New Yorker, The General's War,
June 23, 2003
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
The way you describe it, there's almost an
accidental quality to Franks's career. Was he just in the right place at the
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?
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
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 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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