By: Greg Mitchell
What will end up being the most famous quote of the Iraq war? Remember, President Bush did not actually say “Mission Accomplished.” Perhaps Vice President Cheney’s “final throes” will take the prize. But increasingly, as the significance of Gen. David Petraeus grows (seemingly by the minute), it seems possible that it might end up being his once-obscure 2003 remark to a well-known newspaper reporter: “Tell me how this ends.” It was cited again on Tuesday by Andrew Bacevich in his New York Times Op-Ed contribution.
Petraeus said that line when he was a Major General directing the 101st Airborne during the U.S. invasion but, for some, his testimony today before Congress suggested that he still did not have an answer to it.
Who did he say the five words to? The lucky recipient was Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter for The Washington Post and military historian. It shows up in in Atkinson’s book about the attack on Iraq, “In the Company of Soldiers.” which featured Maj. Gen. Petraeus as a key character.
When I interviewed Atkinson about it in 2004, he said he considered the Petraeus quote a “private joke” at the time, but it soon became the general’s “mantra.”
In the post-invasion epilogue for his book, Atkinson wrote frankly. Petraeus and his soldiers had performed well, taking relatively few casualties, and showing both restraint and courage in battle. But they “were better than the cause they served.” It was “vital not to conflate the warriors with the war.” The casus belli for the war, that Iraq posed an imminent threat to America, “was inflated and perhaps fraudulent.” And if “the war’s predicate was phony, it cheapened the sacrifices of the dead and living alike.”
So I asked Atkinson whether he felt the book was somewhat hollow, documenting the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Did he have mixed feelings about his own effort? “There’s nothing mixed about it at all,” he fired back. “I was against the war before, during, and after it. I have no mixed feelings about the hundreds of dead soldiers–it was a poor use of their lives. I was certain last March that we as a nation had not done all we could to make sure lives were not lost, but I’m dogmatic about it now.”
As a scholar of World War II, with popular books on that to his credit, the lesson he drew is “that if you’re going to fight a global war, whether it’s against the Axis in the 1940s or against terrorism today, nothing is more vital than nurturing a powerful, righteous coalition.” Failing to do this has placed a tragically unfair burden on our military. “They took down a country the size of California in three weeks,” he pointed out, “but there was not much thought devoted to the question of what happens next. It’s astonishing how little thought was given.”
But what about the argument that leaving Iraq now would dishonor the soldiers who have died so far? “It’s not George Bush’s military,” he replied, “but the country’s as a whole, and the collective proprietorship means we collectively decide if it is used properly and the cause is worth their sacrifice–and whether that cause should be truncated or we stay there forever.”
Greg Mitchell’s new book is “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.” It includes a preface by Bruce Sprinsteen and a foreword by Joe Galloway.