The New Yorker, The General's War, June 23, 2003

This week in the magazine, Peter J. Boyer writes about Tommy Franks, the general who commanded the U.S. troops in the war with Iraq, and about how he joined Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the fight to transform the military. Here Boyer talks with The New Yorker's Daniel Cappello about Franks's career path and his political skill, the future of the American military, and covering the war from Doha, Qatar.

DANIEL CAPPELLO: Image has played an enormous role in the war with Iraq. What role did Tommy Franks's image as a good ol' boy play?

PETER J. BOYER: Franks actually is a good ol' boy—it's more than his image—and that helped a lot. He really is, on some level, the embodiment of the American soldier. He is a guy who came from a place out there in the middle of the country—Midland, Texas—and he speaks the language of his soldiers quite literally. He was an enlisted man, and, in that sense, he is absolutely a military leader who is adored by the troops. That always makes a difference.

In your article, you write that Franks has been derided by at least one of his own peers as "Rumsfeld's general." Is this fair?

Well, yes and no. I think that, to the degree that it is meant as criticism—and it was—it is not fair. But it also happens to be exactly true. He is a Rumsfeld general, literally and figuratively. Bush and Rumsfeld inherited him from the Clinton Administration. They could have fired him, and didn't. When September 11th happened, it occurred at just a moment when Rumsfeld was deep in battle with the institutional Army and much of the rest of the American military. Rumsfeld came into office, in his second tenure as Secretary of Defense, as a man who had seen much and believed that he knew much, and he just wasn't in the mood to brook a lot of what he considered to be nonsense: bureaucratic institutional fixedness, a devotion to old ways and to old weapons systems, and old lassitude, in the case of the Army. He hoped that he could, by decree, urge the American military into this reform, which he called "transformation." The Army hated it. The Army thought it was a diminution of its role, a disregard of its traditions and its ways, and fought him on it. It was at just that moment that the war on terror began, and Rumsfeld had to turn to an "Old Army" general, Tommy Franks, whose command happened to include the Middle East region, to fight it for him. Franks decided, to the amazement of some of his colleagues, to reach an accommodation with Rumsfeld. Very early on, he went to Rumsfeld and said something like "Look, I know that you don't like Clinton generals, I know that you don't like Old Army ways, but I want you to know that you have a choice: you can go ahead and get rid of us all, get a whole new team, or, if you want to work with me, I will work with you, I will work my heart out for you." And Rumsfeld said, "O.K., let's try it." And they did.

The way you describe it, there's almost an accidental quality to Franks's career. Was he just in the right place at the right time?

Well, I think it is the case that Tommy Franks is in a way the accidental war hero. I think it's also the case that every good, and even every great, leader is not just someone who is in the right place at the right time but a man or a woman who is in the right place at the right time and seizes the chance. And that's what Tommy Franks did. He could have done what some suggested he do, which is to lay his stars on the table and say to Rumsfeld, "I absolutely refuse to fight this kind of war plan this way," and be gone. He'd have gotten for himself a good deal of notoriety and some fat post-retirement contracts for consulting. But, instead of doing that, he actually seized the opportunity. He brought Rumsfeld a little bit off of his position and accommodated himself a great deal to Rumsfeld's position and fashioned two war plans, Afghanistan and Iraq, that turned out to be quite brilliant.

The plan for Iraq was based on the Afghanistan plan, wasn't it?

The Iraq war plan was like the one for Afghanistan, in that it was unconventional. By unconventional, I mean that it was not off the shelf. The institutional Army has a certain, almost reflexive impulse in preparing for war, embedded in the Powell doctrine, which insists upon a set of criteria, including the application of overwhelming force. Most commanding Army generals think of overwhelming force in terms of winning the game 63-0. And so when you say to them, "Well, give me a war plan for Afghanistan," their response is "Give me a few weeks, and I'll come up with three to five divisions of heavy conventional forces. It'll take me a while to get them into the theatre, we'll support them with this, that, and the other, and we will move an iron mountain of equipment, and in a few months we'll be ready to go to war. But we will win." Rumsfeld didn't want that.

