Donald Rumsfeld's contentious
battle inside the Pentagon to reshape the way America's military
thinks and fights.
With the United States Army deployed in a dozen hotspots around the world - on
constant alert in Afghanistan and taking casualties almost every day in
Iraq - some current and former officers now say the army is on the verge of
The man responsible, according to those officers, is a
secretary of defense who came into the Pentagon determined to transform the
shape of the military.
In "Rumsfeld's War," FRONTLINE and The Washington Post join forces for the
first time to investigate Donald Rumsfeld's contentious battle with the
Pentagon bureaucracy to assert civilian control of the military and remake
the way America fights.
This report traces Donald Rumsfeld's career from his time as an adviser to
President Nixon to his rise as the oft-seen and well-known face of the
George W. Bush administration during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
interviews with key administration officials, military leaders, and
reporters from The Washington Post, the documentary examines how a secretary
of defense bent on reform became a secretary of war accused of ignoring the
advice of his generals.
"He came in determined to reassert civilian control over the Joint Staff and
the rest of the military and it was a pretty tough process, a lot of
friction in those first months, with Rumsfeld saying, 'No, I don't think you
heard me clearly. I'm the boss. I want it this way,'" reporter Thomas Ricks
of The Washington Post tells FRONTLINE.
In the early months of the Bush administration, Rumsfeld saw his biggest
enemy as the outdated Cold War thinking of the troops he commanded.
"Donald Rumsfeld wanted to build a smaller, nimbler, and more networked military
that could respond swiftly to threats anywhere in the world. He came into
the Defense Department where the forces were heavy and slow, took months to
deploy and worked best when used in massive numbers," says Professor John
Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
Former Secretary of the Army Thomas White says that when Rumsfeld tried to
push for a reduction in the number of troops in the army, the secretary
found himself clashing with General Eric Shinseki, the army's respected
Chief of Staff.
"There were very strongly held views, myself and General Shinseki and others
in the room, that this was not the right answer," White says of one meeting
"The secretary, he just got up and walked out, which was a
signal to all of us that he wasn't terribly happy with the results of the
To the Pentagon generals, Rumsfeld's sharp elbows and strong views on the
military came across as insulting.
But those who know him best say that Rumsfeld's unorthodox style is hardly a surprise.
Robert Ellsworth, longtime
friend, former ambassador to the UN and also former deputy to Rumsfeld, says
that as a wrestler in college, Rumsfeld learned to always stay on the move.
"He has a very sharp tongue as well as sharp elbows. And he knows how to use
salty language. And he didn't hold back even against these senior
bureaucrats, senior officers. He let them have it because he was in a
hurry," Ellsworth says.
By the eve of
September 11, 2001, Rumsfeld's sharp tongue and tough attitude
had gotten him into plenty of fights and created a number of enemies.
"Inside the beltway, there are all these discussions about `Well, who's
going to be the first cabinet secretary to leave this administration?'"
defense analyst Andrew Krepinevich tells FRONTLINE.
"And the early betting
line is it could be Don Rumsfeld. And of course then 9/11 happens, and as
the saying goes `That changes everything.'"
As the United States prepared to respond to the attacks of September 11,
Rumsfeld pushed a reluctant military to think unconventionally about going
to war in Afghanistan.
Dissatisfied with the plan for a large-scale invasion
that he received from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Rumsfeld turned to
the Pentagon's Special Operations forces.
"He is willing to start military operations in Afghanistan before most of
the military thinks that we're ready to do so. And [a] small number of
special forces soldiers combined with CIA support for indigenous Afghan
resistance forces brings about spectacular results," Krepinevich says.
When the president's attention turned towards Iraq, Rumsfeld pushed his war
planners to think outside the box.
Emboldened by his success in Afghanistan,
the secretary once again pushed aside Pentagon critics and demanded an
unconventional war plan.
"Rumsfeld thinks you can re-invent [the] war plan," The Washington Post's
Bob Woodward tells FRONTLINE, "And anything that smacks of the old way or
something that looks conventional to him, he asks questions about. Doesn't
necessarily oppose it, but will ask questions about it, and is looking to
make this quicker, with less force and with less casualties."
Now, the secretary's critics allege that Rumsfeld's push for unconventional
thinking effectively marginalized advice about troop strength, post-war
planning, and the treatment of prisoners.
"I think to a degree, he's stubborn. Being stubborn, holding to your
convictions is good to a point, but when the evidence around you indicates
your position is not tenable, then you ought to start adapting to the
situation," says retired USMC Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper.
That stubbornness, some officers say, led Rumsfeld to put the military in
the difficult position of fighting in simultaneous conflicts against an
With mounting casualties in Iraq and without a clear
exit strategy in either Iraq or Afghanistan, Rumsfeld's critics charge the
secretary has pushed too far. The danger, they say, is a military incapable
of effectively fighting the next major conflict.
Former CENTCOM Commander-in-Chief General Joseph Hoar (Ret.) tells
"Today we find over fifty percent of the United States Army, the
regular army, ten divisions, committed overseas. It's not sustainable."
Rumsfeld, however, has stood firm in his assessment that U.S. fighting
forces are more than capable of handling these or future conflicts, recently
telling the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that with over 2.5 million
Americans already enlisted, the military's problem is management of
resources, not recruitment.
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