America's Carrhae

In 53 BC, Consul Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s co-ruler with Pompey and Caesar, sought military glory and political primacy by launching an invasion of the Parthian Empire. His only previous military experience was crushing the great slave revolt led by Spartacus.

Ignoring cautionary advice from his generals, Crassus led his army deep into the wastes of western Iraq. A local chieftain, secretly working for Parthia, assured Crassus he would be greeted as a liberator, and the Parthian army would flee.

At Carrhae, close to where U.S. Marines were fighting in Iraq’s Anbar province this week, Crassus’ plodding army was outmanoeuvred and annihilated by Parthian mailed knights and horse archers, whose deadly arrow fire gave posterity the wonderful term for a parting zinger, “Parthian shaft.”

Carrhae, one of Rome’s worst defeats, bears many resemblances to America’s modern debacle in Iraq. The Bush administration showed the same arrogance and ignorance as Crassus, ignoring expert advice while heeding disinformation from those with hidden agendas.

Recently, six retired American generals stunned the nation by publicly accusing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld of “arrogance and mismanagement” in the Iraq war. The White House and Pentagon unleashed a massive PR counterattack.

The most devastating criticism came from Marine Lt. General Gregory Newbold: “Commitment of our forces to this fight was done with the casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions — or bury the results.” Meaning superhawks President George Bush and VP Dick Cheney. Semper fi, General!

Retired Marine general Anthony Zinni blasted Rumsfeld and the conduct of the war which he repeatedly warned would produce an Iraq far more dangerous than one under Saddam. Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski joined the fray, saying the aggression against Iraq has led to “delegitimization” of America across the world.

Humiliating defeat

Having served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, I recall vividly how another arrogant secretary of defense with a poor understanding of military science, Robert McNamara, led America to a humiliating defeat in Indochina. The generals should have taken him on then, but remained mute.

Today, no Washington official will yet admit it, but the U.S. has suffered a major strategic defeat in Iraq by failing to achieve its political objective of turning it into an obedient colony. The generals’ revolt reflects this unspoken fact and is clearly intended to lay blame for the Iraq fiasco where it belongs — the White House. These patriots are not going to suffer another Robert McNamara in silence.

Once the “who lost Iraq?” cry goes up, the White House will try to blame the military — just as it sought to lay blame on the CIA for so-called “intelligence failures” over Iraq’s non-existent WMDs. America’s soldiers are not going to be framed for a war many opposed.

Rumsfeld has become a lightning rod for military opponents and the fast-growing numbers of Americans fed up with Bush’s war. Republicans and military men who cannot bring themselves to openly criticize Bush and Cheney’s policies in Iraq find Don Rumsfeld a handy whipping boy.

So they rebuke Rumsfeld for failing to provide enough U.S. troops to pacify Iraq, and lack of post-invasion plans. He is guilty, on both counts. But these are lesser failings.

As a longtime admirer of Rumsfeld, I was deeply dismayed he did not refuse to send American soldiers into an illegal and calamitous colonial war.

To preserve what honour he retains, Rumsfeld should admit the war was wrong and resign.