How Rumsfeld Abandoned the Peacemakers

By Benjamin, Mark; Slavin, Barbara | Newsweek, February 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

How Rumsfeld Abandoned the Peacemakers

Benjamin, Mark, Slavin, Barbara, Newsweek

Byline: Mark Benjamin and Barbara Slavin

The former defense secretary launched a campaign to win hearts and minds, but he never believed in it. And citizen soldiers paid the ultimate price.

Donald Rumsfeld vowed to fight a "different kind of war." In the days following the 9/11 attacks, the secretary of defense spoke about how America's success in Afghanistan depended on the U.S. military being seen as liberators, not infidel invaders. Drawing upon the ranks of reservists in the military's Civil Affairs units--a vital part of U.S. campaigns since the American Revolution--Rumsfeld would send citizen soldiers, with day jobs as judges, lawyers, carpenters, and clerks, into the countryside to restore electricity, build roads, and spread good will. "While we may engage militarily against foreign governments that sponsor terrorism, we may also seek to make allies of the people those governments suppress," Rumsfeld said in a speech on Sept. 27, 2001. Days later, he proclaimed on Fox News that "we want to make sure that we can do everything we can to help the misery of the Afghan people, which has been imposed on them by Al Qaeda and by the Taliban leadership."

And thus, a new battle for hearts and minds was begun. But as Rumsfeld's new memoir, Known and Unknown, makes clear, his own heart was never really in that fight. "I recognized the Yankee can-do attitude by which American forces took on tasks that locals would be better off doing themselves," he writes in the defiant 800-page tome. "I did not think resolving other countries' internal political disputes, paving roads, erecting power lines, policing streets, building stock markets, and organizing democratic governmental bodies were missions for our men and women in uniform --The risk was that these nations could become wards of the United States."

Caught in the crossfire between the early high-flown rhetoric and the cold reality were the men and women of Civil Affairs. First in Afghanistan and then again in Iraq, they were rushed to the front without adequate training and equipment, as documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity make plain. They were often caught in combat situations for which they were ill prepared. And they paid the ultimate sacrifice--in disproportionate numbers--for Washington's failure to commit fully to their mission. Although Civil Affairs specialists make up only about 5 percent of the Army's Reserve forces, they account for 23 percent of the combined fatalities among reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Maj. Gen. David Blackledge, the commander of the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command.

Lawrence Morrison, plucked from a job at the U.S. Postal Service unloading cargo on the docks in Yakima, Wash., was one of the fatalities. The Army Reserve sergeant would have celebrated his 51st birthday in a few weeks with his wife, Becky, but he died in 2005 after four months in Iraq, the victim of an IED that tore apart his Humvee. "This was not the way I wanted my life with him to end," his widow said.

Just before his unit was deployed, Becky Morrison recalls him telling her, the reservists were instructed to grab gear from a hodgepodge spread out on a large table that included women's bras and flak jackets. "They had to go through and pick out what fit them best," she said. He spent much of his early months based in Taji, north of Baghdad, handing out candy to children, she said. But one day his unit was called away: "He had never been in combat before." He died near a water mill that "wasn't even his mission."

Joseph Collins, who served as deputy assistant secretary under Rumsfeld, describes Civil Affairs soldiers as "some of the great unsung heroes" of the Afghan and Iraqi wars. But they suffered from bureaucratic confusion and sporadic interest from Rumsfeld, the documents show--and Congress was misled.

Determined to impress Capitol Hill and satisfy Rumsfeld's constant demands for progress reports, the Army inflated the numbers of these troops available--creating on their books so-called ghost soldiers--and then pushed even older and sometimes physically ailing personnel into harm's way to make up for the shortfall between their estimates and the number of actual bodies at hand. …

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