Donald Rumsfeld and the myths of war

His failure to sign condolence letters should be a complaint at the bottom of a very long list
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The Independent Online

There's a scene in the Steven Spielberg Second World War epic Saving Private Ryan which depicts a vast roomful of women all engaged in the sombre task of typing letters of condolence. The viewer understands the enormous scale of their efforts, for she has just watched an orgy of death and maiming in the film's 20-minute opening sequence, hailed as the most accurate depiction of the horror of war ever created.

There's a scene in the Steven Spielberg Second World War epic Saving Private Ryan which depicts a vast roomful of women all engaged in the sombre task of typing letters of condolence. The viewer understands the enormous scale of their efforts, for she has just watched an orgy of death and maiming in the film's 20-minute opening sequence, hailed as the most accurate depiction of the horror of war ever created.

Yet despite the mass production of black-bordered missives, each is individually respected as being representative of a life that has ended. Therefore, the head of the typing pool is able to note that three men from one family have recently been killed. Only one brother survives, and he is a paratrooper who has just been dropped behind German lines. A rescue mission is mounted, thanks to the attention to detail of the eagle-eyed supervisor, and Private Ryan is saved.

The film is "based on a true story", although the true story is simply that Fritz Niland was parachuted behind enemy lines, even though two of his brothers had died in Normandy and the other had gone missing in Burma. Private Niland managed to get himself back to US-held territory without any help from a rescue team, because there wasn't one, which means that the vast bulk of the movie, including the existence of its heroic star, played by Tom Hanks, is nonsense.

It is true though that the US Army, in common with a number of others, does excuse from action the surviving child of a family when the others have lost their lives. It is true as well that Private Niland's name had been noted and circulated because he was in such a position. It is quite something, I think, that even in the sprawl of the Second World War, in the chaos and the mayhem, without computers, without widespread telecommunications and without fax, mobile or photocopier, close enough attention was paid to the honouring of the dead for one family's outrageous sacrifice to be witnessed and communicated.

Such attitudes appear to stand rather in contrast to those of the present US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. He has been taken to task by the military magazine Stars and Stripes after a retired colonel, David Hackworth, exposed him as using a "mechanical device" rather than a pen to sign letters of condolence to the families of American soldiers killed in the Iraq conflict. Rumsfeld has been forced to promise that in future he will mend his ways.

"I wrote and approved the now more than 1,000 letters sent to family members and next of kin of each of the servicemen and women killed in military action,'' he said in a statement on Sunday. "While I have not individually signed each one, in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members, I have directed that in the future I sign each letter.''

But for most Democrats, and even a few Republicans, the fact that Mr Rumsfeld (unlike President Bush) considered letters of condolence to be suitable candidates for the automated mercies of the robo-pen, is merely another indication that he does not have the appropriate set of attitudes for a wartime leader. Critics point not only to his insensitivity over the letters, but also to his callous refusal to engage with complaints that US soldiers are being sent into battle without the right protective weaponry. When one military type asked Rumsfeld if he was aware that scrapheaps in Iraq were cannibalised by soldiers for "hillbilly armour" that was then bolted on to their trucks, he replied that: "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

Yet while it is true that the failure to make time to write your name at the bottom of a grave letter is probably indicative of some rather breezy attitudes to death in action, and that it is not politic to be too blunt when questioned about shortcomings in an army's readiness for battle, these supposed failures of Rumsfeld's are really failures of public relations rather than of military strategy. Those who seek to unseat Rumsfeld as Defence Secretary have, one would think, plenty of ammunition to toss, as the quick invasion that was to be greeted with open arms by grateful, eager-to-assist Iraqis stumbles through its 20th bloody month.

That the focus instead is all on his ability to hand-wring in public when the inevitable consequence of war returns home in a body bag is perhaps indicative instead of how much the whole US - including the military - is in thrall to the conventions of war as represented in the movies as opposed to the reality.

It is no coincidence, surely, that in the very early stages of the conflict Mr Rumsfeld was himself deeply implicated in a staged rescue set up expressly as propaganda material back home in the US, and christened Saving Private Lynch. By the time the rescued soldier in question, Jessica Lynch, regained consciousness, she was able to relate that the entire story of her capture and liberation was a made-up farrago, including reports that she had fought until her ammunition had run out and that she had been ill-treated and even raped by the Iraqis. On the contrary, the Iraqis had in fact contacted the US military about her situation, had cared for her as well as they could, and had fully co-operated in her handover.

Mr Rumsfeld's initial belief that stunts such as this one could "help to win hearts and minds" indicated two things: first, that the hearts and minds it was important to win were American ones; and second, that the best way to win them was by presenting a Hollywood version of the war to the home front. His subsequent abandonment of stunts such as the bogus Lynch rescue, and even of common niceties such as signing letters of condolence - the letter arriving at the homestead scene being a classic Hollywood staple - suggests to me that Rumsfeld is only now engaging properly with the reality of war rather than the cleanly heroic version he had clearly envisaged when he first began developing his hopelessly romantic and over-optimistic plans for a quick, clean invasion of liberation.

It is an irony then, that his leadership is being called into question only now that the scales have dropped from his eyes. Drunk on their ideas of righteousness, Mr Rumsfeld and his fellow neo-conservatives lied from the start to the US and to the world about the reasons why they wished to go to war against Saddam. Their wartime storyboard was - and is - as realistic as the one portrayed by Mr Hanks.

In the US as in Britain, it is the young, poor, uneducated men who are mistrusted and despised in civilian life who find themselves on the frontline, dying in battle. All our myths about the glory of war, and the heroism of war, exist to disguise that unpalatable truth. That Mr Rumsfeld no longer attempts to go along with such conventions is the very least of this man's sins against humanity. His failure to sign condolence letters should be a complaint at the bottom of a long list. It is an indication of the unlikelihood of the US ever achieving an honest perspective on its Iraqi misadventure, that it appears instead at the top of a short list.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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