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If Rumsfeld Is Driven Out, We All Lose

“War is hell,” said Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and he was the man to know, having led troops in a war that took four years and killed roughly 618,000 American men.

If war is hell, warfare as currently conducted against mostly unseen bands of enemies in civilian dress hiding among bona fide civilians -- and not even faintly comparable to the Civil War or other American wars of recent memory -- is its own special kind of nightmare. Added to this nightmare is the knowledge that if we cannot extirpate them in their foreign hiding places, we will have to deal with them on our own shores.

And, in addition to this difficulty, grave enough, these days an outcry is being staged -- and “staged” is the word -- over casualties amounting to a few hundred. Now comes the latest scandal, over the behavior of a few prison guards in Iraq. This new scandal is no more than an election-season opportunity seized by certain serious opponents of the war, along with many more unserious opponents of the Bush administration.

No one doubts that the behavior of that handful of prison guards is impermissible and must be punished. Virtually everyone in the Bush administration, from the president and his Cabinet on down to the janitors in the White House, has by now declared it an outrage, demanding that the miscreants be brought to justice and the prison in which they performed their nefarious tricks be cleaned out and reorganized.

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The president, indeed, has apologized to the Arab world for the incident. Keep in mind that this is, after all, a war, and that American troops have been almost unbelievably civilized -- especially in light of the unspeakable things Iraqis have done and are doing to one another.

Given the speed of all the apologies, what are those hoping to re-create the kind of public outcry that once greeted the revelations about the My Lai massacre -- and hardened whatever hearts were left to harden against the war in Vietnam -- now to do? The answer seems simple: Call for the head of Donald Rumsfeld.

The president, it has been joyfully reported, admonished -- the word used in several of the papers was “upbraided” -- Rumsfeld. About what? About the fact that though the secretary had reported to him on the nasty hazing the Iraqi prisoners had received at the hands of their guards, he had not shown Bush the photographs that were taken by the guards themselves. And today, the secretary faces what promises to be a grueling session before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is demanding to know why he kept an internal report on the prison’s interrogations from it. Soon, it is said, he will be handed his walking papers. And joy will reign in Mudville.

This is not the first press assault on Rumsfeld, to be sure. The military, which he set out to reform on his arrival at the Pentagon and some of whose favorite weapons systems he canceled, had its day in the press not very long after his installation at the Pentagon. There were cries beginning the third day of the war in Iraq that Rumsfeld bore the responsibility for what would be our certain defeat there. And since the fall of Baghdad, every loss of American life has been held to his account.

Now he is in the administration doghouse for failing to show the president the pictures of what was done to the prisoners, not to mention for having caused an irreparably bad odor among senators by failing to share with them the contents of interrogations that had not been completed yet. Out of such kindergarten stuff is fabricated the latest, and most joyful, assault on one of the most capable public servants in living memory.

Aside from the part this ersatz scandal no doubt will be made to play in the Democratic presidential campaign, this tempest in a teapot about the brutal behavior of a small group of young thugs in wartime says something disturbing about us as a people. This country was assaulted and went to war and may be at war for a long time, for the terrorists who are out to get us have found support and will be provided with ever more dangerous weapons in and by countries beyond Iraq.

Should we achieve it, success in Iraq will have a serious effect on them. Should a desire to cut and run -- which is the message logically contained in the continual light-minded assault on one of the most intelligent and steady-nerved public servants this country has seen in many a year -- come to pass, the consequences will be felt for who knows how many generations.

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Midge Decter is the author of numerous books, among them “Rumsfeld: a Personal Portrait” (Regan Books, 2004).


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