WASHINGTON — It was a slide down the toad hole that ended with a bump as I landed in Wonderland: The E Ring office of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld where the great man waited to do battle with me.
The occasion was an invitation to a private lunch with the secretary, and I knew I was not there to receive the Defense Distinguished Service Medal or a pat on the back. My recent columns on the state of the Army and the conduct of the war in Iraq have not been well received at the uppermost levels in the Pentagon.
The surprise was that four others were joining us: the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace; the vice chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Richard Cody; the director of the Joint Staff, Lt. Gen. Walter Sharp; and acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Larry DiRita.
Good! Five to one. I had them surrounded.
Rumsfeld was working at his stand-up desk when I entered. He was cordial and smiling and remained so throughout. He did a fast count and informed me that I was outranked by a grand total of 11 stars on the three generals he had brought in.
Then the battle was joined: "I'm not hearing anything like the things you are writing about," Rumsfeld said. I responded that it had been my experience that information coming up the chain to someone with Rumsfeld's reputation was often not the whole truth. Him: "Oh, I know that but I talk to lots of soldiers all the time. Why, I have given over 600 Town Hall meetings and anyone can ask me anything." Uh-huh.
He suggested that perhaps my sources were all retired general officers who had been too long away from what was happening today. I told him that in fact about half my sources were active duty officers and NCOs. "How about 70-30 or maybe 80-20?" Rumsfeld countered. No, not really, I said. In fact many of them are not only active duty but also work in the Pentagon — perhaps some even on his staff.
The debate took us to questions of whether the Army was broken, or not. Rumsfeld said, in his opinion, the Army was "light years better than it was four years ago." I asked whether our strategy and tactics in Iraq made any sense at all when we cannot figure out some better way of fighting than sending the finest troops in the world down the same roads to be blown up by ever improving terrorist bombs. That by so doing we were playing to the enemy's strong suit in this asymmetric war. Rumsfeld emphatically agreed, saying he had ordered the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, to begin shifting away from that focus on patrolling to a big push to stand up an effective Iraqi defense force last January, and this was now being done.
Rumsfeld said he had told Iraqi leaders that the American forces needed to begin stepping back because the growing casualties were having an impact on American public support for the war "and they understand that and agree with it." When I asked why would the Army send bill collectors out to pursue soldiers who lost limbs to a bomb or mine because they didn't check in their armor and the equipment on leaving Iraq or Afghanistan, or were dunned or their paychecks docked for overpayment of combat pay and benefits, Cody and Rumsfeld spoke of a Pentagon computer system that had been running on automatic.
They said weeks or even months passed before a wounded soldier shipped back to the U.S. for treatment was marked down as having left Iraq and thus was no longer eligible for combat pay and benefits. Then it automatically began billing that soldier or deducting money owed from his pay.
Now, Rumsfeld said, there is someone at the Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany and at Walter Reed Army Hospital and Bethesda Naval Hospital who checks every patient into the computer upon arrival so records are accurate.
Pace said he agreed totally with one recent column that decried the apparent return to the use of enemy body counts in Iraq. Rumsfeld said flatly: "We are NOT going to do body counts." Me: But you ARE doing body counts and releasing them; been doing it for a year and the frequency is growing. If you don't want to do body counts then stop doing them.
Throughout the discussion the defense secretary took notes when he thought he heard a valid point or criticism. Others at the table winced.
They had visions of a fresh shower of the secretary's famous "snowflakes," memos demanding answers or action or both.
An hour and a bit later as I headed for the door, Rumsfeld detoured me by a small room in his suite of offices. He wanted to show me a letter he found in his late father's belongings, now framed. It was written by Defense Secretary James Forrestal to the elder Rumsfeld, thanking him for his service in the Navy in the Pacific War.
Rumsfeld told me: "My dad was over-age but volunteered for the Navy. A year later he was the deck officer on an aircraft carrier fighting the war in the Pacific."
On the way out the defense secretary said, in parting: "I want you to know that I love soldiers and I care about soldiers. All of us here do."
I replied that concern for the troops and their welfare and safety were my only purpose "and I intend to keep kicking your butt regularly to make sure you stay focused on that goal."
He grinned and said: "That's all right. I can take it."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young."