Major General Robert H. Scales is both a war hero and an expert on warfare. He received a Silver Star for his time in Vietnam.
Scales’ six 105-millimeter guns were assigned to fire shells across the valley, a distance of about five miles, in support of U.S. infantry units. Yet two brigades of North Vietnamese troops lurked in the valley and at intervals tried to overrun the American fire bases. Scales won a Silver Star for his actions on June 14, 1969, when, in an attack before dawn, 96 North Vietnamese regulars briefly overran Fire Base Berchtesgaden, lobbing explosives called satchel charges, killing 11 and injuring 43.
He was “knocked to the ground several times as satchel charges went off near him,” according to his citation papers. Yet he moved from artillery piece to artillery piece, firing at enemy soldiers, helping tend weapons and directing defensive fire from U.S. helicopter gunships. Despite the heavy casualties, Scales’ battery survived three major assaults. Throughout that summer, he said, “we were fighting for our lives.”
And he came out of that war determined to understand what went wrong.
In the 1970s, as U.S. troops withdrew to a homeland thrown in turmoil by the war, Scales saw his Army nearly destroyed by internal strife and neglect. He felt the scorn of civilians as he pursued graduate studies at a university where decorated veterans like himself knew it was only prudent to trade uniforms for bell-bottom jeans, to keep their warrior pasts a secret.
Scales saw Vietnam sow doubts in some of the Army’s best officers, including his own father, and observed how it reshaped the U.S. military’s fundamental notions of when and where to fight. He made sure its lessons were not forgotten as he and other veterans who stayed in the Army rebuilt the shattered force over a period of 15 years. And today, Vietnam’s legacy permeates the military worldview that Scales, now 55 and commandant of the Army War College here, imparts to new generations of officers.
And now Scales has a devastating piece in the Washington Post about Obama’s Syria war plans.
The tapes tell the tale. Go back and look at images of our nation’s most senior soldier, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and his body language during Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Syria. It’s pretty obvious that Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doesn’t want this war. As Secretary of State John Kerry’s thundering voice and arm-waving redounded in rage against Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities, Dempseywas largely (and respectfully) silent.
Dempsey’s unspoken words reflect the opinions of most serving military leaders. By no means do I profess to speak on behalf of all of our men and women in uniform. But I can justifiably share the sentiments of those inside the Pentagon and elsewhere who write the plans and develop strategies for fighting our wars. After personal exchanges with dozens of active and retired soldiers in recent days, I feel confident that what follows represents the overwhelming opinion of serving professionals who have been intimate witnesses to the unfolding events that will lead the United States into its next war.
They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it. So far, at least, this path to war violates every principle of war, including the element of surprise, achieving mass and having a clearly defined and obtainable objective.
Scales pounds away at the empty humanitarianism of the civilian leadership.
Prospective U.S. action in Syria is not about threats to American security. The U.S. military’s civilian masters privately are proud that they are motivated by guilt over slaughters in Rwanda, Sudan and Kosovo and not by any systemic threat to our country.
They are outraged by the fact that what may happen is an act of war and a willingness to risk American lives to make up for a slip of the tongue about “red lines.” These acts would be for retribution and to restore the reputation of a president.
And that’s the ugliest part. How many Americans have to die to restore Obama’s rep?
Over the past few days, the opinions of officers confiding in me have changed to some degree. Resignation seems to be creeping into their sense of outrage. One officer told me: “To hell with them. If this guy wants this war, then let him have it. Looks like no one will get hurt anyway.”