Question of Competence
By Tim Louise Macaluso and Krestia DeGeorge
retired general speaks out on Donald Rumsfeld
on the wall in retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste’s office
is a framed sheet of paper asking: “Who Needs to Know This?”
Batiste is president of Klein Steel, a Rochester company he
joined in November 2005. And the phrase, which he says is
one of his favorites, is a typical management slogan. But
it is sharply relevant to another new role he has assumed:
outspoken critic of Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense.
who joined the Army in 1974, served in Operations Desert Shield
and Desert Storm as well as in Bosnia and Kosovo. His final
assignment was as commanding general of the First Infantry
Division from August 2002 to June 2005, serving in Iraq from
February 2004 to February 2005.
He walked away from his military career last year specifically
in objection to Rumsfeld’s handling of the war in Iraq. And
he is one of six retired generals who called recently for
Batiste declines to clarify whether he supported the decision
to go to war in Iraq. We’re there now, he says, and with enough
troops, the war could have been won. Insurgents could have
been overwhelmed. And he believes that the United States must
continue the fight in Iraq, that it can not walk away, that
it must win the peace and set Iraq on a road toward stability.
Batiste is a straight-talker, and as he put it in recent interviews
with City Newspaper of Rochester, he’s “a little pissed.”
What could have been an immediate success, he says, will now
be a protracted involvement—lasting 10 years or longer. And
one man is to blame, he says: Donald Rumsfeld.
He disagrees with Rumsfeld supporters who say many of the
war’s problems couldn’t have been predicted. A possible war
with Iraq and every scenario imaginable had been planned and
reviewed for more than a decade, he says. That’s what the
Defense Department does. He says, for example, that the insurgency
was completely predictable and reminds us that the first American
soldier was killed by a boy.
But the larger concern raised by Batiste and the other generals
is with the United States’ leadership, its competency and
trustworthiness in a time of war.
Batiste is proud of the military and says he doesn’t want
to see servicemen and women blamed for a failure they didn’t
create. And he’s convinced that the military is succeeding
at “changing attitudes in Iraq and giving people alternatives
to the insurgency.”
Batiste makes it clear that the only way he could speak out
was by leaving the military. In doing so, it’s unlikely that
the lucrative defense-contractor jobs typically offered to
ex-military officers will come his way, though he says he
wasn’t interested in them anyway.
Batiste will soon be moving into his new home in Brighton
with his wife and two of his five children. His three oldest
children are away at college.
In his interviews with City, Batiste discussed his
concerns about Rumsfeld and his decision to speak out, which
he calls “the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever done.”
The following is an edited version of that interview.
Describe your responsibilities in Iraq.
Batiste: I was in Iraq commanding the U.S. Army’s First
Infantry Division, about 22,000 soldiers, from February ’04
to February ’05. About half of the division combat team was
from the Reserve components, and I should just mention right
at the outset that one of those great battalions was the Second
Battalion of the 108th Infantry of the New York National Guard.
They were in the town of Dujail [where Saddam Hussein is accused
of having men and boys tortured and executed]. Those soldiers
were in a tough situation and they did a good job, and they
have my profound respect. A lot of them are from the Rochester
area. I commanded a number of these National Guard battalions
from all over the country, and the best one was from upstate
The division was in northeast Iraq in an area about the size
of the state of West Virginia. We were northeast of Baghdad.
My headquarters was in Tikrit, and my area went all the way
north to Kirkuk and the Iranian border and all the way around
Barqubah—a big area, and an area that included all of the
Iraqi challenges: Arab, Kurd, Sunni and Shiite and any number
of large tribes. It really defined the complexity of the Iraqi
You know, Iraq has never been a nation, really. The Brits
tried this in the last century, and they lost thousands of
soldiers and killed tens of thousands of Arabs and Kurds.
And they put a king in place. They drew a boundary around
a bunch of different folks, a boundary without regard to ethnic
makeup. Same thing we did in Yugoslavia, and it all started
after World War I. It created the problems of this century
and the last part of the last century.
So here we’ve got this country, and they don’t think of themselves
in terms of a national identity. They don’t think of themselves
as Iraqis. They think of themselves first as a member of a
tribe. Then they think of themselves as an Arab or a Kurd.
And then they’ve got their religion. So it’s an incredibly
complex society. And it could only be ruled by a strong man
like Saddam. The Brits put the king in, and three coups later,
they got Saddam.
I say all of that to make a point: When you go into a country
like that, you better have your act together. You better have
gone through the very detailed military planning needed to
accomplish the mission, which includes not only taking down
the regime, but also building the peace. Colin Powell once
said, “If you break it, you own it.” You may have heard me
say that we took down the regime, but we didn’t plan to build
the peace. My point is: What an incredibly stupid thing. How
naive to think that there wouldn’t be an insurgency. Of course
there was going to be an insurgency. It started on the first
day of the war.
specifically are your criticisms of Secretary Rumsfeld?
got to finish what we started. We have no option. This is
going to go on for years. There will be many future decisions,
many tough decisions. And what we’ve got right now is a secretary
of defense who has made a series of strategic mistakes. Why
would we allow the architect of all these mistakes to continue
to be the leader of this long protracted war, when it is anybody’s
guess how many major decisions there are in the future?
