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Retired general: Iraq war has permanently changed America--and not for the good

As the only retired general without a wartime TV gig, I've figured out where I went wrong. The calls asking my opinion stopped when I mentioned that I didn't care how the war might change the Middle East; my concern was how the war would affect the United States. War changes combatants. America was irrevocably altered by Vietnam, and Iraq is pushing our society toward another brink.

In the years between Vietnam and Iraq, millions were spent to redesign and sensitize the military to "core values"--values steeped in ethical reasoning and traditions. By pre-emptively attacking Iraq and modifying laws that had put bounds on the behavior of combatants, we committed our military to war without the moral certainty that was afforded soldiers in other wars. Making rules on the fly permitted those running the war to escape censure for questionable actions; the E-1 to E-9, however, are being held fully accountable to standards that haven't been changed.

This kind of ethical disparity is the first step in a dance that will open distance between the soldier, the government and the public, and that's not a good sign.

We went to war in Iraq with a professional all-volunteer force (AVF). The AVF, it was argued, was needed because of the sophistication of modern weaponry. The AVF is a great force, but it is expensive, and the cost dictates its size. Enter the Guard and Reserve. There isn't enough money to equip or train them to the same level as the active forces. As a result, recruitment is sliding--some reports indicate it has tanked. The decline in the quantity of recruits is of concern. Active, Guard and Reserve are having a difficult time maintaining the high-tech force this country needs. When the stop-loss and other constraints holding people in the service are lifted, soldiers are expected to leave in droves. Post-Iraq, we could find ourselves without a functioning Army.

In Vietnam, the press functioned as expected in a free society, and the news from that war was accurate and therefore embarrassing. In the wake of those embarrassments, the Pentagon spent years determining ways to keep war news from interfering with the war effort. They've done a good job, and little gets out of Iraq that isn't scrubbed. Sure, there are imbeds, but by making newspeople members of units, the media bought into self-imposed censorship. Reporters will not report events that will impact their units.

As a public, we wouldn't have heard about Abu Ghraib without videophones alerting the world. We still don't know what's going on at Guantanamo. Everything about our handling of prisoners is classified. Some classification of information is needed, but in this war, over-classification of information limits the news to that which the government wishes you to have. It smacks of Big Brother.

A dangerous precedent is being set in Iraq. Contractors are deploying small armies of security personnel in pursuit of the war's ends. While we can't afford the manpower the force needs, we hire "security personnel." You could buy a fire-team of soldiers with what one of these guys make. But this isn't an economic problem. Private militaries fly in the face of the Constitution. Who do they swear their allegiance to? Are they going to be disbanded after the war, or retained as palace guards, layered between the DOD and the CIA? In a democratic society, private armies have never been a good thing, and Congress is failing us by not questioning their existence.

We may or may not accomplish anything in Iraq, but in its wake, this country will be altered. As a people, we have been stripped of the moral underpinnings that made previous wars acceptable, and are floundering to justify our actions. Given a changed moral environment, a semi-controlled press and a weakened army, is it a good idea to have multi-national corporations controlling private armies of security experts at our expense? Thomas Jefferson remarked that within a free nation, there is always a fight between liberty and security. But that was before pursuing security paid so well.

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