Where did Franks stand in the debate over troop strength? How many troops were enough to win in Iraq?

Well, Franks, I think, always begins from being an institutional man. I think his default position is probably the Old Army position, and I don't think he would dispute that. And so, in both cases, he and Rumsfeld—and others who were involved with it—would work out the ultimate war plan from what Franks called these two "bookends," one side being Franks's heavier, more conventional starting point and the other side being Rumsfeld's swifter, lighter, more unconventional bookend, and they'd work their way to the middle, somewhere in between, usually leaning toward Rumsfeld's way. And Franks would go off to war with it.

In the end, there were enough troops to win the war, but maybe not the peace, which we're seeing now.

Well, it's interesting. I think that's correct. In terms of war fighting, on the battlefield Donald Rumsfeld was exactly right. That whole population of Old Army—those folks who, as Vice-President Dick Cheney said, were embedded in the television studio as commentators during the war—almost to a man insisted that there weren't enough soldiers on the battlefield for the coalition to defeat this enemy quickly and without too many casualties. They were just wrong about that. It took three weeks. Rumsfeld was right. On the other hand, Rumsfeld was wrong in terms of the larger effort. You don't want to just defeat the enemy; you've got to then do something to stabilize the country, and, as we're discovering now, that's an undertaking that takes a force much closer in size to something like that advocated by General Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, who told Congress that it would take several hundred thousand troops to pacify Iraq afterward, and that looks like what we're headed toward now.

To what extent is the planning any postwar activity the responsibility of the military commander? There was Eisenhower, who famously issued orders to his troops to protect Europe's cultural treasures. How does Franks compare with him in that way? Does he compare well or badly?

I don't think it's a matter of well or badly, just differently. It's true that Tommy Franks was less interested in foreseeing and guarding against the looting of Iraqi treasures than he was in winning the war. That's absolutely the case; he was focussed on winning the war, but to worry about the rest is a kind of false construct. I never really thought that Tommy Franks was there to eventually become the governor-general of Iraq.

So what is his role today?

I think his role today is basically counting the days until he gets to go back to Texas and hunt quail.

Who is in charge, then?

Technically, CENTCOM—and therefore Tommy Franks, while he's still on the job—is in charge of the military operations. It is its area of responsibility, and there are still military operations going on, and will be going on apparently for some time. But the day-to-day sort of management of Iraq is being handled by others.

In the war, Franks accorded the Special Forces a bigger role than had ever been imagined. How did it compare with the Special Forces' past role in the military, and how will it impact their future role?

In this regard, more than any other, Tommy Franks showed his willingness to fight a war the Rumsfeld way. There has long been a pronounced reluctance by military commanders to include as a fundamental part of their battle plan a significant Special Forces presence, partly because they see Special Forces as these shadow guys who go off and fight their own war. And, if you're in charge of a chaotic battlefield, having yet another element out there further confounding things is not something that traditionally has been welcomed. In this case, Franks decided, partly based on his experience in Afghanistan, Hey, I want these guys, and he used them brilliantly. He used relatively few Special Forces all over the country—they were literally on every front—and he used them to effectively replace two divisions of conventional troops.

So the Rumsfeld version worked.

Yes. In Afghanistan in the first instance, and particularly in this war. Afghanistan is a difficult place, because of its terrain. And it really wasn't as complete and compelling a test of the Rumsfeld theory. This second Gulf War, however, was a compelling test of the Rumsfeld way of war. It was a war in the open spaces, against a nation that had heavy conventional forces and a fighting force that was estimated at upward of three hundred and fifty or four hundred thousand people—it was a war, in other words, that we had just a little more than a decade earlier fought in the most conventional fashion. Rumsfeld was now proposing that a second Gulf War be fought in a distinctly different manner: as an unconventional war.

But one thing that Afghanistan and this Iraq war have in common is that, in both, American troops were met with relatively light ground resistance. So how safe is it to completely abandon the Old Army model?

