Commentary: The Times drags an honorable soldier through the mud

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 4, 2008 

This week, I'm writing in defense of an old friend, retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who was dragged through the mud this week in a 5,000-word article by David Barstow in The New York Times.

Several months ago, Barstow wrote a story on a Pentagon program undertaken on orders of then-defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that offered hand-feeding and special treatment to a motley crew of television’s military talking heads.

That was a largely successful effort to get the analysts, especially retired military brass, "on the team" cheerleading for the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, and to keep them there with a mix of carrots and sticks.

The article noted that after the war got underway, McCaffrey, almost alone among the 50-plus analysts, was an unrelenting critic of Rumsfeld’s misconduct of it and his gross interference in matters of strategy and tactics that are better left to professionals.

I found it curious, then, that Barstow chose McCaffrey, who didn't feed at Rumsfeld’s trough, as the target of his allegations of conflict of interest and self-dealing, especially when he offered no proof that the general ever tailored his analysis of the war and other military matters to smooth the way into Rumsfeld's Pentagon for the defense companies for whom he was consulting.

Whether NBC News, for whom he worked as a military analyst, should have disclosed McCaffrey's business dealings is a different issue, but as a sometime target of Rumsfeld's ire, I can assure you that criticizing him was not the way to win friends, much less influence contracts, in a Pentagon that Rumsfeld ran like a banana republic.

In the interest of full disclosure, I've been a good friend of Barry McCaffrey ever since I rode to war beside him with the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) in the Persian Gulf war. I also was a good friend of his father, retired Lt. Gen. William McCaffrey, and I consider myself a good friend of his son, Col. Sean McCaffrey, who's on active duty today.

In my dealings with Gen. McCaffrey, I've always found him to be a very intelligent, honorable soldier of impeccable character. I’ve never seen him shy away from telling the truth, even when it might be controversial or incur the wrath of a powerful dung beetle such as Rumsfeld.

We also should remember that McCaffrey is one of the most highly decorated combat soldiers ever to wear general’s stars, with two awards of the Distinguished Service Cross and three Purple Hearts for wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War.

On his second combat tour in Vietnam, McCaffrey was the commander of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th U.S. Cavalry. During an assault on North Vietnamese bunkers in the jungle, he was so badly wounded by machine gun fire that the men who put him aboard a medical evacuation helicopter were certain that he'd soon be dead.

That wound and more than 20 surgeries left his left arm non-functional, and still he pleaded with the doctors at Walter Reed Army Hospital to be allowed to continue to serve in our Army. That was a great call by the doctors, and then-Capt. McCaffrey went on to four-star rank.

If he had a flaw as a commander, and everyone does, it would be a temper that could approach volcanic when he stumbled upon errors or inefficiency that might threaten the lives of his soldiers.

As we hopscotched around southern Iraq during the chaotic 100-hour war in 1991, I witnessed one such eruption when, as he maneuvered three heavily armored brigades, his communications links to both the front and the rear failed.

The roars emanating from the little tent hung on the side of his Blackhawk command helicopter bulged the walls and inspired me to walk 30 yards or so to a pile of rocks and take a seat out of the line of fire. The general, having thoroughly chewed every butt in the tent, stepped outside, spotted me on my rocky perch and commenced yelling at me.

I raised both hands in the time-out sign and shouted back: "You can’t yell at me. I don’t work for you!"

He shook his head and turned back inside his tent.

McCaffrey retired from the Army to serve as President Clinton’s national drug czar, and after that he became an adjunct professor at his and his father’s alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He continues to teach there today.

That’s not the usual revolving door route to riches taken by the many retiring admirals and generals who sit on the boards of big defense companies or take executive positions with those companies.

Instead, he set up a small consulting firm, B.R. McCaffrey and Associates, and hired himself out to advise small defense contractors on how to negotiate the shoals and reefs of Washington, D.C.

In the last six years as a military analyst for NBC News, I've never once known him to trim his sails or duck a troublesome issue, no matter what company or companies he might be consulting for.

That's not the Barry McCaffrey I know and respect — the one who's a true American hero with service to the nation bred into him and with the old West Point motto of Duty, Honor, Country still ringing in his ears.

I like the Barry McCaffrey I've come to know well. I don't recognize the one portrayed by Mr. Barstow and The New York Times.

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