THIS IS an old tale. But like all good political bedtime stories, it's well worth telling again.
It concerns a retired general named Paul Van Riper. In 1966, as a young Marine officer and American advisor in Vietnam, he was wounded in action; he later became the first president of the Marine Corps University. When he retired from the Corps as a lieutenant general, he took up the task of leading the enemy side in Pentagon war games.
Van Riper was a freewheeling military thinker, given to quoting Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu and dubious about the ability of the latest technology to conquer all in its path. If you wanted to wage war, he thought, you should, at the very least, study war seriously (if not go to war yourself). It seemed to him that the United States took a risk any time it dismissed its enemies as without resources against its awesome power. As he pointed out, "Many enemies are not frightened by that overwhelming force. They put their minds to the problem: 'How can I adapt and avoid that overwhelming force and yet do damage against the United States?' "
In July 2002, the Pentagon launched the most elaborate war games in its history, immodestly titled "Millennium Challenge 02," involving all four services at a cost of a quarter of a billion dollars. Officially a war against a fictional country in the Persian Gulf region — but obviously Iraq — it was specifically scripted to prove the efficacy of the sort of invasion that President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had already decided to launch.
Van Riper's job was to command the "Red Team" — the Iraqis of this simulation — against the "Blue Team," which represented the U.S. forces. And unfortunately for Rumsfeld, Van Riper promptly stepped out of the script.
Knowing that sometimes the only effective response to high-tech warfare is the lowest-tech warfare imaginable, he employed the same kinds of techniques the Iraqi insurgency would begin to use all too successfully a year or two later.
Such simple devices as, according to the Army Times, using "motorcycle messengers to transmit orders, negating Blue's high-tech eavesdropping capabilities," and "issuing attack orders via the morning call to prayer broadcast from the minarets of his country's mosques." In the process, Van Riper trumped the techies.
"At one point in the game," Fred Kaplan of Slate wrote in March 2003, "when Blue's fleet entered the Persian Gulf, he sank some of the ships with suicide bombers in speedboats. (At that point, the managers stopped the game, 'refloated' the Blue fleet and resumed play.)"
After three or four days, with the Blue Team in obvious disarray, the game was halted by Pentagon officials and the rules were rescripted. In a quiet protest, Van Riper stepped down as enemy commander.
Millennium Challenge 02 was subsequently written up as a vindication of Rumsfeld's "military transformation." On that basis — with no one paying any more mind to Van Riper (who in April called openly for Rumsfeld's resignation) than they did to Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki when he pointed out that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to occupy Iraq — the "transformational" invasion was launched, with all its predictably catastrophic results.
The Millennium Challenge 02 war games were already underway when, late that July, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA), returned to London from high-level meetings in Washington. Dearlove reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that the decision for war in Iraq had already been made by the Bush administration and (in what is now a memorable phrase, having been leaked to the British press) "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
So they "fixed" the intelligence and, Van Riper's experience shows, they also "fixed" the plans for the war itself. And in the months and years since then, there isn't much that hasn't been fixed in a similar manner. Only recently, James A. Baker III's Iraq Study Group report described gross underreporting of violence in Iraq by U.S. intelligence officials; in one case, only 93 "attacks or significant acts of violence" were officially recorded on a day when the number was actually well above 1,000.
And even the Iraq Study Group was fixed. Before they began, Baker and his cohorts ensured that while the group would be filled with notable movers and shakers from numerous previous administrations, there would be no outspoken representatives of the point of view that a majority of Americans have by now come to believe — that there should be an actual withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq on a set timeline.
You would not, for instance, find retired Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, who has openly called for the U.S. to "cut and run" from Iraq, on the panel. Despite the report's harsh descriptions of failed policy and some perfectly sane suggestions, it dismissed the idea of such a withdrawal out of hand — because such a dismissal was built into the group's very makeup.
When you control both sides of a war game or the range of opinion on a panel, you can generally rest assured of the results you're going to get. Unfortunately, you can't always fix reality itself, which has a tendency to remain obdurately, passionately, irascibly unconquerable.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com, is the author of "Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters." A longer version of this article appears at Tomdispatch.com.