During World War II, one of the Fuhrer's favorite
sayings was, "All generals lie." Today, Washington prefers the word "spin" to
lie, although the difference is often difficult to parse. As an 18th-century
man, I prefer an 18th century word: puffery. If we consider some of the statements
coming from our military leaders regarding the war in Iraq, we might think they
are all clones of General Puff.
In recent days, a
classified report on the situation in Anbar province, written by a senior
Marine intelligence official in Iraq, has been widely reported on in the press.
The report, which I have not seen, apparently paints a bleak picture of the
situation there. According
to a story by Tom Ricks of the Washington Post, the Marine commander
in Anbar, Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, said, "I have seen that report and I do
concur with that assessment." Score one for the Marine Corps in the honesty
But then, Gen. Puff seems to have stolen Gen. Zilmer's identity. According
to Ricks' story, Zilmer "also insisted that 'tremendous progress' is being
made in that part of the country."
"'I think we are winning this war,' he told reporters. 'We are certainly
accomplishing our mission….'
"The 30,000 U.S. and allied troops are 'stifling' the enemy in the
province, Zilmer told reporters. But he wouldn't say the insurgents are being
Puffery, you see, tries to avoid statements that might later be checked
against facts. By puffing out nice-sounding words such as "stifling," it seeks
to create an impression that is favorable but too nebulous to hold to account.
The Associated Press reported a wonderful piece of military puffery on Sept.
7. Speaking of a supposed turnover of command of the Iraqi armed forces to Iraq's
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said,
"This is such a huge, significant event that's about to occur tomorrow.
If you go back and map out significant events that have occurred in this government's
formation in taking control of the country, tomorrow is gigantic."
In reality, the Iraqi government took control of just a single division; most
troops in the Iraqi army take their orders from militia leaders, not the government;
and the Iraqi government itself takes its orders from the United States. This
"huge, significant event" changed nothing.
to a story on Sept. 12,
"The U.S. military did not count people killed by bombs, mortars, rockets,
or other mass attacks – including suicide bombings – when it reported a dramatic
drop in the number of killings in the Baghdad area last month, the U.S. Command
said Monday. …
"That led to confusion after Iraqi Health Ministry figures showed that
1,536 people died violently in and around Baghdad in August, nearly the same
number as in July.
"The figures raise serious questions about the success of the security
operation launched by the U.S.-led coalition. When they released the murder
rate figures, U.S. officials and their Iraqi counterparts were eager to show
progress in restoring security in Baghdad."
Sufficiently eager, it seems, to puff the numbers.
We expect puffery from politicians. But when Gen. Puff represents the military
to the American people, the military puts itself in a dangerous situation. The
loss of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will, at some point, have domestic
political repercussions, perhaps of some magnitude. The U.S. military will rightly
bear some of the blame for both failures. It cannot credibly claim that it was
forced to fight two Fourth Generation wars with Second Generation tactics and
doctrine, when it has rebuffed every effort to move beyond the Second Generation
(the Marine Corps is a partial exception).
But the American people, I think, will be more forgiving of mistakes than of
puffery, which in the end is a deliberate attempt to deceive. If the public
comes to think that all generals lie, the American armed services may find it
difficult to reestablish their good reputations.