On a recent thread here about General Petraeus there was a discussion in the comments section regarding General Shinseki’s original suggestion that higher troop levels would be needed in Iraq. As part of that back-and-forth, commenter Mitsu wrote:
…had we gone into Iraq with more troops in the first place, as Shinseki had recommended, the situation in Iraq wouldn’t have deteriorated nearly as much as it has.
And commenter Ymarsakar replied:
Is Shinseki and you therefore better (armchair) generals than Petraeus?
So now even actual generals are armchair generals to you guys?
I’ve only excerpted a tiny portion of the lengthy comments section; I urge you to read the rest to get a better understanding of the issues involved in whether more troops would have been better, or would not have made a significant difference.
The truth is this: no one knows. More troops now is not the same as more troops then. All speculation on the subject is untestable. It’s tempting, however, because we try to learn from our mistakes. The trouble in war is that mistakes are inevitable, and the suggestions to remedy those mistakes may represent even greater mistakes. The only thing we know is what actually happened—not necessarily why it happened—and the fog of war makes it very difficult to know even that. Nevertheless, it’s human nature to try.
As Mitsu points out, about the war’s aftermath:
Of course, it would also have been a huge benefit to have had much smarter tactics on the ground.
More conventional troops become a liability in fighting an insurgency. The reason the ’surge’ is working is not that it is ‘more troops’ it’s because it is more troops performing unconventional warfare tactics. This is not something an army just learns overnight.
So, was Shinseki in fact an “armchair general?” The term tends to be a phrase applied to someone who “is not a…general…but offers opinions and criticism on the performance or decisions of those who are.” By this definition, we are all armchair generals, whereas General Shinseki most decidely was not.
Nor was Shinseki that other related thing, a Monday morning quarterback, because the opinions he gave on the matter were offered before the war, not after, four months before his retirement as Chief of Staff of the army. Therefore Shineski was also not a member of that increasingly visible and vocal group: the retired general as talking head.
If Shinseki was none of these, who was he, and what did he really say? Shinseki had been in command previously in Bosnia, hardly a textbook case on how to run a war. He also had a history of personality conflicts with Rumsfeld. Even before Iraq, Shinseki was opposed to any overall reduction in the size of the army. Nor does Shinseki does not seem to have been any sort of expert in counter-insurgency.
What he actually said was this:
…something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required. We’re talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems. And so it takes a significant ground-force presence.
It’s been surprisingly difficult for me to find exact figures for how many military personnel were involved in the recent “surge” of additional troops; typical numbers are here: an increase of 20,000 from about 150,000 already there. Although some articles said the increase was closer to double that, there’s little question that the actual increase in numbers was relatively modest, and that the change in tactics was far more important.
That seems to have made Shineski both right and wrong: right that more troops would be needed. Right that the original planners were probably too sanguine about the task of Iraq’s postwar reconstruction. Wrong about the actual figures needed, wrong about the tactics necessary, and possibly wrong about the timing of the increase.
It’s too early for historians to write knowledgeably about this war, but my prediction is that for many decades they will fight epic verbal battles about how it was waged. We armchair generals of the blogosphere have been doing that for several years now, with no end in sight.