A refreshing characteristic of soldiers is that they do not generally spin. It is not part of their training. It is therefore all the more frustrating that those on the front line of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush's "war on terror" -- a dangerously misleading term -- cannot say publicly what they really think.
That is left to ex-generals. Lord Guthrie, a former chief of the UK defense staff, has repeatedly warned ministers about the dangers of giving the public misleading information and failing to plan properly for military operations.
"We need to face facts that things are very serious," he told the Daily Telegraph in London last week in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. "It is reprehensible that our politicians are hiding behind the generals."
There are few more experienced former generals than Sir Rupert Smith, the commander of the UK's armored division in the first Gulf war, and of UN forces in Bosnia and British forces in Northern Ireland. His book, The Utility of Force, which should be compulsory reading in 10 Downing Street as well as the UK Ministry of Defense, has just been published in paperback.
Conflict and combat may exist all around the world, he writes, but "war no longer exists." War, that is, as commonly perceived -- as a battle between men and machinery and a decisive event in solving international disputes.
Speaking to the Guardian last week, Smith delivered a devastating assessment of the Blair legacy. By following the US since Sept. 11, the British government had actually helped to promote "the strategies of provocation and propaganda of the deed" -- the strategies of al-Qaeda.
"We've helped by playing to the cards of the opponent," he said.
Moreover, the US and Britain had attacked their own stated objectives by "trampling" on the rule of law and human rights, and weakening alliances.
Britain had contributed to "destabilizing at the very least Iraq, and arguably the [whole] region of the Gulf," Smith added.
In Afghanistan, the UK was "in grave danger of making an enemy where there was none before."
Blair was jeopardizing the nation's security by undermining its defenses while provoking a new enemy, he argued.
Smith is not scoring partisan points. Former, even current, generals do not see the world through such political spectacles, any more than members of the security and intelligence agencies who warned Blair before the invasion of Iraq that such a move would increase the threat to Britain of terrorist attacks. Such damning criticism of Blair's rhetoric and policies is the result of objective analysis by supreme pragmatists.
They say that, constitutionally, it is not their role to confront the elected prime minister over policy, even when it is a dangerous failure.
His courtiers stay silent. Perversely, most members of parliament have shown reluctance to challenge ministers on their "war on terror."
So Blair carries on, blinded by an absolute belief in the righteousness of his cause, playing party politics with national security, notably over his claims that the police and intelligence agencies were supporting his case for increasingly draconian anti-terror laws.
Blair got no comfort from a source whose support he may have expected he could rely on.
"The most salient impact of the Iraq intervention," the rarely controversial London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) notes in its latest annual survey, is that, as perceived by European governments, "it has reinforced [Osama] bin Laden's narrative depicting the United States and its allies as seeking to establish Western hegemony in the Arab and wider Muslim world, to loot Islam's oil, and to support Israel against its largely Muslim neighbors."