The Old Army cannot be abandoned. Even in these wars, it turns out that the Old Army is not only useful but absolutely necessary. You need it; if for no other reason, you need it in the aftermath. You also need it to fight and win the war, but what this showed was that the Old Army could be made to fight in new, interesting, innovative ways. That dash to Baghdad by the 3rd Infantry Division was classic maneuver warfare, bypassing the cities and getting straight to the heart of the enemy center of gravity, pressuring Baghdad on the third day, rather than sort of lumbering across the Iraqi lowlands and fighting for a city at a time. It led to a bit of a messy aftermath, but it ended the war's major combat operations in fairly quick order.

In your piece, you cite a moment in a press conference when a reporter asked Franks to comment on the notion that he "is no Norman Schwarzkopf." Franks actually agreed, prompting Rumsfeld to step in and say, "Nor vice versa." How do the commanders of the two Gulf Wars differ?

Well, they literally could not be more different, in terms of their natures, in terms of their career paths, their personal histories—in every regard, they are distinctly different men. Schwarzkopf is the son of a West Point Army officer who went on to gain fame and a certain notoriety for himself as the head of the New Jersey State Police. The elder Schwarzkopf led the Lindbergh kidnapping case, which, in turn, gave him fame and a good deal of financial security—he got his own radio show. Then the elder Schwarzkopf was brought back into the service by F.D.R. during the Second World War, on a secret assignment to Iran, and young Norman accompanied him there. Later, he went to a Swiss boarding school and military academy, and on to West Point, and then into an Army career that everyone always knew he would have. This is compared with Tommy Franks, who grew up in a working-class family in Midland, Texas, and lived an anonymous life as a young fellow, flunked out of the University of Texas, and had so unmemorable a youth in Midland that to this day his high-school principal and many of his peers scarcely remember him.

Wasn't his name even listed incorrectly in the yearbook?

The only activity in school that he involved himself in was football, and even then they called him "Charlie Franks" in the school yearbook. I mean, he was a guy bound for a life of inconsequence. But after he dropped out of college he joined the Army as a private, and it turned out that the Army, which is the great meritocracy, found something in him, and directed him eventually to go back to college, to become an officer, and, as it turned out, the top fighting general in the service today.

Is there a classic model of an American general—Grant, Clay, Patton—that Franks fits?

I would say he's rather more like Eisenhower, in the sense that he had to accommodate himself to this rather intense sort of internal dissonance. I mean, he had to deal with all of the backbiting and fighting and politicking that was going on in the Pentagon and within the Army, as well as having to shape and fight with these huge coalitions, which, of course, can be very complicated. And, like Eisenhower, he basically decided to ignore the criticisms—literally act as if they weren't there—and to respond to them not at all, either verbally or in his military actions, and plow ahead. And, as it turns out, he was exactly right to do so. And, like Eisenhower, he was a man of the country. He just seemed so much the stuff of America—not particularly deep-seeming, although just every bit as smart as he needed to be. And as it turns out, I think, a pretty great soldier.

Eisenhower, of course, went on to become President, in large part because he was so of the country, as you say. Do you think that Franks has similar political ambitions, or, for that matter, political abilities?

I think that Franks has an innate political talent, one that perhaps even he doesn't recognize, and one that, if he did recognize it, he would do everything he could do to quell. I think that the last thing in the world he would do is seek political office, partly because he hates having a public persona. Therein lies the greatest distinction between Franks and Norman Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf, of course, cultivated a public persona, and it paid off handsomely for him. Franks just likes very much being what he had been for thirty-some years before the war on terror, which is to say, a relatively anonymous fellow who was making his way along in the Army. He will leave the Army this summer, and he will go hunt in Texas, and he will make a ton of money on his memoirs.

President Bush just nominated Lieutenant General John Abizaid, Franks's top deputy during the war in Iraq, to succeed Franks in July. Abizaid also has a completely different background from Franks: his grandparents were Lebanese immigrants, he speaks Arabic, and he has studied in Jordan and at Harvard. What do you know about Abizaid, and how significant will it be to have an Arab-American in charge of Central Command?

I spent some time with Abizaid in Qatar, and he is of a very different sort than Franks. Like Schwarzkopf, Abizaid is a West Pointer, a real rising star in the Army, and he's so highly regarded by Rumsfeld that he was even considered for the job of Army Chief of Staff—which would have meant leapfrogging over several more senior officers.

