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    Middle East
     Mar 13, 2008
American Icarus flirted with fire
By Mark Perry

There is a bar. Set perilously atop the Marine Memorial Club and Hotel, the Leatherneck Lounge is one of San Francisco's most legendary watering holes, an exclusive-of-sorts meeting place for veterans and their families. It is all that you might suppose it to be: semi-dark and warm, quiet and somber, with good steaks and smooth Scotch and, if you are lucky enough to know the waiters, you can talk late into the night.

I was a guest there several weeks ago, seated at a table with eight men who had seen a bit of war. Arrayed around me were retired three and four-star generals and a combat colonel. While they talked (of the "Frozen Chosin" of the Korean War, the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, Beirut, the "Highway of Death" and

Anbar in Iraq) I listened, checking what they had experienced against what I had read.

The next morning, as the Boeing 737 carrying me home struggled into the air headed east, I memorialized the evening in the pages of my small notebook, filling 12 pages with anecdotes, quotes and descriptions. I did this knowing, of course, that I could never refer to any of the men at that table by name, nor place the words they had said in their mouths.

It was not that the evening had been too personal or emotional, but that all of them had let down their guard to the point where I had been given insights to fundamental truths about their profession and its current state that were at once both damning and insightful. To the degree that I have been privy to such rare evenings among senior military officers (and I have) is not because I write about them - but because I don't.

Which is why, after reading Thomas Barnett's Esquire article on America's CENTCOM commander, I knew that Admiral William "Fox" Fallon would be forced into retirement. After reading the article, the men around that table would have thought as I do: that he was lucky he wasn't fired. In truth, I would have busted him to Seaman Recruit.

On Tuesday, Fallon submitted his resignation.

Barnett's piece has to rank as one of the most embarrassing portraits of an American officer in US military history. Both for Barnett, as well as for Fallon. And that's saying a lot. Written in pseudo Tombstone style - a kind of vague signaling that this is just-between-us tough guys talk - Barnett presents a military commander who is constantly on the go, trailing exhausted aides who never rest (oh, what a man he is!): Fallon doesn't get angry (he gets "pissed off"); he doesn't have a father (he has an "old man"); he doesn't spend time (he does a "stint"); he doesn't walk (he "sidles"); and he doesn't talk, "he speaks in measured koans".

It's boorish and, very often, it's just plain wrong. Thus, Barnett: "If, in the dying light of the [George W] Bush administration, we go to war with Iran, it'll all come down to one man. If we do not go to war with Iran, it'll come down to the same man. He is that rarest of creatures in the Bush universe: the good cop on Iran, and a man of strategic brilliance. His name is William Fallon."

Well, actually, yes - and no. The decision to go to war will come down to one man, but his name won't be Fox Fallon, it will be George W Bush. More accurately, the constitution of the United States places foreign policy in the hands of the president as the commander-in-chief and the decision for declaring war is in the hands of the US Congress. Fallon's role in all of this, as I am sure he must know, is to obey orders and to keep his mouth shut, a point that was undoubtedly made plain to him by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the immediate aftermath of the publication of this article. And, we might imagine, Gates put his objections to the article in the following terms: "Fox, just what in the hell do you think you were doing talking to Thomas Barrett?"

But this little exchange, between Barnett and Fallon in Cairo, is what put the admiral on the retirement list: "Fallon sidles up to me during a morning coffee break. 'I'm in hot water again,' he says." And Barnett asks him: "The White House?" And Fallon nods his head: "They say, why are you even meeting with [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak." And Fallon goes on: "Why? Because it's my job to deal with this region, and it's all anyone wants to talk about right now. People here hear what I'm saying and understand. I don't want to get them too spun up. Washington interprets this as all aimed at them. Instead, it's aimed at government and media in this region. I'm not talking about the White House ... This is my center of gravity. This is my job."

Not anymore.

To hear Barnett talk about it, Fallon is not only a "man of strategic brilliance", he once actually stood between us and the apocalypse: "When the admiral took charge of Pacific Command in 2005, he immediately set about a military-to-military outreach to the Chinese armed forces, something that had plenty of people freaking out at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The Chinese, after all, were scheduled to be our next war."

Oh really? The Chinese were scheduled to be our next war? That probably comes as somewhat of a surprise to Fallon's colleagues in the US Navy and at the Pentagon and is just the kind of overblown claim that someone like Barnett thinks makes a commander a hero to his colleagues - but doesn't.

It's poison of the worst kind and makes him ready fodder for every able seaman who carries papers from one Pentagon office to another: "Hey Tom, did you hear that Fox Fallon stopped World War III - that guy's really something."

It's not as if this hasn't happened before. Fallon is a modern Mark Clark, the legendary four-star US Army commander of World War II who led Allied troops in Italy. Like Fallon, the gangly Clark was tough talking and seemingly tireless, but he never met a reporter he didn't like and he recruited them diligently. He trailed a tail of reporters who followed him through North Africa and Italy and posed, hands on hips, over maps when the photographers crowded around.

"Take my good side," he said, "my left side." He hated the British, who had been bleeding all over North Africa, and commented that "it was better to fight an ally than be one". When the Allies landed at Normandy, Clark was angry because the invasion took headlines away from his own triumphs. When his army took Rome, he posed for the cameras and then turned to his colleagues: "I go now to the sounds of guns," he said. Standing nearby, a reporter turned to a colleague: "On this historic occasion I feel like vomiting."

There is a view abroad, commonly held, that Fallon has been sacrificed, has been gotten out of the way, by the Bush administration because he disagreed with its policies on Iran. That Fallon stood in the way of the neo-conservative cabal which is bent on expanding the Middle East conflict and that, when given the order for the attack (at some point in the future), Fallon would have courageously refused the order and reversed the tide or history.

What bunk.

Fallon was and is a navy officer and a patriot. As such, if given a legitimate order from the president of the United States, as passed through the legally constituted chain of command, he would have obeyed the order. Of this we can have absolutely no doubt. To do otherwise is treason and to believe otherwise is to believe that Fallon would have rejected every moment of training, every tradition of his service, every law and custom that has governed US civilian-military relations. The problem is not that Fallon disagreed with George Bush.

The problem is that he talked to Thomas Barnett.

Mark Perry is a director of
Conflicts Forum
and author of Partners in Command (Penguin Press, New York, 2007).

(Copyright 2008 Mark Perry.)

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