It’s a matter of accountability and competence. Let me give
you three examples. Number one: We went to war with the wrong
You know, within the Department of Defense there is a very
deliberate war planning process. When you get into the business
of war planning, it is very analytical and complex. You start
with a series of assumptions. You learn all you can about
the enemy’s situation. You figure out what the specified and
implied tasks are. You look at the number of forces you need
on the ground to accomplish the mission.
It is a cyclical process, and it goes on continuously. Every
two years the plan is reviewed and approved by the secretary
of defense. Since the Gulf War, there were multiple iterations
of this planning process between U.S. Central Command and
the Pentagon. And three successive prior secretaries of defense
had reviewed and approved it.
So my question is, why then, in the run-up to the war, did
we discount all of that good planning that required over 350,000
soldiers to complete the mission, that is, take down the regime
and build the peace?
Why did we discount all of that and go in with about a third
of what was required? How could we not take into account how
hard it would be to build the peace?
To not take into account and ignore the realities of this
incredible complex society—the tribal, ethnic, and religious
components—and wish away the insurgency was irresponsible
and wrong. To not pay attention to the lessons of history
was criminal. The point is, you’ve got to have the full component
of capability going in, because the hard work of rebuilding
the country, to set it all back on its feet, starts the day
Two, I firmly believe that whole national disgrace of Abu
Ghraib can be traced directly back to decisions the secretary
of defense made. He personally changed the rules for prisoner
handling, treatment, and interrogation. They became ambiguous.
They were changed too often. It’s got to be black and white.
This business of prisoner abuse is totally avoidable. The
other reason that it happened goes back to the first point:
We didn’t have enough troops on the ground. So the commanders,
who I have the utmost respect for, were consumed in managing
shortages and not leading and planning and anticipating opportunities,
which commanders have to do in this situation. I pin this
right back on the secretary of defense.
The third example is his decision to stand down the Iraqi
military. In this kind of operation, where you take down the
regime and build the peace, the complexity is enormous. And
one of the principles is, you don’t destroy all of the institutions
in a country—certainly not the military. You have hundreds
of thousands of these guys who are suddenly unemployed. So
they take their guns and as much ammunition as they can carry,
and they become a source of guns and military expertise for
the insurgency. These boys want to feed their families, and
they are going to do whatever they have to do.
When the military was stood down, the people of Iraq immediately
began to tear down these institutions—I mean, brick by brick,
for their own homes. In Iraq, the most significant infrastructure
was the military: the barracks, runways, mess halls, swimming
pools, and gyms. When we got there, all that was left was
a cement slab in the desert. It all had to be rebuilt, and
it’s still going on today.
Those three decisions made by our secretary of defense were
strategic mistakes. And no one has held him accountable. Nobody.
It’s all about accountability and competence.
I believe in the military. I don’t oppose the war. I have
absolutely no political agenda. I have not written a book
that I am trying to sell. I left the Army so I could speak
with you today.
There’s a lot of confusion about that. And I have been fighting
that on a bunch of different fronts. Within the military there
is great debate, and we spoke up constantly—believe me, vigorously.
Some of our meetings were knock-down, drag-’em-out, but in
the military there comes a point where a guy like me has a
couple of choices: You can salute and execute, or you can
There’s a nuance here that a lot of people just don’t get.
Inside the military, there is a culture. And if you step outside
of it when you are in uniform—if I was still in uniform and
we were having this conversation, I would be violating the
Uniform Code of Military Justice and would probably be put
I feel I have a moral duty now to speak out, and I am doing
it for the airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines and their
families who are still in this fight. They deserve the best
we had sent 350,000 troops into Iraq, would we have prevented
am saying it would have been very different if we had gone
in with the right troop level. Very different. And if we had
not stood down the Iraqi military. We dispersed a fighting
force back into the country without a job, without anything
to do to support their families.
talked about Rumsfeld in terms of accountability, but we hear
a lot about his personality. Which is the problem?
both, because one clouds the other. I worked for men who were
much tougher than Don Rumsfeld, much more aggressive. But
the difference was, they understood leadership. They understood
that respect was a two-way street, and they listened
to people. The problem with Don Rumsfeld is he’s contemptuous,
he’s dismissive, he’s arrogant and he doesn’t listen.
widespread is this dissent?
don’t want to speak for all those soldiers on active duty.
I am speaking for myself. I can tell you that the negative
feedback I’ve received I can count on one hand. Sadly, it’s
all politicized now.
and others have said that this is not a coordinated effort.
