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Toles letter latest salvo in fight over troop levels

In the 1950s, Herb Block, the great cartoonist of the Washington Post, watched then Vice President Richard M. Nixon bait opponents with the fake patriotism of that day, calling them "Reds" and "pinkos."

So Block indignantly portrayed Nixon as one crawling out of the sewer and smeared with offal.

All the White House could do was recruit staff civilians, politicians in suit coats and pants, to denounce Block and lobby his publisher.

Last week, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, uniformed generals and admirals, fired off a letter to the Post that lashed out at Block's successor, Tom Toles. Probably orchestrated in the Bush administration's political mill, their letter is the latest salvo in a three-year fight over troop levels in Iraq.

The cartoon depicted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a callous and obstinately ignorant bureaucrat. It showed a badly wounded soldier in a hospital bed clearly labeled "U.S. Army" with "Dr. Rumsfeld" at bedside saying, "I'm listing you as 'battle hardened.' "

Here is the background:

In February 2003, weeks before Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, Army chief of staff, testified to the Senate that "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed in postwar Iraq to keep the peace and secure reconstruction.

Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy defense secretary and an architect of the war, shot back that Shinseki's testimony was "wildly off the mark." Hours later on that February day, Rumsfeld said Shinseki's estimate was "way off the mark."

Rumsfeld's estimate on the eve of invasion was that we needed 100,000 soldiers on the ground.

A month later, it was clear Shinseki was right and Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz & Co., were dead wrong.

Now, as Bush's war degenerates, with staggering losses for our troops and Iraqi civilians, a retired Army officer under contract with the Pentagon issued a 136-page report showing the Army is stretched into "a thin green line" and approaching the breaking point. The author of the January report is Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. He runs a conservative think tank, and lectures at George Mason University, not exactly a bastion of liberalism.

He noted that recruitment in fiscal 2005 fell short by 6,000 -- almost the size of a division.

Rumsfeld's response on Jan. 25 to the Krepinevich report was that today's Army is "battle hardened" and "not a peacetime force that has been in barracks. . . ."

In a Toles afterward in the cartoon's lower right corner, "Dr. Rumsfeld" says, "I'm recommending that you be stretched thin. We don't define that as torture."

The Pentagon's letter cleverly accused Toles of making light of soldiers "who have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds." It was a masterful public relations ploy that deflected criticisms from Rumsfeld's and Bush's decisions that have needlessly cost so many lives and injured 16,000 Americans.

"It appears they [the Joint Chiefs] interpret cartoons as accurately as they do prewar intelligence," said Christian Science Monitor editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett on the Pentagon letter.

"They should be as concerned with the soldiers in the field as they are with a cartoon," said Bennett, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. "Maybe they should provide the body armor soldiers need to help avoid the sort of injury shown in the cartoon."

At week's end, Rumsfeld strained credulity again.

The Joint Chiefs' letter was clearly political, and a serious break with American military tradition, which holds that ideology and power over weaponry is a dangerous mix. It never could have been issued without political clearance right up through Rumsfeld to the White House.

But Rumsfeld told an audience at the National Press Club on Wednesday, "I had no idea they were writing a letter. They decided to do it."

Stay tuned.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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