Is U.S. Winning? Army Chief Is at a Loss

Times Staff Writer

It seemed like a routine question, one that military leaders involved in prosecuting the war in Iraq must ask themselves with some regularity: Is the U.S. winning?

But for Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff known for his straight-shooting bluntness, it proved a hard one to answer.

During a Capitol Hill briefing for an audience mostly of congressional aides, Schoomaker paused for more than 10 seconds after he was asked the question -- lips pursed and brow furrowed -- before venturing:


“I think I would answer that by telling you I don’t think we’re losing.”

It was a small but telling window into the thinking of the Army’s top uniformed officer and one of the military’s most important commanders: Despite the progress being made by the new Iraqi government and the continuing improvement of local security forces, the outcome in Iraq, in many ways, is growing more uncertain by the day.

“The challenge ... is becoming more complex, and it’s going to continue to be,” Schoomaker mused. “That’s why I’ll tell you I think we’re closer to the beginning than we are to the end of all this.”

Schoomaker’s candor is not unusual for a man who, by his own admission, was lured out of retirement to take the Army’s top job reluctantly. He has repeatedly told audiences that he was content in his Wyoming retirement when he got the call from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to return to active service.

It is a candor that appears to be contagious. The Army’s top commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., acknowledged this week that the recent increase in sectarian violence in Baghdad might mean the U.S. has to increase the number of soldiers in the Iraqi capital -- rather than the long-awaited decrease for which commanders had hoped.

For his part, Schoomaker was quick to note that his uncertainty did not mean that he was pessimistic. He noted that the creation of the new Iraqi government was an important achievement, although he cautioned that convincing Iraqis to use nonviolent, political means instead of guns and bombs to achieve their ends would be a “tough shift.”

“I think we are making significant progress; I think the challenges continue to come,” he concluded. “I do not believe that we are losing, but where I think we are on the scale of winning is very difficult, and time’s going to tell.”