How do you explain so many retired generals having come forward
is coincidence, but there is something there that is deeply
frustrating, and because some people can’t speak out, others
become their voice.
there almost two different worlds in operation here—what the
general public is seeing, hearing, reading, and believing
about Iraq versus what is actually happening on the ground?
In fact, I’ve always thought that. We were frustrated that
it was hard to get the press to go out and see what was going
on. They tended to stay in Baghdad.
response to that has been that it is too dangerous.
there is some truth to that. It is dangerous, very dangerous.
A lot of reporters have been killed or injured trying to cover
mechanisms protect the military from retribution?
the answer for me was I had to put up the uniform. In putting
up my uniform, I in no way relinquished my American citizenship.
There are those who say that I shouldn’t be speaking out as
a retired officer, and my response is: nonsense. If I don’t
speak out, who will? There ought to be other folks who speak
out. This is the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever done.
It’s the result of a whole lot of contemplation and thought.
I spent a lot of nights pacing around the house.
you help put us there during those nights? What was the tipping
couple of things. One was the book Cobra II [an account
of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, written by New York Times
military correspondent Michael Gordon and retired Marine Lieutenant
General Bernard Trainor]. The other was Secretary [of
State Condoleeza] Rice making the comment that there were
thousands of tactical errors made in Iraq. Well, I understand
that she really didn’t mean that, but to a guy like me, when
you hear the word tactical, that means errors on the
ground in Iraq.
There are three kinds of decisions in my world: tactical,
operational, and strategic. And my view is that operationally
and tactically, our great servicemen and women and their families
are absolutely being successful in Iraq despite the strategic
mistakes being made at the highest level.
mentioned citizenship. As citizens, what role have we played
in co-facilitating some of this? We’re being told to go about
our business as if everything is normal.
know, there’s an expectation that you trust your government,
and people in Rochester or anywhere else should be able to
trust their government. But in order to do that, there has
to be a level of accountability.
stated that you supported the war.
I supported the war or not really doesn’t make any difference.
I certainly saluted and executed. In the three years I commanded
the First Infantry Division, the Big Red One, the division
spent 14 months in Kosovo, four months in Turkey opening up
the northern route—which didn’t happen, because the Turks
stopped us—and then a good year in Iraq. So I have been focused
on executing this global war on terrorism. That was my job.
do you see as a favorable outcome?
got to be successful.
what does that mean?
means we can’t walk away from Iraq. We have to set the conditions
for self reliance in Iraq. We have a moral obligation to finish
what we started. As an American citizen, I would like to see
a secretary of defense in place that I trust, someone who
has the instincts to make the right decisions that are coming
types of decisions are you referring to?
we’ve got Iran right around the corner. This is going to continue.
do you mean? There’s a lot of buzz right now that we are planning
an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Is that what you’re
we proceed with the War on Terror, there will be more decisions
to be made. It could be a decision involving Iran; I don’t
know. But my point is, I am not comfortable with the secretary
of defense making that decision, based on his track record.
that point, how is the war in Iraq going to affect other countries
in that region? The Bush administration’s vision was that
success in Iraq would lead to the spread of democracy throughout
will have an incredible effect. The people in the region would
rather have some form of government as long as it’s stable.
Whether it’s democracy. . . You see, I don’t think it’s democracy
that we’re trying to establish in Iraq. I think it is some
form of representative government that none of us would recognize.
But it has to take into account the tribal, ethnic, and religious
complexities of that country. Every time I hear the word “democracy”
used in the context of Iraq, I think: Boy, that’s a naive
statement. That isn’t going to happen.
you hear the word “insurgency,” what does that mean to you?
Who are the insurgents?
means any number of things. It was a small number of foreign
fighters, a large number of disgruntled Sunnis; it’s any number
of militias, often times the Shiites. It’s criminals. It’s
mafia gangs. You name it.
do you think would be the impact of capturing Osama bin Laden?
little, really. There are many people willing to take his
Rumsfeld’s vision of the new military. What is the new military?
military was transforming before he ever stepped foot in the
Pentagon. His vision is to spend all the money on very expensive,
high-technology missile defense and space defense systems.
You do that at the expense of the maneuver forces, so his
view was to take the Army and other services down to the lowest
level possible. The war interrupted him. And the Army is still
undersourced over there. I agree that you need the high-technology
capability, but you need both. You can’t have one without
about the importance of the military-civilian divide.
control of the military is fundamental. I don’t question that
for a moment. This is not about supremacy of the military.
We need a secretary of defense that reports to the president,
period. I just question the secretary’s leadership qualities,
his instincts and motivations. It is time to get a new leader.
said that when you were making the decision to speak out,
you had some sleepless nights. Do you still have those nights?
I feel absolutely that it is my duty and moral obligation
to keep speaking. And I’m not through.
Louise Macaluso and Krestia DeGeorge are editorial staffers
at City Newspaper of Rochester, where this interview