It might be interesting to wonder why all of the generals see it the same way, and all those (who) never fired a shot in anger (and) are really hellbent to go to war see it a different way.
"That's usually the way it is in history," he said.
Another veteran, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who served in combat in Vietnam and now sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, was even more blunt. "It is interesting to me that many of those who want to rush this country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don't know anything about war," he said. "They come at it from an intellectual perspective vs. having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off."
The problem is not new. More than 100 years ago, another battle-scarred soldier, Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, observed: "It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation."
Last month, Vice President Cheney emerged briefly to give several two-gun talks before veterans groups in which he spoke of "regime change" and a "liberated Iraq."
"We must take the battle to the enemy," he said of the war on terrorism. Cheney went on to praise the virtue of military service. "The single most important asset we have," he said, "is the man or woman who steps forward and puts on the uniform of this great nation."
But during the bloodiest years of the Vietnam War, Cheney decided against wearing that uniform. Instead, he used multiple deferments to avoid military service altogether. "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service," he once said.
Cheney is far from alone. For instance, neither Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy Defense secretary, nor Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, has served in uniform, yet they are now two of the most bellicose champions of launching a bloody war in the Middle East.
What frightens many is the arrogance, naïveté and cavalier attitude toward war. "The Army guys don't know anything," Perle told The Nation's David Corn earlier this year. With "40,000 troops," he said, the United States could easily take over Iraq. "We don't need anyone else." But by most other estimates, a minimum of 200,000 to 250,000 troops would be needed, plus the support of many allies.
Even among Republicans, the warfare between the veterans and non-vets can be intense. "Maybe Mr. Perle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad," Hagel, who came home from Vietnam with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, told The New York Times.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Vietnam combat veteran and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has often expressed anger about the class gap between those who fought in Vietnam and those who did not.
"I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units," he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, My American Journey. "Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country."
Non-combatants, however, litter the top ranks of the Republican hierarchy. President Bush served peacefully in the Texas National Guard. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spent his time in a Princeton classroom as others in his age group were fighting and dying on Korean battlefields (he later joined the peacetime Navy). Another major player in the administration's war strategy, Douglas Feith, the Defense undersecretary for policy, has no experience in the military. Nor does Cheney's influential chief of staff, Lewis Libby.
The top congressional Republican leaders - Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Majority Whip Tom Delay - never saw military service, either; only one, Armey, has shown hesitation about invading Iraq. In contrast, House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., a World War II combat veteran, has expressed skepticism about hasty U.S. action, as have some prominent Democrats - House Minority Whip David Bonior, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and former vice president Al Gore -who were in the military during the Vietnam War.
No administration's senior ranks, of course, have to be packed with military veterans in order to make good military decisions. But what is remarkable about this administration is that so many of those who are now shouting the loudest and pushing the hardest for this generation's war are the same people who avoided combat, or often even a uniform, in Vietnam, their generation's war.
Military veterans from any era tend to have more appreciation for the greater difficulty of getting out of a military action than getting in -a topic administration war hawks haven't said much about when it comes to Iraq.
Indeed, the Bush administration's non-veteran hawks should review the origins of the Vietnam quagmire. Along the way, they might come across a quote from still another general, this one William Westmoreland, who once directed the war in Vietnam.
"The military don't start wars," he said ruefully. "Politicians start wars."
James Bamford is author of Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.