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American Soldier

By General Tommy Franks

With Malcolm McConnell

Regan Books, 590 pages, $39.95

'Icarry an American flag and a Bible in my pocket, and I wear a wedding band on my left hand. I understand the mission and the strategic context within which it will be accomplished. I will become tentative only when directed to do so."

These are the closing sentences of a memo written by General Tommy Franks to U.S. deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz on the eve of the war against Iraq. In his autobiography, American Soldier, Franks would have us believe that such comic-book jargon and Hollywood-style melodrama are common in the upper reaches of the White House and the Pentagon.

There is no doubt Franks had an incredible military career, both as a front-line soldier and as commander-in-chief of the United States' Central Command (CENTCOM). However, American Soldier is so blatantly partisan that it often reads like a corny and clumsy endorsement of President George W. Bush and the Republican Party. In the prologue, Franks describes Bush's directive to invade Iraq: "Tommy," the President said, his voice firm. "May God bless the troops." And Franks responded, "Mr. President. May God bless America."

Franks comes by his aw-shucks, good-old-boy patriotism naturally. Growing up poor in Oklahoma and Texas, young Tommy learned from his father at the age of 5 about how U.S. men and women had to serve in the fight for freedom over the "bad" German and Japanese Axis powers. From a childhood that included ponies, Daisy pellet guns and a mother who made apple pies, Franks grew into a teenager obsessed with hot rods, girls and hanging out at the drive-in restaurant.

After flunking out of university, he enlisted in the army, as a private, because "President Johnson had sent the Marines to Vietnam, and begun bombing the Communist North. But the Vietcong guerrillas hadn't received the message." He never elaborates on what that "message" was, but by the end of the book it is clear that imposing America's will without question is Franks's mantra.

By the time he got to Vietnam, Franks was a commissioned lieutenant in the artillery, and eager for combat. Within his first two months "in country," he was involved in 10 firefights, and by the end of his tour had been awarded three Purple Hearts. Franks admits he was wounded "several more times," but the decorations only denoted those occasions when he had allowed himself to be hospitalized. Unlike his fellow soldiers, often disgruntled draftees trying simply to survive tours, Lieutenant Franks appears to have been eager to take the fight to the enemy.

By the time the United States declared it had achieved "peace with honour" in Vietnam, a newly promoted Captain Franks was commanding a nearly mutinous howitzer company along the Cold War-divided German border. At that time, the United States intended to counter any Soviet aggression into Western Europe with a nuclear deterrent. Franks himself had to be prepared to fire "low yield" nuclear warheads. Pointedly, he refrains from describing the U.S. arsenal -- or the country's intent to deploy it -- as "weapons of mass destruction."

However, it is a different story when he describes the threat posed by Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Obviously, Franks's co-author, Malcolm McConnell, had a hand in writing these passages in order to hammer home the subsequent justification for invading Iraq in 2003. In 1991, such munitions were still referred to as nuclear biological chemical weapons (NBCW). As assistant division commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, Franks claims he was convinced that the liberation of Kuwait would be an epic struggle and feared Saddam would unleash his WMDs. The resultant one-sided slaughter and easy coalition victory was so unexpected that Franks describes it as, "Months of preparation: One hundred hours of combat."

However, just eight pages later, he reverts to his previous unfounded fears of WMDs, and writes: "It was clear that Saddam's regime remained a threat," once again laying the groundwork for 2003.

The Democrats get blamed for eroding U.S. military preparedness; in particular, Franks cites the 1993 Somalia disaster as the major turning point. It was a "bloody debacle that left the Clinton administration gun-shy about committing American ground forces in the region and gave [the United States]the reputation of a paper tiger." George W. Bush, by contrast, is described as a "decisive leader" who frequently embraces Franks as a "fellow Midland Texan." After his first dinner with the President, Franks recounts Bush saying grace and feeling reassured "to have a man of faith in the White House."

One of the most incredible passages in American Soldier is the revelation that in July, 2001, Franks predicted al-Qaeda might employ small planes in terror attacks and on Sept. 7, 2001, he told his intelligence officers that "a terrorist attack against the World Trade Center in New York -- that's what keeps me awake at night." Four days later, that's exactly what happened.

The main focus of American Soldier are Franks's subsequent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, described as the "decisive battles that launched the war on terrorism." Franks, as U.S. commander-in-chief, definitely has the potential to offer rare insider insight into these complex conflicts. He does make some remarkable revelations about the horse-trading that went on between international and tribal leaders to secure the necessary allies and access to launch the interventions. Without a trace of irony, Franks writes of U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "He'd probably have shaken hands with the devil if that had furthered our goals in the war on terrorism."

It is also interesting to note Franks's candour in acknowledging Rumsfeld and Bush as the primary force behind the impetus to invade Iraq. As early as Nov. 27, 2001, with U.S. troops still fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld advised Franks "not to forget about Iraq" when drafting his battle plans.

However, having played such a major role in these events, Franks cannot be expected to provide a balanced account. He either glosses over negatives or ignores them altogether. For instance, when he writes of watching Secretary of State Colin Powell deliver a "powerful and convincing" argument for intervention against Saddam to the UN Security Council, he makes no mention of the fact that the resolution was not passed. And while U.S. and coalition casualties in Iraq are admitted to, no specific figures are mentioned.

This is an important book for reasons that run counter to its stated premise. Simply watching the news makes it evident that Franks did not lead "American and coalition forces to victory in Afghanistan and Iraq." More than 10 times the number of U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since Bush declared "mission accomplished" on May 1, 2003, than in the actual combat phase of operations. While the original goal of sending troops to Afghanistan was to capture Osama bin Laden, he remains at large and thousands of U.S. and coalition troops are bogged down policing a country torn by violence and instability.

What Franks has provided is a glimpse into a world filled with self-delusion, focused on public deception. From simply following orders in Vietnam to dutifully pursuing a partisan political agenda with this book, Tommy Franks, American Soldier, is still loyally serving his commander-in-chief.

Scott Taylor, a former soldier, is editor of Esprit de Corps, Canadian Military Magazine and author of several books, including Spinning on the Axis of Evil: America's War Against Iraq. He completed this review prior to entering Iraq for his 20th reporting trip, which almost proved to be his last. During Taylor's five-day captivity by Iraqi insurgents, his copy of American Soldier was destroyed by a U.S. air strike against Iraqi resistance positions in Tal Afar on Sept. 8.

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