Abizaid was a real favorite of Rumsfeld's—he had been on the Joint Chiefs staff at the Pentagon, which is a Rumsfeld province—and he was sent to CENTCOM as Franks's deputy fairly late in the game, long after the war planning for Iraq was under way. At the time, some people who are especially sensitive to the discord between Rumsfeld and the Army saw the Abizaid assignment to CENTCOM as Rumsfeld's way of keeping an eye on Tommy Franks. I think that's probably nonsense. Abizaid is regarded as a smart soldier, and he happens to be the highest-ranking Arab-American in the Army—a pretty useful qualification, given CENTCOM's area of responsibility. One more thing: unlike Franks, Abizaid has a very easy manner with the press. He even got into a little hot water in Qatar for being too open with reporters. I like him.

What about the press's war? Let's talk about that. What sort of access were you able to have, and were there any roadblocks for you as a reporter?

What was at play was an effort to shape and control a message, and that was unprecedented. It was, ultimately, ironic that this was a war that had hundreds of reporters on the battlefield. But that in itself was part of the effort to shape the message of the war. It was maddeningly frustrating for each of the hundreds of reporters who tried to cover this war, tried to get the big picture of the war, from Central Command headquarters outside Doha, because there was such an intense hoarding of information. It was literally an information blackout.

Is that any different than past wars?

The difference was that in the past, if you happened to be at the Pentagon, for example, you at least got some information. There were routine briefings with the very top people, the Secretary of Defense among them. But here part of the information campaign was specifically designed with control in mind. The embedded reporters had a very, very narrow view of the war, and yet the first images of the war that the public would see would come from them. It would be tanks rolling, unchallenged and unchallengeable, across the desert. Then it would be up to the Pentagon to give the big picture, and it worked brilliantly—in the first week or so, anyway—in terms of developing the story of the unfolding of the war. It didn't work as well when things started going less well on the battlefield.

What did you think about the coverage of the war, and specifically the embedding program?

I think the embedding program was, from the perspective of the information campaign and the Pentagon, a brilliant stroke. As much as the Pentagon might say they wanted to accommodate the desires of the press, its purpose was twofold. First, it wanted to acculturate the news media to the military. There has been, basically since Vietnam, an antagonistic relationship between the press and the military, one that ranges between a kind of ignorant indifference and an open antagonism. And the embed program was a way to create communion between the press and the military, which was quite extraordinary. As I say in the piece, there's nothing like a three-hundred-mile ride in the belly of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to make a reporter appreciate the life of a soldier. They knew that that would happen, and it did. The other purpose that it served sounds paradoxical, but allowing five hundred-plus reporters into the field with the troops was, in fact, a way of controlling information in this sense: the point of view afforded an embedded reporter was very, very narrow. Ted Koppel could show us the scenes of the Iraqi desert flying by as he and the 3rd Infantry Division made their way to the outskirts of Baghdad. That conveys the impression of a kind of unstoppable military machine, and that was very much what they wanted to convey. But there's no broad picture, as Koppel himself pointed out.

In fact, he said that he was getting his news from the BBC.

That's right. He was getting his news on what was actually happening on the war from BBC shortwave, and by talking to Peter Jennings on the telephone and during Jennings's live broadcast. The broader picture was left not to Tommy Franks and CENTCOM, to the dismay and disappointment of the hundreds of reporters who were assigned there, but to Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon. And that's as close as you can come to information control. Ironically, it was a more controlled information operation than the last Gulf War, in which reporters were not allowed onto the battlefield.

As you watched embeds file reports when you were in Doha, were you at all tempted to go out with a unit?

After several long, frustrating days and eventually weeks, I very desperately wished that I was in a circumstance where it was easier to get at the story, whatever the story was. One thing about the embeds—and I think they almost uniformly did a great job—is that, even if they weren't able to give much perspective, they were able to get their story, which is to say, the story of their unit. They were able to get to their commanders, they were able to get to the soldiers. It was all right there for them. And in that sense, yes, I would have rather been one of them than waiting around for Tommy Franks to show up.