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Rumsfeld's Bloody Paths of Glory
Defense Secretary's shameful journey to Iraq is followed by Pentagon discussions of forming El Salvador-like death squads
by Bill Berkowitz
January 14, 2005

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The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

-- Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

In these times of snap, crackle and pop journalism, major news stories dissolve into each other and melt away all too quickly. For the past few weeks, the South Asian Tsunami's toll of more than 150,000 dead and millions left homeless nearly brought the run of the mill news world to a standstill. In ordinary times -- already re-emerging after the international focus of the past several weeks -- there's always a Scott Peterson/Robert Blake-type murder case to fill air time. Endless and mindless reports of accusations against Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson's bared breast or a bare-assed Nicolette Sheridan, leaping into the outstretched arms of Philadelphia Eagles receiver Terrell Owens on Monday Night Football, keep the blather flowing. Since 9/11, we have only one constant -- President Bush's duct tape and color-coded war against terrorism -- and even that has worn a little thin about the edges.

If the war on terror has receded to low grade though steady background buzz, where does that leave the mess in Iraq? And what of Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, one of the quagmire's major architects? How does he fit into the news flow?

The SecDef's popularity, which at the dawn of the Iraq war had reached matinee-idol type heights, has tumbled faster than Pee Wee Herman's reputation after his porn theater adventure.

Don Rumsfeld: The Poor Man's General Broulard

Last seen in Iraq bucking up the morale of the troops on Christmas Day, the Secretary of Defense bears more than a passing resemblance to the infamous General George Broulard in the film “Paths of Glory.”

Don't get me wrong. Rumsfeld isn't French and he isn't nearly as debonair as the General, played to perfection by veteran film actor Adolphe Menjou. It was Gen. Broulard's arrogance and his ability to duck responsibility for horrible multiple blunders that tripped my compare-ometer while I was watching Stanley Kubrick's brilliant film the other evening.

“Paths of Glory,” Kubrick's classic 1957 anti-war film about World War I, General Broulard diverts the spotlight from himself after cajoling a promotion-hungry General Mireau into ordering a suicide attack against the highly-fortified German position called the “Ant Hill.” Hundreds of French troops are pinned down and slaughtered in no-man's-land and three randomly-chosen innocent French soldiers -- after safe return to the French trenches -- are summarily court-martialed and executed. Why were these innocents sacrificed? To improve the morale of the troops, Gen. Broulard insists in one of the film's final scenes.

(Ironically, Menjou only a few years earlier had testified against his fellow actors before the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee.)

Toward the end of “Paths of Glory,” Broulard tries to buy off the idealistic Colonel Dax (played by Kirk Douglas) with a promotion. Broulard clearly underestimates the integrity and decency of Dax who was the field commander of the troops and the attorney who tried to save the soldiers from a stacked court-martial. Dax angrily refuses the General's offer: “I apologize for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you're a degenerate, sadistic old man. And you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again.”

The film's attack on the Ant Hill, writes Tim Dirks in an online review, “was inspired by and loosely based upon the six-month bloodbath in 1916 during the Battle of Verdun for Fort Douamont, a French stronghold eventually captured by the Germans. (The same battle was frequently referred to in Renoir's The Grand Illusion (1937). The protracted conflict claimed the lives of 315,000 French soldiers (called poilus) on the Western front.”

“Based upon the controversial, published, semi-fictional 1935 novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb,” Dirks writes, “this anti-war film emphasizes the wide, hierarchical gap between those who take orders and fight the wars in muddy trenches, and those that give the orders and are isolated from the real ravages of war. Three blameless, subordinate soldiers are victimized, given hopeless ‘paths of glory,’ and condemned to die to cover up the wrong-headed actions of their ruthless and opportunistic superiors.”

Rumsfeld's Legacy

The gap between “those who take orders... and those that give the orders” is as wide today as it was in those grisly days of World War I. Arrogance and the grand illusion fostered in isolation are exemplified by President Bush's absurdly positive assessments of the situation in Iraq, and his bewildered and beleaguered Secretary of Defense.

Invoke the name of Donald Rumsfeld and these are the associations: failure to provide enough U.S. troops for Iraq; torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; extended tours of duty and stopgap orders; worn out reservists and National Guard members; hubris worthy of the Greek chroniclers of the wars of the Peloponnesus; and infamous Rumsfeldian remarks including his recent, you go to war “with the army you have.”

Now he's contemplating “death squads” for Iraq. More on that later.

Rumsfeld's high-profile “surprise” Christmas Eve trip to Iraq was opportunistic at best. This trip to pump up the morale of the troops was more like a barely concealed effort to erase recent stains from his record: News that he didn't personally sign the letters of condolence sent to the loved ones of service members killed in Iraq didn't sit well with the families of the dead. That revelation followed closely on the heels of his embarrassing answer to a soldier's question about an ill-equipped military during his visit to the troops in Iraq several weeks earlier.

Imagine if you will: You're stuck in the middle of the long hard slog that is Iraq and you're losing buddies everyday to an insurgency that continues to outsmart and outmaneuver the greatest military force in the world, and you have to listen to lies from one of the chief architects of this quagmire.

Trying to find a way out of the Iraq mess may lead Rumsfeld's Pentagon to training El Salvador-like death squads to go after insurgent leaders, a strategy that was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians in El Salvador during the 1980s. According to Newsweek's Michael Hirsh and John Barry, the Pentagon is currently discussing the “Salvador option,” a take off on a project “that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration's battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s...[when it] funded or supported ‘nationalist’ forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success...despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.” The Newsweek report reminds readers that several of the architects of Reagan's Central America policy are on active duty in Iraq, including John Negroponte, who was ambassador to Honduras under Reagan, and is currently the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

One thing about Rumsfeld's recent visit to Iraq looked very familiar: A photo op with him and Iraq's interim president Ghazi al-Yawar. Back in the day when Rummy was President Reagan's Middle East Special Envoy, he met with Saddam Hussein during visits in late-December 1983 and late-March 1984; the day news broke that Iraq had used mustard gas and Tabun nerve gas against Iranian troops. According to a New York Times story published March 29, 1984: “American diplomats pronounce themselves satisfied with relations between Iraq and the United States and suggest that normal diplomatic ties have been restored in all but name.” (For a view of the handshake, click here).

At a recent news conference, Rumsfeld stated his concern for the lives of U.S. soldiers in Iraq: “I hope and pray that every family member of those who have died so bravely knows how deeply I feel their loss.” Rumsfeld said that that he “stays awake at night for concern for those at risk.” And that the grief of their loved ones “is something that I feel to my core.”

Let's give Cindy Sheehan, a mother whose son Casey was killed in Iraq on April 4, 2004, the last word. In a letter to Rumsfeld, published at, Sheehan, an activist with, writes: “It is my feeling... that the soldiers that have been sent over there to die for your administration's lies and betrayals, are the least of your concerns. If you really cared about our brave young men and women who have been put into harms' way for no reason, you would have brought them home months ago when it was proven that Iraq had no WMD's; no connection with 9/11; when Saddam was captured and the Iraqis were given freedom from him; etc. If you cared about our soldiers before the falsehoods were exposed to the light, you would have sent them over to fight a war with the proper planning, training, armor, equipment and supplies. You would have been more realistic and planned better for the occupation.”

Sheehan and a group of Gold Star families -- spouses and other family members who have lost a loved one who has died defending America while serving in the armed forces -- will be in Washington, DC for the Inauguration between January 19th and January 21. They have requested a meeting with Rumsfeld. Thus far they haven't heard from him.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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