He was the man who led America into Iraq in 2003. He was the man who led the troops in their campaign. Nonetheless, General William S. Wallace had doubts about the strategy. It seemed to him too tentative, and led to a confrontation with the Bush camp. Wallace tells Stern how he sees the war today.
There is one thought, one question, that no General cares to discuss before a war. The question is: How many of my soldiers will not come back? Each one is one too many, that’s evident. Yet that’s not the point, as cynical as that sounds. A General thinks differently. He must think differently: How many losses are acceptable in achieving the goal?
General William S. Wallace sits in the Kuwaiti desert. Far from his camp, he has set up a simple chair and a wooden table. He is alone with himself and the desert. It is March 19th, 2003, the day before the invasion of Iraq. He meditates at length, but comes to no conclusion that gives him peace or even reassures him. He senses the need to talk to his troops. He will lead the US invasion into Iraq.
An Extemporaneous Speech
He returns to his troops. He has not prepared any remarks. He mounts the bed of a military transport truck and the soldiers fall silent. As many as 3000 troops may have assembled there. William begins to speak. He does not shout. He speaks quietly. He wants the soldiers to really listen.
He says his name is Wiliam S. Wallace and that he never surrenders. He says his ancestors came from Scotland and that they never surrendered either. He tells them he is the Commanding General of the Fifth U.S. Corps and feels honored to lead all of them, and if any of them feel worried and nervous about going to war for the first time, he tells them “Welcome to the club” and assures them that regardless of how many battles the “old timers” have been through, they still get worried and nervous every time as well.
A Contribution to a Secure World
General Wallace talks about Saddam Hussein. He describes how the Iraqis suffered under his despotic rule. Thoughts of 9/11, naturally 9/11, the collapsing towers, occur to him. On such a day as this, how could he not think of 9/11? He tells the soldiers he doesn’t want his grand children to grow up in a world where they live in constant fear of boarding an airplane or riding the bus to school. He tells them their presence here is their contribution to a safer world. He tells them he has no doubt that they are doing the right thing.
General Wallace speaks for about 20 minutes. In closing, he promises the soldiers to make the best decisions he can for them. It is the only sentence he shouts. It is the moment immortalized by the photograph.
He Speaks of Cares and Emotions
The photo lies for a good half-hour on a large and heavy wooden table in an improvised office of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Convention Center, where the US Army is currently holding an international military conference. General William Wallace, 57, picked up the photo at the beginning of the proceedings, put on his rimless glasses, and looked at it briefly. It’s been five years already. He immediately recalls everything. For a military man, Wallace has a surprisingly pleasant voice and also a surprising talent: He has not only stored all the facts in his mind, he also recalls moods, worries, and feelings as well.
The audience didn’t respond to his speech with cheering or war cries. The soldiers encouraged one another in a cause for which they mostly agreed. But the men, Wallace knew, had feared the weapons the enemy might employ. Chemical weapons.
Father, Teacher, Commander
William S. Wallace wasn’t intimidating, as one would expect from a General, especially an American General. Rather, he is one of those leaders that one hates to disappoint. The soldiers said of him that he was a father, a teacher, and a commander all in one. They trust him. And that is more important to someone like Wallace than what his own commanders think of him.
The war was less than a week old when Wallace was to be replaced. In a few days, he and his troops had stormed from Kuwait toward Baghdad. It looked to be an American triumph, but Wallace was perturbed. The Americans didn’t encounter Iraqi troops as they had expected. They had to fight against paramilitary groups, the Fedayeen. Wallace had been in Vietnam and knew the US Army always had its hands full with this sort of war.
Impressed and Distracted
The Fedayeen, warriors in civilian clothes, equipped with anti-tank weapons and homemade mines, ambushed the technically superior American forces. Wallace was simultaneously impressed and distracted by how these men, with no apparent concern for their own safety, threw themselves into the fight as if their own lives meant nothing.
Many of the Fedayeen hid themselves in the untouched cities and villages the American troops had bypassed during their advance on Baghdad. Wallace anticipated the danger they would become were they not immediately pursued. They would continue their attacks after the fall of Baghdad, plunging Iraq into chaos and the occupiers into despair.
A Different Enemy than Expected
Wallace suggested to his superiors that the march to Baghdad be deferred in order to first fight the Fedayeen. He commented to a New York Times reporter, “The enemy we are fighting is a different enemy from the one we prepared for in the war games.”
The article caused a “shit storm” as Wallace, with a smile, refers to it today. General Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command, wanted to fire Wallace. He accused him of acting hesitantly and being critical of his plans, as well as those of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Both had dreamed of a quick war, one of their many miscalculations.
Many Soldiers and Civilians had to Die
Fellow Generals saved Wallace from being relieved from command. He and his soldiers immediately took Baghdad. After the conquest, the occupiers could not prevent the ensuing chaos which they were unable to contain for several years. Many American soldiers and many Iraqi civilians had to pay for that with their lives.
Wallace left Iraq in July, 2003, after being named Commander of the US Training and Doctrine Command. He has thus become a sort of “mastermind” of the American military. On that morning in Fort Lauderdale he delivered an address which introduced a new guide for the US Army, “Field Manual 3:0 – A Blueprint For An Uncertain Future.” In this guide, Wallace has processed many lessons learned in Iraq. One of the most important reads, “One should know exactly what the problem is before one tries to solve it.” It is a banal sentence, but for the old, hubristic America it is a noteworthy one.
A copy of the Field Manual lies on the table next to the 2003 photograph. Wallace looks for a few moments at both and says, “I’m a far better commander today than I was five years ago. I learned much in Iraq.”
I ask Wallace whether he thinks the war was right. Was it worth it? Wallace hesitates with his answer, but then says, “Yes. The world has become a better place. Life is better for the Iraqis. In spite of everything”
And the losses, the thousands of deaths, the families destroyed, the dazed refugees? Were they acceptable?
He considers at length but finally replies, “Who can answer that?”
If America, no longer so mighty and self-righteous, could answer that question, it would probably use the same words as General William S. Wallace.
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